Restorative Practices in ResLife: The Role of Fair Process in Curricular Development

This post is one in a series about integrating Restorative Practices into a model for residential learning.  Start with the introduction as a primer and explore posts on other strategies you can utilize with a restorative lens.

| Introduction | Roommate Agreements | Floor Meetings & Circles | Fair Process

My first exposure to the Curricular Approach to residential education was during my time as an undergrad.  Like many professionals in residence life, I was an RA in my college years, and though I didn’t know it at the time, the booklet of lesson plans I used was a tool to implement a residential curriculum.  Like many RAs, I was busy learning the practical components of my job and didn’t have much interest in theory early on, but I finally learned the theory of curriculum as a rising senior during a summer internship with my housing department.  As part of the internship, I spent a couple weeks working with professionals who broke down the curricular approach and showed me that so much more went into the facilitation guides than met the eye.  During those two weeks, I had some great conversations about how student leaders could best be equipped to implement a curriculum, but one thought I was not brave enough to share was, “I really messed this up the past couple of years…”

What I felt too guilty to share in those meetings is that among RAs, there was a common practice of modifying lesson plans.  I can speak for myself and my friends to say that we never had any intention of devaluing any floor meeting or intentional interaction.  It just felt like there was a gap to fill between the ideal content in the lesson plans and how the strategy would practically land.  Hence, I did some rearranging, trimming, cutting, and pasting to create something that was more practical given what I knew about my residents… but it was no longer outcomes based.

I don’t believe this story highlights the (very mundane) rebellious streak of a few student staff members as much as a common pitfall in curricular development.  If we create learning aims and curricular strategies without involving our students, their implementation may fall flat.  A curriculum with no student involvement, quickly falls into the “to” box rather than the “with” box since instructions are given to student staff members rather than strategies being developed with them.  This may result in students not understanding the content and facilitating improperly, disagreeing with the content and changing it intentionally, or implementing the content as written with the self-fulfilling prophecy that it will be ineffective.

When I’ve discussed this with colleagues who closely follow a curricular model, it sometimes creates a tension with curricular Essential Element 6: “Educators who have expertise, in terms of both content and pedagogy, are utilized to design and implement the desired learning” or sometimes phrased: “Student staff members play key roles but are not the educational experts.”  This element has a lot of merit but may lend itself to misinterpretation or overextension.  Because student staff don’t have the same background and training as professional staff, it’s unwise or even harmful to have them take the lead on designing pedagogy or content on difficult topics, like diversity and inclusion.  However, student staff can and should have a co-creative role in curricular design, as they have a unique position and expertise.  They know their community more closely than professional staff ever will and can speak to the student experience in ways we can’t.  This insight is helpful as we consider when strategies will be effective and how to best engage students.

Fair Process is a component of Restorative Practices to be used when making decisions, closely tied to the idea of leaders working with people rather than doing things to them or for them and can be integrated into the design of both learning aims and curricular strategies.  Fair process consists of three components:

  • Engagement – Hearing the opinions of those impacted by the decision and taking those views into genuine consideration
  • Explanation – Providing the rationale of how a decision was made to those stakeholders, including how feedback was incorporated or why it wasn’t
  • Expectations clarity – Ensuring that expectations are clear moving forward

If Fair Process is observed, individuals are more likely to trust and cooperate with systems even if they themselves don’t benefit from the system.  In curricular terms, this could mean that student staff are more likely to embrace a curriculum they had some voice in creating, but this entails involving students with all three components of Fair Process.

Engagement

There are many tried and true methods of engaging students: surveys, intentional interactions, focus groups, student representation from Residence Hall Associations or RA Councils, or even including RAs on departmental committees.  It’s easy to find ways to engage, but engaging well is more difficult.  While I can’t outline each method of engagement, there are some item I consider each time I engage students:

  • Engagement should be continual: Since students “turn over” every few years simply involving students in early development is not enough.  Simply hearing that your predecessor was involved in decision making doesn’t generate the same buy-in as your own involvement, so building in ways to engage students year after year is key. 
  • Engagement methods should be varied to maximize participation:  If we aren’t intentional in maximizing student feedback, it’s easy to just keep hearing the same voices of highly engaged leaders.  Take note of the folks who are never engaging.  Are they actively disengaged?  Do they not feel like they have a voice?
  • Engagement means genuinely taking views into account: At first glance, this may seem superficial since few collect feedback they plan to ignore.  However, it’s harder to consistently close the loop.  If your RAs are giving feedback during 1-1’s with their supervisor, make sure there’s a system for that feedback to make its way to decision-making spaces.  If you administer a survey or ask a question in an intentional interaction, be sure you have the capacity to process and utilize that data.  If students realize their feedback isn’t being used, they have no reason to continue providing it.

Explanation

When I first started using Fair Process in working with students, some colleagues and I made the mistake of putting all efforts into engagement and neglecting explanation.  My committee regularly sought feedback, and I was reading and summarizing that feedback into action items for the committee monthly.  One of the main themes was that RAs didn’t feel connected to their residents, so we adjusted by shifting focus away from certain strategies to put more emphasis on intentional interactions.  

To us, it seemed like an obvious solution based on RAs’ feedback, but upon implementing that change, the RAs nearly revolted.  While it took a lot of conversations – including a couple of circles – to restore trust and understand what happened, ultimately, we learned there was a misunderstanding on how we engaged RA feedback.  Many RAs perceived the change as an increase in workload and assumed we didn’t trust them to connect with their residents.  While we eventually clarified the change and ended up in a better place, a little explanation on how we engaged the feedback would have saved a lot of time.  This is of particular importance when changes you make aren’t directly in line with the feedback provided.

Expectation Clarity

At face value, expectation clarity might be the simplest of the three elements; it’s about making sure everyone knows what is expected of them after a decision is made.  However, expectations may require more nuance in an outcomes-based model.  It’s easy enough to provide student staff a checklist of requirements, and this is often necessary to hold staff accountable.  For example, over the course of a semester, a student staff member may need to hold a few floor meetings, support a building-wide event, have an intentional interaction with each resident, put up three bulletin boards, and facilitate roommate agreements.  From a supervisory standpoint, it’s vital a staff member knows each of these tasks, their deadlines, and how they’ll be held accountable should they fail to satisfy these job responsibilities.

That said, reducing a curriculum into a list of tasks for a student staff member may begin to undermine the learning aims.  If we lean too heavily into the checklist mentality, the strategies may feel more like tasks to be executed rather than learning experiences we offer.  Clarifying not only job expectations but the learning aims allows focus on both the tasks and the outcomes.  While this can be done to some extent in a well written facilitation guide, it also can involve good training and continued conversations with a supervisor around the value of student learning.

Keep an eye out for Part 2 of this exploration of Fair Process that will offer more tangible examples of implementing Fair Process in designing and assessing a curriculum.

Key Questions:

  • Where in your department do you see opportunities for Fair Process to be used when making decisions?
  • In what ways are you already engaging student voices?  Do these methods of engagement garner a diverse set of voices?
  • When engaging students, do you consistently take those views into account genuinely?  If not, what barriers exist to hearing all feedback?
  • What forms of communication can you utilize to ensure there’s opportunities for explanation and expectation clarity?

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