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The Art of Compromise  Lessons from Sixth-Grade Social Studies

by Lars Kuelling, Academic Dean

Talk, communicate, and compromise.

Everything that we need to know about effective teamwork rolled up into four words, and it was all being learned by sixth-grade students in Raj Singaravelu’s social studies class as they went about a collaborative activity.

Mr. S recently focused his classes on active learning across disciplines by tying his materials to Anneke Nordmark’s science classes. Rather than a stand-and-deliver lecture about the ways in which cyclical flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates promoted a sedentary lifestyle and the emergence of agriculture, cities, and a class-based society, the class spent most of their time “at play” with an erosion table in the Baron Greenhouse.

There, the class doubled down on their environmental studies in science class, working in groups to describe the soil quality, identifying the different parts making up the soil, and experimenting with different models for irrigating fields during periodic floods.

Inquiry-based Engagement

The level of student engagement was evident as students burrowed their hands into the loamy soil, squeezing the sandy, silty mixture between their fingers as they watched their “fields” flood with water.  

Over several iterations, students observed how the placement of a canal opening relative to the flow of the water could lead to flooded or parched fields and control erosion – was it best to have an opening at an angle to the river or perpendicular to it and how could the linking of several irrigation canals affect the quantity of water and the minimization of erosion?

At the same time as Mr. S guided student discovery, he consistently, intently, focused on developing the skills of team-work and collaboration in his students.

While the inquiry-based learning approach served to engage his students in some joyful learning, it was Mr. S’s focus on the importance of cooperation that piqued my interest.  

“Here’s the deal. Before we start, you’re going to work together and come up with a plan. You need a plan before you get started,” he said as he introduced the sand table experiments.

Just as the students prepared to head off to their groups to devise their plans, Mr. S hit them with a reminder that resonated deeply with me: “Talk, communicate, and compromise.”

Here’s what I think Mr. S was saying with each word:

  • Talk – “Participate, offer up ideas, get things out on the table – be a contributor.”
  • Communicate – “Listen, probe with additional questions, re-state what you think your group member said – hear what they have to say and work to understand each other’s point of view.”
  • And – “Don’t just do one or two of these items, do them all.  They all matter in finding a workable plan.”
  • Compromise – “We all need to come away feeling that we have contributed and that others have taken our ideas into consideration.  We’re not working from a win/loss basis, but from a win/win perspective.”

And, here’s why this is important: in a time with a great deal of polarization, Mr. S’s lesson in teamwork and collaboration reinforced the value of finding common ground, of participating, of listening, of finding a way for both sides to be a part of the process.  

That’s the art of compromise, and I’m glad Mr. S is teaching it so clearly!