Several years ago, I watched a news segment on an evening program about how schools and teachers in Japan help teach their students how to appropriately interact with their peers and navigate social issues that arise. These teachers featured in the video didn’t just jump right in, proactively, to solve problems for their students. Instead, they allowed the students to solve their own problems. Yes, they observed from afar to make sure that no one was getting seriously injured, either mentally or physically, but they provided the students the time and space to figure things out on their own. In this day and age of helicopter parenting and extreme allergies to everything, it seems as though caregivers and teachers are very quick to react to situations in order to prevent anything that could be remotely construed as “bad” from happening. While this seems like a good idea to many people as it prevents dangerous or harmful things from happening, it’s actually very dangerous for and harmful to our children. How do they learn to solve social problems that arise if they are never provided opportunities to practice solving them on their own? If parents and teachers are always intervening in situations that occur between students, how will students learn what to do in the heat of the moment? Sure, we can coach them on how to address those situations in the future, but how do we know if they will be able to apply the strategies we’ve provided them with when they are responding from their amygdala? We need to allow our students to try solving their own problems, and see what happens. If things get physical or someone is getting hurt in any way, we must definitely jump in and assist, but other than that, we watch. Then, after the fact, we address the situation with the students involved and provide coaching or positive feedback as needed. Preparing our students for life in the real-world, means helping them to solve their own problems. We are not always going to be around our children or students to tell them what to do and how to do it. They need to figure these things out for themselves. Teachers and caregivers need to give up control to allow their students and children to grow and thrive in meaningful ways.
Today, at the start of my Humanities class, two students, who happened to be table partners, we arguing over a pencil.
“You took my pencil,” Student A said.
“No, I didn’t,” Student B said.
“Yes you did. I need it to write in the homework,” Student A said.
“All you have to do is ask, and I will let you use it,” Student B responded.
“I don’t need to ask to use it because it’s my pencil and you took it,” Student A replied as he grabbed the pencil from the hands of Student B.
I watched, closeby, as this situation unfolded. I didn’t jump in and help. I simply observed as the students tried to solve the problem themselves. After Student A snatched the pencil from the hands of Student B, I waited to see if there would be any retaliation from Student B. Other than a quiet response from Student B about the pencil being his, there was nothing. As there appeared to be no real conclusion to this situation, I was worried that it would boil over into the work period. Luckily, the students are partners for the Globe to Flat Map Project, and had plenty of time together to rectify the situation, if needed. I suggested to one of the students in that group that I would be observing their coexistence and communication during today’s work period because I was a bit concerned by the pencil situation and what might have caused confusion. The student acknowledged what I said and got right to work with his partner. I made sure to check-in with the group on numerous occasions throughout the class period and observed them from afar to ensure their safety. After a quiet start, they worked together as though there was never a problem between them. They were productive, compassionate, and used kind communication while working on the project in class. I was a bit surprised by what happened today in class, as these two students have struggled to effectively coexist throughout the academic year. I thought for sure that they were going to continue arguing while they worked on creating their flat map. Boy did they prove me wrong. They worked together better today, following the pencil issue, than they had for this entire project. I was amazed.
So, what was it that allowed this to outcome? How were these two students who had a disagreement directly prior to the work period able to work together so well? How were they coexisting so effectively? Why weren’t they still angry with one another? What happened? Was today’s result due to the fact that I allowed them to solve the social issue that arose between them on their own? Did that make a difference? I allowed the situation to completely unfold, which meant that the situation had almost ended when they began working with each other again. Were they able to work together effectively because I had allowed the issue to be resolved first? Did that have an impact on today’s result? Was it the weather or something else so random that I’d never really know what happened in the classroom today? While I am far from an expert on any subject, I feel as though I can confidently say that the students were able to be productive during today’s work period because they had the chance to solve the social issue that arose between them on their own. I allowed them to own their actions and the result. I didn’t step in or debrief the situation at all as I wanted to see what would happen later in the period. I allowed life to happen naturally. I didn’t try to control or stop anything. Emotions were high and I let them diffuse on their own. While this approach may not work in every setting, situation, or with every student, it was effective in the classroom today. Perhaps those schools featured in that news clip I watched many years ago were onto something. If we empower our students to solve their own problems, and offer coaching or help only when required or needed, then it’s possible that we will be properly preparing them to live meaningful lives in a global society.