OJPCR: The Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution

Issue 4.1 | Summer 2001

ISSN 1522-211X


Service Learning and Conflict Resolution Education

By James M. Mitchell and Kristina Quan

This program was funded by the generous participation of the General Mills Foundation and the President of the General Mills Foundation, Dr. Reatha Clark King.


A random sample of 176 K-12 students was considered as representative subjects for this study. The population that received the curriculum consisted of 117 members of the high school and elementary level populations, while 59 of their age-level counterparts came from classrooms that did not have a University undergraduate teaching in their classroom. Regular classroom teachers allowed the University investigator and the undergraduates to administer the dependent measures.

A 2 x 2 factorial design was employed. A one-way ANOVA was used to determine results demonstrated by implementing a series of dependent measures related to conflict resolution and cooperation skills development (Johnson and Johnson, 1995,1999).

Citizenship Development and Cooperation

Good citizens need to be good listeners. They must also be able to advocate their positions in a way that is both persuasive and non-alienating. Both theoretical and practical reasons support the belief that arousing intellectual conflict is one of the most important and powerful instructional procedures available to teachers. The path to using intellectual conflict for instructional purposes lies primarily through cooperation and structured controversy. The curriculum used for this program consisted of a series of age-appropriate frameworks that relied heavily on the design of Creative Academic Controversy (Johnson and Johnson, 1998). University undergraduates were taught how to use this framework in an on-campus class, and were then sent to the field-site classrooms to teach the public schools students the learned conflict resolution skills.

Controversy as a Conflict Resolution Teaching Strategy

Controversy exists when one individual's ideas, information, conclusions, theories, and opinions are incompatible with those of another. To engage in controversy and seek to reach an agreement, students must research and prepare a position, present and advocate their position, refute opposing positions and rebut attacks on their own position, reverse perspectives, and create a synthesis that all group members can agree to. (Johnson and Johnson, 1995). Such a cooperation, conflict resolution-based curriculum promotes intellectual discussion among all students (K-12). Students who were given this program demonstrated an increased achievement and retention of learned conflict resolution skills. They also demonstrated a stronger liking for working together, and a more positive perception of the teacher/student, mentor- oriented relationship.

The Controversy process consists of five steps (Johnson and Johnson, 1998) : (1) researching and preparing the best case possible for the assigned position, (2) making a persuasive presentation as to the validity of the position, (3) engaging in an open discussion by continuing to advocate one's own position, attempting to refute the opposing position, and rebutting others' attacks, (4) reversing perspectives and presenting the opposing position as persuasively and completely as possible, and (5) creating a synthesis that is students' best reasoned judgment on the issue. The curriculum that was implemented focused on these steps, and may be used in any subject area with any age student

The University Student's Role

The undergraduate's role in implementing the curriculum consisted of attending an on-campus class each week, before going into the inner-city classrooms to teach the public schools students. Undergraduates learned to specify the objectives for learning social skills, as well as make a number of decisions before beginning the process. An Instructor for the University's Department of Curriculum and Instruction taught the undergraduates how to explain and orchestrate the academic task and curriculum procedure, monitor the public schools students as they engaged in the curriculum, intervene when necessary to improve individual and team work, and to evaluate academic achievement. Undergraduates would then visit their assigned public school classrooms to teach their lessons.

Public School Classroom Instructional Procedure

Two University undergraduates were assigned to each inner-city classroom. They randomly assigned the public schools students to groups of four, which were then divided into two pairs. Each pair was assigned a pro or a con position on an issue of the curriculum being studied. For example, in one scenario fourth-grade students were asked to determine who was the better person to mediate a conflict within the curriculum framework. They had a choice between two imaginary counterparts, as each had strengths at conflict management; however, each imaginary figure also had other personality characteristics that made them wholly different from one another. In pairs the public school would argue for one imaginary character or the other according to the Creative Controversy format, then as a group of four, they would develop a synthesized decision that would choose a character or make up a wholly different imaginary counterpart based on their structured argument.

In step 1 of the procedure, each pair of students researched the assigned position, organized their findings into a conceptual framework that used both inductive and deductive logic to persuade the audience that their position was valid and correct, and built a persuasive and compelling case for the position's validity. In step 2, students persuasively presented the best case possible for their assigned position, listened carefully to the opposing presentation, and tried to learn the data and logic on which it is based. In step 3, students engaged in an open discussion, continuing to advocate their respective positions while trying to learn the opposing positions. They critically analyzed the evidence and logic of the opposing positions. At the same time, they rebutted the attacks on their evidence and logic in an effort to persuade the opponents to agree with them. In step 4, the students reversed perspectives and presented the opposing position as persuasively as they could. Each pair presented the best case possible for the opposing position, being as sincere and enthusiastic as if the position were its own. The fifth step was synthesizing. Students integrated a number of different ideas and facts into a single position, and the group story was story written. Synthesizing involved putting things together in fewer words, creative insight, and adopting a new position that subsumed the previous two. In the example listed above, many groups developed a new character as a result of listing strengths in each of their choices. Students dropped all advocacy in order to see new patterns in a body of evidence. In achieving these purposes, students avoided the dualistic trap of choosing which position is "right" and which is "wrong," avoided the relativistic trap of stating that both positions are correct, depending on one's perspective, were asked to formulate a synthesis that everyone could agree to (Johnson and Johnson, 1998).

Age appropriateness

Students in the K, 1, 2, and some third grades implemented the curriculum procedure in a more scaled-down format. Subjects were given specific scenarios from which they could choose, and were taught the guidelines for group behavior in a more knowledge and comprehension-based (LOTS) format according to the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (Bloom, 1956).


The timeline for the program's implementation was as follows:

Dependent Measures

The Conflict Scenario Written Measure was given to all participating students the day before the program began at site, and the day after the program ended. A brief scenario was given that ended in an unresolved conflict. Each student was asked to indicate what he or she would do if actually in the situation. A paper and pencil measure was administered as students read the scenario and responded in essay form. The strategies for managing the conflicts described in the scenarios were labeled (with number of points given in parentheses): physical aggression (1), verbal threats (2), unsatisfactory withdrawal (3), commanding or requesting the other to give in (4), telling the teacher (5), seeking a compromise through an integrated agreement. (Johnson and Johnson, 2000).

Likewise, the Classroom Life Script was administered to assess student attitudes toward classroom cooperation. Perceived attitudes toward working with others in the classroom, as well attitudes toward the teacher/student relationship, were scored on a Likert-type survey (1-5) (Johnson and Johnson, 1997).

A measure assessing the University undergraduate's attitude toward choosing teaching as a career was also administered. Undergraduates were also asked to relate their perceptions at learning conflict resolution skills as a result of participating in this program.


Minneapolis Public Schools students who received the curriculum clearly outperformed their non-participating public schools counterparts at achieving stronger conflict resolution skills and a stronger liking for and willingness to participate in classroom cooperation.

Table 1

Written Conflict Scenario

Analysis of Variance

Source DF SS MS F P
Factor 3 693.121 231.040 293.87 0.000
Error 348 273.595 0.786
Total 351 966.716

Level N Mean StDev
Pre T 117 1.7179 1.1659
Pos T 117 4.5812 0.5452
Pre C 59 1.4746 0.8378
Pos C 59 1.5254 0.8268

Pooled StDev = 0.8867

Classroom Life Script

One-way Analysis of Variance

Analysis of Variance

Source DF SS MS F P
Factor 3 764.910 254.970 360.23 0.000
Error 348 246.314 0.708
Total 351 1011.224

Level N Mean StDev
T117CLPr 117 1.7009 1.1720
T117CLPo 117 4.7009 0.4959
C59CLPr 59 1.4936 0.8428
C59CLPo 59 1.4407 0.5654

Pooled StDev = 0.8413

p < .05 statistically significant

The University students also felt the program was beneficial. In September, 40 of the 57 students indicated a desire to eventually enter the Teacher Education program. Of those 40 students, five decided that teaching would not be their chosen profession upon completion of the program in June. These students all expressed positive remarks about how glad they were to have had the opportunity to investigate the teaching profession before they would be required to invest the time and financial resources required by a full degree track. Likewise, the 35 remaining participants who were pre-disposed to the teaching profession have all expressed praise for this program as they enter their teacher education tracks. Of the 17 students who were primarily interested in the community service piece of the project, six left the program in January, one left in April, and ten decided to pursue teaching as a career. The six who left in January cited personal reasons for leaving the program, while the student who left in April cited geographic re-location as the reason. The ten students who decided to enter the teaching profession have all expressed positive statements about having had the experience.

Of the original 57 students, 42 stated that they learned a great deal about conflict resolution as a result of teaching these skills to the public schools students.


Although numerous theorists have advocated the use of intellectual conflict in instructional situations, some have been reluctant to do so, perhaps because of a cultural fear of conflict, a lack of knowledge of the procedures, and cultural and pedagogical norms discouraging the use of conflict. This program's implementation provided a clear procedure for teachers to use in promoting intellectual conflict. The skills required to implement this procedure are intellectual skills that all students need to develop sooner or later. The program was simple to implement in its focus, as inexperienced undergraduates were taught the process by a university Lecturer. They were then placed in public school classrooms to teach K-12 students.

This program also fostered more interaction between the University of Minnesota population and members of the surrounding community. All participants were exposed to productive conflict management skills education.

Theoretical Foundations/ Practical Applications

This service-learning program was able to address certain criteria set forth by The World Council on Citizenship (1994), which recommends that citizenship education be a statutory entitlement and that the statutory entitlement be established by setting out specific learning outcomes for each key stage. The learning outcomes should be tight so that standards and objectivity can be inspected. University students were required to develop such outcome-based lessons which their on-campus teacher, along with their cooperating on-site classroom teacher, checked to ensure correlation with the State of Minnesota Graduation Standards.

In addition to the citizenship component, the program's implementation has proven to be an effective tool for economic education. It helps student fulfill several of the standards developed by The National Council on Economic Education (1999):

  1. Productive resources are limited. Students will learn that people can not have all the goods and services they want; as a result, they must choose some things and give up others.
  2. Effective decision making requires comparing the additional costs of alternatives with the additional benefits. Students will learn that most choices involve doing a little more or a little less of something: few choices are "all or nothing" decisions.
  3. Students will learn that different methods can be used to allocate goods and services. People acting individually or collectively through government, must choose which methods to use to allocate different kinds of goods and services.
  4. Students will learn that people respond predictably to positive and negative incentives.
  5. Voluntary exchange occurs only when all participating parties expect to gain. Students will learn conflict resolution skills with this in mind.

The curriculum used by this program requires its participants to engage in these five strategy-based outcomes. In the course of structured discussion, students view their wants and points-of-view as resources, which are limited. The overall group decision making asks participants to weigh the benefits of each alternative in achieving a group decision. Group functioning requires its members to learn different methods of information allocation, while participants learn to appreciate the guidelines of creative controversy which focus on positive process. Likewise, the learned conflict resolution skills become a predictable outcome.

Plans for Expansion

This program is to be re-implemented for academic year 1999-2000. Funding was already in place as a result of renewed support as well as additional support from private industry. Replication is expected to occur at California State University at San Bernadino in 2000-2001 as part of the Community-University partnership effort.


Bloom B.S. (ed.) (1956) Taxonomy of educational objectives, the classification of educational goals - Handbook I: Cognitive Domain, NewYork: McKay

Johnson, D.W. and Johnson, R.T. (1995, 1999) Teaching students to be peacemakers, Edina MN: Interaction Book Co.

Johnson, D.W. and Johnson, R.T. (1997) Meaningful and manageable assessment through cooperative Learning,, Edina MN: Interaction Book Co.

Johnson, D.W. and Johnson, R.T. (1998) Creative controversy, Edina MN: Interaction Book Co.

Johnson, D.W. and Johnson, R.T. (2000) Teaching students to be peacemakers: results of twelve years of research. www.co-operation.org

Levin, M. (1997) The Imaginitis learning system, Wayne PA

Mitchell, J. (1999) Citizens for the 21st century, Newport Beach CA

National Council on Economic Education (1998) Standards of economic education, Washington D.C.

World Council on Citizenship (1994) Principles of effective citizenship, London


Dr. James M. Mitchell is now Assistant Professor of Teacher Education at California State University/ Dominguez Hills. Dr. Mitchell facilitated this program while working on staff at the University of Minnesota last year.

Kristina Quan is now a member of the Teacher Education degree program at the University of Minnesota. A McNair scholar, Ms. Quan was one of the undergraduates who participated in the implementation of this program.

OJPCR: The Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution is published by the Tabula Rasa Institute, www.trinstitute.org.