As a follow-up to her recent webinar, Voices author Chia Suan Chong sat down to answer a variety of questions around mediation in the English language classroom from webinar attendees. For more mediation content, be sure to check out the full webinar recording here.
1. Mediation can be approached in different ways according to different cultures. How can it be approached in a multicultural classroom?
I think if you’re teaching a multicultural class, then there are more likely to be situations where students have different styles of communication, different norms and expectations, different beliefs and attitudes towards things. And in such situations, mediation skills will be more important than ever. The ability to manage those differences while still maintaining a positive and safe space where members of the group feel like they are able to share their thoughts and opinions is a key part of mediation. And students in a multicultural class get to practice those skills when working in groups. As you mentioned, there is no one correct way to do this. And a good mediator and a good communicator is someone who’s able to get a feel of everyone’s preferences, be sensitive to how everyone is reacting and adapt their mediation style to suit the group they are with.
2. How important is mediation in conflict resolution?
The term ‘mediation’ to the layperson tends to refer to mediating conflict situations and this is no surprise since mediation is about being a bridge to enable effective and smooth communication between two parties – i.e. in situations where we ourselves are not part of the conflict.
But we should remember that when we talk about mediation as a communication skill (or what the CEFR defines as mediating concepts and mediating communication), it is also about mediating between what is going on within us and how those thoughts are communicated.
So for example, if we are confronting an issue with someone, we need to be able to express our thoughts and feelings in a way that is clear yet maintains a positive and constructive atmosphere so that we focus on resolving the issue and enriching the relationship, rather than simply off-loading our negative emotions onto that person. One way to do this is to focus on the issue and its impact (rather than focusing on judging the other person) and to be open to learning about the other person’s point of view and exploring possible solutions together.
This means that mediating conflicts also includes being able to ask questions and make it conducive for the other person to open up to you and share their point of view. And this applies not just to mediating conflicts but mediating any kind of communication.
3. Is mediation not a lot like facilitating?
There are many facilitation skills that overlap with mediation, such as the ability to elicit opinions and to guide others towards sharing their thoughts. But where it differs is that mediation (as outlined by the CEFR descriptors) also includes being able to share your own thoughts and feelings in a way that works for the people involved in that conversation. (see my above answer for an example).
Another definition of mediation, in accordance with the CEFR descriptors, is the mediation of a text. That’s when we summarize what we’ve read or heard for another person, or when we translate, interpret or pass on a message to someone else. These mediation skills, I would say, are more distinct from facilitation than the skills of mediating communication and mediating concepts.
4. What role does praising have when mediating?
Praising is a tricky one. On one hand, providing positive reinforcement and feedback can be a good way to create a positive atmosphere and can encourage our conversation partners to open up and communicate their thoughts to us. However, we must also remember that if the praise is not sincere, or not perceived as being sincere (for example, if the praise is perceived as being a disingenuous springboard for criticism), then this strategy could also backfire on us.
Another issue is culture. Different people perceive praise differently. Some people might thrive on praise but others could find it uncomfortable and respond awkwardly to praise. Others might even see being singled out and praised in front of a group as something that causes loss of face.
So, like with many communication strategies, the key is awareness and sensitivity. Everyone is different and as good communicators, we need to be aware of this, maintain a level of sensitivity to how everyone is reacting, and be flexible with how we respond. And the best way to learn to do this is through practice. That’s why it’s important for us teachers to provide students with opportunities to speak in groups and put their communication and mediation skills to use.
5. Are there some simple ways I can make these strategies more appropriate for my lower-level learners? (Elementary, in particular)
Many of these communication strategies and mediation skills can be taught to adult/young adult students of all levels. Their language level might mean that the lexis and grammar used in the critical incidents (the stories) and the tasks they are given might need to match their ability (whilst still being challenging enough), but the concepts and the strategies are still appropriate. You can see this in Voices Elementary (in which there are 12 lessons on communication skills, intercultural skills, and interpersonal skills – one in each unit).
What I have noticed is that when the topic and the task are engaging, relatable, and relevant to the students, they often will find a way to communicate even if their language level is low. This is something I’ve found when using critical incidents – it engages students on an emotional level, as well as on an intellectual level. Students are often so keen to get their opinions across that they’re using all the language resources they have in order to express their thoughts and feelings.
I hope you have a chance of looking at Voices Elementary and see how this is done at a lower level.
6. Can you address the difference between mediating and mediation?
As far as I know, the CEFR documents use both terms interchangeably (e.g. There are three forms of mediation – mediating texts, mediating concepts and mediating communication). The CEFR talks about mediation activities and mediating activities and at this current point, there doesn’t seem to be a clear difference between them.
However, I can imagine that we can make a case for mediating being focused more on the process of how mediation happens and the communication skills and strategies that are required for this process, while mediation focuses on the end result.
7. With role play activities, I struggle with two student types: the introverts, who can be hard to include, and the extroverts, who can dominate the group activities. Any advice?
Role play activities can be tricky sometimes because not all students like to ‘act’. That’s why the roleplays in Voices, like the ones you saw during the webinar, are more ‘guided roleplays’ where students are given a very clear and specific scenario, certain communication strategies or tips, some useful language, and asked to replay the scenario in order to practice those communication skills/strategies. Students don’t have to be dramatic or perform. Students (and teachers) who want to be more creative can certainly take the roleplay further if they want to, but essentially, these ‘role plays’ are mini practice sessions where students can practice those skills in a safe environment.
In some of the communication skills lessons, students are also given the option to use a real-life scenario of their own instead of the hypothetical critical incident. Some call this ‘real play’, instead of ‘role play’. Others call it simulations. Here, students are just replaying a scenario they have encountered or might encounter in their real lives and getting the practice of dealing with it in the safe environment of the classroom before being confronted by them in the real world.
One thing I’ve found helpful is to put students in smaller groups (pairs when possible) and reassure them that this is not a performance and that they don’t have to do their roleplay in front of the whole class. Also, remind students that the aim of the activity is to practice their speaking and to practice those communication skills so that they are ready when things like that happen outside class.
As for extroverts who dominate, this is the reason why mediation skills and communication skill lessons (like some of the examples in the webinar) are so important for them…lessons that teach them to pay attention to the other participants of that conversation, lessons that give them the practice of eliciting opinions from others, lessons that help them reflect on their own listening skills and roleplays that give them the practice of holding back advice and delaying the voicing of their own opinions in favor of focusing on understanding and asking questions.
Like yourself, I’ve seen many students who might be confident and fluent but not particularly good at interpersonal skills or mediating communication. And hopefully, these communication skills lessons in Voices will give us a chance to focus on these areas of communication and help them become better communicators over time.