5 Simple and Effective Strategies for Managing Conflict in Inquiry Learning

frustrated child

Conflict and disagreement are a part of classroom life. In the inquiry classroom there is a heavy focus on giving students space to follow their own questions and wonderings. However, since every student has different interests and ways of doing things, conflict can easily arise during partner and group work. While it is important that students encounter challenges to help them develop the skills necessary to manage conflict, it is equally important that teachers have effective strategies for managing conflict should they need to intervene. The following are five strategies that are helpful for managing conflict in inquiry-based learning situations:

1. Establish routine and structure

Many teachers know that having a solid routine in the classroom is vital in keeping students on track, engaged, and focused on their work. Although inquiry learning places emphasis on open-ended exploration, having well-established routines in place can mean the difference between having students in charge of their time and having them feel distracted and overwhelmed.

Conflicts can erupt when there are no agreed-upon parameters or routines. Students who choose to use their time frivolously often become distractions to students who rely on routine to keep them on track. On-task students become frustrated during inquiry learning when their peers distract them from focusing on something meaningful.

A way to prevent these conflicts from bubbling up in the first place is by having established routines and structures in place and being clear about the parameters set. Some students require constant reminders or visual cues, and these should be accommodated for in your planning. In addition, spending a healthy amount of time pinpointing students’ questions and building a solid foundation for inquiry exploration guarantees that students will not become bored with the question they’re pursuing. Getting excited about inquiry is contagious and can go a long way in helping to prevent and manage conflict.

Giving students calendars and to-do lists help to provide structure that many students need to feel in control of their time. In my experience, it also helps students feel more accomplished by the end of a work period.

2. Managing conflict by using strategic pairs and grouping

Plan lessons and activities strategically, taking into consideration pairs and groups that work and those that don’t. This may seem like an obvious suggestion, but it is worth repeating, especially in the inquiry classroom. In my experience teaching inquiry learning, two things have surprised me:

1) Students with similar interests usually find a way to work together, even if they weren’t necessarily friends in the first place;

2) When students are focused on something that excites them and holds their interest for a meaningful purpose, they’re more likely to stay engaged and motivated to learn.

Placing students in strategic pairings or groups is a good way to ensure they are comfortable and are with someone they trust.

If you encounter issues with partners or groups in the classroom, there are a few things you can do to help students overcome conflict:

  • Acknowledge the student’s emotions by saying things like “I see that you’re upset” or “I understand that this makes you frustrated”. Acknowledgement is a powerful tool because it reinforces to the student that they are being heard.
  • Give students a chance to cool off in a quiet space to reflect on the situation. This may be in the class library, in the hallway where you can still see them, or in another designated safe space. Often, this is all students need to re-center and re-focus themselves.
  • Bring students together when they are cooled off and let them share their perspectives on the situation. Encourage students to acknowledge that they heard the other person’s concerns by paraphrasing what the other student said. Model doing this a few times if students aren’t used to communicating in this way.
  • Choose a solution depending on your students’ maturity and comfort levels. This may mean they choose their own solutions or it may mean you need to help them choose by providing them with options. Upon agreeing, thank students for managing the conflict in a mature manner.
  • Follow-up with students periodically to check in with how they’re feeling. Make sure students are comfortable with the way things were resolved. Communicate clearly and listen to students if they make a suggestion or have questions about the situation.

Some great activities on managing conflict can be found here.

3. Focus on the process, not the product

The goal of inquiry learning is not to have “the best project” or to “get the highest mark”. This is an outdated way of thinking that sometimes persists in inquiry learning, especially if students aren’t used to learning this way. It is important to communicate to students that the purpose of inquiry learning is working towards a deeper, more comprehensive understanding of the topic at hand, finding answers to their questions, and developing soft skills such as resilience, responsibility, cooperation, and communication.

Arguments and conflicts can arise when students put too much emphasis on things like:

  • Coming up with the “coolest” inquiry question or idea
  • Completing tasks faster than their peers
  • Having the neatest or most colourful project
  • Thinking that their project is going to get a higher mark than someone else’s

Of course it is healthy for students to want to do well in school. It is human nature to understand and make connections through comparison. However, true learning comes from the skills and insight students gain during the process of their inquiry, not the product.

Teachers need to emphasize that this process can look very different from student to student. Regularly reiterating the importance of building confidence, resilience, and other soft skills helps reinforce this message.

4. Managing conflict through positive responses

How a teacher responds to conflict in the classroom can determine what students feel they can get away with and what the consequences are in certain situations. Modeling positive responses and using open and clear body language helps teachers connect with students and shows them how to handle situations appropriately. Emotional intelligence is important here, as it can mean the difference between keeping a classroom peaceful and allowing small disruptions erupt into chaos.

Helping students to understand what it means to be emotionally mature encourages them to consider their peers’ interests and feelings during a disagreement. In my experience, the more empathy is modeled, the less likely students are to take things personally and instead, let them go.

Students sometimes struggle with a lack of confidence, the inability to communicate, or the incapacity to manage their frustration. During inquiry learning this can manifest itself as shouting out, making a snide comment, or even a full-blown meltdown. It can sound like “I can’t do this!” or “This is stupid!” In these instances, It is crucial that teachers understand their student’s triggers and watch for signs that may lead to further escalation. 

Some examples for managing conflict:

Student 1: *talking to student 2* That’s not a lot of information you’ve written.
Student 2: *clearly angered by the comment*
Teacher: I think ___ (student 2) is off to a good start. Maybe ___ (student 2) has chosen a tricky topic that he needs to work a bit harder at to find information for. I’m really proud of you, ___ (student 2), for staying focused and doing their best. (Follow up with both students later on in private).

Student 1: Look at the colours I’ve picked for my display!
Teacher: Those look great! How are you going to lay everything out?
Student 2: *chiming in to the conversation* You’re doing your inquiry on ___? *snicker*
Student 1: *clearly angered by the comment*
Teacher: I’m really proud that you’re (student 1) so engaged in what you’re doing. It’s
great that you’re pursing something you’re interested in and your initiative is really
standing out to me. Keep doing a great job! (Follow up with both students later on in private). In this instance, ignoring the rude comment acts as instant diffusion.

5. Be willing to adjust as you go

Sometimes things aren’t going to work out the way you planned. (Welcome to teaching!) It isn’t a sign of failure if you need to change the plan for the day. Showing students that it’s ok when things don’t go the way we planned is a good way to help them adjust better when they feel out of control.

Being open to change is also a great way to show a bit of humility to students. Adapting your lessons shows students that bumps in the road are normal and don’t need to disrupt an entire day. Furthermore, explaining unexpected changes goes a long way in helping them maintain a sense of control over their day. It also cuts down on unnecessary stress and worry.

Helpful, inexpensive resources I use for managing conflict:

Hacking Project-Based Learning:
This book is a great guide on how to implement project-based learning in the classroom. There are tons of practical ideas for projects, thoughtful questioning, and collaboration. I refer to it often when I need a refresher.

Anger Management Workbook for Kids:
This workbook is a lifesaver for helping students stay calm and make good choices when dealing with anger and other explosive emotions. It has saved a few of my students from total meltdown on more than one occasion!

My Feelings Game:
In 1:1 sessions, my TA played a version of this game with students who struggled to articulate and regulate their emotions. It uses scenarios to help kids talk about their feelings and manage them appropriately. It’s an invaluable resource to keep coming back to as needed.

Further Reading:

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