Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Conversation about a Castle, A Reflection on Fairness

A group of older preschool children have been working hard to build a castle out of clay.
During our last session in the Studio, the following conversation unfolded.

R.: Excuse me, Susan, Ian, Nina, E., can I make a bridge on that castle?
Nina and Susan say “Yes”. E. and Ian say “No”.

Katie: Why not?
Ian: It goes down.
E.: Because it might fall down.

Katie: Can you show us where you want the bridge to go?
R.: (points to a space across the top of the castle.) Can I make it go this way, E. and Ian?
Both: No!

R.: Why?
Katie: Why?
Ian: No, because that's like a sky.
E.: Because it will fall down inside.

Katie: Maybe you could show us what you want the bridge to look like?
R.: (to me) Can I use your clay?
Katie: Sure
R.: Is it okay if I do something like this? (She draws lines on the clay and holds it up for everyone to see.)
E.: Yes, that's okay.
Ian: No.
R.: Why?
Ian:  no answer
Katie: Well, now we have three votes that say yes, and one for no. If we are voting, it's okay. 

As R. began to draw the lines for her bridge, Ian seemed hesitant as to whether or not to accept them at first. However he began to nod his head and point to other places he thought the bridge could extend to.

This happened over a week ago and continues to resurface in my thoughts. Even in the interaction, I wondered about my words and my influence on the situation, about the values I was upholding in moderating the moment. Specifically, I’m thinking about fairness and all of the possible ways to present a decision or action as "fair."

Why Did I Suggest a Vote?

I suggested voting as a way to answer R.'s question as to whether or not it would be okay about making the bridge. Later, I wanted to analyze why I jumped to using this form of problem-solving rather than allowing the conversation to continue until everyone felt happy with the agreement.

Time Pressure
First, I recognized in myself a feeling of pressure about time. Studio only takes place once a week for forty-five minutes, which means that these children have a limited amount of time to work on their projects each week. Although I knew that hashing out the issue would be very valuable on multiple levels I also worried that if I didn't help to resolve things quickly, they wouldn't be able to make any progress on the castle.
This is reasonable of course, but looking back I wouldn’t prioritize time if I had it to do over again. Next time, I think I’d give the children time to resolve their issues, even if that did mean we would have to wait until the following week to enact our decision.

The Power of No
By the end of the conversation I was unsure whether Ian's continual "no" was rooted in a true aversion to the idea of the bridge or whether it was rooted in the power of saying "no" in the face of so many saying "yes." I wish I had waited to ascertain this and let R. try to work more closely with Ian to try to achieve a compromise before I offered a solution. Even if his ideas had revolved more around power than around the actual bridge question, I would have liked to hear the discussion the children's discussion about this.

The Majority Rules
Finally I knew that these children were familiar with voting and had suggested it as a problem-solving method before. But now I wonder if this was the right way of handling this particular argument.

Is Voting Fair?

Now I wonder why, in a bigger context, this idea of voting rose to my mind (and comes up elsewhere in our school) as a means of solving disputes "fairly."

On the one hand, voting is an essential part of America's political problem-solving system. It is what we hold up as being a fair way of making a single, united decision for a large group of people. Perhaps, because of this, it is ingrained in those of us who grow up here that voting is a fair and just way of making decisions and resolving disputes.

On the other hand, voting compromises the feelings of the individual for sake of the majority. Decisions are reached more quickly without having to appease every dissenting voice. When I think about it this way, voting feels less than fair to me, and it is not the ideal tool I would like to give children for solving their problems.

So, what would I prefer to advocate?
  • I think of the consensus-building exercises we have undertaken as a staff this year, where we have worked together to reach an agreement "we can live with" about issues like the possible adoption of a school-wide playground policy.
  • I think about the ways in which we constantly try to provide children with a sense of their own autonomy in as many aspects of their lives as possible, including decision-making.
  • I think about the fact that, even though there is a necessity for schedules here, there is also a lot more breathing room here than these children may encounter in other settings of their future lives.

I think that I would like to make more space for children to undertake the hard, sometimes grueling process of consensus-building, even at the expense of time and action. I would like them to feel in their hearts that fairness is important, that it can be hard, but also that it is attainable. And I would like to be a teacher who supports them in discovering this. I suppose I have found my new year's resolution!

What do you notice about the conversation I documented?
What perspectives do you have about fairness and problem-solving?

Do you ever find yourself interfering in a similar way, and how do you react in those moments?

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