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On conflict and its role in multidisciplinary education

As we know, experiential learning and multidisciplinary teamwork are gaining a lot of traction in higher education. When we exit our disciplinary boxes and enter the real world, we will face conflicts. They must not be avoided, as conflicts – if they remain healthy – are the engine of creativity.

This is a paradox, especially for the teacher.
A group of three students engaging in teamwork, one presenting something from her laptop's screen
Aalto students engaging in teamwork / Photo: Aino Huovio

Change is constant, critical and contextual

Constant change has become a new normal. Therefore, today’s educators are teaching how environmental uncertainty can be turned into a benefit. In practice, this means, e.g., phenomenon-driven approaches and experiential learning.

In many ways, educators are increasingly adopting the practices familiar in the design domain. Education is based on theory, but learning is situated in real-life contexts and cases. Instead of lectures, learning happens in "studios", involving diverse individuals and multidisciplinary teams.

Along with learning best practices, students are gaining reflective skills. A significant part of education is focusing on developing critical thinking, argumentation, and empathizing.

The majority of these topics are fairly well elaborated in current higher education discourse. However, there seems to be one important area, which has been left with surprisingly little detailed attention.

It is the importance of interpersonal conflict.

Conflict: An anxiety-provoking feeling or an important tool? 

The word “conflict” has a negative connotation for many, to the point referring to something that is annoying, scary, and distressing. However, conflict is a necessary part of multidisciplinary teamwork and experiential learning. Benefiting from uncertainty is largely about managing conflicts.

In design teams, conflict is used to indicate the importance of a design decision. Team members generate a conflict if they want their opinion to be heard when making a decision related to design.

The same logic works in the domain of multidisciplinarity. Tensions bring us innovations. The fundamental idea of multidisciplinarity is to bring diverse reasoning styles around shared challenges. The answers to the questions of “what can we know”, and “what is our way of knowing”, are very different, e.g., for a biologist and culture anthropologist. It would actually be abnormal not to have some tension between them.

Without tensions and conflict, multidisciplinarity is left to the level of nice statements with only a few concrete actions.

Healthy conflicts

The idea, of course, is not to provoke mindless fighting either. In conflict management, it is important to remain in a healthy area – to keep people and things separated. Instead of blaming, one should embrace new ways to build common understanding.

Also, the idea is not to aim for a 100 % agreement. Instead, getting 100 % aligned is the key. This requires that everyone should have the possibility to bring one’s special disciplinary capabilities to the discussions, and everyone needs to understand how the decision was made.

Teacher as conflict facilitator

Conflict, however, cannot be learned from books. It must be experienced.

For the teacher, this ends up being quite paradoxical. To get the experience, teams must be exposed to conflicts. This may be disturbing for the teacher. Expected learning outcomes are positive, but it does not help with the anxiety-provoking situation at hand.

What makes things worse is the potential incompatibility with, e.g., the hegemonic ways of “doing business”. We have been taught to be straight-forward in business; to keep “emotions out”. In many ways, intentional conflict inducing may be seen as detrimental to efficiency.

But it is actually only through conflict that we can ensure that we are benefiting from the multidisciplinarity and diversity. When discussing creativity, people often see it is desirable to “think outside the box”. But only rarely, people realize that to get outside, the box must first be broken.

For the teacher, this paradox is very real.

What have we learned?

Multidisciplinarity, design and healthy conflicts are in the centre of teaching in our Master’s program of International Design Business Management (IDBM). We cannot say that we have always succeeded in integrating these in the first try, but we have learned a lot during the journey.

To disseminate our findings on how to address the paradox in teaching conflict and conflict in teaching, I will summarize three insights into the following:

  1. Designerly thinking can be applied to education only as a “complete package”. You cannot just cherry-pick the “nicest parts”. Turning uncertainty to a benefit is often quite uncomfortable, and the same applies to conflict management. But, on the other hand, it is very enjoyable to see the results when you have managed to navigate through the creative storm!
  2. We are only as good in addressing conflicts as we are in knowing ourselves. Luckily, self-mirroring is a capability that can be taught. We must constantly reflect on what we have experienced, and try to find out new ways to reframe our thinking – about ourselves and the others. Reflection must be made between the students, from student to teacher, and also, from teacher to student.
  3. The role of conflicts in education is fundamentally about balancing team cohesion and friction. Too much emphasis on cohesion and the team may end up group thinking (agreeing for the sake of agreeing). Too much friction and chaos may emerge. This kind of balancing is a task which the teacher and the students do together: to be successful, they need to be on the same side of the table.

Dr. Ville Eloranta is a University Lecturer in IDBM master's program, Aalto University. Ville is an expert in business model innovation (especially platform business models), distributed ledger technologies, and design management.

Teaching Lab
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