Frances Richards’ thoughtful blog on Mediation in Schools is timely. We have spent the past few days at the UIA 25th World Forum of Mediation Centres in Val d’Europe presenting a forum session, exploring the same theme with colleagues from around the world.
We advanced the idea that dispute resolution skills are becoming organic, flourishing from entry level to postgraduate study. Mediation, at its most valuable, begins when education begins, and is a ‘whole of educational life’ experience.
Our session explored the relationship between education and mediation using concrete case studies and current projects from early childhood through to tertiary education.
In her blog post Frances wrote about peer to peer secondary training and competitions for students – noting the aim of supporting students to develop a life-long problem-solving approach to conflict.
Our forum panel of 5 expanded on these ideas and some new themes emerged.
Panel members brought very diverse experiences:
- Panel moderator Zeina Kesrouani from Lebanon and Thomas Gaultier from Portugal spoke about secondary school projects they are supporting in their countries;
- Alina Leoveanu, Manager, ICC International Centre for ADR, spoke of the contribution to student learning made by the ICC International Commercial Mediation Competition and
- Our (Dr Rosemary Howell and Emma-May Litchfield) presentation shared some Australian experiences at primary and secondary level and this blog post will largely focus on that topic.
Scrutinising different mediation programs in schools made it apparent that the opportunities and the challenges look very different according to the age level and also the particular institutional approach.
Our presentation of two faces of the Australian experience showcased this well.
The first, focussing on early childhood education, was inspired by the newly released text from the Harvard Program on Negotiation, pictured above, which, with its companion text for teachers and parents, presents an introduction to conflict resolution for young children.
It is an ambitious project, particularly given the sophisticated nature of some of the tools being introduced.
The idea seemed valuable but the question to be explored was ‘are primary schools open to this kind of program and do examples already exist?’ The case study exploring the answer to this drew on the program of a small primary school in suburban Sydney. The answer was quite unexpected.
Instead of a program focussed on conflict resolution, the school reframed the context completely to cover 5 elements:
- The frame – wellbeing;
- Conflict is not confined to a separate toolbox but is part of everyday life;
- All students engage in daily wellbeing practice, linking conflict to emotions and wellbeing. (Students were delighted to demonstrate their mindfulness practice in which they engage at the first sign of discomfort – well before conflict emerges);
- Children design their own tools for intervention and resolution;
- When conflict does arise students are encouraged to engage in the 3 question approach:
- What happened?
- What are we going to do now to fix the situation?
- How can we learn from this?
So while the Harvard materials were thought provoking, what this case study exposed was an apparently even more successful approach to conflict resolution and early intervention – providing students with accessible, effective tools for life.
The second Australian presentation moved the focus to secondary schools, giving a perspective from the inside – insights gained from working with teachers including a recognition of the resources required to develop and implement conflict resolution programs. The contrast with the primary experience was remarkable. The secondary school environment presents very different challenges:
- School-wide implementation is much more difficult. The shift from generalist teachers in primary schools – spending all day with the same students – to teachers who are technical experts with limited daily student contact impedes a whole of school, consistent approach. This also increases the likelihood that conflict is not identified early and has become entrenched before intervention begins.
- A specialised curriculum separates programs so it is much more difficult to embed wellbeing practices across the entire teaching day.
- Money is not the only resource required for program success. Teachers and dispute resolution professionals need to invest time, energy and other personal resources to maintain the program momentum. Frances’ blog post provides anecdotal evidence of this. On the one hand, the New South Wales Government is providing funding for these programs however, on the other hand she recognises that the mediators involved are all volunteers.
The UIA panel presentations made it clear that mediation in schools is a burgeoning field. There are challenges and there are opportunities. Those of us who teach and practise in this space are an important resource in the development of global thinking and program enhancement. Congratulations to the UIA for promoting an international conversation.