Using the “Community Laboratory” to Build Skills and Aptitudes

By: David J. Smith, February 24, 2016

One of my objectives as a teacher is to provide educational experiences for my students that replicate real world situations.   As an advocate of experiential learning, I believe that change will not take place absent the opportunity to engage in the meaningful application and use of skills and aptitudes. John Dewey argues that it is not just experience, but reflection on experience that is essential for change. As such, providing students not only with the chance to apply learning, but the also with the opportunity to reflect and consider their actions is key.

Educators who focus on skill building with students often develop in-class simulations and role-play activities that permit students to hone their proficiencies in conflict and peacebuilding related areas. Practicing listening skills, experiencing empathy, and applying negotiation strategies can be important objectives of an activity.

But it is difficult to use the classroom to duplicate what goes on in the street.   An instructor is limited to using students as both interveners and role-players, and though students work hard to get “into character” the activity invariably is flawed and compromised.   It’s hard for students to switch from being a student of conflict to one engaged in a situation demanding a solution to a conflict.

Educators might be reluctant to use interpersonal activities in the “real” world.   The reason for this might be the fear of unintended consequences, the absence of the presence of the faculty member to help process the activity, or a belief that it might be inappropriate to engage outsiders in an educational event without their consent.   Because this would not be designed to support academic research, there is not the need to provide informed consent for human subjects, as is standard practice. If the scale of the activity is minor, the concern about consequences is not important, and, if you have students reflect in other ways such as through journaling immediately after the event, there might not be the need for the faculty member’s presence during the activity.

In a graduate class that I teach I have my students participate in a negotiation outside the classroom. I didn’t develop this activity, but inherited it from a colleague who had previously taught the course. I have students, working in pairs, engage in a negotiation for an inexpensive product. Because this is taking place outside of the classroom, students generally complete it on the weekend.

Students tend to select from two environments: antique shops and farmer’s markets. (I discourage students from negotiating homes or automobiles, as this might create the problem of unintended consequences!). For many students, to bargain as part of the shopping experience is an unfamiliar notion.   Most students have been raised in an American culture where bargaining is not a part of shopping: we either pay the price that is offered, or we take our business elsewhere. So for them, it’s an opportunity to think about strategy and approaches to engage with a merchant. I also have a number of international students who are from cultures where bargaining is accepted if not expected. Students have shared that many merchants are taken aback by the effort to negotiate a price. But some merchants are not, particularly those who are owners of their businesses and thus have the authority to set the price of their product. Antique shops and farmer’s market stalls are generally small operations with owners on site.

During the process of reflection with students, which takes place the following class, they share their impression of the activity; considering what worked and what didn’t. More importantly, they consider their feelings and emotions in engaging in such an activity. Students have at times felt guilty about negotiating “down” on the price of something that they were prepared to pay full price on.   Students also at times feel they are insulting a merchant by negotiating a price: they feel, shouldn’t the merchant be the arbiter of the price of his/her goods? This activity gives us a chance to consider the cultural, business, and power dimensions of negotiation. We consider how “value” is set on a product.  It also demonstrates to students how engagement with merchants can be an enriching opportunity where trust and relationships are built and the purchaser comes to better appreciate the product the merchant is offering.

My father would often talk about his mother going to the market 2-3 times per week when he was a child. She was a wise shopper who knew how to get the best price. In earlier times before the modern grocery store, consumers purchased directly from producers – growers and farmers – rather than from “middlemen.”   In those days, relationships were built between the customer and the merchant. The butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker were people that you had a relationship with, trusted, and respected.   As such, you were prepared to accept their assessment of the value of their product, but you also felt you could haggle with them at times without the risk of insulting them.   It was the way business was done, and relationships functioned.   Hopefully, my activity allows students to see the value in consumer/merchant trust building.

More importantly, using the “community laboratory” permits students to learn in real time, reflect, and improve skills and aptitudes. The process helps build their confidence levels, as well as the listening and mindfulness skills valuable in the marketplace, but often dismissed and neglected today.

Published by David J. Smith

I am a career coach, consultant, and head of a not for profit - the Forage Center - that offers humanitarian education training. I also teach at George Mason University and Drexel University. A one time lawyer, I spent many years teaching in a community college where I was a Fulbright U.S. Scholar teaching in Estonia. I'm the author of Peace Jobs: A Student's Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (IAP 2016). I've been married to my best friend for over 31 years and we have two well adjusted adult children who teach me something new everyday. I live in Rockville, Maryland.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: