Peer Mediation Keeps It Real
I recently saw the grass-roots movie phenomenon "Race to Nowhere." The filmmaker, Vicki Abeles, describes it as a "call to mobilize families, educators, and policy makers to challenge current assumptions on how to best prepare the youth of America to become healthy, bright, contributing and leading citizens."
Though it has its faults, "Race to Nowhere" does highlight the undeniable shortcomings of our current education paradigm. In particular, the movie catalogs the toll--emotional, physical, psychological and even intellectual--that our so-called "high-stakes" approach to education takes on young people.
Students in the movie describe school as a kind of onerous game: memorize what teachers want you to know, spit it back in the form they require, and you "win."
Win what? A good grade and the ability to take another small step on the "race" to gain admittance to the good colleges that will enable you to get a good job.
Many young people experience school as a hyper-competitive, high stress environment, one characterized by too much rote learning, too much homework, and too much testing.
Students are rarely asked to think critically about what they learn, to synthesize information in new ways, or to be creative. As a result, many have little interest in or appreciation for what they are "learning."
A few days after watching "Race to Nowhere," I visited with a group of experienced high school peer mediators to conduct an advanced training.
I began by asking them to share their recent experiences as mediators: the cases they had mediating, the challenges they faced, and what they wanted to learn.
The contrast between the students in the film and the ones before me was striking. The student mediators were engaged and excited. They were committed to this form or service, and motivated to do what was necessary to improve their skills.
This got me thinking: What sets mediating apart from the typical activity in American classrooms?
Here is what I came up with:
Mediating is Anchored in the Real World
Though we tend to use the word "drama" pejoratively these days--"There is too much drama in this school"--mediators' work involves "drama" in the best sense of that word: a "real life event or situation that is particularly exciting and emotionally involving." Mediating is concrete, focused on flesh and blood, on human hopes and fears, rather than on abstract ideas.
Mediating Makes a Difference
The skills that peer mediators learn and employ enable them to have an immediate, positive impact on their world. Disputing students enter the mediation room angry, and with the mediators' assistance, they usually leave feeling much better. This provides student mediators with a quality of engagement that is often lacking in school.
Mediating is "In the Moment"
Mediators' central question is: "How can we help the people before us, who are in obvious discomfort now, find a more satisfying way to live and learn together?" Mediating is concerned with the here and now, and, like participating in a basketball game or playing an instrument, is done primarily for its own sake. This contrasts sharply with the long-term focus and competitive context of much school work.
Unfortunately, peer mediation efforts are a casualty of the same "high-stakes" approach to education that is lamented in "Race to Nowhere." There is not enough time, and increasingly in this economy, not enough money. Many schools are quietly shuttering their peer mediation efforts, sometimes closing programs that have been in continuous operation for more than a decade.
If modern schooling is indeed a "race," peer mediation enables students to stop for a moment--not to smell the proverbial roses, but to passionately, and compassionately, engage with the world around them.
Don't we need more of that in our schools?
Please share your thoughts...