Performing among peers is never easy. I’ve seen great teachers tremble before a group of colleagues as they speak about an instructional practice they’ve developed. The fear grows out of not finding respect among equals. Academic professionals end up having lots of experience in peer groups, and apprehension about needing to prove ourselves diminishes. We may not care less what our colleagues think, but we’ve learned how to handle ourselves in peer groups.
Our students? Not so much. It’s easy to forget that college courses provide students with new peer experiences, precursors to professional group work. They sit in groups confronted with a task, often one that counts, with little or no experience negotiating roles among equals. They’re used to being told by persons in power what to do and how to do it. Now it’s up to the group. There’s no leader, and there are lots of different ways to proceed.
Personal angst is high. “What will others in the group think about me? Am I as smart as they are? Do they care as much about grades as I do?” It feels like an uncertain, risky situation, heard in their first attempts at interaction—short comments, offered tentatively, long pauses. Those less confident sit in silence carefully gauging the response. Others wonder, “Do I say what I really think before knowing what others think? Can I say and then back away if I need to? Will I lose or gain respect if I keep saying what I think?”
The scenario isn’t always the same, but many of the variations showcase the difficulties students confront as they find their way in a group of peers. And it’s not just in the course-related group work. It happens whenever students need to make a place for themselves in peer groups. Peer pressure isn’t just about conformity, fitting in, and doing what’s expected; it’s the heavy weight that bears down when no one else agrees that your way is a better way or that their proposed action is a mistake.
When I used group exams, I had students write about questions the group missed that they answered correctly on their individual exams. Sometimes they acknowledged a lucky guess, but more poignant were those who reported that they knew the right answer. “I told the group, but I only said it once. The group ignored me and listened to others who stated their views forcefully. I sat there while the group made a mistake; why couldn’t I speak up?” And some folks drift through life afraid to speak up, unable to voice their views, to say how the world looks from their perspective. Or they share what they think only with those who’ve already stated similar beliefs. How do we teach students to speak up when they’ve got something that needs to be said?
Their learning begins with separating the person from the idea. Attacking the person often occurs in lieu of dealing with the idea. The idea stands, but the person takes a jab. It hurts but doesn’t have to be life threatening. If students have learned that the critiques of others that merit attention are those that address their ideas, they can dispense with personal attacks. What they need to consider are responses to their ideas, and those are not assessments of the creativity or intellect of the person. Ideas benefit from examination by others. Often they end up stronger.
Groups are a good place to start helping students learn to speak up—to offer their views, especially when they contain different perspectives. Tasks can be structured so that they cannot be resolved without discussion that includes consideration of a range of options. I’m not a big fan of brainstorming when it excludes critiques of the ideas offered. A bad idea merits reasoned rejection, and learning how to respond when the whole group or single person objects is part of the skill that students need to learn. Most of us have learned (sometimes the hard way) that not all our ideas are equally good. Input from others can reveal their weaknesses.
Unrelenting promotion of an idea, even a good one, becomes an obstacle at some point. When is it time to back down—not necessarily give up on the idea but step back so that the group can move on? Speaking up isn’t an easy skill to teach or, for that matter, to learn. But personal integrity grows out of speaking your truth and not just when it’s easy. A professor once offered me good rule-of-thumb advice: “Think before you speak; but then speak what you think.”