Friday, May 25, 2012

The power of public protest

Unsatisfied with the quality of the lunches at your elementary school?

Traditional adult strategy: Discuss the issue privately with the principal. Maybe ask about it at a PTA meeting. At worst, write letters to the superintendent and school board. When nothing changes, at least you tried.

Nine-year-old strategy: Start a blog. Post photos of lunch daily, and rate the lunches for tastiness, quantity, healthiness, and number of stray hairs. Watch blog go viral and receive (reportedly) over a million hits. Less than two weeks later, enjoy the school’s new policy of serving unlimited fruit, salad, and bread.

At least the kids are learning something.

Of course, we can only speculate about how this would have played out in America (as opposed to Scotland, where this nine-year-old lives). My guess is the school would have responded more like this:

1. Discipline the child for disrespectful internet behavior.
2. Ban cameras from the lunchroom.
3. Patiently explain that school menu decisions are driven by higher forces beyond the control of the local school system.
4. Back down on disciplinary action after the ACLU threatens a First Amendment lawsuit.
5. Wait for the whole thing to blow over, then continue serving the same lunches as before.

But even in America, public protest is still the percentage play, isn’t it?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Recess is not expendable

The Illinois state senate just passed a bill that would require all elementary schools in the state to have at least twenty minutes of recess every day, outdoors if possible. Twenty minutes isn’t much, but apparently some schools in Illinois offer no recess at all. As of last year, more than half of Chicago’s elementary schools, for example, offered no recess; even at the kindergarten-through-third-grade level, 46% offered no recess. Incredible.

The bill’s sponsor explained what shouldn’t need explaining:
“We can’t lose sight of the fact that kids need to be kids,” [State Sen. Kimberly Lightford said.] “Our children deserve a chance to play and relax during the school day. Learning to make friends and use your imagination is every bit as important as learning multiplication and grammar.”
Even more remarkably, the bill also “forbids schools from withholding recess as a disciplinary action.” I know a school that would have some big adjustments to make if a bill like that ever passed in Iowa.

Why doesn’t our school board pass a policy like this one about recess, or about lunch? But we know that our board sees these as “building-level decisions” in which it should not intervene. (I don’t mean to pick on one school board member there; from all appearances, the entire board agrees.)

When the state steps in and decides school issues, everyone accepts it as routine. When administrators decide school issues with no oversight, everyone accepts it as routine. How is it that the one body that would be overstepping its bounds by intervening is the one actually elected by our community to decide school issues?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Why the lunchroom?

I posted some comments here, and another on this post, that seem to have coalesced in my mind into a post of their own.

Over the three years I’ve been writing about educational trends on this blog, I’ve become a big believer in local control of educational policy. Someday I will post my Top Ten Reasons to Decentralize Education Policy, but I already know which reason will top the list: the more you put the policymaking power into the hands of the people who actually know the children as individuals – parents and teachers – the more humane those policies are likely to be.

I don’t expect to agree with everything my kids’ teachers do. I wish, for example, that they were less prone to using rewards systems and particularly to using candy and junk food as a reward, and less inclined to punish kids by depriving them of recess. At least some of that, though, seems to be in response to the pressures put on teachers from above; I think we’d see less of it if teachers themselves had more say in educational policy. Anyway, I’m not suggesting that we should write teachers (or teachers’ unions) a blank check about how to run our schools, but I do believe that they are the most humane element in a less and less humane system.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the aspect of school that has most visibly been worsened by our district’s behavior management craze is the lunchroom -- the one place where the classroom teachers play virtually no role. In the lunchroom, and in the disciplinary practices described here, we’re seeing what happens when administrative dictates, driven by federal and state policies, are carried out without any classroom teachers serving as a buffer. I would happily trade that top-down system for one based on policies freely chosen by the Iowa City community, in which parents and teachers would likely have a more meaningful say.

Monday, May 21, 2012

“You will be rewarded for your subordination”

I don’t agree with the idea that children are essentially cannon fodder in the War to Maintain American Global Competitiveness, and that our schools should be designed accordingly. But even if I did, I’d worry about whether today’s schools are really promoting the kind of thinking that will serve our economy – or our kids – in the future. In that spirit, from Forbes Magazine, here are “Nine Dangerous Things You Were Taught in School.” A taste:
6. Behaving yourself is as important as getting good marks. Whistle-blowing, questioning the status quo, and thinking your own thoughts are no-nos. Be quiet and get back on the assembly line.
Read the whole piece.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Hunger games

Now, in one of the lunch periods at our elementary school, some of the kids have been enlisted to help patrol the lunchroom and to write up their classmates who are not complying with “voice level expectations.” Stranger still, it is the same child (who gets to choose a friend to help) every day.

That pitting the kids against each other in this way might teach the kids some bad lessons about the use of authority, or might create (or worsen) an adversarial school environment, or might needlessly make what is already a very short lunch break just a little more unpleasant, has apparently not occurred to the adults in charge of the lunchroom.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

If it ain’t broke, break it, then make everyone miserable fixing it

The “Principal’s Piece” in this week’s issue of our school’s newsletter:
The Intermediate (3/4) and Upper (5/6) students participated in a lunchroom survey. The students, overwhelmingly, shared that their lunchroom experience was a negative one. About half of the students stated that it was a negative experience because they felt they were not being respected and wanted to be able to carry on conversations instead of following staff members’ re-directions throughout lunch. The other half stated it was a negative experience because the lunchroom was too noisy and uncomfortable for them. I approached the students with a compromise. We are no longer turning the lights off and requiring students to sit silently during the last 2 minutes of lunch. A clap pattern is done to quiet students down to get the table wipers ready and tables are dismissed or students are dismissed based on those who are sitting quietly and respectfully, with clean areas, and ready to go. The students have shared with me that they like this much better. They shared there is still room for improvement and we are asking for your help. Through the end of this school year, we invite all parents to Hoover to eat lunch and help students follow table/eating expectations (similar to what you would expect in a restaurant). We hope to start a parent volunteer program for next year to help model these expectations.
What a piece of work this “Principal’s Piece” is. The fifth- and sixth-graders can remember when lunch, though rushed, was at least a pleasant break from their day. Now, in the name of teaching “expectations,” the school has succeeded in making everyone unhappy. Does anyone believe that half the students find the lunchroom too noisy? Could it be that it is “uncomfortable” for them because of the response it triggers from the lunchroom attendants?

With less than three weeks of school left, the school has finally realized that its year-long lunchroom behavior management program has left the children feeling “overwhelmingly” that lunch is a negative experience. Never mind that people have been pointing it out since the first week of school. (Recall that the principal told me in December that “I do not have the feeling Hoover has a negative atmosphere - nor do the teachers and many of the parents I do see volunteering at school.”) I would think that in those circumstances the school would take some responsibility – maybe, Heaven forbid, even apologize – rather than attribute the problem to the children’s own incorrigible misbehavior.

Clay Shirky once said that “institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.” Sometimes, apparently, they have to create the problem first.

There is no good indoctrination

Well, I didn’t have much luck getting the panelists on bullying to respond to my concerns about the potential for anti-bullying interventions to be counterproductive and to model some of the same traits they are trying to discourage. The goal of reducing bullying is a good one, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that every proposal to address it is a good one. Discussions about bullying are always well-meaning, but they often seem to proceed from an unexamined and very questionable premise: that we can mold kids’ values to order simply by telling them, in a sufficiently elaborate and pervasive way, what to think.

At some level, I think everyone perceives the word “indoctrination” to have a negative connotation – that it’s something a free society shouldn’t do, and that it’s the opposite of real education. But many people seem to make an exception when the message that is being indoctrinated is a commendable one (for example, that bullying is bad). That exception, of course, would entirely swallow the rule: people never think the message they are pushing on others is a bad one. The idea is similar to the idea that freedom of speech is great as long the speech isn’t really offensive.

There are good reasons to think that indoctrinatory approaches to behavior and bullying are likely to backfire. First, people naturally resist being told what to think. Second, indoctrination models a dehumanizing way of interacting with people. Our school’s approach to behavior, for example, treats kids as if they are incapable of reaching their own moral conclusions – as if they’re not fully people. I’d be worried about using an approach like that to discourage bullying, which is also a form of dehumanizing people.

I don’t think I’m saying anything very radical. A school can have rules about conduct, and can enforce them. Its administrators and teachers can explain to the students why they have those rules, and they can explain what the school’s values are and why. They can insist that the children follow the rules, but they should stop short of insisting that the children agree with the school on what are, ultimately, value questions. That’s where they cross the line from enforcing rules to indoctrinating minds. And any system of behavioral rules should be accompanied by an effort to get the kids thinking for themselves about right and wrong, without the school dictating right answers, so that the kids aren’t simply learning mindless obedience. (For a thumbnail sketch of what such an approach might look like, see this post.)

If school officials think they can just tell kids what to think about right and wrong, they don’t understand what a conscience is. Unless people are given the freedom to reach their own conclusions about what’s right and wrong, they can’t possibly develop real consciences, since a conscience sometimes requires you to do what’s right even when no one else thinks it’s right. That’s why herding kids into agreeing with the school’s rules and values by subjecting them to pep-rally-like behavior assemblies or having them chant memorized slogans couldn’t be more misguided. If you want people to develop their own moral compasses and to resist peer pressure, you don’t achieve that by appealing to their desire to please authority figures and conform to the crowd.

Bullying is real and has many causes, but many behavior crusaders seem eager to look for sources of bullying everywhere but in their own techniques for addressing it.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Indoctrination is a counterproductive way to address bullying

The Iowa City Patch has invited its readers to discuss the issue of bullying with a group of panelists. I’ve been chiming in with comments that will sound familiar to readers of this blog – for example:
In addressing the bullying issue, people should be mindful of the difference between persuasion and indoctrination. Trying to use reason to persuade people to a set of values is a respectful way of engaging with people. Indoctrination – telling people what to think – is not. Indoctrination is a form of dehumanization, just like bullying, and is part of the problem, not the solution.

Right now, the approach of the Iowa City schools is indoctrination. The behavioral rewards program used in all the schools (“PBIS”) is entirely about telling the students how to act, and then using material rewards to get them to comply. It has no component designed to get the kids thinking for themselves about right and wrong and how to treat other people. In the end, all it teaches is obedience to authority.

I’m not saying the schools shouldn’t have rules. But simply dictating rules does nothing to help kids develop their own moral and ethical reasoning about how to treat other people. Without more, it just models treating people like objects to be bossed around and manipulated.

If we want kids to treat each other with dignity, we need to treat them with dignity, and engage them in reasoning about what’s right and wrong – not just tell them what to think.
So far, the panelists have had little to say in response to my comments, but the thread is still developing . . .

Update here.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Better writers vs. better papers

I’ve had little time to blog recently because I’ve been grading the end-of-semester legal briefs in my legal analysis, writing, and research course. These students have learned a ton over the course of their first year in law school, but their writing and analytical skills are still developing, and there are a lot of ways their papers could still improve. Reading their year-end briefs always gets me thinking about the teaching process.

One of the challenges of teaching the class – and I assume that some version of this challenge is true of all teaching – is in deciding how much help to give students along the way, and what kind of help. In my class, each student submits a draft of each section of the brief, which I give extensive comments on; then the student revises the drafts to produce a final brief. So the question arises: how much should I give away at the draft stage? If I think there’s a great argument that the student isn’t making, should I point it out? If the student is misreading a key case, or not citing the case at all, should I point it out? If a sentence is unnecessarily wordy or confusing, should I suggest a clearer alternative?

It’s a fine line to walk. I comment as much as I can on whether the draft makes sense, whether it raises unanswered questions in my mind, whether it says anything that sounds so improbable that it should be double-checked, whether its language is confusing or abstract, whether its organization is hard to follow, etc. But I have to constantly fight the temptation to be too prescriptive about what the draft should say. I want the students to keep wrestling with the analysis. I want to give them a chance to find the missing case, or discover the strong argument, on their own. That means taking the risk that they won’t all write the perfect brief, but if I were to short-circuit that process by being too prescriptive, they’d miss out on the most valuable part of the learning process.

In other words, I have to keep reminding myself that the goal is to produce better writers and better thinkers, not better papers. There’s an easy way to get better papers: just tell the students what to write. But no one learns how to write, or how to think through a legal problem, simply by taking dictation.

Now imagine that all of the briefs were sent to a standardized testing company. Imagine that the testing company had its employees (or even a computer!) assess the quality of the briefs and give them a score. Imagine that my salary, or even my job, depended on those scores. Even if we assume that the company could validly assess the quality of the briefs, wouldn’t I have to teach very differently? Wouldn’t I have to focus on the product at the expense of the process, and on the short-term at the expense of the long-term? Wouldn’t I have to tell the students how and what to write, as much as I could get away with, instead of letting them reason their way through the analysis on their own?

It’s always going to be easier to raise test scores artificially and through short-cuts than to facilitate real learning. High-stakes testing just makes that temptation irresistible. That’s part of the problem with what Ken Robinson calls the “fast food model of education.” I’m lucky – and I think my students are, too – that that model hasn’t yet taken hold at the law school level. Kids in K-12: not so lucky.