Most, if not all of us have experienced at least one difficult situation in our lifetime, and there are two ways we can respond to these unwanted experiences. We can sit around and complain, or do something to reconcile the situation. Recently, a group of my students were sitting in class complaining about the cold draft that they had experienced in their room. The conversation soon grew old because all I was listening to was a bunch of complaining. It quickly dawned on me that my students didn’t know how to approach the situation from a problem solving perspective. It was as if nobody taught them how to solve complex real world scenarios, or in the very least, my students didn’t internalize the process and needed some help organizing their approach.
After listening to the circular conversation for about five minutes, I had decided that I had had enough and was going to do to something to help my students solve their problem. During that class, we had an impromptu discussion about problem solving and the outcomes are worth noting. Upon reflecting on the classroom experience, I determined that each group of students transitioned through 5 different steps in an effort to solve their problem. After equipping my students with the necessary information, I encouraged them to take it a step further and present their findings to the folks in our residential life department. I will keep you updated on the progress of these proposals in future posts.
Step #1 – Identify the problem
In this situation, my students were talking around in circles, and they hadn’t clearly defined the problem. After a bit of discussion, my students came to the conclusion that the primary concern was the draft of cold air coming in the room, not the heating system. Although the class had solved the primary concern, and secondary issue was also unearthed. Unfortunately, my students felt as if their concerns were not being heard by the administration, and this got me to thinking about their tact. Why did my students feel like they were not being heard? What was the message they were communicating to those in authority?
Step #2 – Identify the solution
Winter is tough, especially if you live in New England and have windows and doors that let in the cold draft. I know I can empathize with my students. Most of the students in the class had a few great ideas, but there were too many voices trying to be heard at once. After a few minutes of disorganization, I split the class into two “project management” groups. In these groups, the students would discuss possible solutions, and potential downfalls of each. Cost often played a factor in their solutions, which prompted several students to call Home Depot for a price quote.
Step #3 – Draft a proposal
When dealing with an uncomfortable situation, it is important to identify the people who can help reconcile the issues at hand. In this scenario, the student’s complaint was directly tied to their experience in the residential hall, I encouraged them to draft a proposal and prepare to present their solution to a representative from the student development office. To ensure the students created a comprehensive proposal, I asked them to include 2-3 possible solutions in their final draft. Each proposed solution was expected to contain a brief summary, and a breakdown of any expenses that would be incurred. One group even broke down the total cost, and determined what it would cost each resident if they decided to chip in to cover the expenses. Each group was also asked to prioritize their requests to ensure that they were comfortable with the outcome.
Step #4 – Follow through with the plan
Now the waiting game begins. Will my students follow through with their plan? I hope so, but the proof will be in the pudding. Most of my students left the classroom feeling empowered, respected, and ready to take on the world.
Step #5 – Assess and try again if necessary
Failure is inevitable, and we will all experience it at some point in our life. My students must learn how to embrace their failure so they can adapt to the situation. Failing at something only means that you need to take another approach. Failure is not an assessment in a person’s intelligence and worth. Please remember this!
While I think my students learned a lot of valuable lessons from this classroom experience, my experience may have been more profound. For example, I may need to teach my students how to channel their passion into a set of action items. This transformation is not an easy task, but integrating social justice pedagogy into my curriculum is a great way to start. Integrating activities that promote social change into a learning environment will increase motivation and a student’s willingness to engage in the discussion. Addressing issues that matter to our students is important, and I hope to continue addressing social justice issues in all of the courses that I teach. Especially the math courses!