Letting Students Solve Their Own Social Conflicts

When I was in school, discipline only happened in the classroom.  The teachers would yell commands at us.  In first grade, my teacher used to rap us on the knuckles with a ruler if we misbehaved.  However, recess was a different story entirely.  It was like the wild west.  While teachers were assigned to monitor the playground during these times, they usually stood together and talked.  Kids were left to their own devices on the playground.  Problems were solved through pushing and physical violence.  Once somebody fell down or got a blood nose, the problem was solved.  We used street rules to settle scores.  It worked out just fine for us.  While we learned, over time, that violence isn’t the most effective way to solve our problems, we were able to do so because we had the opportunity to practice when we were younger.  Students today don’t have those chances.  Teachers jump in at the first sign of a problem or struggle.  We are so worried about school violence and bullying, that students rarely learn how to effectively solve problems.  Instead, we’re teaching students to keep their feelings bottled up inside until they explode.  I worry that this culture of being overly proactive takes away the ability to learn and grow.  Students need to struggle and figure out how to solve their own social conflicts.  We can guide and support them, but let’s let them try first, before we jump in and play peacemaker.

Today in my STEM class, the students began working on a group project in which they are researching the positive and negative impacts humans have on the Brook Trout ecosystem.  The students assigned roles to each other and delegated the work.  As the students worked, my co-teacher and I observed the groups.  While two of the groups worked effectively and did not need monitoring, two of the groups really struggled to effectively communicate and work together.  Rather than jumping in and solving their problems for them, we watched and observed.  We reminded the group to use their roles to solve problems.  We wanted the students to figure out how to work together.  We spent the first five weeks of the academic year giving the students strategies to use when working in small groups.  They know what to do and how to do it well.  They just need more time to practice applying these strategies.  So, we didn’t jump in and help them, we let them figure things out on their own.  In every case, the group solved their own problems eventually.

Rather than solving problems for the students and preventing them for learning how to do it themselves, we allowed them the opportunity to practice the skills they will need to be effective global citizens.  Did this take away from the time they had to work on the project?  Yes, but the skill of group work far outweighs any content they could have covered.  If we don’t give them the chance to practice strategies and skills we work on in the classroom, how will we know if we’ve given them what they need to be successful?  How can we assess our students if we don’t ever give them assessments?  In some Asian cultures, teachers don’t interfere in the social conflicts of their students.  They allow the students to solve their own problems.  This has led to less violence and bullying in schools.  It makes me wonder, do we have so many instances of violence and bullying in the US because teachers are so used to solving problems for their students and preventing opportunities for growth and practice?  Perhaps we should take a cue from other countries and think about empowering our students to solve problems.  Sure, things may get messy, but that’s what debriefing opportunities are all about.  Plus, how will our students learn if we don’t let them?  If someone tells you how to tie your shoe but never lets you practice doing it for yourself, will you be able to do it on your own?


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