Learning Objectives for the Big Lessons, Part 1

If moments of conflict are teachable moments;If times of trouble are we learn the big lessons;

Then it stands to reason that we should be very clear about our teaching and learning goals for these moments.

What exactly is it that we want students to know and be able to do when faced with a bully? When arguing with a friend? When irritated with a teacher? When angry?

And how do we work within the context of trouble to help students get these lessons.

The first thing to do, it seems to me, is to define very clearly what are the learning objectives for these moments. That’s what this post is about, and we’ll get to it presently (in part 2, actually).

I propose that learning objectives for these teachable moments meet at least three criteria: authenticity, visibity, and particularity.

1. The Criterion of Authenticity: The concepts and skills embodied in the learning objectives must be reality-based. While step-by-step formulas for practicing communication skills are important, we should not waste students’ time teaching methods that are so formulaic as to be inauthentic. And there are plenty of awkwardly formulaic approaches on the market. But students won’t go there. They will, however, use methods that snap, that express the energy and enthusiasm of youth. They will use methods that are congruent with youth culture–in whatever form it appears in their particular circumstances. And there is a great deal of positive energy emanating from youth culture, including methods of conflict resolution. What can we learn from our students?

There are effective and powerful formulas out there, and I not saying we should not use them. I myself rely upon a version of the “restorative questions” as they have been articulated by IIRP and others. What is important is that we find formulas that can readily be internalized so that their expression does in fact become natural, and is seen as natural by others. Otherwise, attempts to implement formulas will meet with little success.

2. The Criterion of Visibility: Whatever it is that want students to know and be able to do, we must be able to model–visibly, routinely, so students can learn by observation and emulation (arguably a more effective method than learning by curriculum). It does no good to try to teach students methods other than the ones we ourselves use.

We cannot with integrity prescribe a path that we are not willing to walk; and that we do not in fact walk in our daily lives. And this is a huge challenge: if we are honest with ourselves we have to recognize that many of us are not particularly skillful with conflict resolution. In fact, much of our “successful” negotiation of conflict with colleagues amounts to conflict avoidance. When we ask our students to do something we are not ourselves willing to do, we are not offering an authentic alternative. Instead, we are modelling hypocrisy.

A typical response of students who are in a serious conflict leading to a fight is to find a place where no adult supervision is present; there, they can act out their conflict, as they see it, free of interference.

Likewise, a mirror image of this behavior exists among adults. A typical standard of professional behavior in a workplace is to conceal conflicts between staff from students. It is viewed as inappropriate to let students know when divisions exist among staff. While there are good arguments for this, it is also true that this habit of concealment links the presence of conflict to a sense of shame.  The implicit messages are: “we must pretend that conflict does not exist” because “to be in conflict is a mark of failure.”

Where in this picture is the opportunity for intergenerational transmission of wisdom?

I’m not advocating that staff should be shouting at each other willy-nilly in the hallways, but perhaps there is room for developing a protocol whereby some types of staff conflict can and even should be managed before the eagerly learning audience of students. And the audience will be eager. There is a saying that learned from reading a right-wing blog: “If you want to draw a crowd, start a fight.” The element of truth in this should not be dismissed.

So here’s a hypothesis: it might very well be just as effective, or even more effective, to conduct conflict resolution training with staff as it is to conduct it with students. Almost certainly it would be helpful to train staff first, and to work toward a culture among staff of creative, rather than suppressed and simmering, conflict management. Do we take this challenge seriously enough to do so? Is anyone aware of schools where this is happening in a significant way? I would like to know; I want to visit and observe and learn from them.

3. The criterion of particularity: The learning objectives of the “teachable moment” must support forms of pedagogy that, by their very nature, are improvised to fit the moment, expressed on the fly, brief, transitory, and creative. What I mean by this is that when we observe, say, an incident of bullying, we should be able to call to mind the learning objectives we have agreed upon, and figure out how they apply to both bully and victim. There may be different objectives for each. Then, holding these objectives in mind, we should be able to nearly-instantaneously craft and implement a teaching response that fits that particular moment, that particular circumstance, those particular kids.

What I am advocating is a departure from the approach of teaching a conflict resolution curriculum in the classroom and then hoping that students will use it appropriately somewhere out there in real life. I’m sure that these methods have some moderate success. But it seems to me that it would much better to leverage the opportunity inherent in actual situations, as they occur, to help students discover the lessons in their conflicts.

This may sound difficult, but I suspect it is much less so than we might expect. It is exactly what restorative practices are about. There are simple, easily learned methods available to teachers and administrators and parents and supervisors. While somewhat formulaic, these methods are nevertheless highly adaptable and readily implemented. Their brilliance is in part due to their particularity: they seem somehow to always fit the moment, circumstances, the involved persons.

In part 2 I will articulate my view on a possible set of learning objectives for those on-the-fly lessons we can help bring forth when we observe real-world incidents and enter into to the fray as educators.  



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