Education Dispute Resolution Predictable Problems, Creative Responses

ANZELA Conference, Auckland, 28-30 September 2016

Laurence Boulle

Thomas More Law School, ACU, Sydney

Draft Only – Not for Citation. References outstanding.


A retired New Zealand teacher became a successful conflict resolver and with his earnings bought a hobby farm where he kept wool-bearing sheep. When it came to shearing season he consulted the internet and phoned a large shearing company. ‘Could he have his sheep sheared?’ he requested. ‘Yes, came the answer down the line, we can do them in ten days’ time. How many do you have?’ The conciliator answered, ‘There are seventeen in total’. ‘Seventeen thousand, no problem’ was the response. The conciliator insisted, ‘No seventeen, just seventeen sheep’. There was a long pause on the line, then the voice said: ‘Could I have their names please.’


I should like to thank ANZELA for the invitation to this conference, the New Zealand Law Foundation for getting me here and the organisers for their support and assistance. My paper has been sent to Jane for the conference web-site.

My presentation is about problems, issues and conflicts which arise in educational contexts and how those involved – yourselves – might engage creatively in responding to them. In other words, to be conflict competent and confident. There’s an interesting juxtaposition here – I am suggesting, on one hand, that disputes are largely predictable while the responses, on the other, can be creative. The meta-theme is that we can normalise, identity and characterise aspects of the conflict thing which will empower more constructive interventions in dealing with it.

In terms of the conference themes my contribution will have most resonance from the creative perspective, with which compliance sometimes comes into conflict. Creative conflict management is my theme. We are all in education and education operates in different systems. These systems create conditions for conflict because they are organic, adaptable arrangements. I will be talking in terms of five conflict pulses reverberating in education contexts.

By way of personal background, I have had limited direct involvement in school conflict since causing it myself. However I have had four children at three categories of schools, served on School Councils and Parents and Friends Associations, mediated with school boards, principals and other stakeholders, provided conflict training in schools and universities, and have mediated work-place conflicts in higher education contexts. So there is a small experiential basis to what I have to say.

However my contribution is based on experience as a general practitioner in teaching, writing and practising in conflict areas. I am not purporting to be a specialist in conflict management in education, and certainly not in primary and secondary schools because I have no deep level expertise in this area and would have to become a Dr Google instant expert. As my Latin teacher reported to my parents, ‘There are many gaps in your son’s ignorance’, and I have ignorance gaps in school education, in particularly as regards social media which I think is a passing fad. So rather than interpret the interface between my disciplines of law and dispute resolution and yours I shall talk generally about dispute resolution thinking and invite you to consider its potential relevance.

Here is how I shall progress. After starting on a sombre topic I should like to examine aspects of what we might call ‘conflict mastery’, initially in relation to categorising disputes, then on how they escalate and can be de-escalated, then on standard interventions in these situations. This is followed by reference to some of the hidden factors which affect human decision-making in dispute situations, and reflections on how these can be used to foster creative responses to these situations. These topics will be interspersed with modest personal anecdotes, some interactive exercises, a little kinaesthetic learning and a motivational finale. All in 42.3 minutes.

I should now like to undertake a scientific survey:

  • How many of you have done professional development training in conflict management?

  • How many have dispute resolution, directly or indirectly, as part of your performance indicators?

  • How many feel that you concede too easily in negotiation contexts?

  • How many of you would self-identity as ‘conflict avoiders’?

Pulse No 1 – Dispute Resolution in a Terrible World

This is a ubiquitous pulse. I was asked to speak at celebrations for the 30th anniversary of the Australian Dispute Resolution Association. In lackadaisical academic fashion I contrived to overlook for some time my talking brief. To my consternation I discovered a few days before that my designated topic was Mediation in a Terrible World. Perhaps the title was explicable in terms of a recent Bledisloe Cup match. Terrible world indeed.

I would have chosen a more cheerful topic. The world is terrible enough without having to talk about it. Or perhaps, as the Irish saying goes, things are disastrous but not serious. However it did fit with my view about the power of negative thinking, as Oliver Burke puts it in his inspiring book, The Antidote, a riposte to the shallow motivational industry and its shallow version of positive thinking.

Needless to say I trawled through the great challenges of the day: war and people displacement, carbon pollution and climate challenges, increasing inequalities of income and wealth, personal and social insecurity, corporate greed and the like, and attempted to turn each into an exegesis on the possibilities of dispute resolution and peace-making. It certainly bears thinking that far from the bucolic bars and alliterative airs of Auckland there are seemingly intractable conflicts causing unimaginable hardship in Aleppo, Yemen, Gaza and the like. For the victims involved the words of New Zealand poet Hone Tuwhare have resonance:

O tree

In the shadowless mountains

The white plains and

The drab sea floor

Your end at last is written

Tuwhare uses the tree’s death throes in a blighted landscape as an allegory of nuclear annihilation, in respect of which one critic refers, interestingly from today’s perspectives, to the break in the mediative function between the natural and supernatural. In contemporary terms we could replace nuclear annihilation with invasion, occupation, war or detention. In these colossal confrontations conflict theory talks about change only occurring after a mutually hurting stalemate has been reached. This suggests the distressing reality of all conflict situations that bad as things are they might get worse before improving.

While these sombre agonies seem remote from education themes, one aspect of the terrible world thesis does give insights into sources of contemporary conflict, whether in international trade or in classroom dynamics. Everything is connected, and one dominant global force which eventually has impacts in the most humble of educational contexts is competition policy. Now one must concede immediately that there are benign and even healthy aspects of competition in economic life, in terms of incentives, awareness, efficiency and consumer - well not quite sovereignty as is claimed - but at least awareness and empowerment. Moreover Darwin, Marx and Freud each identified the significance of competitive pulses in evolutionary biology, the political economy and the human psyche, respectively. Competition is not new and is pervasive in many areas of life.

Competitive policies and structure are now more than local or national but global in extent, rendering them more intensive, unrelenting and pervasive than before. In the education context competition promotes contestation over resources and data on every corner and it has tendency to promote individualisation, anxiety, secrecy and league tables for schools and universities, and those working within them.

League tables are one of the challenging realities of all education systems. They are justified in terms of transparency, accountability and consumers’ right to know. They also create anxiety for those at the foot of the ladder and insecurity for those concerned about losing their standing at the top. Moreover even healthy competition results in measuring those factors that are relatively easy to survey and measure, in particular quantitative and efficiency factors, and overlooking those more difficult to measure – such as factors of quality and effectiveness. Moreover they create ineluctable temptations for players to game the system, to focus on how to pass performance tests, meet targets, better the benchmarks, increase research scores and attain performance indicators as ends in themselves and not as means to more noble ends. If the dominant imperative is that of reaching a certain numerical indicator life will be hard, brutish and short.

So there is here a paradox between the inexorable drive for competitive behaviour in society and the need for collaboration in dispute resolution contexts. There is a deep philosophical shift occurring in the latter regardless of the former. However a recent World Bank/UNCTAD report, and an earlier IMF paper, contain indictments of the very neo-liberal globalisation policies, involving financial liberalisation, privatisation, weakening state systems and competition, which these organisations had long promoted. Nonetheless the dominant economic factors are likely to endure for the present so how do we manage conflict and disputes in the vortex of competitive pressures in educational contexts?

Let me begin with a case study which suggests the need for some procedural certainty and dispute resolution expertise in competitive educational contexts. The narrative starts several years ago and involves highly-qualified researchers in an educational institution which had become conflict-prone and dysfunctional over several years, involving loss of reputation and casualties in every corridor. After a fact-finding investigation the institution deemed the situation to be suitable for a conflict intervention. Its self-diagnosis caused it to label this as mediation. Given the complexity, duration and personalities involved this was not to be an easy resolution. In fact the intervention has involved investigation, conflict coaching, separate and joint meetings, mediations and advisory interventions. What was striking in the process was the reliance by the participants on managerial and other external interventions and an absence of conflict mastery among themselves. Self-awareness, inter-personal skills, appropriate communication and negotiation skills were starkly absent among the highly specialised participants. As has been wryly said, when it comes to dispute resolution most of us are operating with cave-men and cave-women software and this was obvious in relation to the language and other behaviour. This will be picked up in relation to professional identity later.

One of the aspirations about conflict in organisations is that it doesn’t have to be a negative phenomenon. This notion might fall like duff music on the ears of those of you managing on a daily basis with disputes arising from make-up or muck-up, piercings or parents, complaints or compliance, budgets or beards and skirts or schoolies. Nonetheless just as business manuals indicate that the greatest customer loyalty comes from those whose complaints have been well managed, as opposed to those who didn’t complain in the first place, so there is evidence that well-managed disputes can provide opportunities and lead to a strengthening of relations, innovative ideas for the future and commitments for fresh starts. This requires some normalisation of conflict dynamics.

Pulse No 2 – Normalising Conflict Dynamics

This pulse pulsates idly in learned journals, survey studies and experimental laboratories in the halls of academia where scholars attempt to make sense of this conflict thing. While it is too soon to talk about the DNA of conflict there is now greater understanding of the field than ever before.

Education operates within many different systems and systems have organic identities being relational and fluid and complex. By their nature they create the potential for disputes over many different matters: over competing objectives, for example between school boards and managers; over resources, for example allocations for special needs or outings; over communications, for example when they are poorly made, or misinterpreted, or not responded to, or lost; over relationships and their emotions, such as group stereotypes or personality differences; over structures, such as compliance demands or legal risks; or over values, such as traditionalists versus progressives. So we can initially provide a tentative diagnosis of the causes of conflicts and disputes in terms of these six categories. Diagnosis assists treatment and prognosis.

Each of the conflict categories invites different kinds of intervention. For example resource conflicts might require transparency, disclosure of records and negotiated allocations. Communication problems might require opportunities to access information, have experts interpret it, or sit together and work out what was said in the past and should be said in the future. It is the value disputes that are most pressing, and here the bad news is that most conflicting parties, under influence of various biases referred to later, add a value veneer to their contest. You have heard the symptoms before. I heard them again earlier this week. ‘This situation involves a matter of principle’.

The next predictable aspect of conflict is its escalation, or de-escalation. Escalation involves the following predictable dimensions – additional conflicts are added to the original dispute, other people join in on each side, parties begin to talk about each other and not with each other, adversarial factions form within the department, team or organisation, and parties introduce professionals such as lawyers or fixers into the equation. All these occurred in the case study I discussed earlier. And no doubt has its equivalents in your institutions.

De-escalation developments are usually more deliberative than accidental. They include early intervention in disputes, gratuitous concessions, apologies or statements of regret, and constructive communication. The cases which bedevil our lives tend to involve more escalating factors than the latter. In most cases in schools, universities, NGOs and hospitals in which I have been involved a lack of managerial intervention has been a major factor contributing to the conflict’s escalation.

So diagnosis, normalisation, characterisation and sign-posts are the foundations for empowering us in our conflict lives. And we need to borrow also from other disciplines. One of these is nudge theory where we establish a choice architecture for the parties which inclines them towards default positions without excluding their capacity to make their own decisions. You have an example in New Zealand in matrimonial where there is an assumption of a 50:50 distribution requiring each side to establish why there should be a deviation from the default. The NSW government has employed nudge consultants extensively over past years.

Another insight is from economics and can be illustrated as follows. Take a $ 20 or $ 10 dollar note from your wallet, bag or someone else’s pocket. Exchange it with a willing other. Are you satisfied with the outcome? Now exchange again with another and trouser the proceeds. Again are you satisfied with the outcome? What does this prove? That money is the ultimate fungible product, like petrol, where it’s not the specific note or exact molecules of petrol that you require but a specific amount or quantity. However this lesson is not neatly transferable to conflict contexts where money might in fact have differential values. For example its value might be determined by the source of the money, its recipient, the use to which it is allocated, and the like. When dealing with money disputes it is well to be aware of the fact that it is not always fungible and we need to look at how we can make an amount of money look larger or smaller, as the case may be.

Pulse No 3 - Responses to Disputes

This is a recursive pulse. It starts with a surprise. Walking away from conflict situations is more common than one might think. So is conceding to the other side for the sake of peace and quiet. Indeed in the legal domain the Australian Productivity Commission found that in small and medium enterprises only 30% of respondents consulted a lawyer when they had a legal problem. In passing, we heard yesterday that the NZ Productivity Commission released a report into education and the Australian one mentioned was on justice systems. In reality such bodies bring a predominantly economic, data-driven template to bear on education, justice, the grocery sector and other areas within their jurisdictions.

To return to those who don’t consult lawyers: they might consult non-lawyers or government agencies, but in many cases simply lump the situation. This brings to mind a recent court case in Sydney involving the potential liability of a stock broker’s directors for insolvent trading. Several days were spent cross-examining a numerologist and astrologer who advised one of the directors personally and gave routine predictive advice to traders in the company. Some of you may well have faith in these pursuits, or be practitioners of them yourselves – however in this case the advice resulted in a loss of $ 60 million. There are more reliable, if not as seemingly alluring, sources of knowledge in relation to conflict and its management.

Where one side does not walk away or concede three of the fundamental requirements for all dispute resolution are communication, negotiation and appropriate attitudes.

Now what can one say about communication to professional educators? We are already renowned for sedulously eschewing hyper-verbosity and prolixity in our earnest utterances. We are cognisant of the reality that human communication is about 50 000 years old and now takes place through a wide plurality of forms and forums. In the Philippines mediations are conducted through exchanges of text messages. Emoji are optional extras. Indeed in dispute contexts the tools of hammer, scalpel or algorithm seldom available and language becomes a predominant factor. Here we are aware of connotation and nuance in communication, of the difference between the intention of words, spoken or written, and their impact – for example that the term mediation in some workplace contexts is associated with employee discipline, a negative connotation causing resistance to and defensiveness within workplace discipline. The Wallaby coach is reported to avoid use of the term All Blacks in his ill-fated coaching sessions, instead referring to the less formidable ‘opposition’ or ‘New Zealand’ team. Language as we know not only describes reality it creates it. What is in a word? Plenty as we know.

The philosophical shift in dispute resolution referred to earlier is particularly attentive to words and their connotations. How issues are framed and reframed is regarded as one of the keys to changing perceptions, and perceptual movements are necessary for desired changes in behaviour. Sadly management-speak and political spin doctors have also seized the moment such that, in Jeffrey Whian’s immortal words, ‘mumbo jumbo rules the world’. We are advised by our managers….to marketise product delivery to meet client expectations of flexible accessibility and technological innovation’ – which I think means more on-line learning for students.

The dualisms in language beloved of journalists and many others – saint or sinner, hero or betrayer – seem to build on a binary susceptibility in the brain – when one says day the brain conjures up night, and the same with black and white. In the legal sphere, which casts a shadow over many dispute resolution activities, it is not possible to escape altogether the consequences of linguistic categories – for example citizen or alien, refuge or illegal migrant, guilty or not guilty. These have immense significance for those captured by or excluded from the linguistic category. However even a recalcitrant discipline such as the law has had to move from some of these dichotomous rigidities, for example in accommodating ‘binding guidelines’, ‘civil penalties’, and ‘substantive due process’ and our Scots friends have long split the ‘guilty-not guilty’ atom with the ‘not proven’ verdict.

However many of the conflicts and disputes occurring in educational contexts are removed from the shadow of the law and its categories. While there is much to learn here from higher level analyses of language from Chomsky and Foucault, Whian and Watson, there are more basic lessons. For example:

  • Use of the disjunctive ‘but’ in a sentence is inclined to diminish the significance of the words preceding it, whereas the conjunctive ‘and’ does not have this effect. Here is an example: ‘You can have the travel allowance but I can’t give you money for the ANZELA conference fee’, versus ‘You can have the travel allowance and current policies require some other source for the conference fee’.

  • Use of the term ‘because’ has been found to influence the person to whom a request is directed, for example replacing, ‘Can I photocopy my five pages quickly before you do your 50’ with ‘Can I do my copying first because I have only five pages and you have 50’. After a little experience we shall discover that the inclusion of a single word can relegate all photocopying conflicts to history so please practice it now.

  • A verbal contract is more likely to be carried out than a straight request, for example replace, ‘Please can you read this High Court case before tomorrow’s class’ with ‘Can you agree to read this High Court case before tomorrow’s class’. This is provided, of course, that the contract is agreed to by the offeree in question and they are not watching Game of Thrones.

  • The terms ‘gain’ and ‘loss’ have significant impacts on the emotional brain and neural pathways. The impact of the loss word has been found to be seven times more intense and to endure far longer than gain. As the tennis player of yore Jimmy Connors eloquently noted: I look to win but I hate to lose far more. Here the morale in dispute resolution contexts is to reframe from loss to gain, by pointing out advantages which could emanate from resolution in terms of money, reputation, finality, and other factors – particularly where the party you are talking to senses only loss in a proposed outcome. Much of the work in my case study involved highlighting each party’s potential gains from settlement.

Negotiation is ubiquitous in all forms of dispute resolution and there is an extensive literature on the art and science of bargaining, whether negotiating with ourselves, with vendors in a Fijian bazaar or with multiple states in the World Trading Organisation. Negotiation might seem to require a more esoteric skill set than communication. However educators should not be daunted. There are many avenues for basic and advanced training in this area, including traditional professional bodies, universities such as Massey, dedicated dispute resolution bodies such as AMINZ, and wandering prophets from abroad who over-promise and under-deliver. As much of your life, after sleeping, is spent negotiating in one or other way it is worth making an investment in this area and enjoying the return. And do not be easily discouraged. The day after conducting a negotiation workshop in Sydney I was bargaining over the lease of my unit car spot made redundant because of my holy accession to a car-sharing system. I had a negotiating range in mind but my counterpart started on a number well below my range. I shifted my parameters accordingly and meekly acquiesced in a number close to his. This is referred to as the anchoring effect in negotiation literature. It does work with teenagers and lessons will be provided during the break.

Where negotiation between parties or states does not succeed there are options for further attempts at negotiation to be facilitated by an impartial intervener, as found in many workplace grievance procedures and referred to as conciliation or mediation. Where this does not succeed there are dispute resolution systems in which interveners investigate, provide advice and make recommendations on matters in contention, for example in ombuds bodies which educational institutions should have. Finally there are authorities, whether local or international, which give binding determinations in dispute situations – most saliently the courts which have in recent years adjudicated on a number of educational disputes arising in New Zealand and Australian courts.

Each level of intervention has strengths and shortcomings –though logically the first-mentioned processes have scope for reconciling parties’ interests, preserving relationships, building future relations and lowering transaction costs. The reason the full spectrum of systems is mentioned here is that negotiation never has to end – even in high-profile cases which do go to mediation, ombuds and courts the door should not be closed on negotiated outcomes. Which inspires me so much that I shall re-negotiate the rent for my car space, this time sans the anchor.


Besides a knowledge base and toolbox of skills in communication and negotiation there are important attitudinal aspects to effective dispute resolution. Let me give you a sense of the mental attitude of a conflict resolver in a concrete situation. I was mediating a generational conflict in a family business in the idyllic environment of Byron Bay. Three sons had been involved in the business, the fourth had not. No 4 wanted to be involved in the mediation, the three insisted he should not be. There were supporting arguments all round from legal advisers. With mediator assistance this binary framing was disaggregated into five options for the surfing sibling: entire exclusion (you’ve missed the flight), wait outside the room with occasional consultation with participants (stand-by status), attend in the room with an observation role away from the table (no-frills flight), seated at the table to answer questions or speak when invited (economy fare) or full business-class participation along with the others. After consideration of the plurality of options the parties jointly opted for the fourth. The mediation proceeded on this basis and within less than an hour the prodigal brother was a full participant with no objection from the others. Or their lawyers.

What was involved here was avoidance of binary, black/white, either/or thinking which is so prevalent in the contemporary world. Problem-solving situations are not school debating competitions or law school moots with winners and losers. Binary thinking would have involved a simplistic dichotomy between participation and non-participation, one side winning the contest and the other losing it. Avoid the binary in favour of slicing the salami into small slides – that is what assisted the dispute resolution process. It can be used in countless contexts. It will also drive your colleagues, friends and family crazy – which they deserve for seeing the world in white and black binary terms. Small please slice it small in your next dispute.

However beneath the veneer of these formal procedures are the silent movers of human thought and behaviour.

Pulse No 4 – Biases in Decision-Making

This is the silent pulse beating in the interstitial parts of the brain. It brings challenges to conventional thinking about conflict and its management from many disciplines - anthropology, sociology, cognitive psychology, neuro-biology and game theory. For the sake of brevity I shall deal with only one source which challenges a dominant value proposition in traditional thinking, namely that we make decisions objectively in accordance with our rational assessment of the costs and benefits of situations through a process of linear logic. The challenge comes predominantly from cognitive psychology.

Economic thinking influences many aspects of social life and is based on rational choice theory. In market contexts, the argument goes, individuals assess their options objectively and make decisions in terms of assessments of their best interests. Unfortunately this theory does not always get out of the library into the bazaar. Firstly it is challenged by the concept of hedonic psychology which emphasises that the human brain, despites is magnificence, is not always good at making decisions in our best interests. A program particularly designed to illustrate this point is called the Bachelorette.

More significantly it is confronted by identification of the nearly 50 cognitive and social biases which, while not evident to the conscious brain, affect all human decision-making, including that in conflict situations. One example is the confirmation bias according to which we take account of facts, information and evidence which support our preconceived outcomes and ignore those which do not support, or actually challenge, them. A second is the halo effect in terms of which those of high status, wealth or good looks are regarded as being of higher character or moral standing than their counterpart others – in short, money and good hair = high moral worth. A third is optimistic over-confidence in terms of which parties in conflict, and other areas of life, regard themselves as better than and able to prevail over the objective realities of the situation – for example if I was to ask you how many of you are better than average drivers more than 50% would raise their hands – more than 83% in Sydney.

In relation to these matters there is now a rich knowledge base that can assist players in conflict and the officials, principals and teachers who facilitate their resolution as professional advisers or helpful amateurs. Importantly the knowledge, skills and attitudes relating to conflict management, whether at the seemingly trite or monumental levels can be learned, practiced and developed. At the former level, the act of shaking hands has a magical quality in itself, research suggesting that negotiators who shake hands first are more open and honest than those who don’t and reach better outcomes. Moreover brain imaging shows that we feel rewarded not only by shaking hands but merely by seeing others shake hands. The skills involved are not solely innate or inherent attributes of some people only, and even a little exposure can lead to improvements. Moreover the knowledge base, whatever its potential impact on the perceptions and behaviours of disputants, provides insights into the self, and is an important part of professional identity.

An early introduction to conflict knowledge might seem to affirm what is already intuitive or already practiced. For example this ritual (the haka) was practised well before fMRI brain-scanning began, but science now affirms its impact: the oxytocin it generates creates strong bonds and trust among members of the in-group, the ABs, and greater antagonism towards those of the out-group, the wannabes.

Moreover seeming neutral environmental factors have been shown to impact on behaviour in dispute resolution settings - seating, music, symbols, timing and greenery. I give particular attention to setting up a dispute resolution setting, always avoiding iced water in favour of warm drinks. While no factor on its own might be decisive there is a world of information in these areas. Some employers allow dogs in the workplace on grounds that they reduce tension and produce serotonin in those who appreciate and pat them. In fact a prominent New Zealand conciliator takes a dog with him to all his dispute resolution events and claims that he has a major advantage over other mediators. That is despite being blind.

Ultimately we live in complex systems which require dedicated procedures, communication protocols, relationship requirements and value propositions, and not accidental attempts at dispute resolution. The problem with what are sometimes called ‘wicked problems’ is that there are many independent variables which interact in unpredictable ways – and not always as policies, procedures and human resource managers would like. There is here a limit to managerial directives in terms of their impacts in the firm.

Moreover the very notion of a problem implies that there is a solution, such as we assume that for every illness there is a cure. But complex systems cannot always be fixed, and their very complexity might be what provides the resilience needed for an organisation’s survival. It has been said that, ‘For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong (H L Mencken). However I think that some of the basics can be simple – ‘simple for complex’ has a nice ring to it. For a respected workplace conflict resolution consultant in Australia there are three simple conditions for constructive relations in the workplace – good communications, respect and trust.

Pulse No 5 - Professional Identity

This is the fight back pulse. One of the factors currently affecting all professions is that of their essential identity. There are general and particular reasons for this having become a problematic concept. As an academic I am conscious of the fact that I am expected to be a scholar, administrator, compliance officer, career counsellor, psychologist, drugs adviser and occasional police officer. Oh and teacher. Seven jobs, a single salary. That is now a general reality in many occupations and professions in the service sector. The particular factor in education is that in a competitive age the profession struggles for status and recognition with occupations which promise instant gratification and large profits, celebrity status and foreign travel - as opposed to the longer-term and less sensational achievements of teachers and allied professions. This requires a stronger pulse of professional identity, less for social perceptions and more for the sense of status and dignity of the individuals concerned.

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) provides a way of thinking about the importance of professional identity because it helps explain how a positive identity can support professionals to flourish and thrive. SDT’s home disciplines are actually education and psychology and (not but) it is becoming an increasingly influential theory beyond these disciplines. The theory supports a deeper understanding of self-motivation, self-determination and well-being. SDT is relevant to explaining how a professional identity and psychological well-being are linked. The theory has been explained as follows:

SDT represents an ‘organismic dialectical approach’ to explaining human motivation. Human beings are active organisms … inherently oriented towards growth, adaptation, and development, yet vulnerable to amotivation and an absence of psychological well-being in unsupportive environments….

SDT is comprised of mini theories such as Basic Psychological Needs Theory. BPNT encompasses three needs – autonomy, competence, relatedness. Autonomy refers to the subjective experience that our behaviour is self-governed, volitional and congruent with true beliefs, values and interests. Competence refers to an individual’s sense of ability, capability and mastery in relation to tasks and challenges. Relatedness refers to the experience of meaningful and reciprocal connections with key others. Of the three basic psychological needs autonomy is the ‘master need’. I can only speak of my own experiences but as an academic I experience less and less autonomy and more and more accountability to policies and procedures, supervisors and managers, values and missions, managerial mumbo-jumbo and micro-measurement for purposes of league tables. As a new recruit to ANZELA I hope to increase my sense of relatedness to reinforce professional identity. You will have your experiences in regard to autonomy and the other elements of BPNT.

Martin Seligman’s framework of measurable elements of well-being (positive emotion, engagement, relationship, meaning and accomplishment) supports the view that a strong professional identity is important for well-being and therefore to the future of the teaching profession. Here I would contend that the polyglot imperatives for contemporary educationists requires a conflict management element in professional identity.

I talked earlier about education operating within systems, sometimes overlapping and sometimes in isolation, and some of you will be in more than one system – policy-making, school governance, learning and teaching, union members and parents and payers. Each system is subject to extraneous expectations and internal pressures. Each needs structures, policies and procedures to sustain itself, to survive and to thrive. They include governance, finance, marketing and human resources. But they also need educational conflict managers – those who can prevent and resolve disputes with the lowest transaction costs and least attrition. I know that there are countless policies and procedures dealing with grievances, bullying, misconduct and the like but integrated conflict management is another imperative and is not always present. My co-author and friend Virginia Goldblatt has spoken eloquently about this in Law Talk in her piece titled ‘Education dispute resolvers – do we need them?’ She contends that there is a need,

For decision-makers within our schools and tertiary institutions to first make good decisions about process and identify the most appropriate sources of professional advice to help them to do so.

Knowledge, skills and attitudes relating to dispute resolution are one of the important factors in this regard.

Pulse 5.5 – The Maintainers

This is a murmuring pulse. The identity imbroglio in education has been intensified with the current focus on innovation, disruption and all manner of creative changes in many job situations. There is certainly a role for these technologically-driven changes and they create a range of digital jobs which did not exist a mere few years ago. And having a child engaged in a digital start up in the northern hemisphere I have some sense of the excitement they involve.

In this context we are often exhorted to be agile, adaptive and possibly disruptive to cope with demands and pressures in the workplace and many other areas of social life. That is all to the good. But are teachers just destined to become expert exponents of computer technology, on-line teaching and artificial intelligence?

The enthusiasm for innovation overlooks the importance of maintenance functions in many walks of life – those who repair or care for or pick up or teach or nourish or otherwise carry out routine maintenance tasks which allow the innovators and disrupters to do their thing. Most societal activities rely on the maintainers to enable the innovators. While they might make use of technology in a supporting capacity, the maintainers rely fundamentally on sweat and skills, spirit and resilience. They provide foundations of bread, lights and reliable plumbing for the innovation which others pursue, they maintain important social structures and they uphold the public good. Insofar as teachers are also maintainers I say three cheers.


In his essay on Tolstoy, The Hedgehog and the Fox,[i] Isaiah Berlin refers to hedgehogs knowing one big thing, while foxes know many little things. The former provides a singular explanatory theory of how things factor together, the latter admits to complex factors in procedures and outcomes, and multiple variables including luck and chance. Parties in conflict tend to become hedgehogs about the past, developing closed causal explanations for right, wrongs and outcomes. If mediators cannot turn them into foxes, they at least need to be foxes themselves.

Be foxes who know a lot of small things and not hedgehogs who know one big thing.


  • Conflict is inevitable, and it can be institutionally helpful

  • Procedures, nudge, structures R NB for conflict management

  • Say ‘because’ and ‘and’ instead of ‘but’

  • Access specialist expertise in this area

  • Manage self, sometimes with oxytocin?

  • Use dogs not astrologists

  • Be foxes and not hedgehogs

Educators’ Lament

We’re dedicated teechers, we learn ‘em good each day

They construe us just like data, it causes us dismay

Our profession strives for status, we self-medicate with wine

Anzela is our saviour – its conference sublime!

The world seems now so vexing, complexity prevails,

Performance indicators all round, increasing our travails

Governments more demanding, parents routinely complain

Students are revolting and budget pressures drain

They don’t want Samuel Becket – causes morale to drop.

They do want Taylor Swift - celeb gossip lifts them up

Thank goodness for Anzela, two days away from strife

We’re learning about conflict, the DNA of life

Lawyers want to sue us, say we don’t practice right,

Judges, albeit honourable, don’t understand our plight

The fault is always on our side, we’d judge them if we could

Edukayshun’s now so complex, but we try and learn them good

We’re dedicated teechers, we learn ‘em good each day

They construe us just like data, it causes us dismay

Our profession strives for status, we self-medicate with wine

Anzela is our saviour – its conference sublime!

Some References

Christopher P Niemiec and Richard M Ryan, ‘Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness in the Classroom: Applying Self-Determination Theory to Educational Practice’ (2009) 7(2) Theory and Research in Education 133;

Christopher P Niemiec and Richard M Ryan and Edward L Deci, ‘The Path Taken: Consequences of Attaining Intrinsic and Extrinsic Aspirations in Post-College Life’ (2009) 43 Journal of Research in Personality 291;

Hyungshim Jang, Eun Joo Kim, and Johnmarshall Reeve, ‘Why Students Become More Engaged or More Disengaged During the Semester: A Self-Determination Theory Dual-Process Model’ (2016) 43 Learning and Instruction 27

Franziska Trede, Rob Macklin and Donna Bridges, ‘Professional Identity Development: A Review of the Higher Education Literature’ (2012) 37(3) Studies in Higher Education 365;

Marie Clarke, Abbey Hyde, and Jonathan Drennan, ‘Professional Identity in Higher Education’ in Barbara M Kehm and Ulrich Teichler (eds), The Academic Profession in Europe: New Tasks and New Challenges (Springer, 2012) 7-21;

Douwe Beijaard, Paulien C Meijer and Nico Verloop, ‘Reconsidering Research on Teachers’ Professional Identity’ (2004) 20:2 Teaching and Teacher Education, 107-128.

Martin E Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, ‘Positive Psychology: An Introduction’ (2000) 55(1) American Psychologist 5; Martin E Seligman, Authentic Happiness (Free Press, 2002). Seligman’s University of Pennsylvania homepage is the website entitled Authentic Happiness:

Richard M Ryan and Edward L Deci, ‘Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development and Well-being’ (2000) 55(1) American Psychologist 68; Richard M Ryan and Edward L Deci, ‘Overview of Self-Determination Theory: An Organismic Dialectical Perspective’ in Edward Deci and Richard Ryan (eds), Handbook of Self Determination Research (University of Rochester Press, 2002); Richard M Ryan and Edward L Deci, ‘Self-Determination Theory and the Role of Basic Psychological Needs in Personality and the Organization of Behavior’ in Oliver P John, Richard W Robins and Lawrence A Pervin (eds), Handbook of Personality: Theory and Research (Guilford Press, 3rd ed, 2008) 654; Christopher Niemiec, Richard P Ryan and Edward L Deci, ‘Self-Determination Theory and the Relation of Autonomy to Self-Regulatory Processes and Personality Development’ in Rick Hoyle (ed), Handbook of Personality and Self-Regulation (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010) 169.

Krieger, ‘Understanding the Negative Effects of Legal Education on Law Students: A Longitudinal Test of Self-Determination Theory’ (2007) 33 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 883. Field, Duffy and Huggins (2013) referring to (Niemiec et al, 2010, 174); (Niemiec et al, 2010); Maarten Vansteenkiste, Christopher P Niemiec and Bart Soenens, ‘The Development of the Five Mini-Theories of Self-Determination Theory: An Historical Overview, Emerging Trends, and Future Directions’ in Timothy C Urdan and Stuart A Karabenick (eds), The Decade Ahead: Theoretical Perspectives on Motivation and Achievement (Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 2010) 105, 131; Kennon Sheldon, Geoffrey Williams and Thomas Joiner, Self-Determination Theory in the Clinic: Motivating Physical and Mental Health (Yale University Press, 2003); Krieger (2011) 174

See for example, Christopher P Niemiec and Richard M Ryan, ‘Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness in the Classroom: Applying Self-Determination Theory to Educational Practice’ (2009) 7(2) Theory and Research in Education 133; Christopher P Niemiec and Richard M Ryan and Edward L Deci, ‘The Path Taken: Consequences of Attaining Intrinsic and Extrinsic Aspirations in Post-College Life’ (2009) 43 Journal of Research in Personality 291; Hyungshim Jang, Eun Joo Kim, and Johnmarshall Reeve, ‘Why Students Become More Engaged or More Disengaged During the Semester: A Self-Determination Theory Dual-Process Model’ (2016) 43 Learning and Instruction 27.

[i] Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox (Elephant Books, Chicago, 1983). The cryptic words, ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing’, derives from classic Greek poet Arhilocus.

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags