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Chapter Seven: Education in Early Childhood

 Section 5: Cooperation and Conflict

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"Pounding Tea", a Mongolian Dance performed by advanced students of the Academy of Chinese Performing Arts, 1996.


Most of the activities permitted group efforts. Cooperation in early childhood tends to be rudimentary. Children are too egocentric to coordinate their perspectives with those of others -- and this is necessary for true cooperation. Yet two or more children can share similar perspectives or proceed fairly smoothly not recognizing their conflicting perspectives that play and learning may proceed in the group mode. When conflicts do arise, this may initiate the realization that different perspectives exist and motivate the child to figure out how they can be coordinated.



In fact, some activities were designed to build in conflict. A solitary swing in the classroom was a popular item, inviting several would-be swingers -- but there was a one-at-a-time safety rule. Since all the children could not swing at once, the teacher would ask who should go first -- the answer was a chorus of "me." The teacher would point out that that was impossible and ask again, but the answer was unchanged. In the early part of the year the teacher would suggest solutions -- one child 10 swings, then switch until everyone had a turn. If the children were older, perhaps the teacher would not have needed to intervene, but at this age some positive modeling was helpful. As the year progressed the children could develop the taking turns formula on their own. Eventually they came up with more sophisticated solutions including who would push whom for how many turns.



This illustrates a method for developing communication and conflict resolution skills even at this early age. Small World designed conflict into the classroom because of the educational opportunities it provides. The occasional physical fights were treated more as learning opportunities than matters for discipline -- which they were as well. If a child were hurt, the other child would be questioned: "How do you think Johnny feels?" "Why do you think he feels that way?" "How do you feel about making Johnny cry?" "Do you think there might have been a better way to decide who got to play with the truck?" "Can you think of anything you can do to make Johnny feel better?" Sometimes such a procedure seems to instill a little regret and concern -- and perhaps even leads to a resolution of the conflict. Just as often the protagonist answers in less than hoped for ways. Yet the very posing of the questions tends to get the child to think about the consequences of his/her actions.



Although situations varied considerably, the staff tried its best not to let the rule against hurting another remain a meaningless adult imposed rule. Of course, physical injury had to be prevented, but lesser verbal and interactional hurts were possible -- e.g., name calling, stealing a toy. The first lesson was to have the hurter understand the impact of his/her actions (self-knowledge); it may seem a little strange, but sometimes the impact of a harmful action is not clearly understood. This learning is often facilitated by encouraging role reversal: "How do you feel when someone does that to you?" This works better the closer the child is to the concrete operations stage.



The next step is to get the child not to want to make others feel that way. The problem is that sometimes we do want to hurt others -- and, when this is the case, we do not insist on an apology -- but perhaps further attempts at getting each person to understand the other's viewpoint will be made. At least the child learns what not to do when he/she does not want to hurt. The cumulative effect of the role-reversals, putting one child in the shoes of another several times, to establish a sense of identity or commonality, and, thereby, create a basis for caring, can then be translated into not wanting to hurt -- completing the lesson.



Humanistic schools often design conflict out of the classroom. The teacher redirects the attention of the antagonists to another situation, counting on short attention spans to forget the conflict itself. This correlates with a naive pacifism that holds that since people are good, and war is bad, people should not fight. This is not wrong, but it is not sufficient for preventing war. People fight because they believe it is in their interest to fight -- whether one-on-one or in large scale. Roger Fisher's arguments in Points of Choice make it clear why international rules are valuable to all, and that one of the rules would exclude war. But for this point of view to be understood in depth, people must have an experiential base confirming the value of nonviolence.



Peace can appear boring and inglorious; it requires one to give up many objectives one might desire. So commitment to peace and nonviolence must be derived from an awareness of the disadvantages of the alternatives. If the alternatives have never been experienced, the disadvantages will appear abstract and speculative and this may not be enough to outweigh clear and concrete gains from aggression.



Furthermore, sometimes fighting is appropriate, and experience will be needed to accurately balance the factors involved in such a decision. Thus, the values of those humanist schools will not be well grounded -- and will not serve the learners or the interests of nonviolence and peace in the long run. Peace education necessitates exposure to the alternatives in a manner consistent with the cognitive level of the learners. Children in their early years can learn that they can be hurt by physical or other aggression in the face of conflict; they can learn that their friends can be hurt; and they can learn there are less hurtful ways of resolving conflicts. When these lessons are experientially based, they form a firm foundation for a world citizenry dedicated to peace.







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