Children as problem-solvers
Author: Eric D. Olick
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 10/20/2003
For more than 15 years I have been visiting public and private elementary schools in the United States, (primarily in the New England area), and I have observed many peace education practices, both good and bad in these schools. There is one school, however, that stands out for me as a model for elementary level peace education – the Fayerweather Street School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Perhaps the best way to describe what goes on at The Fayerweather School is to share my first experience visiting an “All-School Meeting.” The weekly “All-School Meeting,” is an opportunity for each class to make a presentation to the rest of the students about something that they are learning or doing. It is a way to foster a sense of school community, and to see the school as a whole, rather than simply as separate classes. At my very first “All-School Meeting,” I observed a class of kindergarten children describing to the rest of the students how they solved a problem that they were having. The students passed a hand-held microphone to one another and each described the problem, the process and ultimately, the solution.
I listened as these little 5-year-olds described how they had recess at the same time as the third and fourth grade classes. One student said, “These big kids run very fast and they play rough.” Another child said, “They are really big and we are small,” and another related, “sometimes it was scary being on the playground with them.” The children continued to describe the problem, and they explained how they eventually brought the problem to the attention of their teachers. They explained how they and their teachers talked about the problem in their class, and how they brainstormed what they could do about it.
After discussing the problem among themselves, the kindergarten class agreed that they would invite the third and fourth graders into their classroom to discuss the problem directly with them. The children continued to pass the microphone to one another, describing how they told the older children what they were feeling – namely, how scary it was to be on the playground with them. They described the broader discussion they had with the older students, and then they explained the solution that emerged from that discussion. They all agreed to go out and “practice playing together.”
The kindergarteners explained how once they got to know the older kids, and once the older kids became aware of the threat that they posed to the younger children, the older kids became much more sensitive to the younger kids, and actually became their protectors on the playground. As one student summed up the result, “Now when we play with them on the playground they watch out for us and they protect us, and it’s not so scary anymore.”
Hearing this story made me realize how often problems like this go unresolved. The most common response to a child telling his or her teacher that older kids are playing too rough, would be for the teacher to tell the older kids to slow down or to be more careful, or gentle. The older kids would probably slow down for a little while (or at least in front of the teacher), but the feeling of fear experienced by the younger children would continue to persist.
I was truly amazed at the lesson these kindergarten children had learned. They learned that collectively, they could take on a problem that was bigger than they were (literally and figuratively), and that through a process, they could change a situation that was threatening to them. They not only learned that lesson, but in passing it on to the other students in their school, they also taught the lesson to others and made it a lesson for the entire school community.
Peace education takes many forms. In the same Fayerweather Street School, I watched children go through a daily ritual of passing a smooth hard ball to one another, saying, “I am passing kindness to Leyla,” and Leyla, in turn, handing the ball to another student and saying, “I am passing kindness to David.” I also observed two boys who were arguing over a toy come running up to a teacher and say, “we need the talking stone right away.” The “talking stone” was a stone that the kids had learned to use as a device to take turns talking with each other to work out their problem in a structured or mediated manner – where the mediator was an object (stone), not a third party.
Peace education in an elementary school setting is like a tapestry that is woven on a daily basis by the entire school community. Rather than being imposed by staff or administrators, it comes from the students, themselves. Educators can facilitate this by giving children the tools, space and freedom to become peacemakers. The goal is for children to see themselves as problem-solvers rather than problem-makers. Every day, countless pedagogical opportunities to teach peace in elementary schools are lost. Schools that embrace peace education not only as a philosophy, but as part of the fabric of the day-to-day curriculum, structure and practice in both the classroom and the school as a whole, are able, over time, to create a culture of peace that transcends the curriculum and stays with the children as part of their identity. When children as young as 5 years of age are learning that they can transform the world around them in positive ways through their own constructive, collective efforts, peace education is working at its best, and its possibilities for making the world a better place, seem bright and endless.
Bio: Eric D. Olick is a civil rights attorney in the US, with an M.A. degree in Teaching English as a Second Language. He has taught graduate courses in Teaching Methodology at the University of Massachusetts, and designed peace education curricula and training workshops. He is currently on leave from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, doing an Internship with the Earth Charter Initiative at the University for Peace in Costa Rica.