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Experiential Learning as a Tool for Teaching About Global Complexity and Conflict

Conflicts are embedded within overlapping local, national, and global structures of power. Accordingly, any intervention in a conflict can bring unpredictable results, individual agency is hemmed in by larger forces, and the nature of ethical action can be difficult to determine. These are crucial insights for future conflict resolution practitioners to internalize, but for many students they can seem too theoretical/abstract and difficult to grasp. The authors, therefore, wish to investigate whether and how experiential learning activities (ELAs) in the classroom might help students learn about global complexity.

Over the course of a four-year research project, faculty and students from George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (S-CAR) developed and tested ten ELAs. The authors focus on the learning outcomes of two of them in particular: a multi-day conflict simulation called “Adding Fuel to the Fire” about the discovery of—and disputes over—gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean (involving multiple countries, energy companies, environmental NGOs, and UN mediators) and a one-session activity called “Mediated Perceptions” where students examine a provocative photo from a conflict zone and then learn progressively more information about its context and the photographer’s background, causing them to revise their initial reactions.

The data analyzed to assess student learning in these activities included some combination of pretests, posttests, assignments, and instructor reflections. The researchers were especially interested in students’ recognition of two key theoretical insights: the relationships between local and global processes/structures and the precarity experienced by many embedded in these overlapping local/global processes/structures.

Overall, the authors found that these ELAs increased students’ engagement and enhanced their understanding of global complexity. “Adding Fuel to the Fire” involved intense negotiation among the various parties and mediation/facilitation work on the part of the UN mediators, followed by a debriefing session, enabling students to engage with multiple themes over the course of the activity: tensions and alliances between various parties, power inequalities between countries but also between state and non-state actors, the role of international law and environmental norms in relation to state sovereignty and power, the role of global capital, and overlapping local and global structures/processes, creating “a complex set of constraints and opportunities for actors.”

“Mediated Perceptions” encouraged students to re-examine their assumptions about different contexts and people based on the images or narratives they consume and the information available to them, with instructors pausing after each presentation of new information to ask for interpretations and reflections. First, students were presented with a disturbing image of a clearly starving child slumped over in the foreground with a vulture sitting in the background. After being asked to consider who was missing from the frame, they were successively told that the photographer earned a Pulitzer Prize for the photograph but also condemnation; that he committed suicide a month after this award; that the child’s mother was nearby when the photo was taken and the photographer chased away the vulture afterwards; that the photographer was a white South African involved in anti-apartheid struggles; and that his friend was killed just before he committed suicide. At each juncture, students had to re-examine their previous assumptions about the photograph, the child, the photographer, and themselves.

The students came away from the activity engaging with a few key issues/ insights: the need to know as much as possible about a context before making judgments or intervening; the desire to be more critical in their consumption of images/narratives, especially “iconic scenes of precarity,” which they realized could be manipulated; an understanding of precarity in global processes and people’s differential positioning in relation to local/ global power structures; a recognition of both their positioning within constraining local/global structures and their limited ability to control the effects of their “interventions”; and, finally, a related realization of the dilemmas inherent in identifying responsible, ethical action amidst complex, unpredictable, and uncontrollable local/global processes.

The authors close with some reflections on the importance of this greater understanding of global complexity for students’ capacities to become effective conflict resolution practitioners. First, those working in the conflict resolution field must be aware of the interaction between the “local” and the “global” to analyze the conflict’s situation within “multiple overlapping legal, economic, political, and social structures” that constrain possible actions/interventions, the various stakeholders, and the leverage points available for resolving/transforming the conflict. Second, they must be aware of the bearing power disparities have on their ability to be accountable to various local/global actors and to identify what would constitute “ethical and effective action” in a given conflict context. Third, they must be able to reflect critically about their own identities, their own positioning in relation to those they would like to “help,” and their own limitations vis-à-vis intervening effectively in the conflict—and facilitate the ability of others to engage in similarly difficult reflection.

Contemporary Relevance

With so many voices out there trying to represent conflicts in simplistic “us-versus them” terms, blaming entire ethnic, racial, religious, or national groups for the actions of a handful of individuals, or blithely asserting “America First” in complete ignorance—or disregard—of the inescapable connections that link the fates of peoples and countries halfway across the world from each other, a focus on global complexity and how to teach it is welcome and necessary. It is of course simple, black-and-white thinking, clung to with certainty, that most easily justifies war (and violence more generally)—and war also comes of the belief that we can somehow control outcomes, make that enemy do our bidding. Once we start to acknowledge that the “other side” is not monolithic but rather made up of various complicated human beings with hopes and fears, loves and families; that what hurts you or makes you feel insecure may ultimately come back to hurt me and make me feel insecure; that there are myriad unintended consequences of any of our actions, especially military actions—once we start to acknowledge all of this complexity— then the call to violence makes less sense and is harder to justify.

Talking Points

  • Experiential learning activities (ELAs) are effective tools for teaching—and helping students internalize—abstract theoretical concepts related to global complexity and conflict, as well as for helping students integrate theory and practice.
  • Through two ELAs in particular, students gained a greater appreciation for the ways in which global and local processes/structures interact in a given context, as well as the ways in which people are differently positioned—and therefore differently precarious—in these local/global processes/structures.
  • The insights gained from the ELAs studied here are critical to students’ training as future conflict resolution practitioners who must be able to do the following:
    • Analyze a conflict’s broader local/global context and the constraints it provides.
    • Recognize the effects power disparities have on their ability to identify ethical and effective interventions.
    • Reflect critically on their own identities and positioning in relation to those they wish to “help”.

Practical Implications

As the authors note, many of the insights gained from the two experiential learning activities (ELAs) assessed here are critical to effective conflict resolution work. Therefore, if educators wish to train students, community members, activists, or professionals to become more effective conflict resolution practitioners—thereby contributing to our collective ability to transform conflict away from violence and towards peace and justice—they would be well advised to adopt some of the pedagogically innovative activities discussed here. While there is certainly value in assigning and discussing academic books and articles that explore the complex theoretical concepts educators hope for their students to grasp—especially to provide students with a vocabulary for engaging in an ongoing dialogue among scholars on these questions—there is nothing quite like participating in deliberations, in problem-solving, in negotiation, or in interpretation to help students arrive at a felt realization of these same concepts.

To get the most out of these activities, educators should provide plenty of time for debriefing, as this is the space where students can really articulate for themselves what exactly it was that they discovered over the course of the activity. It is also the space where educators can guide students through challenges as they process the activity. The authors note, especially, that some students struggle with “complexity fatigue,” “anxiety,” and a hopeless sense of “What can I do? I’m only one person?” over the course of the activity. Educators should, therefore, think through how to discuss these potential responses ahead of time, sharing with students that these are common challenges experienced by conflict resolution practitioners in the field— but that ultimately we all must choose to act even amid complexity, uncertainty, and a recognition of our limited agency.


Romano, A., Hirsch, S., & Paczynska, A. (2017). Teaching about global complexity: Experiential conflict resolution pedagogy in higher education classrooms. Conflict Resolution Quarterly, 34(3), 255-279.

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