Saturday, April 3, 2010

Hybrid Thinking- Why We Shouldn't Care Where Good Ideas Come From

flickr CC image via M 93

Our human tendency to debate opposing ideologies without apology until one is accepted by a majority resulting in a "winning" idea or concept is counter-intuitive to progress. On the contrary, the integrative mind understands that within the current change climate we find ourselves immersed in, our viability as a global society will depend on a synthesis of ideas that should not be considered dichotomous, but rather complementary to one another. In the context of supporting effective child development, this form of hybrid thinking will ensure that we don't miss the boat on any developing idea's potential.

By taking two or more perspectives on effective and positive child development and combining their best elements into a synthesized hybrid of all of them, a new paradigm is born, and those who brought each perspective to the process no longer operate independently and in defense of their point of view, but rather interdependently in support of each other and the best possible course of action. Don't our sons and daughters deserve our absolute best objective thinking relative to the care we provide them?

 To that end I make two suggestions... read The Opposable Mind by Roger Martin,
 and next time you find yourself in a heated debate defensively stating your
 opinion, simply stop doing it and do something very different. Instead of
 defending your position and fighting to win the battle, take a breath, think deeply
 and objectively about the issue, and then take a serious critical perspective toward
 the opposing argument, looking for any shred of a good idea or element that you
 can live with, and that may even synergize with your position. You may even want
 to suggest to your opponent that he/she does the same with your 'side' so both of
 you can see the middle ground you were both previously blind to.

 You'll be amazed at the results this strategy produces; trust me, I've tried it. You
 can do this when involved in debate over any issue, but when it comes to doing
 our best thinking relative to providing every possible outside-the-box opportunity
 for our kids to learn and grow, we can't afford to do anything less.

The Teaching "Profession?"

I read David Warlick's comments on teaching as a profession at his 2¢ Worth blog, and it conjured up a question I have struggled with ever since becoming a teacher... do I belong to a profession?

In David's post, "The Teaching Profession," he describes an ongoing conversation at Will Richardson’s Weblogg-ed blog pondering the question whether teaching is a profession. David states that,
Semi-profession might actually be generous. Much of the job, especially as addressed by NCLB, is more like being a technician, applying prescribed, researched, and government-approved techniques on students, based on high-precision measurements... I suspect that the term professional, has described teachers because they've earned a college degree, and years ago they were among the only people in many communities who were educated to that level.
It's true, teachers have been called professionals, and for all the right reasons; I agree that we are. I can't, however say that just because teachers act professionally, that we belong to a profession. Defining a profession is evidently not as easy as it sounds. Even the Wikipedia article on the subject is controversial. The article mentions its own factual accuracy as potentially questionable. The part of this article under dispute is about the vernacular vs. legally-accepted use of the term. So often in education we use terms that we don't seem to implicitly understand, and alas it appears, that referring to teachers en masse as a profession may be another one of those terms. I don't believe that acquiring a university degree automatically means a person is a professional.

 So, I think we need some context if the rest of this post is going anywhere. One thing I've noticed about other "professions" is the relative control and influence they have over their own ranks, and also their purpose for existing in the first place. I'm not sure that within this context I could confidently define teaching as a profession. Teachers as professionals don't enjoy much control or influence over their own practice, and they sure don't appear to have much control or influence over what they're expected to do and how they do it.

My friend Joe Bower wrote a great piece recently at his For the Love of Learning blog entitled Five Ways to Get Education Right. In the post Joe compares Seth Godin's perspective from his new book Small is the New Big, regarding five reasons why companies make mistakes and then do nothing to remedy them, with what he feels is wrong with education reform. I'm going to key on Godin's second reason- The people in the field aren't given the ability to influence management without appearing to be troublemakers. Joe correlates this reason with the ridiculous concepts within education of larger rewards (merit pay) for "good teachers," or that harsher punishments (mass firings) will induce poor teachers to be better. I'm not sure that's a straight across correlation, but I think there's another possibility. I think Godin's second example of a mistake the business world makes correlates well with the biggest mistake education makes, and the one I feel precludes professional teachers from membership in a true profession... a lack of control and influence from within our ranks. We don't control or influence our own people, and we don't control or influence our purpose... the autonomy true professions enjoy regarding these points is not shared by teachers.

In Canada doctors have their College of Physicians and Surgeons, lawyers have their Bar Association and engineers have their Association of Professional Engineers. Within these cohorts, accreditation is granted, and monitoring of purpose is a perpetual responsibility that defines each cohort as a profession; they control their own. Teachers belong to their associations too, but there are two critical differences. Firstly, I received my accreditation from the government Department of Education, not my professional association. Secondly, the monitoring of my professionalism is ultimately the responsibility of the same Department of Education... the Minister of Education signs my teaching certificate, and only the Minister of Education can take it away. The critical difference between the teaching cohort, and the professional cohorts that lawyers, doctors and engineers belong to, is the ability of the latter to have control and influence over their ranks, and control and influence over their purpose. Teachers don't have this same control and influence because for some reason, we are not trusted to act on them responsibly.

So it boils down to respect in my opinion. There is no better entity to direct the future of education than teachers, but the general consensus among non-teachers seems to be otherwise. Teachers need to lobby and advocate for this privilege. We need to display our professionalism and work much more closely with our associations to assert that more autonomy to do what is pedagogically sound, morally and ethically proper and professionally astute would allow teachers to be seen as the knowledgeable and responsible experts they know themselves to be.

Perhaps then we won't be a bunch of professionals without a profession anymore.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

R.I.P. Phoebe Prince

The January 2010 suicide in Massachusetts of Phoebe Prince prompted investigators to accuse nine of her fellow students with the bullying that may have prompted her suicide. Phoebe Prince was the latest casualty in a war we are not winning; the war on bullying.
 flickr photo via trix0r

How many of these incidents will it take before we realize that our typical reactive response does nothing to prevent future tragic incidents from occurring? The odds stacked against our sons and daughters are overwhelming if they find themselves the subjects of bullying behavior, and we need to stop the cycle. I have written in this blog about the importance of learning bullies' stories, and for those kids on the bully-victim spectrum, I sincerely believe this needs to be done if we are to help ease whatever pain is causing their actions. This proactive approach is necessary to curb the influence of bullying, but it won't bring back Phoebe Prince or any of the others who have succumbed to one of the biggest social challenges educators are facing today... kids tendency to want to share their personal pain.

As a former counselor in middle school, and having worked with kids from at-risk environments for 16 years, I have heard stories that upset me to the point where I have had to take the long way home after a bad day at work in order to avoid displaying my grief to my family. I have been reduced to tears hearing kids stories about their home environments, what they deal with socially at school and how this affects their ability to function in even the most basic ways. Our kids are hurting. They are hurting more profoundly than they ever have before. New faceless tools to inflict pain toward others like text messaging and other social media outlets have produced a desensitized generation of perpetrators that has raised the threat of bullying to epidemic levels.

What are we to do? There are no doubt infinite opinions regarding how to deal retroactively with cases such as Phoebe Prince's, and the vast majority of them will default to an eye for an eye perspective. I honestly have nothing to say about that. What should happen to the individuals involved as perpetrators in cases like this will be decided by the courts, and that will be that. You know what though... I'll say it again; it won't bring back Phoebe Prince.

Our kids are lost... how can we make a statement other than this one while attempting to make any sense whatsoever of incidents like the Phoebe Prince bullycide? There was at least one case in my high school twenty-five years ago, and it's still happening.

We need to do what we do in schools differently if we are to curb this most devastating problem, and as I said before, we should start by knowing kids' stories. Teachers must make it their business to connect with kids on personal levels; to reclaim them. In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu in his foreword to the book, "Reclaiming Youth at Risk- Our Hope for the Future,"

The reclaiming environment is one that creates changes that meet the needs of both the young person and society. To reclaim is to recover and redeem, to restore value to something that has been devalued.

Teachers, and anyone else who works in schools, it's our most imperative moral and ethical responsibility to reclaim our lost children. We need to establish the most basic awareness that children are our gift to the future and that we are not packaging them very well as of late. We need to truly provide safe and nurturing environments in our schools for kids to thrive without fear and anxiety regarding their emotional, social and psychological well-being. As educators, we tend to underestimate the value of those regular day-to-day things we do in schools for kids who are in so much personal pain that they feel they can't live another day. In the words of Carl Jung,
An understanding heart is everything in a teacher, and cannot be esteemed highly enough. One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feeling. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.
Teachers, there are no emergencies in education; we get so worked up about trivial things on a daily basis that we forget, or perhaps some of us never realize that behind the faces of our students are vulnerable young souls dealing with what to them could be life or death problems that overshadow any test, assignment, lab, bit of unfinished homework or any other minor delay in the learning process. Our greatest challenge in contemporary education is to reclaim kids; all of them. Their problems are real, even if they are only real to them- they are real... make no mistake about that. Do not shirk your responsibility to acknowledge this fact, and take the appropriate action to be there when a student chooses you.

That student will choose you because in some way, on any given day, you have provided just a glimmer of hope in the dark and damaging world he/she endures.

Don't be the last person a student came to before doing something bad that cannot be reversed... be the first person a student came to and will never forget because you were willing to share the pain as you held hands without judgement taking those first steps through their grief toward healing.

In the brilliant words of Professor Herbert W. Vilakazi,
"The problems of children and of youth, giving rise to child and youth care programs, can only begin to be solved in that society of humankind’s dream; a more collective-oriented society than at present, when the father of the child shall be every man as old as the child’s father; when the mother of the child shall be every woman as old as the child’s mother; a society of responsibility of the entire community..."
Is there any more important responsibility than this?

Rest in peace Phoebe Prince.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Bully-Victim Spectrum

flickr CC image via Eddie~S

We spend too much time dealing ineffectively with bullies and not enough working proactively with victims, understanding that all bullies were first victims.

Hurt people, hurt people. I've heard this quote attributed to many. It doesn't even matter to me who claims these words of wisdom because they are so painfully true. I have worked with countless kids who have been characterized as bullies. The first question I used to ask them after they had hurt someone is why they did it. Their answers were very predictable. Defensive and seasoned bullies would tell me it was the victim's fault, that the victim had it coming or simply deny doing anything wrong, but the other answer I heard allot was confusing to me. Sometimes kids would tell me they didn't know why they did it. I wasn't sure how to analyze this response. It bothered me a bit that perhaps they could be telling me the truth; they actually didn't know why they were committing acts of bullying.

The more I heard this response over time from kids who had treated others badly, the more I believed them. I began to understand that their behavior was wrong and damaging to others to be sure, but that there were variables contributing to it that I did not understand. I wondered about whether trying to find out what variables were affecting the way these bullies behaved might help them understand their own behavior. I started to develop a perception that the first victim impact statement should be given to the bully, because there is a victim behind every single one of them.

I'm not trying to excuse bullies from their hurtful behavior, but it strikes me that they have always been a part of society, and I don't think they're going away any time soon. All of our attempts to stop bullying in its tracks have been unsuccessful. Every day we hear horrible stories about how bullies have inflicted physical and emotional pain on their victims. We are not winning the battle against bullying. Perhaps this is true because we aren't looking at the problem the right way.

I suggest that instead of asking bullies why they did what they did, we ask them a slightly different question. After hearing hundreds of bullies tell me they didn't know why they did what they did, I decided to re-frame my question to reflect the theory that hurt people hurt people. I started asking them this question... "what has made you feel so bad in your life that you feel someone else needs to share your pain?" The result was amazing and heart-wrenching. When I asked bullies this question, the vast majority didn't respond verbally at all; they just started crying.

Behind every bully is first a victim, and we need to learn victim's stories if we are to understand their victim - turned - bully behavior. Once we have this insight we can begin to help victims heal; to deal with their pain so they aren't inclined to inflict pain on others.

We spend too much time dealing with bullies, and not enough time supporting victims. I have yet to meet even one child who entered the world wanting to hurt people.

Behind every bully is a victim with a story. If you want to break the bullying cycle, learn this story.
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