We the people

We the people live mostly with cooperation. Society builds up upon interdependence not on competitiveness. Expose children to such cooperative activities by creating a classroom like that. Invite children to run this nation of classroom.

The true assets of any nation, society, or organization are its people. If the above is true for classrooms as well, then this asset has been misunderstood and grossly under used in the business of learning. In fact, one wonders why somebody had to coin the term cooperative learning and “sell” it for schools to take notice.

A look inside the staff room will tell you that we do our best and enjoy what we do when we learn from each other and work together.

It’s ironical that as students we are supposed to work individually, and when we step inside an organization, its HR department spends thousands of rupees training us to work in teams. It’s time we understood that one of the purposes of education is to help build people skills – essential skills not just to succeed in life but also to be happy.

Here are some ways of visualizing the “people power” residing in your classroom.

Children as cooperative teams
Cooperative teams bring different children with different characteristics together to create a positive learning environment. Convert some of your daily learning tasks into team tasks. Make teams of 2-3 children and give them tasks to complete as a team rather than as individuals. However, take care not to convert all the tasks into team tasks. Leave some tasks for them to work on individually. See that you have a mix of the two.

Have small teams of not more than three children because in larger groups you may end up with some kids not participating at all. Design and include specific group activities. For instance, in word construction activities give one child the beginning sounds and another the ending sounds, together they need to make words.

Divide the given task. Tell them specifically what part A does and what part B does. (One child makes the puppet, the other decorates it). Typically, repeat the activity with roles reversed. Splitting work ensures that while each explores both parts of the task, the learning is also reinforced.

Children as teachers
We have a simple saying that the best way to learn something is to teach. So, when you enter a classroom that has 20 children tell yourself, “I am not the teacher of this class, we have 21 teachers and 21 students.” Get one child or a team of children to teach a particular topic to the rest of the class. Get one child or a team to review a topic or activity. Get one child or a team to prepare an assessment test or task for the others (let them even judge). Get a child who is weak (in one subject) to pair with another who is strong (in that subject). Let them help each other learn. The weak child may be strong in another subject, so remember to reverse the roles. Get children to clarify doubts with each other. Get children to check homework, class work, and tests for each other.

Children as consultants
In a training program, somebody asked us, “How do you handle problems in your class of 20 children?” Our response was, “We do not handle any problems. We have 20 consultants in the class to do it for us.”
We’d like to share an anecdote to underline the approach:
Eight 3 and 4 years old had already come for the first session (in a program). The ninth child was crying, clinging to his mother and refusing to come in – purely out of anxiety in having to enter a new place, make new friends, and meet new aunty. I asked the mother to leave and carried the child, wailing, to the class. When I reached the class, I addressed the other eight children and said, “He is crying and does not feel like coming to class. Please help me settle him down.” Immediately, one girl got up, pointed a finger at him and snapped, “Stop crying!” Soon the others too pitched in and finally the child settled down in about 10 minutes.
The point is not that he settled down, but the fact that the kids took the whole initiative and responsibility and learned about social skills.

Getting kids to solve problems is an amazing way to empower them. The trick usually is to involve the whole class. If one child is bullying another, ask all the kids to solve the problem. If the projector is not working, ask the kids what to do. If one child keeps forgetting his stuff, ask all the kids for a solution. If some children are disturbing the others or are not ready to do the activity, ask all of them to solve the issue. One can use circle time as an interesting method, but sometimes merely giving them the problem and asking them to “help me out” is enough.

Children can not only be consultants, but they can also be quality controllers. They can give you vital feedback on the quality of teaching. Initially, expect frivolous feedback, but once they know you are serious, children can actually help you turn your class into the best learning environment. Imagine you have 20 idea generators in your class.You don’t have to agree to and act on everything they say, but you can listen to all their thoughts and value them. Remember, you are building people skills.

Children as part of larger society
A lot of people skills are to do with understanding, relating to, and communicating with “others”. Here, others are people we don’t know, people who are not part of our friends’, relatives’, or peer circles. But these are people integral to our lives – an auto driver, the milk man, traffic policeman, the beggar on the road, the vendor in the bazaar, and so on.
Get children to interview people like the milk man and get information like his name, his likes and dislikes, what he eats, what kind of house he lives in, about his family, etc. Call some of these people to your school and let the children hear their stories, ask questions, etc. Make arrangements for children to go out in small groups (3-5 children) and work with the sweeper on the street, the vegetable vendor who goes around with his cart, etc. Make small films on these people working. Simply use a camera to record the juice wala in the corner, or the cobbler, etc. Finally, make it a rule in your school to call everybody by their names. Don’t call someone a driver. He has a name, “call him Ravi Uncle”. This simple way of respecting people by their names, wishing them every day, appreciating their work, and showing gratitude on a regular basis builds more human quality than moral stories, role plays or shows can ever do.

A lot of people say the world is competitive, but when we look at our day to day lives,we realize that the world is primarily cooperative. We get more when we give, we enjoy more when we share, we grow more when we serve, we learn more when we teach, we feel more important when we make others feel important. Let us soak in these beautiful words of Uncle Shelby (Shel Silverstein)

I will not play at tug o’war.
I’d rather play at hug o’war,
Where everyone hugs
Instead of tugs,
Where everyone giggles
And rolls on the rug,
Where everyone kisses,
And everyone grins,
And everyone cuddles,
And everyone wins.

Shel Silverstein