Learning leadership using Peace and Power processes

Adeline Falk-Rafael

Since experiencing Peace and Power as a pedagogy in my doctoral program, I had used it for some 15 years as model to inform my teaching.  But it wasn’t until I began teaching a leadership course that I saw the potential of Peace and Power as a leadership handbook and have blogged about that on the Peace and Power blog.  The fit between the course content and the tenets of Peace and Power allowed me the opportunity to model leadership consistent with both the contemporary leadership theories (transformational and post-transformational) by using Peace and Power group processes both in the classroom and in designing learning evidences. The Chinn Peace and Power handbook was a required text in the course.

So it was that the first time I taught this course I had asked students through the course online learning platform and prior to the first class, to form 6 groups of 6-7 each for the purposes of a group presentation assignment towards the end of the term, but also for small group work during class.  (There were 37 students enrolled; all were in a specific nursing program for Internationally Educated Nurses and so took all of their classes as a cohort. By their penultimate term, I reasoned, they would know each other well enough to make this decision).

This approach might have worked except for two groups- one with 8 and one with only 3 students. In the first class, I presented this dilemma to the class who would have been aware of the group sizes on their learning platform and asked the group of 8 specifically for at least 1 volunteer to join the small group and likewise asked the 2 groups of 7 for volunteers as well.  This request was NOT well received. One of the students, whom I will call Rebecca, wrote to me about her experience at the end of the course:

There was another group that I had previously been assigned to work with and I was not particularly pleased with how that group worked. This was the group that lacked sufficient members prompting our professor to try to reshuffle some of the other groups to ensure equal sized groups.

Our group was asked to lend a member to this other group. One member from our group who joined the group late assumed that it would be she who would be joining the other group and left class in tears. Our group stood by this member and protested this reshuffling, given the dysfunctional working style of the other group. Similarly other groups also were not keen on lending their members to this group. Everyone in the class asked the professor not to perform reshuffling and leave this group with whatever members they had.

I shared with the class that I could not support the inequitable group sizes, both for unfairness of the workload in preparing the presentation and the lack of sufficient diversity in small group class discussions. I suggested dissolving the existing groups and re-creating 6 groups by random assignment. The outcome was remarkable. In Rebecca’s words:

The professor then suggested reshuffling all the groups and assigning random members to all the groups. This was bound to make lot of students unhappy. At the same time I asked my existing group members to rise in protest and stand by me. Only two of the members promised their support while the members I stood by backed out, as they believed such an exercise would be futile. I was shocked at the neglect these members displayed and found their attitude to be selfish as they cared more for their grades than the team itself.  They were afraid of the professor and the repercussions if they protested. This changed my entire perception of the situation. During this process I was reading the assigned chapters from the book Peace and Power by Peggy Chinn. I was quite influenced by the approach to conflict transformation and decided to change my attitude towards this situation and instead offer a solution to the problem.

I decided to join the small group and even though a lot of tension existed owing to past experiences, decided to move ahead and resolve these conflicts. At our first meeting with new group members there was a lot of tension, anger and feeling of uneasiness. In addition, other classmates approached me saying that they felt sorry for me. At this point I felt abused and decided to reveal my private conversation with the professor where she agreed to reshuffle all the groups in order to make a fair decision. I simply wanted to show the classmates that I do not need their pity and can stand by myself. Looking back I realized now that this was an impulsive, immature, and unnecessary action on my part.

In the second meeting I decided to change my attitude towards the group members, which had a positive impact and I started making an effort to infuse team spirit and emphasized the importance of collective work. After our group discussions we decided to make a short video for our class presentation, showcasing our experience and how we dealt with our conflicts and created solutions for them. Furthermore, we genuinely became bonded and other students were surprised at this positive and constructive outcome, and changed their negative behaviour towards this group. After our presentation these students congratulated us rather than offering their condolences.

My learning from this experience taught me to give everyone an equal opportunity and be supportive when involved in group work. Everyone has a unique talent that can only be revealed through patience and hard work. These challenges offered a tremendous growth opportunity for me as I was able to uncover my hidden strengths; it made me stronger and prepared me for future challenges.

This is an outcome I could not have imagined in my wildest dreams.  Did I learn from it?  Certainly! I was distressed to learn of the general distrust of me as a professor.  As they did not know me, this must have come from previous experience both in the countries in which they completed their initial nursing program but quite probably in their current program as well.  I learned from that experience never to place students in that kind of situation again and, although small group formation remained an aspect of the course. In subsequent years students were randomly assigned to groups by the learning platform as they enrolled in the course. No one ever complained about that process.

But I also learned to believe in the potential of all students.  Rebecca’s group video showed their group role-playing their previous interactions and how that changed when they used Peace and Power processes. I am not naïve enough to believe there was never again any conflict in that group, but for students who had previously held each other in contempt, their understanding of a new way of working together was demonstrated both ideally in the video but also in the reality of their ability to use this new way of working together in the completion of this assignment – it was indeed extraordinary!

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