To agree or not to agree? Working towards consensus under conditions of mutual respect
Dr Eugenia Tzoumaka
What is the idea?
Echoing the thoughts of Volk (2019) on the ways democratic engagement can be developed during academic studies, as well as the current trends in employability, this chapter presents an active learning idea that cultivates the ability of students to work towards consensus under conditions of mutual respect.
This exercise is ideal for, but not limited to courses where group work is moderately or heavily incorporated, i.e. a term group-project, or group participation in a simulation game.
The idea builds on the rationale of the traditional team-building scenarios, the purpose of which is to develop collaborative skills, but in the proposed activity the focus is on whether consensus has been reached and whether mutual respect has been maintained.
Why this idea?
The present idea is linked with two important objectives that are beneficial for students: the acquisition of soft skills relevant to their employability, and the democratic skills. Such skills enhance students’ ability to argue, debate and reach consensus in a mutually respectful manner that is characterised by care, community and trust (Lloyd, 2008).
A dominant view of employability is the one that focuses on the skills potential employees attain, with the “soft” skills, i.e. teamwork, communication, etc. becoming increasingly prioritised by both employers and university students (Andrews & Higson, 2008; Kyrousi et al., 2022; Ritter et al., 2018). Moreover, universities are urged to cultivate “skills of political deliberation” that will allow current students and future citizens to at least understand the difference between democracy and authoritarianism or illiberalism and be able to preserve it (Volk, 2019).
For this chapter, respect and consensus are defined as follows. Respect denotes the treating of a person as equal “regardless of [their] social position, individual characteristics or achievements, or moral merit” (Dillon, 2018). In the classroom environment, mutual respect could translate as (a) the student body valuing all its members, (b) being considerate of their feelings, and thus (c) not making fun of any member (Patrick, Ryan,& Kaplan, 2007). Consensus, is one of the two alternatives for reaching an agreement, with the second being the compromise, namely consenting to a decision without actually agreeing or endorsing the outcome. Consensus, contrarily to compromise, “is a situation where the agents adopt the final outcome as their own position on the matter in question”, they internalise because of a fruitful argumentation (Martini, Sprenger, & Colyvan, 2013, p. 881).
How could others implement this idea?
The idea under discussion was aimed at the students of a Level 5 validated course in Sports Marketing, the first assessment of which, bearing 60% of the final grade, includes a group project, namely a live-assessment marketing plan and a group presentation. The self-selected or else assigned team might comprise up to four students.
It is clear that working in groups, negotiating, communicating and reaching consensus for a good number of disagreements that arise, while simultaneously maintaining mutual respect has proved very challenging for students. The instructors rarely get a formal notification on those challenges, because the group work on the project is mostly not visible to them either; they mostly lack hard evidence regarding conflict and disrespect. They shall thus look for ex ante cues and be able to distinguish between group work challenges (the four stages of team creation) and indications of disrespect. Students might not explicitly “accuse each other” in discussions with their instructors, but they may (1) show lack of intimacy or close relationships as a group, (2) approach the instructor individually, for questions and inquiries, (3) deliver poor quality work in formative assessments, and/ or (4) exhibit confusion regarding the guidelines, the roles within the team, etc. Those shall be interpreted with caution, still cannot be definitive cues.
The idea relies on creating opportunities for visible group work, employing a modified version of the classic survival game, which remains a seminal team building game, due to its simplicity and appeal. A workshop on the assessment is organised, in which the instructor briefly presents the assessment topic and guidelines, the group work requirements and the concepts of respect and consensus. Then the workshop concludes with the active learning activity described below:
The participants are split into groups of maximum four (4) members and each group is given a scenario, an imagined situation, where they are lost and they need to work as a team in order to survive (For more see the resources).
They are then given 15 to 25 minutes to (a) choose 5 out of 21 items within a list, or (b) list 12 items in order of importance for their team to survive (for more see the examples of scenarios). In any case, only the five top choices are scored.
The students need to first note down what they would decide if this was their individual decision, the items that they would select.
They then engage into a discussion with their peers, which shall conclude to the final group decision, and note the items that the group will select.
After the time expires, the instructor will ask the groups to present in-class explaining their final decision and the reasons why this was the best decision.
The students will then be provided the answer sheet, with the awarded points for each item. They will be given 5 minutes to award points to each team’s top five choices according to the numbers and calculate their individual and group score. The lowest score wins (and survives).
Each individual will then be given up to two minutes to reflect on the following: “Was the group score higher than their individual score and why?”
During this exercise the instructors need to go native, explore student aptitudes and attitudes and reflect on those after it is finished. The instructors shall use the activity as the departure point to introduce the students to the key concepts, i.e.consensus versus compromisation. While discussing the outcome of the game students understand if they consented or compromised with the group decisions and are challenged to reflect on what they could do differently. What shall be also discussed is the concept of respect. Did they act respectfully while arguing? What was not respectful? How do we show respect?
Transferability to different contexts
The current idea emphasises students’ ability to work towards consensus under conditions of mutual respect. To do so, a modified version of the classic survival game was employed within a Level 5 Sports Marketing course. This was the students’ first marketing course, which translates to very limited marketing knowledge and minimum experience in group work.
The idea can be applied within any disciplinary context that requires group work, because the scenario is not tied to a given scientific field. It may be useful both at the undergraduate and graduate level, because the group interaction differentiates the outcome. So even if the players know the rationale of the game, the questions posed will challenge them into different avenues. Finally, while face-to-face interaction is optimal, the activity could be exercised online, through break out rooms, but it is expected that in the latter mode part of the interaction might be missed out on by the instructor.
Links to tools and resources
Examples of scenarios to be used as in-class exercises:
- Insight. (n.d.) Lost at sea – A team building game https://insight.typepad.co.uk/insight/2009/02/lost-at-sea-a-team-building-game.html
- Whiteman Air Force Base. (n.d.) SURVIVAL A Simulation Game https://www.whiteman.af.mil/Portals/53/documents/AFD-130408-063.pdf
Andrews, J. & Higson, H. (2008). Graduate Employability. ‘Soft Skills’ Versus ‘Hard’. Business Knowledge: A European Study. Higher Education in Europe, 33(4), 411-422. https://doi.org/10.1080/03797720802522627
Dillon, R. S. (2018). Respect. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy in Zalta E.N. (ed.). https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2018/entries/respect/
Kyrousi, A.G., Tzoumaka, E., & Leivadi, S. (2022), Business employability for late millennials: exploring the perceptions of generation Z students and generation X faculty. Management Research Review, 45(5), pp. 664-683. https://doi.org/10.1108/MRR-04-2021-0328
Lloyd, M. (2008). Mutual Respect: Implications for Classroom Effectiveness. Masters in Teaching Program 2006-2008: Teaching the Child in Front of You in a Changing World (pp. 161-170). https://archives.evergreen.edu/masterstheses/Accession89-10MIT/2008MITMastersProjects.pdf
Martini, C., Sprenger, J., & Colyvan, M. (2013). Resolving disagreement through mutual respect. Erkenntnis, 78(4), 881-898. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10670-012-9381-8
Patrick, H., Ryan, A. M., & Kaplan, A. (2007). Early Adolescents’ Perceptions of the Classroom Social Environment, Motivational Beliefs, and Engagement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(1), 83-98. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-06188.8.131.52
Ritter, B. A., Small, E. E., Mortimer, J. W., & Doll, J. L. (2018). Designing Management Curriculum for Workplace Readiness: Developing Students’ Soft Skills. Journal of Management Education, 42(1), 80-103. https://doi.org/10.1177/1052562917703679
Volk, S. (2019, August 1). Where Does Democratic Engagement Fit on Your Syllabus?. Great Lakes Colleges Association/Global Liberal Arts Alliance. http://glcateachlearn.org/where-does-democratic-engagement-fit-on-your-syllabus/
Figure 1. Group of people playing musical instruments by Tima Miroshnichenko is used under Pexels Licence