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Learning through conflict: Part I

What the research says

The idea of a learning community brings to mind consensus, shared values and joint action. Much of the research on teachers’ professional learning community reinforces the belief that such communities generally function harmoniously.

The problem is that such a view obscures the hard work involved in creating and sustaining productive teacher learning communities.  It also casts conflict as an obstacle either to be overcome or avoided rather than a natural and vital part of collaborative work and of learning itself.

Research in education, cultural psychology and organizational studies points to the potential that conflict has for individual, group and organizational learning. Rather than avoiding conflict, these studies suggest that an open exchange and evaluation of competing perspectives and the mounting of thoughtful challenges to established routines, practices and values can generate new insights and improved practices.

Recent studies of teacher’s professional learning communities identify conflict as an essential part of their work. By requiring teachers to make their beliefs and practices public, learning communities challenge existing professional norms of privacy and autonomy.

Further, because they seek to foster critical reflection among teachers, learning communities expose the competing perspectives and practices that teachers hold and endorse. Such critical reflection can make new types of learning possible as it allows for the questioning of taken-for-granted assumptions and routine practices.

At the same time, if conflict is not balanced with a strong sense of shared goals and commitments, it can undermine collaborative efforts and diminish teachers’ learning. Like consensus, conflict has the potential to promote learning or to undermine collective efforts. Finding ways to acknowledge, address and learn from conflict is critical to sustaining a vital learning community.


Achinstein, B. (2002). Conflict amid community: The micropolitics of teacher collaboration. Teachers College Record, 104, 3, 421-455.

Engestrom, Y. (2001). Making expansive decisions: An activity-theoretical study of practitioners building collaborative medical care for children. In Allwood, C.M., & Selart, M. (Eds.). Decision making: Social and creative dimensions. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Grossman, P., Wineburg, S., & Woolworth, S. (2001) Toward a theory of teacher community. Teachers College Record, 103, 6, 942-1012.

Little, J.W. (2003). Inside teacher community: Representations of classroom practice. Teachers College Record, 105,6, 913-945.

Mohr, N., & Dicther, A. (2001). Building a learning organization. Phi Delta Kappan, 82, 10, 744-748.

Nystrand, M. et al. (1997). Opening dialgoue: Understanding the dynamics of language and learning in the English classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.

Putnam, R., & Borko, H. (2000). What do new views of knowledge and thinking have to say about research on teacher learning? Educational Researcher, 29,1, 4-15.


Scenarios and how to use them

Scenario: Longley Middle School--Is silent sustained reading working?

Scenario: The English Educators’ Network--Teaching the social issues in literature