PBL and SEL through Elections

We just finished (at least I think it’s finally over) the presidential election in the United States. No matter what your political leanings, I think that we all could agree that the process in the United States could use some updating (abolish the electoral college anyone?). The amount of money spent on the campaigns this year was around 14 billion dollars, approximately double the amount from 4 years ago. I am sure that money could have been used for something more positive. And in the end we are left with politicians from two parties who seem more interested in preserving themselves than serving the American people. There must be a better way.

American politics is a great launching place for a PBL project focused on “How should we choose our leaders?” From the election process to the appointment of federal judges, there are many things for students to explore. Elections are a rich and relevant topic (I have long been interested in Elections and PBL).

I believe most students Americans have little understanding of how other democracies and elections function around the world and a comparative analysis could lead to students contemplating other options.

One such choice is sortition, the use of random selection in politics. What if we used a lottery to pick all of our political leaders? What if “regular” people ran the government instead of people with allegiances to a party and lobbyists? What might that look like? I can guarantee that we would have more women and minorities represented. Sortition is already used in the random selection of jurists for trials.

Malcolm Gladwell explores sortition in his podcast, Revisionist History The Powerball Revolution. I highly recommend giving it a listen. It turns out that research shows that humans are pretty horrible at choosing good leaders and that a lottery would give opportunity to people who would never enter politics because of the campaign process. Actually being a successful leader is a different skillset from winning a campaign.

Now I am not naive enough to think that we are going to shift from elections to lotteries at the state or federal level in this country. Our history and constitution make it virtually impossible. But what about testing the idea by using a lottery for student council selection in schools? This is what Adam Cronkright has implemented with schools in Bolivia. He facilitates a lottery where anyone who wants to participate is welcome and the winners are selected by chance. Then he helps these students work together to address issues of their choosing.

Democracy In Practice from Democracy In Practice on Vimeo.

What Cronkright has found is that a much wider group of students will participate in a lottery vs. a campaign. More importantly, even as the randomly chosen council begins meeting, he is unable to predict who will end up being the most valuable leaders from the start. His initial instincts are almost always wrong. The students that impress early because of their public speaking skills, often fall by the wayside as shy, quiet students gain confidence and take over in positive ways.

The end result is that students develop many SEL skills starting with self awareness but leading to social awareness and responsible decision making.

Throughout the process, Cronkright and his colleagues coach all students to be successful members of the student council. These students tend to problem solve more substantial issues in their schools, rather than just planning social events. Students improve their communication skills and learn how to negotiate compromises with each other. The variety of the types of students represented leads to a more democratic ideal. Students decide which concerns are most pressing, hear various viewpoints, work out collaborative solutions, and organize to implement them.

The student council is replaced yearly with a new lottery so a wider number of students are engaged in civic work, leading to future citizens who recognize the importance of civic engagement and are not afraid to do it themselves. I highly encourage you to learn more about this process in the links below and to try it out at your elementary, middle, or high school. It is never too early to develop SEL skills and a civic mindset in our students!

Further Research Sites:

Questions? Interested in SEL and PBL workshops or consulting?  Connect with me at  michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele.

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