This week I am blogging from Prescott, Arizona: land of cool breezes, tall pines, and intermittent wireless. Each year I have the amazing opportunity to act as dean for the 3rd through 6th graders at our church’s week-long camp. It is so much fun to see these desert kids experience squirrels and stars and nature for the first time. One of the biggest things I run into each year is helping kids learn how to work together. (And, yes, I am thankful when this is the biggest problem!) The kids aren’t used to solving problems on their own, or having to work with people they don’t know very well – especially when there isn’t a teacher walking around to guide every step. It is really fun to watch them realize that there are a lot of ways to solve problems. Sometimes there’s not a “right” or “wrong” way – they just need to find a solution.
So reading Jordan’s and McDaniels’s (2014) “Managing Uncertainty During Collaborative Problem Solving in Elementary School Teams : The Role of Peer Influence in Robotics Engineering Activity” was really timely!
In this article, Jordan and McDaniel explore how students display, react to, and resolve uncertainty in themselves and others, especially in situations where there aren’t right/wrong answers. They defined uncertainty as any time a student expressed doubt, was unsure of something, or wondered about something. They specifically watched how students express uncertainty to their peers, rather than to a teacher. They found that there tended to be two types of uncertainty: “content uncertainty (pertaining to the problem to be solved) and relational uncertainty (pertaining to interactional challenges and opportunities, including issues of identity related to one’s self and one’s partners)” (Jordan & Mcdaniel, 2014, p. 8).
In cataloging peer responses, Jordan and McDonald found that peers tended to respond in either a supportive or unsupportive way. When peers acknowledged their own uncertainties about the same question or were able to answer the question, it was considered supportive. Other times, peers made fun of the student expressing uncertainty or ignored the question. These were considered unsupportive, which makes sense!
With this in mind, I have been observing how students solve problems at camp. Sometimes these occur during group activities led by a leader. More often than not, though, I hear social uncertainties happening during unstructured times (i.e. free time, meals, etc).
One of the greatest parts of camp is trying new things and making new friends. But for kiddos who have difficulty building relationships, it’s often one of the most troubling parts. Every year there are students like Charlie* and Luis – best friends since forever. Another student, Mark, is also in their group. He is new to church and has really hit it off with Charlie. Yay! Except that Luis doesn’t make friends as easily, and has trouble handling more than one friend at a time. He is very uncertain as to his place in this new relationship dynamic. At times, he expresses himself quite plainly. He asks Charlie if they are still friends, or says to Mark, “I don’t like it that you’re at camp; you stole my best friend.” Inappropriate? Probably. But a pretty clear indication that he is uncertain of his part in the dynamic!
Other times it seems to be more subtle. Luis acts out more than usual, or he says passive aggressive things against Charlie and Mark during group discussions. Less direct, but as I considered “uncertainties,” it seems just as clear to me.
Keeping this idea in mind has helped me to better respond to these group dynamics. There are times that Mark and Charlie are actually really supportive – they want Luis to hang out with them (Luis just has a hard time with two people). Other times, especially as we move later into the week, they are getting more annoyed so their responses are less supportive. They are ignoring Luis or responding with unkind words.
I have found it helpful to reinforce their supportive responses when I hear them. And when I hear their not-so-supportive responses, I can suggest other ways they could be more kind. I have also been able to help identify with Luis why he might be acting this way. Not because he’s mad at Charlie, but because he’s just not sure what this means for his and Charlie’s friendship after camp. When I asked if that might be part of it, his eyes lit up and I could almost see the lightbulb go off. It opened a whole new conversation, and has really helped him in times of subsequent uncertainty.
At the end of their article, Jordan and McDaniel suggest some next steps to consider, and they were right in line with my questions as I was reading. I wondered if anyone has ever tried to specifically teach kids how to express and recognize uncertainties or how to handle it when they recognize it in someone else. It sounds like there have been some studies looking at individual pieces, but there hasn’t been one to see if teaching the whole “big picture” would be helpful in the long run.
In the short term, though, even just helping Luis recognize it is starting to help his relationship with Charlie and Mark!
*Names have been changed
Jordan, M. E., & Mcdaniel, R. R. (2014). Managing Uncertainty During Collaborative Problem Solving in Elementary School Teams : The Role of Peer Influence in Robotics Engineering Activity. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 00(2002), 1–47.