Superordinate goals: Conflict resolution technique

There are literally tens of conflict resolution techniques. Teachers are taught and encouraged to use them to maintain harmony among students. Examples of these are negotiation, compromise, problem solving, changing the formal structure of a group, expansion of resources, etc. Sometimes, when these don’t work, teachers use authoritative commands to fix relationships.

The effectiveness of these techniques is contingent upon the reason(s) for the conflict, the relation between the conflicting students, and the relation between the teacher and the conflicting students. If examined carefully, most of the aforementioned conflict resolution techniques are formulated around identifying or clarifying issues, searching for shared values, exploring possible solutions, and selecting the solution that satisfies students who have the conflict.

Problems with conventional techniques

While relatively easy to learn and remember, this methodical approach to conflict resolution has its own flaws. Because the presence of a mediator/referee is crucial, it becomes difficult to control conflicting situations outside the classroom or school. Conflicting parties find it difficult to find a middle ground, considering that people have their own unique needs to be fulfilled.

Characteristics of an effective technique

A truly helpful conflict resolution technique should bring reconciliation from within the individuals involved in the situation. In other words, it does not necessarily involve a third person, and at the same time, its effect endures time, space and circumstances.

Robbers Cave Experiment

In 1954, Muzafer Sherif, one of the founders of social psychology, and his colleagues conducted an experiment famously known as the Robbers Cave experiment. The study took place in a 200 acre Boy Scouts Camp, surrounded by Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma. In this experiment, two groups of twenty-four homogeneous twelve-year old boys were randomly selected. The boys, twelve members in each side, were unaware of the existence of the other group of boys as they were transported to the camp area separately.

On arrival at the camp site, individuals within a group started bonding with each other. Positive group processing enabled each group to get organized in a functional manner. This occurred naturally, without any instruction from camp staff. The groups worked exceptionally well together that each came up with a name for itself, “The Eagles” and “The Rattlers.” Feeling of Groupness was at its peak.

Later in the experiment, boys from each group were deliberately exposed to the fact that they were not alone in the camp site. Series of unpleasant events took place thereafter. Both groups became protective of camp facilities that belonged to them. Each insisted camp staff to arrange for competitive events to prove the superiority of one over the other. Name calling, passing nasty comments, raiding cabins, burning the other’s flag, and unwillingness to eat in the same cafeteria were frequently observed.

In the next phase, experimenters tried to reduce tension between the two groups through reconciliatory activities involving all the boys (e.g., get-to-know-you). Surprisingly, these activities only made the situation worse. Boys continued to defend their group and disrespect the other.

The experimenters then subjected the boys to a series of difficult situations. These situations required the two groups to work together to overcome specific problems. One such situation was the “drinking water supply failure.” Vandals had supposedly blocked the faucet from the main water tank with a sack. When the boys arrived at the scene, they gathered around the faucet trying to clear it out. They discussed effective ways to solve the problem. After 45 minutes of collaborative work, water finally came through. There was a common rejoicing. The Rattlers did not object the Eagles to get the first drink.

Implication for teaching

The experiment proved that Superordinate goals (goals that get people from opposing sides to come together and work toward a common end result) are indeed effective in resolving conflicts. Teachers could use Superordinate goals to reduce or eliminate conflicts among students. Inspiring students with the “bigger picture” helps them to focus on what is really important, and work together with others to become successful learners.

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