The art of disagreement

Published Apr 12, 2021

The Jeremy Bloomfield Memorial Scholarship announced by Wellington UniVentures last year was recently awarded to Baptiste Roucau—a Victoria University of Wellington PhD student from the School of Education—who plans to use it to teach children how to successfully navigate disagreements, and build their intellectual and emotional resilience as a result.

The scholarship was created in memory of Jeremy Bloomfield—Wellington UniVentures’ Senior Education Programme Manager, who passed away suddenly in 2019—to create impact in the areas that Jeremy was so passionate about, i.e. education and the environment.

“We were looking for applicants whose educational or environmental research projects showed potential for translation into a product or service that could have genuine impact in the community,” says Dr Anne Barnett. “Baptiste’s project was a good fit and we think Jeremy would be delighted that his scholarship will make a real and positive difference in children’s lives as a result.”

Baptiste says he plans to use the $20k scholarship funding to carry out a pilot project, based on his thesis, at Ridgway School— a co-educational, full primary school in Brooklyn, Wellington.

“The act of disagreeing is essential to identifying problems, providing other perspectives, considering alternatives and making changes,” he says. “However, today’s disagreements on social media and in real life often degenerate into heated arguments with no positive outcomes.”

He says that he is hoping to create immediate impact for the children who take part in the week-long pilot during the school holidays.

“I want them to leave with a much clearer idea of what they think and value, and an improved ability to navigate future conversations—and disagreements—about the things that are important to them. They’ll learn how to be open-minded to other viewpoints—without necessarily having to agree—and how to express themselves with respect.”

“At best, fixed thinking when people disagree about something can leave both sides feeling unheard and upset. At worst, it can lead to wars. If children can learn the art of disagreement when they’re young, it could potentially change the trajectory of their lives and lead to stronger communities.”

Baptiste says that adversaries should not be seen as synonymous with enemies: “An enemy is someone you have to destroy. An adversary, on the other hand, is someone you can engage with based on respect, regardless of whether you agree or disagree.”

In the longer term, French-born Baptiste hopes to use findings from the pilot to create a resource for educators to use in the classroom, both in New Zealand and overseas, and ultimately build a business from his research.

“I have actually always dreamed of starting a business, so it’s encouraging that Wellington UniVentures think my project has potential,” says Baptiste. “It’s fantastic to have already formed a relationship with them, and to have their ongoing support.”

He says that upholding the values of someone he’s never met is something he takes very seriously, and has met with Jeremy’s wife, Christine, to gain a clearer picture of the person he was.

“I feel very grateful for the opportunity that the scholarship has given me to get my pilot project off the ground,” says Baptiste. “So I wanted to make sure that any topics that were important to Jeremy were incorporated into the dialogues that form the training. Christine really helped me with that.”

Over the 2021 summer holidays, Baptiste was able to offer an innovative programme to 31 Wellington-based students aged between 8 and 12. The activities included daily philosophy dialogues and creativity projects, as well as scavenger hunts, street art and capoeira workshops. In addition, Baptiste was able to gather more than 10 hours of audio data that he is now analysing to better understand how children make sense of philosophical concepts like identity and power and how they navigate disagreements about these notions. Baptiste will be writing up his findings and developing educational material for teachers around Aotearoa New Zealand to support more children as they build their emotional resilience.