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Episode six of The Art of SEL dives into the idea of responsible decision-making, and how we can help students make caring and constructive decisions in a variety of settings. Jonathan welcomes teachers Corey Bulman and Adrian Vance Hawk to talk about why teachers should model the decision-making process for their students, and how what we do in the art room can help students realize how their actions and reactions impact others. Full Episode Transcript Below.
Jonathan: I was a sophomore in college when my best friends bought a water balloon launcher, it didn’t take long before they were launching all kinds of things over the school library from our dorm rooms. One night, I was summoned to the parking lot where I was met with some water balloons and the launcher. Our friend Nate could be seen through a first-floor window working on his computer. “Let’s just scare him,” they said. “It’ll be so funny,” they said. While one friend grabbed one end of the launcher the other took hold of the other side and I, I loaded up the launcher, took aim, and let the water balloon fly right toward Nate’s window. I think there was half a second where it crossed my mind that this was not going to end the way we thought, but it was too late. The water balloon hit and it hit hard, breaking through the glass window.
Nate hit the ground and stayed there for a minute, later confessing that he thought he was under attack. And my two friends in the parking lot, well, they took off running as fast as they could. There I stood wide-eyed with the launcher in front of me. Lots of decisions had been made that evening, to say any of them were responsible would be misguided. The most responsible decision I made was to stand there and wait for the residence hall assistant to come flying out the back door and admit my fault. And then later apologize to Nate profusely while realizing it was quickly something we were going to be able to laugh about it. Wasn’t the first time I would apologize for a decision I made and it certainly wasn’t the last.
Hi, I’m Jonathan Juravich. And today we’ll be discussing responsible decision-making on this episode of The Art of SEL.
If we’re honest, there are countless decisions we wish we could redo and others that we’re quite proud of. Some of our decisions prompt the reactions of those around us, and others involve admitting when we’re wrong. But first, let’s start with the definition of responsible decision-making. An adapted definition from CASEL states that responsible decision-making is the ability to make caring and constructive choices about our behaviors and social interactions across diverse situations. It can be easy to think that students should make responsible decisions based on our own notions of what is right and wrong, but we can’t make decisions for other people because if we do then how will they actually learn to navigate life’s major decisions down the road?
So how is it then that we can prompt students to consider the decisions they make and the impacts of those decisions? Today, I’m going to talk with two educators, about their beliefs and strategies for supporting students and themselves through the decision-making process. Corey Bulman, who teaches at Mound Westonka High School in the suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Adrian Vance Hawk, who teaches ceramics at Milford High School in Milford, Ohio. Corey Bulman is an AP English teacher and instructional coach at Mound Westonka High School outside of Minneapolis. Working with seniors who are making major decisions about their futures has led him to approach students with a listening ear while also being open to challenging those students and their thinking.
Okay, Corey, if you could choose one descriptive word to explain and express how you’re feeling right now, what is it?
Corey: Well after a lot of discussion about this with you, I think contemplative was a word that came up. And I think that I’m contemplated because we’re coming to the end of the 2021 school year. And it was interesting, I was helping a couple of seniors with a graduation speech today, and they were talking about what this experience has been like for them. This all started when they were juniors in high school and it’s finishing up in the senior year. And I think that coming to the end… teaching seniors and coming to the end of an experience with the seniors has made me contemplative about what this has been like for teachers in the profession, for my students and for my own kids, including one of my daughters who’s a kindergartner. And it’s just that it’s a contemplative year.
Jonathan: With that comes, I mean, decision-making, right? With this contemplation, we have to make decisions. And part of SEL is making responsible decisions. And I think that so often when we talk about responsible decision-making that we’re trying to lead kids to the right answer or to make the right choice, but really it’s about helping them find their way. So what does that look like in education, helping kids through and process responsible decision-making?
Corey: Sometimes I see myself as operating as a speed bump. When you’re working with teenagers, I mean, it’s a lot of energy and it’s a lot of chaotic energy and fury and passion, and that’s sometimes my job over the years, it’s become, I’m the speed bump in this decision making process for you. I want you to sort of stop and be like, “Oh, what was that? Oh, maybe I should think about what’s going to happen next.” I mean, maybe that’s my legacy as a teacher, I got to be everybody’s speed bump.
And then when it comes to thinking about decision-making, it’s really about having them ponder, what are the different sides of this particular issue and where are you going to fall ethically? Because I often want my students to be thinking in terms of that life is full of choices and that a lot of them are choices that you have to make that are going to ground your ethics. What do you want your ethics to be? And I think if I’m at least providing opportunities for students to have those discussions where they have to think about what’s the ethics behind their particular decision, then I’m probably doing my job right that day.
Jonathan: So with that though, what happens when we don’t make responsible decisions? Because that happens for students, for us. So what about the, what now?
Corey: Well, I think that everything is a learning opportunity. And I know that that sounds kind of hallmark card-ish, like we’re putting a bow on everything, but I think that there’s a lot of truth to that. I think that especially teaching where I do in a suburban school district where there’s a lot of both internal and external pressure on students for perfection, but that there is always those chances that we have to remind students that there isn’t such a thing as perfection. And that often you’re not defined by mistakes. You’re defined by how you respond to that adversity. And that-
Corey: I think when you’re growing up, every decision feels like it’s crucial, and it’s not always the case, right? And that’s sometimes you don’t know what’s going to spill out of one particular decision and that sometimes you have to land on your face once in a while in order to pick yourself up and say, okay, well I did this last time. I’m going to give this a shot now. So I think trying to handle students… trying to handle those discussions with students with grace and empathy is really important. And it’s become really important to me over the years to make sure that I own mistakes with students and that I have the graciousness to say, “Hey, I said, we were going to do this,” or, “I made this mistake,” and just to call myself out, because I think that that young people need to see models of adults who can handle their own indecisions with some grace and dignity. And if you do that, then you take away the shame of having possibly made the wrong choice at the outset.
Jonathan: Right. Yeah.
Corey: Because sometimes you don’t know what’s going to happen when you make one particular decision, and that everything’s a learning opportunity and it’s a chance to reflect on what you want to do next time, that so much of what we do is really, it’s practice for what we’re going to do next. And I think that working with young people, it’s part of our function as teachers is to be the people who help them to shape what those decisions have looked like and then provide the space for them to process that in a positive way so that it doesn’t become something that’s shameful for them.
Jonathan: Well, and I just keep thinking about this notion of us modeling these behaviors for kids, like you said, and I just, it really hit me when you were like sometimes they think that all these decisions are big decisions, these critical decisions or these big moments they have to work through. And I’m struggling with that as an adult.
Corey: Yeah, no, true.
Jonathan: To prioritize like, oh wait, this wasn’t such a big deal. And we almost need people in our lives as adults to be like, all right, take a breath. This isn’t as big a deal as you’re making it out to be.
Corey: Yeah, no, I agree with you on that, but I’ve learned over the years that you have to be really careful about how you model that as well. Because one of the things that I think adults sometimes misjudge is what the tone and tenor should be in those discussions, that telling a young person that it’s not a big deal when at that moment that is a big deal for them, can make someone lose credibility. But if you say, look, this seems to be really important to you at this particular moment, tell me about it, tell me about what the options are and what you’re weighing, and offer them the space to be able to talk about it openly, I think is really, really helpful. Yeah. I go through this every year because I’ve taught seniors my entire career. So I’ve like ostensively applied for college forever. And it is-
Jonathan: Year after year.
Corey: It is, for a lot of my students, it’s one of these first really big decisions that they have to make. And it would be easy to dismiss it and say, well, I mean, it’s not going to define your whole life, but for them, it is defining a portion of their life. That’s something that has to be honored as well. And that I’d miss an opportunity if I tried to be dismissive of what their feelings were at that particular moment. Teaching is a funny business. And when you teach high school, it’s a funny business too, because you get to know these students and you think I’m going to hear from this young person forever. And then you don’t. Because your job is to help them, it’s like you’re part of the staging crew to get them ready for whatever comes next.
But it is interesting when you do hear from somebody who came through your classroom years later. I think an interesting gift that I was given when I was chosen as the state teacher of the year was that it was high profile enough that all of a sudden all these, not young people anymore, people that had been my students at one time wrote to tell me about things in my class. And the funny thing is, is that they don’t often tell you about reading Auden or Whitman in your class. So they tell you about how they felt when they were in your class. And I’ve had students before as well say, “You really kind of helped. You stood vigil when I was making some pretty hard decisions in my life.” And those are some of the moments that I’m probably the most proud of as a teacher. The moments when I kept my mouth shut and came to understand I didn’t always have all the answers and that my job sometimes was just to help someone get to the decision they were going to have to make for themselves instead of imposing myself into a situation that wasn’t really mine to own.
And that I think that an important part, the important role for teachers in decision-making is to model really good listening skills and to show that it’s okay, that the wait time is okay. Now we live in a society where everything is so, it’s such a snap judgment, and you have to make decisions so quickly. And that sometimes you don’t have the answer right now. And that it’s an important skill to model that it’s okay to not always have the answer right now, and that coming back to it and pondering what it’s going to mean is a really important… I think it’s a really important modeling skill that teachers need to give to students as well, to teach them that sometimes silence and sometimes listening is more important than making those snap judgments.
Jonathan: So we’ve heard it over and over, but what about those that say that we just don’t have enough time for this?
Corey: I guess my comeback would be, if we’re not going to do that, then who is? I mean, time’s an interesting thing. I mean, time to do what? Teach content, get through material in a class? I mean, if you haven’t taken the time to create community, how did the rest of those things lock into place? I mean, I guess it’s different for me because I’ve always been hardwired to have SEL as a part of what I’ve done in a classroom. I mean, I didn’t even know what SEL was in 2000, but I was doing it.
Jonathan: Right. Yes.
Corey: I remember when I started and there was somebody I worked with a long time ago, we talked about, I mean, bell-to-bell, when I came into the teaching profession it was the whole idea of like bell-to-bell instruction. And I was a young teacher at the time and he said, “Wow, it always seems like everybody’s kind of yukking it up at the beginning.” And I remember at first feeling, like having to check myself to see was I doing something incorrectly, and all these years later, I know that I wasn’t. I was building the foundation for the kind of teacher I wanted to be. That I needed to know about their lives, needed to know what they were involved in. I needed to ask silly questions because it builds a comfort level.
And that ultimately by doing that foundational work, when you have to get into hard content, or to go back to decision-making, when a student’s in a position where they’re making some tough decisions academically, if you’ve built a network, you’ve built in the equity that you need to be able to then come back to them and say, hey, I know you, and what can I do to help you? So I don’t think it’s extraneous. I think it’s the center of what needs to happen in the classroom. How are you ever going to have trust built if you don’t take the time to get to know them as whole people? So I do. I think that it’s not wasted time. It’s paramount to what we do.
Jonathan: Adrian Vance Hawk currently teaches ceramics at Milford high school in a suburb of Cincinnati, but has taught elementary, middle school and high school art in rural, urban and suburban settings. I guess you can say she’s done it all. She approaches her life and her work as an artist and educator with a naturalist and conservation lens, she prompts her students to consider the impacts they make on one another and the environment. Adrienne, if you could choose one descriptive word to express how you’re feeling right now, what would it be?
Adrian: Well, right now I’m feeling very content, just pleasantly optimistic for the future. I’m feeling like I have a good, for the first time in my career, work-life balance. So even though things are challenging, I feel at peace. So I feel thankful, I guess. I guess that’s more than one description.
Jonathan: That’s fine. That’s good, yeah.
Adrian: At peace. And just grateful that I have a job, and grateful for my family and friends like John.
Jonathan: Well, you are an artist and a teacher that focuses on conservation, not just in the artwork you make or in your classroom, but also in the way you live your life.
Adrian: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jonathan: And I think about what are some strategies that you use to prompt this specific type of responsible decision-making because, I mean, this is a challenge for adults as well, right?
Adrian: Oh gosh. Yeah. It’s definitely… I think I did a better job of it when I taught elementary. I think I could infuse, in every project there could be something repurpose or reuse or there was… it was easier to find meaning and in the things that we would do. But I guess specifically for ceramics, I allow the students to have a little more freedom with what they make, because with clay, once it’s fired, it’s this thing that’s going to be on the planet forever. If you’re doing a drawing and it’s not great, you can recycle it. There’s a little… it’s so permanent. And so I introduce clay in that way to them. Some of the most… Some of the oldest artifacts in our history or our pottery, and what they make will live on. So I’m always asking them that question, like, “Do you want that to live on?”
Jonathan: Wow. Yeah.
Adrian: And they’ll definitely stop and they think about it. And I don’t know how many… And I’ve gotten better at this. I used to just like, we have this project, we have to get it done. I’m going to fire it. And I hate it because it’s so ugly and it weighs 10 pounds, and they know it’s ugly and they don’t like it either. And I’m like, why am I firing this for them? Like if they don’t want it they’re just going to throw it away. So I have changed my policy. So we no longer fire things that they don’t like, so we just start over and we recycle it before it’s unrecyclable. so I guess that’s a long way of saying we’re trying to be environmentally conscious with our materials. So everything we make should have purpose or meaning, or be something that they’re proud of. So we kind of go back and forth a lot with that.
And I don’t rush them. So we don’t go through… I don’t have deadlines, they just work at their pace. As long as they’re using their studio time properly, I don’t care how long it takes them, if they get one thing done in a semester, I think that’s more meaningful than just having them make stuff quickly that they’re not super excited about.
And then the other thing that we battle is water. We use a lot of water to clean. So I’m constantly modeling all of these things to them, so picky about how they use all the materials at first, and then they get used to it. So I’m trying to instill habits, that they aren’t wasting the glaze by cleaning out a juicy brush full of it, they wipe it on the edge before they clean it. And then when they have the sink on, that it’s not blasting the water out, because it’s not necessary. So whenever they’re not, it’s kind of like brushing your teeth, turn the water off while you’re scrubbing something or brushing your teeth. So I’m always trying to say, “We’re going to save water, we’re saving the trees, paper towels.” Oh my gosh, our school, they just got these fancy new paper towel dispensers that you just hold your hand under and it just… Really nice paper towels, too, they’re not this brown kind.
Jonathan: Yeah. The school. Yes, the school paper towels, we were like, “Why is it getting worse?”
Adrian: Exactly. It gets so much worse. So these are white and it doesn’t get worse. It’s like totally different makeup. But the kids think it’s the greatest thing. And I’m like, you’re no… I’m trying to still do… I can’t do my cloth towels like I used to. Used to have… they can dry their hands on cloth towels, which they love that. And I would wash them and it was a whole lot less waste, but because of COVID, I feel a little less okay with doing that at the moment, at least, which is unfortunate, but I’m always… I go through a whole spiel at the beginning about, “You only need one and this is how you use it.” And so I think that they pick up on that. You have to stay on top of it though, for sure.
Jonathan: Yeah. But even just having those conversations with them, I mean, you don’t know what the impact is on their daily life because it’s like, oh, I don’t need to… I’m thinking about someone making a peanut butter sandwich, right? Like similar to glaze, like, oh, I won’t waste all this by just rinsing it down the sink.
Adrian: Right. That’s a good… I love that analogy. That’s great. Like, you wouldn’t do that with food so why would you do it-
Adrian: Yeah. And I always tell them the price of things so that they kind of have an understanding that it’s not cheap and they’re actually, their family is paying for it because they have fees. So it kind of, hopefully they make that connection.
Jonathan: That’s so, I want to say that’s so smart because they just, all the materials that are surrounding me in my art room, they don’t know how much they’ve cost or what they are or where they came from. But tying that monetary value as well is going to help us make responsible decisions about what we use.
Adrian: Right. Exactly.
Jonathan: I mean, you’ve talked so much about the importance of modeling responsibility. It’s not just about telling students like, “This is what you have to do to be responsible.” Right?
Jonathan: But you, yourself, I mean, you are modeling this level of responsibility. How do you go about doing that really purposefully?
Adrian: Well, I try to be as kind as possible. I never want anyone to feel… So for example, the one thing that I have to do a lot is kids are trying to clean the glaze off the bottom of their pots and they are at the sink and they’ve got the water just blaring out, like they’re brushing their teeth and they’re letting a gallon water going down the sink, and I’ll just go over and I’ll be like, “I’m going to turn this off. We’re going to save the water,” and they’re like, “Oh, sorry.” It’s like they didn’t realize. And so I’m always trying to be as nice as I can be.
I always go back to, I’ve been a vegetarian for a very long time. And I remember when I wasn’t a vegetarian and I had someone I know who was, and they were really mean to people about it. They would like, “You’re eating a sandwich with three animals on it.” They would give people… And that just like… you get defensive if someone kind of attacks you in that way, when they mean well, but your approach is really important. So I always, my approach is always very kind and very helpful and not public. If a kid is making a huge mess, dripping glaze all over the table, more glaze is on the table than on their pot, I’ll just go over and I’ll help them scoop it up and put it in their jar and say, “This is expensive. We don’t want to waste it.”
Jonathan: What you said about your reactions though, to that glaze, I mean, I hit those moments because our worlds impact how we respond. Right? And I’ve hit those moments where I don’t react in the way that I would want to about something spilling or-
Adrian: Oh my god, you’re right.
Jonathan: Yeah. Right? I think the responsible part, too, is tied into the apology.
Adrian: Yeah. Right.
Jonathan: Like in having students watch us and hear from us that we apologize too, as adults.
Jonathan: I actually had a college student that I was working with say she had never heard a teacher apologize to her before. And I was like, oh, meanwhile, I’m over here apologizing during every class.
Adrian: Well, I definitely, I totally agree with you because I haven’t always kept my cool. And I will, my one thing that I really struggle with with high school students is their access to their phones and their distraction. They’re distracted by them. So you’re right. We’re human and we just, something will rub us the wrong way or we’ll hear something wrong. And I totally agree with you, apologizing diffuses any… It just is so important for us to model being wrong. And I feel like in society where people just don’t like to be, we don’t like to be wrong and we can’t admit when we’re wrong. And an apology goes a long way. Responsible people are able to see that they’re not always… We’re not always going to be right. It’s impossible.
Jonathan: And when you were at elementary school, it wasn’t just in your classroom because you led conservation efforts throughout the entire school.
Adrian: Right. We had like an art and earth club. We had a green team that collect all the recycling. That was like, I don’t know, there’s something really beautiful. I mean, you experienced this. You have influence over a whole community, not just in your classroom, but outside of the walls. And that to me is like the coolest part of the job where you can just have this… Today’s Earth Day. And I-
Jonathan: Yes it is!
Adrian: I got tons of texts from former teacher friends of mine and messages from students that telling me happy Earth Day, I’m like, oh. So it sticks, but-
Jonathan: That’s incredible.
Adrian: I know, it always makes me tear up whatever. I mean, and it’s happened before. I mean, it usually happens every Earth Day. I get all these messages, like it’s my birthday or something.
Jonathan: Yes. But isn’t that what we want?
Jonathan: That’s the kind of legacy that we want to leave for our students and for the other people around us, is that when they think of us, they think about these decisions that we have… Now I feel like I’m getting emotional. We want them to think about these decisions that we’ve made, that we’ve modeled for them, and that hopefully will impact our futures, our collective futures. And for them, it’s the fact that they tie you to Earth Day.
Adrian: Yeah. We’re-
Jonathan: If you ever had to question the impact that you are making on people’s lives, I mean, it’s that. So all of this though, it’s not just about conservation. I mean, we could talk about conservation all day long, but it’s also about how students take care of supplies and one another. And can you speak to your experiences regarding students’ responsibility with taking care of one another?
Adrian: We’re always talking about the golden rule, which my dad made us recite to him every day before getting on the bus.
Adrian: Do on the others as you would have them do unto you, or treat… Yes. We had to tell him.
Jonathan: No, wait. Wait, time out. This is something that I’ve never known about you.
Jonathan: No. So every day before you got on the bus, your dad had you recite the golden rule.
Adrian: Yes. Yes, we would have… We were kind of like, oh, you know how you get when you have to do something every day, you’re not as into it or excited about it, but we just would always talk about treating people the way we wanted to be treated. And I think that I always have that in the back of my head. I’m like, oh, I would not want someone to leave, just I get disappointed when, for example, if a student leaves and they left a mess, I’m like, ah, they didn’t get it. But I would say, as long as I’m consistent and checking, then they get those habits and we talk about what it means to everyone else. And then the kids will come in and they’ll be like, “Oh, this person didn’t clean the wheel very good.” They have a standard now. Like [crosstalk 00:29:05], it’s usually like, “They didn’t get underneath here.” I’m like, “Oh, you’re right. I just didn’t do a good job checking them out, I guess, or they just left before I could stop them.”
So they get the community piece after a while. It takes some practice. And I really try to always emulate what I want to see in the kindest way possible. And I think that they… Oh, one of the examples would be the glaze again. Gosh, the glaze. You never would think that that’s the culprit for so many things. But they, I swear, on the first day when I enter a glaze, I’m like, “Rule number one, tighten the lid because you have to shake it up.” Like Italian salad dressing, you can’t use it with doing that because all the good stuff is in the bottom. And they totally get it. So they shake it, but they don’t tighten the lid first. And I’m like, “Rule number one, tighten the lid,” because every, I don’t know how often it happens, they don’t tighten the lid and it gets all over the place. And I’m like, “The last rule is, tighten the lid when you put it back on.”
And so I’m like, we’re taking care of each other. If we’re all checking each other and we’re all making sure that we’re doing the right thing and the last person, we want to trust that they tightened the lid, but we can’t always do that. So we have to just double-check for them because who knows, maybe they were in a bad mood and they didn’t… or they were distracted or they’re cleaning up fast, so they didn’t tighten it. And then you go to shake it and then it ruined your clothes. And that just happened twice last week. They were very upset that the other person didn’t do their job. I’m like, “I’m upset, too, but you didn’t do yours. So we all have to do our jobs.” So I guess it comes down to, if everyone does their part, I know this sounds probably cliche, everyone’s better for it. And we have to pick up the slack for when people are having a bad day or forget or whatever.
Jonathan: Yeah. I’m thinking now about, I sometimes get crazy about how they treat the watercolors.
Jonathan: Let’s just call it what it is. Right?
Adrian: I totally understand.
Jonathan: There’ll be a kid that takes and mixes all the watercolors all the way across, and I feel the fire burning within my heart. But then we… I mean, that’s why we have these conversations about treating those watercolors well. We don’t have enough for every kid. So someone else is going to use these and you don’t want to use the messy watercolor, then why will the next person want to use the messy watercolor?
Jonathan: And I’ve never thought about these responsible decisions are making sure that we all do good work in this room, if we have those materials to use.
Adrian: Right. We just-
Jonathan: I guess that goes back to how much did those watercolors costs? I do have to circle back to this because our families, our contexts, our childhoods impact who we become. And if we’ve ever had to question that, right, and about these skills that we’re telling the kids, the things that we tell them about glaze or about watercolors, your dad told you every day before you got on the bus to recite the golden rule, and then you grew to be this human that believes it at your core. I just, it’s powerful.
Adrian: I never really thought about that. I definitely appreciate my dad, but he emulates it, too. So I think that it’s not just him having me say it, but him showing me that that’s how you behave in the world. So it all kind of comes back to actions speak louder than words.
Jonathan: So what now, what do you do with this information? Well, here are three things to consider. One, students learn about responsible decision-making from watching us. So how can you explore and express the process you go through when making decisions? This could even be as simple as talking through your own creative process so that students can see all of the decisions that were made along the way. Two, how do your classroom procedures and expectations promote responsible decision-making? Is that through the care of supplies, cleaning protocols, or limiting the use of paper towels? And three, apologize. Is there something you should be apologizing for right now? Because saying I’m sorry is not a sign of weakness. In fact, it models humility and strength. Tuck it into your head that sometimes the most responsible decision is to apologize.
And how am I feeling right now? Nostalgic. Not about water balloon launchers, but for good friends, like Nate, who is now a teacher himself, supporting students through their own unique decision-making processes. And I should probably go give him a call. Responsible decision-making is the last of the core competencies of social-emotional learning. However, a theme that ran through all of our conversations and thinking has been that of empathy. I hope you’ll join me next time for a conversation specifically about empathy.
This has been The Art of SEL, part of the Art of Education University podcast network. Tim Bogatz is our producer and Amanda Heyn is our executive producer, and all of our episodes are engineered by the insightful Amy Juravich. Thank you so much for listening. If you like what you hear, please subscribe on Apple Podcast, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. If you want more information on art and social emotional learning or anything else art education-related please check out theartofeducation.edu.
Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.