A few years ago (or maybe a few more than that) I was the proud recipient of a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science. I know what you are thinking, “That has served him well.” My wife is quick to point out that the only other political science major she is aware of is our local television meteorologist.
In spite of the fact that I have had limited use for my degree, one of my favorite classes at Kansas State University (primarily because of the professor) was U.S. Politics. An enduring understanding from that class was the concept of The Paradox of Participation. In political terms, the definition of the paradox of participation is that given a large population the costs of participating outweigh the potential benefits. For example, it is unlikely that a single vote will determine the outcome of a national election. However, you can see the potential negative impact if a large percentage of the population were to adopt this mentality.
While the paradox of participation is typically discussed in relation to politics, the concept has significant implications for human interaction. How often do we maintain the status quo, or fail to take action, because we determine that our potential actions will be inconsequential? For educators, it is also worth asking what we do to encourage our students (and perhaps even our colleagues) from adopting the mentality that their actions are not worth the effort?
When I was a dean of students, I worked for a principal who could not walk past a piece of litter without stopping to pick it up. An empty cup, a crumpled piece of paper, a broken pencil, or a gum wrapper — no piece of trash was inconsequential. Our assistant principal did the same, and it wasn’t long before I adopted the habit. In fact, picking up litter has become so ingrained that I have trouble walking by trash anywhere, including foreign countries. Many of the students who witnessed the principal working to keep the campus clean followed suit and began to practice what they observed. The end result, was a sense of pride, and an extremely clean campus.
At our school, we have three core values that serve as the pillars of our community. Our third core value states:
Willis is a place where we take pride in our school, and doing little things makes a big difference.
We want our students to understand that their actions DO matter and that they do not have to wait until they “grow up” to make a difference. As a staff, we spend a great deal of time talking to our students about what doing little things looks like, and we do our best to model the idea that our actions matter.
As you might imagine, this can be an extremely powerful concept with applications to a wide variety of circumstances. Our participation matters and it makes a difference. If we lead by example, and teach our students to do the same, the positive outcomes can multiply exponentially. Imagine a school (a community, a country, or a world) where everyone:
- Takes an extra minute to assist those in need
- Understands that effort, attention to detail, and perseverance matter
- Sacrifices a little for the benefit of others
- Recognizes the immeasurable worth of every individual
- Speaks out against injustice
- Refuses to tolerate abuse, bullying, and violence
- Chooses to act with humility, gratitude, and grace
When it comes to being a positive leader, there should be no such thing as the paradox of participation. Our positive actions outweigh the potential costs. Choose to make a difference and be sure your students understand their true potential!
Do your little bit of good where you are; its those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world. – Desmond Tutu