Conflict Transformation: Unit 1: What is Conflict?

Conflict Transformation

Standards-Based Lesson Plans for Middle School Students



How do we face conflict? We can begin by understanding the anatomy of conflicts. In this lesson, students will learn to delve beneath a conflict's episode to its roots, thereby understanding the layers of history, culture, interests, and values that push disputes into intractable conflicts with horrifying consequences.

In this lesson, Darfur serves as a real-world example of intractable conflict. In addition, the students apply their understanding of conflicts with a short research paper on the Rwandan genocide. Both the conflict in Darfur and the genocide in Rwanda are disturbing and terrifying. However, I believe that with the right classroom climate and preparation, discussing the topics will be constructive rather than simply alarming. Also, if you ensure that students examine the reconstruction in Rwanda, they will discover quite a hopeful story. If, however, genocide seems too difficult a topic to tackle in such a short period, consider using the alternative activity that focuses on labor relations and abortion.

Background Reading For Teachers:


  • Students will be able to identify the differences between dilemmas, disputes, conflicts and intractable conflicts.
  • Students will reflect upon their own experiences with conflicts.
  • Students will be able to identify specific disputes that escalated the conflict in Darfur.
  • Students will write a research paper analyzing the intractability of a conflict.

McRel Standards:

  • Geography, Human Systems
    Standard 13 (Level III. 1) Understands the forces of cooperation and conflict that shape the divisions of Earth's surface
  • History, Historical Understanding
    Standard 1 (Level III. 2, 5) Understands and knows how to analyze chronological relationships and patterns
  • Language Arts
    Standard 4 (Level III. 5, 6) Gathers and uses information for research purposes
    Standard 7 (Level III.1, 2, 5, 6) Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts
  • Life Skills, Working with Others
    Standard 2 (Level IV. 6, 7) Uses conflict resolution techniques


Activity Option A:

Activity Option B:

Procedure (3 hours):

What is conflict? (hour 1)

  1. Send 1/3 of the class to one sheet, 1/3 to the second, and the remaining students to the last sheet.
  2. Directions: Find two volunteers in each group to write down ideas, words, and thoughts on the paper next to the picture. Now describe what you see. Guess what the story surrounding the photo might be. What kind of a problem does this picture show? This is a free-form discussion, but please listen to the members of your group. If someone has not spoken, ask for his or her opinion. You have 3 minutes.
  3. After 3 minutes of discussion, ask your students to move clockwise around the room and add their comments to the next photo. Continue the process until each group has seen every photo and discussed them.
  4. Debrief each picture together as a whole class.
    What did this picture represent to your group? Can you make any hypotheses about the relationships of the people in the photo? What kind of a problem does the photo capture? What kind of feelings do you think you see here?
  5. Write up the words dilemmadispute, and conflict. Brainstorm: How do you define dilemma? How do you define dispute? How do you define conflict?
  6. Select three students to look up one word each and write the definitions on the board. Add the following details for clarification of the term conflict:
    Disputes and Conflicts often include elements of interdependence, blame, and anger (according to Daniel Dana).
    Ask students to write down the definitions in their new conflict journal.
  7. Ask for three volunteers to place the pictures (one at a time) under the most appropriate label (of dilemma, dispute, and conflict). Discuss.
  8. Split students into groups of 3's. Give them the Problem Scenarios handout.
    Directions: Working together, you need to determine if the scenario you have read is a dilemma, a dispute, or a conflict. Mark it accordingly, then write a sentence explaining why you have labeled it the way you did.
  9. Review the answers together.

    Homework: Using your conflict journal, write a paragraph describing your experience of a dispute or a conflict. Write about the situation the way you might write about a picture, making a verbal snapshot. Tell us about your feelings. Describe it in terms of the interdependence, blame, and anger that might have elevated it from a mere dilemma to a dispute or conflict. You will have the opportunity to share your work if you are willing. Complete this for homework.

What is conflict? (hour 2)

  1. Begin with a council circle. If you have not used council in your classroom you will need to explain its structure. Usually it is begun with a question. The rule is that only one person can answer at a time. The job of the others is to listen. Go around the circle (you may choose to use an object to emphasize the focus on the speaker), in one direction, until everyone has had a chance to speak or pass.
    The question of the day is:
    Describe a dilemma, dispute, or conflict that touched you in the last month. What was the role that your emotions played in the problem?
  2. Show the Conflicts and Disputes Slideshow.
  3. Pass out the handout on Drawing a Conflict. After reading through it together, ask students to map out a conflict they've experienced.
  4. Write the word intractable on the board. Ask students to guess at the definition of the word. Ask them to write the following definition in their journals
  5. Intractable conflicts are long-standing, deep-rooted differences that remain unresolved despite the efforts of the parties involved to come to a solution.
  6. Activity Option A: Why is the conflict in Darfur an example of intractable conflict? Ask students to read "The Darfur Region of the Sudan" by Cate Malek and fill out the Intractability and the Sudan worksheet. Ask students to finish the worksheet for homework, if necessary.

    Activity Option B: Why do labor issues make such intractable conflicts in the U.S.? Ask students to read "Labor Conflicts: The Case of Two Supermarket Strikes" by Cate Malek and complete the accompanying worksheet. Have students finish their worksheets for homework, if necessary.

What is conflict? (hour 3)

  1. Ask students to read through Cate Malek's article (either on the Sudan or the labor conflict) a second time with the Sudan Writing Handout or the Labor Conflict Writing Handout, so that they can identify the important elements Malek includes in her pieces.
  2. Explain your expectations for citing sources for this research paper.
  3. Pass out Vermont's Report Rubric and discuss as a class the requirements for "meets the standard."
  4. Ask students to begin research on Rwanda or the abortion controversy. They will have a clear structure from which to work if they rely on their Writing Handout.

    Homework: Using the Writing Handout as a guide, write your own research paper explaining why your topic is an intractable conflict. Be sure to cite your sources.