Prevent Polarization By Helping Students to Make Sense of The World

Michelle Blanchet and Brian Deters on sense-making.

Let's say you are at the store and overhear a child talking to their mother. "Mom, can I have that toy?" The mother swiftly responds, "If you use your own money." 

The child looks to be about five, and you can see the confused look on their face. “But I don’t have any money. Where do I get money from? Can’t you just use your credit card? That always works.” The mother responds, “Maybe later, honey,” and they drop the issue as they go about their way, leaving the child as unaware as they were before.

Imagine, however, if the mother took that opportunity to explain some basics about finances to her child. She might have said that she receives money from working and asked if there were any ways her daughter thought she might be able to earn money (chores or a lemonade stand). At the cash register, she might have had her daughter hold the money and give it to the clerk so the child could experience the transaction that comes from exchanging cash for goods and services. It would be through this sense-making that the child would start to formulate her understanding of how money works.

Children want to know and understand how the world works. Sometimes their questions feel too deep or advanced for their age, so we may avoid them or decide to shield them from reality. What’s the harm, right? But we’re preventing our youth from being the independent critical thinkers we so desperately need. If they are old enough to ask, they are usually old enough to know or at least to be taken seriously.

Sense-making can equip our students with a process to help them navigate the world. Do we want students going through the motions just to get a job, or do we want students to find fulfillment and purpose through their life and work? If we want civic-minded adults, ready to tackle the challenges of tomorrow, the first step is to give space for exploration, to make connections as to how things work, and to understand that situations often change.

To find the thread that unites us, we need to encourage more sense-making. Allowing students to focus on issues and explore policies prevents polarization because it enables them to practice making connections and to understand the consequences that various decisions might bring. By forming an opinion on policies, students can uncover more about themselves, their values, and what’s important to them. Inevitably, these connections are more likely to build consensus than divide and polarize us.

Sense-making facilitates introspection and encourages us to entertain ideas as we try to understand issues. The more students do this, the more they uncover where and how they can do their part, what problems they gravitate toward, their purpose, and the contributions they can make to the world. It is critical for students to have a voice and opinion on the issues that will shape their world, and it’s up to us to help them think deeply and holistically about their roles.

All educators at all levels can play a key role in helping students practice sense-making so they recognize what they care about. Then, when they eventually get to civics class, they’re better equipped to understand how politics connects to the issues they have a vested interest in.

Strategies you can implement right away:

  1. Ask more how and why questions. One way to ensure we’re asking more exploratory questions is to reframe what questions with why or how. These types of questions often encourage us to synthesize information, make connections, and dig deeper into what we are learning.
  2. Allow time for tinker and play. People learn best when they are actively involved, and we know that play engages students in learning, helps them make connections, and generates questions as they gain a deeper understanding. Provide a space where students get to use their voice, practice their skills, and interact with the material. The questions start when students suddenly must use what they’ve learned.
  3. Let students figure it out. Ditch the directions. If possible, give students an assignment with an end goal but minimal guidance as to how they achieve that goal. Create a single prompt that would force them to apply content as they see fit.

If we want to help students discover what they care about and to find their purpose, we must do more to help them make sense of the world. It’s hard to know what problems to solve or the role you might play if you’ve never been given an opportunity to question the world and how it works. Engage students in sense-making and allow them to explore the world in their own way.

Main post image by Pexels from Pixabay

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