Consensus Techniques for Learning Together

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Genevieve Painter, Legal Studies (home department Jurisprudence and Social Policy)

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2014

What do social movements and classrooms have in common? In both places strangers need to learn to work together, and fast, to accomplish shared goals. The “general assemblies” that happened during the 2011–2012 Occupy movement were experiments in creating flash communities of shared purpose. As a participant at an Occupy Cal general assembly, I saw that consensus decision-making can quickly build trust in a group. This same trust is necessary in a classroom, where diverse students come together to learn. I adapted social movement consensus techniques in “Critical Perspectives on Human Rights,” a freshman reading and composition course I designed and taught. I decentered my authority as a teacher and encouraged students to experience, first-hand, the methods used in contemporary social movements.

On the seminar’s second day, I taught my students the basics of consensus decision-making. Then, I facilitated a consensus process to draft a class code of conduct. My students collectively crafted and committed to rules ranging from punctual arrival to penalties for late homework. As strangers figured out how to govern themselves, I listened, kept a “stack” of speakers, recorded the group’s decisions, and appended them to the syllabus. We had a constitution.

Similar exercises followed. Sorting through masses of research is a key learning objective of the reading and composition seminar. Students reported feeling overwhelmed as they confronted a wealth of sources and ideas in preparing their final papers. What is one way that participatory social movements deal with analyzing an excess of information? Card clustering!

The card clustering technique is simple to facilitate and learn. I assigned my students readings about mass incarceration in the US. In class the students divided into groups of four. I distributed one reading per group, and gave each group a pile of white paper and a marker. Each group met and identified all the “causes of mass incarceration” presented in their assigned reading. After 20 minutes, I asked students to push the furniture to the sides of the room, and we arranged all the cards on the floor. I began the exercise by putting cards with duplicate “causes” on top of one another. At my invitation, several students jumped in, and soon we had removed all the duplicate entries. I asked the class whether anyone saw similarities among the remaining groups of cards. When someone identified a similarity, I moved the set of cards closer to one another. Once we had grouped similar stacks together, I asked the class to identify a summary heading for that group of cards. I wrote the summary heading on a colored piece of paper and piled the cards under it in a stack. As we continued looking for similarities, students started talking to one another, rather than to me, about the analytic distinctions they saw. We reduced our 50 cards to about ten colored summary stacks. I paused the momentum and asked everyone to get up from the floor, move around the room, and look at the cards from a different angle. I asked students to start moving the stacks of cards to represent causal chains or micro- and macro-causes of mass incarceration. At this stage, several students were on the floor moving card stacks around. Lively debate followed about “push” and “pull” factors, and my role turned into mediating conversations between students. At the end of the session, we had collectively diagramed, on the classroom floor, a diagnosis of systemic mass incarceration in the US. We had mapped the readings.

I conduct a mini-evaluation at the end of each class meeting. Students are invited to let me know what worked, what could be improved, and what questions they have about the day’s material. Students were astonished and happy to have been given authority over rules about assignments and attendance. Many enjoyed using card clustering to map literature about a multi- faceted problem, and they learned from summarizing texts, physically pushing ideas across the floor, and engaging directly with one another. I learned that, with a change in format, new students participated, and students expressed themselves in different ways. Critical thinking is important for fostering independence and capacity, both inside and outside of the college classroom. Social movements have changed my teaching, my classroom, and the way my students learn.