Consensus for Kids

Our Destination Imagination team is in the thick of it now, making decisions about our team challenge.  Last year’s challenge tested our engineering skills with newspaper and tape.  This year’s challenge is really putting our collective decision making skills to the test as the kids have to imagine their own skit about a bug’s bad day.

After much consideration and some hearty debate, our "big bug" will be a bumblebee.

I’m not always perfect at consensus, but I like working with it.  Between working under Quaker process for many years and having been schooled in grassroots organizing as part of my master’s thesis research, I like to think I know at least a little about leadership and consensus building.  Of course, it’s one thing with adults and something else altogether with 5 and 6 year olds.

I think the same rules still apply, even if the kids need extra guidance.  When our DI team has a decision to make, I turn to consensus.  Here’s what I do:

  • I ask the kids to brainstorm and I put lots of ideas on the board, sometimes with doodles for the non readers.
  • OR… I ask them to begin with their best idea.  Adults often sift out their ideas for the “best idea” and advocate it, but younger children sometimes just want all the thoughts they have to be heard, without any consideration for which one they like the best or think will actually work well, so this question helps them focus their thinking.
  • I ask the group which ideas they could get behind.  They can vote for all the ideas, or just one, but it’s essentially a question of which options could you live with.  Sometimes this is a show of hands and it would need to be in a large group.  Sometimes it’s just a noise level vote as we go down the list and kids twitter or nod with yeses and no ways.
  • I erase the ideas that didn’t have any or much support.  This step always knocks out a large number of things the kids have mentioned – if only one kid, or even no kids – want to stand behind an idea, then it’s usually obvious even to them that it won’t work.
  • BUT…  Before I erase something or mark it as out, I always ask the group again.  “It sounds like this idea is out.  Is that right?”  Typically, the kids just nod.  Occasionally, there’s a sad noise emitted that someone’s idea has bit the dust, but the kid lets it go.  Every once in awhile, a kid insists that an idea stay in the running, so I leave it there.
  • If there are still a lot of ideas left, then I repeat the above, seeing what has the most support and what has very little, then knocking out those ideas.
  • I point out which ideas had the most support and may circle them or put a mark next to them.
  • I ask the kids to talk about the ideas with the most support or take a vote just between those.  Sometimes, the kids waiver.  They’re often pretty fickle about it at this stage.  I don’t let them discuss for more than a minute or two though.
  • I point to the idea that seems to have the most consensus by saying something like, “It sounds like this idea is one that most people like.”  Sometimes they agree and it’s chosen or they disagree and another idea is chosen.
  • BUT…  If they don’t agree, we talk some more about it.  Sometimes a compromise is suggested, such as a way to combine the ideas or another idea altogether.
  • If they’re not doing it already (they usually are), I get everyone to really listen to the objections of anyone holding out against the group.  If the kids don’t (they usually do), then I suggest ways that the hold out kid can pick something else.  There’s bargaining and discussion about what will work best for everyone.
  • We usually don’t stop until everyone agrees, even if it’s not their first choice.  I know that sounds nigh on impossible for such young kids, but I swear it works.  And the more often that I do it with them, the better they get at doing it with each other.

Overall, the most important thing I’ve found is to keep the process moving.  Deciding something, even something contentious, shouldn’t take more than fifteen minutes at most, twenty if the group is new to the process of reaching consensus.  And once something is decided, unless there’s a reason, then I strongly encourage them to stick to their decision.

This is one of the skills that Destination Imagination really teaches if you let it.  In my mind, it’s far and away better than any type of social education they could ever get in most schools, which is why I think the program is perfect for homeschoolers.  It’s also one of those life skills that I hope one day (a long way down the road) will help them, whether they’re team teaching, working in an engineering group to fix a problem, arguing policy in a political office, or working in a hospital with colleagues to help a patient.

3 thoughts on “Consensus for Kids

  1. Last year, the max, which is 7. This year, 6, though the younger siblings often need to participate in our meetings. But I’ve done this process with slightly larger groups and had it work fine. I would propose though that the size of a group that can learn to work with consensus is proportional to their age. I wouldn’t want to try it with 5-7 year olds (like our team) in a larger group than 12-15 kids, but I would feel fine doing this with older kids in a somewhat larger group.

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