Harnessing Controversy and Conflict in Class

Does this remind you of your classroom? That could be a good thing

By Scott Sterling

Last month, we discussed conative skills. You won’t find conative skills on many pacing guides or curricula, but students need to master them. Our list from that post included:

  • Interpreting situations
  • Cultivating a growth mindset
  • Developing resiliency
  • Avoiding negative thinking
  • Taking various perspectives on an issue
  • Interacting responsibly with other people
  • Handling controversy and resolving conflict


It was the last point that generated the most… controversy (sorry). The idea that the classroom needs to be a homogenous, harmonious, assembly line-like place is outdated and, frankly, delusional. Things will come up that get the students riled up. Many times, that should be the goal; it’s how you handle those situations that can turn a stressful moment into a teachable lesson that advances students’ conative skills.

Controversy vs. conflict

People sometimes (incorrectly) use the terms controversy and conflict interchangeably.

Controversy is simply a disagreement between two parties with incompatible beliefs. Frankly, a world without controversy would be incredibly boring and wouldn’t advance very far. Some lessons call for controversy.

Conflict is the active effort of one person to obstruct another from achieving goals. Conflicts can take many forms in the classroom, and unless they’re quickly resolved through negotiation, they can become toxic. Although conflict isn’t desired in the classroom in any context, the ability to resolve conflict it is still a desired conative skill.

Handling controversy and conflict

Handling controversy and conflict in the classroom requires another conative skill: the ability to take varying perspectives on an issue.

Controversy and conflict appear in the classroom in various forms. During a class discussion, group project, or other official class business, students sometimes butt heads in the name of furthering their learning, not realizing that they share the same goals. These situations are full of teachable moments and should be treated as such.

Other instances, such as controversy and conflict stemming from gossip and personal affairs, can be a little trickier. Frankly, you shouldn’t spend a lot of class time resolving these issues. They shouldn’t even be in your domain, but we all know that things from lunch can spill over. There are few teachable moments here; the goal is to diffuse the situation enough so you can move forward with your plans.

For controversies, the goal shouldn’t be resolution, but rather a mutual understanding. You aren’t going to solve controversial issues like abortion, marriage rights, or gun control in your classroom. But a victory can be declared when both sides can see the perspective of the other and honor every student’s right to his or her perspective, recognizing that it doesn’t mean they can’t work together on other things. Articulating those perspectives can also work in communication skills that actually do appear in most English language arts standards.

Conflict also requires the ability to see other perspectives. Without that, any resolution efforts will be for naught. There is a systematic way of moving through issues that can broaden the conative skills of the students in question. They need to answer the following questions, in order:

  1. What is getting in the way of your progress?
  2. Why do you think the way you do?
  3. What are your reasons for your goals?
  4. What is their perspective and goals?
  5. Is there a way to achieve everyone’s goal?


Next week: Formative Assessment Strategies Without the Awkwardness

Want to go into even more depth with standards-based lesson planning and cognitively complex tasks? Check out the Learning Sciences International bookstore for resources that help educators make the critical instructional shift required by rigorous standards.

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