Soon after I began attending Print Group
meetings I heard someone ask, “are you going
to block consensus?” When I asked what was
happening someone whispered, “we practice
anarchy here.” Immediately I expected a
group with no structure, no organization, and
no action. Contrary to my expectations the
group accomplished a lot.
As I participated in more groups at the IMC, I routinely
discovered how the anyone-can-join philosophy and the
consensus-voting format enabled a kind of decision making
that I had never witnessed in academia, the cooperative
housing organization where I live, or the supposedly
grassroots movements I had joined. In my previous experience,
differences were often shut down rather than built
upon. When voting we were left with winners and losers
(all those in favor say ‘aye’), little understanding (“You can
spout off for the next 5 hours and my opinion will not
change”), and a tendency for issues to resurface. At the
IMC I was participating in a dialogical process whereby
participants could seek to understand and to be understood,
with unforeseen higher-level solutions to differences
often arising from the dialogue.
Given my excitement to have finally found a less hierarchical,
less bureaucratic, grassroots practice, I was eager
to share this approach with others. Alas, others were not
as excited as I. “The only reason consensus works for your
group is because you all think alike” or “you are a small
group” or ” you have more time than those of us in the
Indeed, we do have many comparable values like harmony
(not avoidance of conflict, but collective over competitive
solutions). But we do NOT always agree. We
believe that the dialogical process inherent to consensus
decision-making can bring harmony about: differences are
explored without categorizing views as inferior or superior.
Since such exploration inevitably spawns creative
prospects, we respect the time that the dialogical process
takes. We are not interested in efficient decision-making that
ineffectively fits the people we represent: that would not be
grassroots. Although a looser concept of time likely
smoothes this process, one should not assume that we ignore
time. Papers must be published. Grants have deadlines. Bills
must be paid. Meetings must end. Instead, group members
save time by searching for the intentions behind proposals
and rephrasing proposals so they fit the intentions of all.
Obviously this will be easier to accomplish in a group
of eight people than a group of 40, but it is not impossible
for a larger group. Time and again I see IMC members who
have honed the skill of “reframing proposals until creative
solutions arise” assume the role of facilitator in larger
groups. In other words, size does have an impact, but ultimately,
it’s what you do with it that counts.
After reflecting on how much goes in to making consensus-
voting work, I had to reconsider my hopes for broader
use of this method. After all, there is very little opportunity
for our citizens to develop such advanced diplomacy. Political
leaders are not very good models (you’re either with us
or against us). Robert’s Rules of Order dominate most adult
committees. Schools that are pressed to test by No Child
Left Behind policies have little time for student dialogue.
Early childhood educators plagued by large class-sizes find
respite in teacher-directed class structures. Parents that are
working countless hours to make ends meet have little time
for family meetings or harmonious parenting: the “no ifs,
ands, ors, or buts” is far easier in stressful moments.
In light of the degree to which children practice decision-
making in early childhood (see interview insert),
early socialization should not be ignored. Most of us
remember raising our hands to vote for this or that in
school. But years of exposure to this winners-losers majority-
voting may be one reason why citizens fail to question
the voting styles in our country. I wonder what would
happen if children were schooled in variety of group decision-
making skills. Might we see a world with more mutual
aid and voluntary cooperation?
The Project Approach is one early learning model that
can foster collaborative decision-making. Teachers use
responsive and inductive strategies to guide small groups
of children through in-depth investigation of topics that
interest them. Locally, professors like Lilian Katz have
helped teachers finesse the art of problem-solving with
children during these projects (exploring hypotheses, generating
creative solutions, establishing joint goals, etc.).
The Project Approach capitalizes on children’s natural tendencies
to organize and empowers children to develop
views and integrate these views with others.
EXCERPTS FROM INTERVIEW WITH 4-YEAROLD
WHO ATTENDS A LOCAL PRESCHOOL:
Today I Voted.
When you choose a book to go to the library? Tell me how
We both raise our hand. Whoever has the most, we take
that book to the library.
Can you give me an example?
If I say, “do we want to read this book or this book and
take it to the library?” then we vote. And whoever has
the mostest team gets to take it to the library. “Okay,
this team has the most so we’re going to take this one”
(stated in teacher’s voice).
What about the team that was the smallest? What happens to
Some people are sad. Some people don’t care.
Tell me about the sad ones.
I don’t know if anyone is sad or not.
Has that ever happened to you, that you didn’t get to take the
book you wanted to?
I didn’t care.
What about the kids who get to take their book with them?
I think they’re happy.
Are you happy when you get your book chosen?
Yeah. But I’ve never really gotten it (stated in a frustrated
Why does the teacher only take one book?
Because we only take one book.
I wonder if there is another way to solve that problem? Voting
like that is one way.
During the story at the library, they could think of their
book while they are reading the other book.
They could think about it in their head?
They could tell it after the other story. Like when you tell
an imagined story. They can’t take two books?
No, only uno.
Do they take turns?
They could take one book this time and
the other book the next time.
Is that the way it works?
No, it’s just one.
How do they decide which books to vote on?
The teacher takes two books and the kids
have to vote on whichever teams wants
this book, takes it. And then the other
team doesn’t get to take their book.
Do the kids get to suggest another book?
They would have to raise their hand and
say, “I don’t like those two books.”
And what would happen if they said that?
Well, what they get is what they get.
Remember last year when you voted on what
songs to sing for wings?
I voted on Love Can Build a Bridge. That
was my favorite.
The teacher asked you to raise your hands?
Yeah and then we got it. Because a lot of
the kids wanted it so we got it.
I wonder about the other kids.
I don’t remember. I was happy and I wanted
Fireman because I wanna be a fireman.
You can only choose one song and
another person choosed it so I got it.
Did the kids tell each other what to vote for
before hand or what?
No, you have to think about it by yourself.
The teachers make that a rule?
You have to make your own decision.
If somebody doesn’t get their vote do you
have a chance to talk about it?
We just have to go on.
Do you ever work on projects at school?
You can’t work on each other’s projects at
So you don’t do group projects?
Only when a teacher does it.
How did you decide what to do for your project?
Have you ever been on a project where the
kids decide what to do?
No, we can’t do that in our class.
What if you have five kids working on one
puppet and one kid wants to put on a big
long grey snake and the other kids don’t
They could make one big puppet first and
then they could make another puppet
that they could put that on.
What if the person feels left out and wants
their snake on the big puppet?
They could make it the next day.
What if they say it’s not fair to wait?
What questions could you ask that kid to
find out why the kid wants to do that?
I’d ask, ‘do you want to do that in the afternoon
What if the kid says no?
I could say, “Why do you want to put it
What if the reason is that it is the only thing
that is long and grey?
Well, just have to not let that kid put it on.
What if that kid asked you why you don’t
want the grey snake on the puppet?
Because it would look uglier.
What if the kid said, “What is it about the
grey snake that looks ugly to you?”
It’s the color.
I wonder if you could ask the kid to change it
in some way to make it look better.?
The color. I could ask him if he could draw
a different color of snake on the puppet.
Let’s imagine you ask him but he says he
likes the color grey.
I sorta kinda like grey.
I wonder why he likes the grey color.
Maybe if the other kids put grey on it then
they’d like it. Maybe the other people
could put on grey to make it a little bit
ugly then he could. Or he could put one
different color and on the other end he
could put grey.
What if said he liked grey because it was the
color of his mom’s hair?
Then he could do it.
What if to him grey is a color that is a bad
Then he could put a different one.
So if he says mean things?
I would say, “I don’t want to be around
At my work when we make a rule we have to
have everybody agree. But there was one
person who didn’t like it.
I don’t like it.
Because one person didn’t
like it and everybody
had to like it and he has
To a different town where
he likes the rules.
What if he couldn’t find a
town that he liked or
didn’t have money to
Then he’d have to work
really hard to get his
money before he
Did you know that people
vote in the US for presidents
make rules about what
people should do? What
do you think about that?
I would choose a president
who listens to people.
If you have 5 people and 3
people vote for 1 president
and 2 people vote
another, the two people
still have to follow the president’s rules
even if they didn’t vote for that president.
They could hurt their feelings. They would
want their president that they voted for.
What do you think they should do instead?
They could move to the place where that
president lives that they voted for.
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