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Within the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Simon Fraser University (and other departments), undergraduate courses typically comprise two related elements: Lectures, where the bulk of the course learning takes place, and tutorials, which consist of smaller classes of students in a course, and traditionally provide a venue through which students may clarify issues or questions that might arise in the lectures and readings. As much as is possible, the varying restorative justice courses offered at SFU are taught in a manner that embodies the core values and principles of restorative justice, which sometimes involves varying this standard format for teaching. While CRIM315 (Introduction to Restorative Justice) perhaps most visibly and intentionally embodies the below teaching principles, we strive as much as we can to embody these ideals in all restorative justice courses offered at the university.
Among other aims, our courses aim to contribute to a learning environment that values critical thinking. Both students and teachers are encouraged to continuously question where facts pertaining to crime and justice come from, how knowledge is generated, and who that knowledge benefits. More specifically – and in line with modern restorative justice’s branding as an “alternative” to the retributive justice paradigm – students are encouraged consistently to challenge the “status quo” represented by existing criminal justice policies and practices, rather than accept them as “inevitable” or “unchangeable”.
As a crucial element of creating an environment where these discussions can consistently and successfully take place, course lectures and tutorial activities are always situated alongside the values that guide our everyday lives. This practice not only aligns with the belief that restorative justice is a “way of life”, but embodies a deeply important principle of restorative justice, derived from the wisdom of Indigenous approaches to addressing crime and conflict: That in as much as one can “know” things through the knowledge gained through academic research, one can also “know” things simply from their lived experience and everyday wisdom. This approach to teaching allows for more dynamic and inclusive participation from students who may be reluctant to speak over fear of not having “the right answers” to discussion questions. It also acknowledges that people and information do not exist in static isolation from one another, but rather are “in constant interaction” with one another.
In restorative justice practice, participants typically engage with one another in a literal circle formation. The circle formation places everyone on “equal footing”, and removes perceptions of hierarchy and leadership typically present in criminal justice proceedings. For this reason, circles are considered to be effective ways to create a dialogue space that fosters feelings of respect and inclusion among participants - an important element to reaching a restorative outcome.
This model is replicated within our classes so as to create an atmosphere of respect and equality under which learning can occur. The chairs within the classroom are arranged into a literal circle, and a talking piece, passed consecutively around the circle, from person to person, is used to regulate the dialogue. When a student holds the talking piece, they are expected to have the undivided attention of everyone else in the circle, and to be able to speak without interruption. The use of the talking piece in tutorial to regulate dialogue in this way allows for full expression of emotions, deeper listening, thoughtful reflection, and an unrushed pace. Additionally, the talking piece creates space for people who find it difficult to speak in a group, in accordance with values of inclusiveness.
Experiential learning refers to learning that is based on students being directly involved in a learning experience, rather than their being recipients of ready-made content. Students typically experience “experiential learning” in four stages:
1) They have a “concrete experience”
2) They make observations and reflections based upon that experience
3) Those observations and reflections are synthesized into a new conceptual understanding and interpretation of the experience, and
4) This conceptual understanding is applied and is used to guide new and purposeful experiences.
Within our restorative justice courses - though most evidently in CRIM315 Introduction to Restorative Justice - experiential learning takes place in the form of real hands-on activities that students take part in together. These activities are adapted from a myriad of sources, including those developed for and practiced by the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) and the Heart of Hope Resource Guide, developed by Kay Pranis and Carolyn Boyes-Watson. Allowing students to learn experientially in the classroom is important, because an important guiding principle within restorative justice practice is that truth is subjective, and that criminal justice problems often involve many interpretations and many solutions – all of which may, technically, be considered to be “correct”. Experiential learning within the classroom also provides students with a hands-on opportunity to learn the value of the community component of restorative justice practice by building it themselves, through activities and discussions focused on individual and communal values. When a values-based community component such as this is missing from the classroom, restorative justice classes are easily co-opted.
Throughout our courses, students may find that a number of values and principles, important to restorative justice, come up repeatedly as themes. Two of the more important of these values are that of civility and of inclusivity.
An inclusive classroom is a place where all students and instructors feel empowered, valued, respected, safe (both physically and emotionally), and welcome to contribute ideas, views, and concerns. In an inclusive classroom, content is selected from a broad range of sources and is presented through a variety of teaching methods. A civil classroom is one where students and instructors respond to sensitive subject matter with sensitivity and compassion, and refrain from disruptive behaviour. Within our classes, instructors take all efforts to create as civil and inclusive a classroom as is possible, but encourage their students to model these same ideals as well. The core guiding belief in this regard is that it is everyone within the classroom – not just the instructor - who is responsible for contributing to the inclusive and civil classroom by being polite and empathetic, being attentive to one another’s needs, asking questions, challenging assumptions, and allowing for mistakes to be made.
Kay Pranis and Carolyn Boyes-Watson, in their Heart of Hope Resource Guide, articulate “seven core assumptions” – seven basic ideas they believe to be true about human nature and our relationships to the world. These assumptions are not unique to their resource guide, but rather, are a concise aggregation of many similar and overlapping principles that have been observed in various forms within spiritual teachings all around the world. We hope, as much as possible, to create a teaching environment within all our courses that not only recognizes these seven principles, but appropriately “harnesses” their potential to deliver authentic and organic learning opportunities.
These assumptions are:
1. The true self in everyone is good, wise, and powerful.
2. The world is profoundly interconnected.
3. All human beings have a deep desire to be in a good relationship.
4. All human beings have gifts, and everyone is needed for what they bring.
5. Everything we need to make positive change is already here.
6. Human beings are holistic.
7. We need practices to build habits of living from the core self.