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Inviting Participation

Paige and Katie are building together with magnetic tiles when Katie runs out of yellow squares and casually reaches over to take one from Paige’s castle. Paige hits her hand away. The swatting motion catches the eye of a teacher wiping down the snack table a few feet away. “Paige!” says the teacher sternly, “We don’t use hitting at this school. We take care of each other. Say you’re sorry.”

Clearly not sorry, Paige says the word and the teacher turns back to the table. In her mind, the situation is resolved, having re-established safety in her classroom. Unfortunately, this well-meaning teacher has deprived these girls of a valuable opportunity to solve their own problem. Too often adults feed children the ‘right answer,’ rather than taking a few extra moments to allow children to think through the issue for themselves, find meaning, and respond in their own way. And thus, a potential moment of learning is lost.

When children run into a tangle, instead of giving them a script that provides all the answers, one might provide better guidance and growth opportunity by inquiring, “How can we make this right?” For young children who don’t have all the words, you might suggest a few phrases to choose from, rather than just demanding an apology. If Paige and Katie’s teacher had dug further into the conflict, not only would she have potentially discovered both sides of the story, but she would have invited the girls to participate in the process, giving them practice with negotiating their way through the big feelings that can quickly arise over a little disagreement. This moment provides a chance to refine communication skills that the girls can take with them into their next experience in this world of limited resources. In a moment like this, at my center, we follow these six steps for peaceful conflict resolution:

By using the classic non-violent communication technique of hearing both sides, paraphrasing, and searching for a mutually beneficial solution, children are honored in their ability to communicate and reason with each other, as well as given the benefit of the doubt that they are capable of using logic to find their way out of these tough moments, rather than just needing an adult to provide a phrase they can parrot and be done with it.

It is so important to help children learn to think critically about the issues they come across in their quickly changing world, and resist the temptation for a quick-fix that our culture so often provides. Feeding a child the ‘right answer’ doesn’t teach them much but obedience, whereas whetting their appetite for learning with the right question opens up the door to answers you never would have dreamed of. My thinking on this belief was greatly deepened after recently attending the Opal School Summer Symposium at Portland Children’s Museum. In a conversation-stimulating speech, their Director of Teaching and Learning, Susan McKay, shared a vision of what school can be, compared to our traditional view of schools:

School is the unique place where we can learn about complexity and get to be friends with it. School is also the place people can learn what it means to participate, because school can be a place where we intentionally focus on what is bigger than we are. If you aren’t making a contribution to something that is changed because of you, it isn’t participation. If a child raises her hand to answer a question you already know the answer to, that’s not participation, that’s compliance….Participation engages us because it’s both a cognitive and emotional experience. This is the kind of embodiment that generates real learning.

But our traditional vision of what goes on in the spaces that we call school is much more limited. Our traditional vision of school attempts to reduce the complexity of personal, local, and global relationships to something linear, something one directional. It kind of tries to tie blinders on our personal experiences, and our personal responses to those experiences. And it devalues the ways in which the exchanges of personal values and assumptions create local and unique group identities. Exchanges between individuals that might create group identity are often tightly controlled with scripted curriculum that asks only questions to which we already have answers. This traditional vision situations meaning in the content, not in the learner, or the teacher, or the relationship between them. In our traditional image of schooling, meaning is not something you make, but something that is distributed…

As a teacher, or even just as a human, do you feel like you have all the right answers? Can you answer every question about life that your students will encounter? If you’re like me and your answer is no, then let us make a point to teach our children to come to us not for answers, but for questions to help them find their own answers. The more that they engage with the questions in their lives now, the more prepared they will be to tackle big questions that loom in the future. It takes a humble teacher to position themselves as one without all the answers, but as a partner in looking for those answers. Bringing that humility to your teaching practice may empower the children in your care to reach more meaningful answers than the words you can supply them.

How can you invite your students to participate more authentically with you in their learning journey?


McKay, S. Opal School Summer Symposium 2018. Retrieved from www.learning/

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