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Using Conflict to Engage Students in Active Learning

Jan 03, 2020 2020-01-03

By Trevor Muir

My previous blog discussed how to structure classroom projects into stories. There are five elements of a story you must consider when creating an epic project: theme, plot, setting, characters, and conflict. I’d like to dive deeper into one of those elements: conflict.

Conflict gives a story purpose. It disrupts the ordinary and gives the characters a reason to act. Purpose can be found in solving problems and conflicts that arise. Without purpose, something just exists for the sake of existing.

This purposelessness is ever-present in schools. Students learn certain content because the government says so. They study for tests just to get a passing grade and then forget information as soon as the test is over. This lack of purpose only serves to create low performance and engagement in students. For students to be truly engaged in the classroom, we must give them a purpose or a conflict to wrestle with.

The world is full of big problems that students can contribute to solving. There are homelessness and hunger in every community. The news is constantly filled with problems: refugees fleeing for their lives, crises caused by natural disasters, the toll pollution is taking on our planet, and more. These are big problems that can be addressed in classrooms.

There are also problems with less global importance that are just as important to tackle in your epic classroom. Solving these conflicts will give students the tools to go on and solve the bigger stuff later. These conflicts can be debating the meaning of justice, interpreting how something a poet said 200 years ago is still relevant today, or creating a piece of art that lasts. The conflict size is not as important as the question of whether it engages students in learning.

When planning an epic project for your classroom, it is important to start with a conflict. From there, the rest of the story can be planned out. For example, in my last blog I told you about my classroom project centered around helping refugees adjust to a new, modern lifestyle. I started with the theme I wanted students to learn (modernity). Then I had to figure out what the conflict in the story would be.

To find a conflict, I often research the theme and write down questions I have about it. You have to ask questions to uncover the conflict students will encounter. From there, I look for an organization that connects with the questions and conflicts that are now taking shape. For example, after developing questions about modernity and refugees, I reached out to a local social work agency to ask if they knew of any refugees who would be willing to come and talk to my class. Danysa’s story of struggling to navigate a new, more modern society gave my student’s a conflict to solve and a purpose for solving it.

Conflict is one of the most important parts of a story. We must bring conflict into our classrooms to engage students. If you can find conflict within your subject matter, you can engage students in active learning.

Trevor Muir is a teacher, author, international speaker, and project-based learning expert. He is the author of The Epic Classroom: How to Boost Engagement, Make Learning Memorable, and Transform Lives, a book about using the power of story to make learning engaging and unforgettable. His latest book is The Collaborative Classroom: Teaching Students How to Work Together Now and for the Rest of Their Lives. Trevor is a professor at Grand Valley State University, a former faculty member for the Buck Institute for Education, and is one of the Andrew Gomez Dream Foundation educators. His writing has been featured in the Huffington Post, EdWeek, and regularly on WeAreTeachers. He gave a TEDx Talk, “School Should Take Place in the Real World,” at TEDxSanAntonio. You can find more about Trevor on his website:

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