Path dependency in class

A few years ago, I had a student who kept walking out of class.

He did this because he’d decided that, in several of the various negotiation scenarios into which I had placed him, his optimal strategy was to literally walk away from the table.

During the semester, he did this about four times, usually to snippy comments from his classmates.

We talked about it a fair bit, as a group, because I felt it was really useful to unpack the merits and demerits of this approach, which I’d not seen before (or since, for that matter).

I was remembering this case the other day, as my current group of negotiation students once again decided to hold a closed door meeting of principals, kicking out most of the class to the corridor outside.

As one student noted in the debrief: “why does this keep happening? Every time it does, it just really alienates people and makes it harder to reach an agreement”.

And that’s my question here: how and why do cohorts get stuck in patterns of behaviour?

Much of it seems to come down to chance: the first instance in both these cases was a product of very localised situations and dynamics, rather than any structural intent of the scenario (which is why both cases are novel to me in the years I’ve taken this class).

However, once used, there is much less friction to using the same gambit again. Importantly, in both these cases there was a pretty clear advantage to the individuals involved in doing it the first time, which probably disposed them to using it again, because it worked so well the last time.

Of course, one-trick ponies only have the one trick, and it’s usually not flexible enough to accommodate a variety of situations (such as you might find in a class on negotiation, for example).

This matters because we all have groups of students and they are prone to such repetitive behaviour.

Potentially that sets up problems for learning and for group dynamics that might be more easily addressed sooner than later.

Three thoughts occur.

Firstly, if you’re finding behaviour that’s well out-of-kilter with past experience, address it directly.

Discuss with students why they did what they did and work through why it does and doesn’t work, so they don’t simply take it as ‘normal’.

Secondly, look for underlying issues.

In both these cases, I’m aware of individual and group issues that motivated the behaviour; issues that need more general engagement and support for all involved.

Finally, bind the experience into your understanding of your classroom.

I love active learning for the variety and uncertainty it generates: the same activity can go dozens of different ways. But it’s also really good to help students appreciate that variety, by bringing your experience to the conversation. Talk about what happened the other year, or the different thing that you’ve never seen before.

That way, you learn, they learn and they understand why sometimes odd stuff happens.

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