Saturday, May 1, 2010

Go easy on people, and hard on improving ideas...

One who attacks and seeks to overthrow traditional or popular ideas or institutions.
 flickr photo via NASA Goddard Photo and Video

I think we perceive the value and purpose of debate all wrong. Our tendency to take a polarized view (aka disagreement) between two sides of a concept and argue opposite sides until one "wins" the debate is perhaps less effective in today's world than it has been in the simpler, more black and white world of the past (at least from our perspective... I'm sure the world to contemporaries in history was every bit as complex to them as ours is to us today.)

In virtually every element of our human lives, decisions need to be made... politics, business, education, family, relationships... humans have been blessed with the ability to think rationally, (or perhaps cursed depending on your perspective.) This being said, so much energy and emotional investment is dedicated to the decision itself, that the nuances of the idea or concept being argued often get lost in the shuffle. This is not good. We get hung up on 'winning' our precious debate, and ultimately deny our rational thinking abilities in favor of power and control over our opponent in the debate. Nothing good comes from this phenomena in relation to the advancement of the idea or concept we should be focusing less subjectively on.

Opinions are opinions and should be stated as such; we're all entitled to them. A wise person will never argue opinions. Conversely, facts are also facts, and when stated with support, can be argued very effectively. Not all facts are opinions, and not all opinions are facts, but some of both are the other... this is where it gets convoluted. It's the grey area between opinions and facts that breeds dissension in a debate resulting in an adversarial environment; one that seldom leads to a good decision.

This post may seem inherently ironic. Here I am suggesting that iconoclastic thinking is hazardous if we intend to move ideas forward diplomatically and thoughtfully because it assumes that traditional or popular ideas or institutions are all bad, and I'm positing rather iconoclastically that traditional polarized debate is all bad, and we should radically change the way we come to decisions. I'm actually not, though. What I propose is a model of debate and decision making that involves dissonance to be sure, but also a presupposition that it is the dissonance within the argument that must be resolved, not defeated.

Dissonance is a word that connotes the unresolved or inharmonious. What if both sides of a debate focused on the resolution of the dissonant concept not by attempting to strengthen their respective positions, but rather by choosing to make their effort strengthening the positions of their opponent? I'm talking about an integrative process whereby each side of the debate looks at the positions of the other side, and  ultimately chooses to discuss each stance that would be acceptable to their side; what they could live with... a process where the dissonant nature of the argument would start to move toward the middle as opposed to the outer reaches. Unlike a battle that one side must win, and one must lose, this model suggests that it is the concept or idea that's being discussed that must win the day, or perhaps be discarded for a better one.

These are some of the thoughts I had while reading Roger Martin. For more on what he calls integrative thinking, I suggest you pick up a copy of The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

"I need another note..."

Those of us who are privileged to work in schools need to be aware of  how the slightest act can lead to a massive realization on behalf of one of our disciples... we need to take this element very seriously. I have many stories of exceptional teachers who knew this implicitly.

My career has provided the opportunity to witness some pretty incredible people working very effectively with kids that not too many would be successful with. During my eight years working exclusively with kids from at-risk environments in a congregated special education context, (in Alberta the Department of Education designates these kids under code 42- those manifesting severe emotional/behavioral difficulties... I just coded them as needing someone to believe in them,) I was dumbfounded at the levels of resiliency these kids displayed, and profoundly saddened at the same time as a result of being forced to know what they were overcoming on some days just to make it to school at all. I took the long way home many days during those eight years. At the same time, I was repeatedly encouraged by my exposure to levels of with-it-ness in my colleagues that were off the charts when dealing with these kids' stories.

One such story popped into my thoughts today as I was writing about a colleague in another post- We need schools where "everybody knows your name." Dan McDonald taught in our Behavior Program for ninth and tenth grade kids. One day as Dan tells the story, a young girl arrived at school in a particular state of anxiety. She was pregnant, and the world was weighing heavily on her... that much was obvious. Never judgemental, Dan and his support staff watched her closely that afternoon, looking for any clue that may help tell her story that day. In the gentle conversations that ensued it became apparent that the girl was at her wits end with life in general, and she was planning to get loaded that Friday night... to drink and smoke her sorrows away. As the day wore on, and the staff became increasingly convinced that this young girl was serious, Dan came up with the best 'think-on-your-feet' plan he could; he told the girl she wasn't going to do that.

The response was painfully predictable... "yes I am!", the girl said. Dan reiterated, "no you're not," and she responded, "what the hell are you going to do about it?" Without really knowing what he was going to do if he was being totally honest, Dan blurted out the first thing that came to his mind; he said to one of the support staff members, "Ethel, what are we going to do about it?" Her response was equally off-the-cuff... "write her a note," she said. So Dan did just that; he wrote her a note indicating all of those reasons why she should not go get loaded as she seemed so intent to do that particular Friday night. She took the note, left for the weekend, and they didn't give it another thought beyond adding it to the generalized concern they felt for their students every Friday night.

Flash-forward about a year...
The girl in question had left the school to care for her newborn baby, and as often happened, one day she came back to the school to visit with her child. Dan and his staff never turned these kids away when this happened; it was as if they had a homing instinct that brought them back, and it was important that they were accepted and welcomed. This visit was a bit different, however. They were talking and holding the baby, getting caught-up with the goings-on of the last year or so in the young girl's life, but the conversation went on for much longer than was usually the case. An hour or so after she arrived, when most of what was usually talked about had already been talked about, Dan sensed there may be something else this girl needed, so he asked exactly that... "not that we are rushing you away or anything, but is there something else you need today, because we really should get back to our lessons for the day." The girl started crying and simply said, "yes, I need another note."

Never underestimate the power of small, seemingly insignificant acts of caring... you might be the only one in a young person's life who took the time to perform them.

We need schools where "everybody knows your name."

Making your way in the world today takes everything you've got.
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.
Wouldn't you like to get away?
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
and they're always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
Your name.
You wanna go where people know,
people are all the same,
You wanna go where everybody knows
your name. 
…Original and full length lyrics for “Where Everybody Knows Your Name,” the theme song from the 1980s television sitcom “Cheers,” was written by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo.

My colleague, Dan McDonald, master teacher and kid-magnet extraordinaire, came up with a darn good concept one day. He said we need "Norm schools..." the kind where "everybody knows your name," and not just during regular school hours. Dan is the kind of teacher who knows the value of making meaningful connections with students over time by first getting to know their personal learning stories. Some kids' stories read more happily than others, and he knew that without that connection, scholastic success was but a dream, especially for the kids from at-risk environments that he typically supported in his role as an alternative teacher.

Dan wondered out loud what our educational environment would look, sound and feel like if every person that worked in a school, metaphorically speaking, knew the name of every kid who attended that school... and of course he didn't mean that they should memorize the yearbook. He meant knowing their names in the sense that the characters from 'Cheers' knew Norm's name, and everyone else's in the bar... that 'Cheers' was like home for many of them, and the patrons like family. The names were associated with each character's deeper being; their identities and perspectives toward the daily challenges that formed the story-lines of the show. The bar was a place for them to feel accepted- a sense of belonging, and perhaps a place where they were comfortable being vulnerable as they shared their troubles and flaws with each other. He thought that schools should be this type of environment.

He wondered further how schools could become more welcoming and open to students who are vulnerable, flawed and dealing with problems... environments where they feel that sense of belonging allowing them to share their challenges with significant, supportive others knowing that they won't be judged or categorized. To nurture this sense of belonging, he pondered why schools shut their doors for all intent and purposes at 4:00 PM, and don't effectively open up again until 7:00 AM the next day. There are many reasons to leave school buildings open after regular school hours, but Dan was interested really in just one. He figured that one way to facilitate a deep, meaningful and positive connection to school would be to leave the doors open into the evenings each day. He had brilliant ideas about school partnerships with social service and helping agencies whereby programming and services for youth would be carried on right where school left off every day. He understood that for some, school is the only safe and nurturing environment kids know... why not allow them the privilege of being in that safe place as much as possible? Why not source agencies and people who would be willing to collaborate with educators to support kids in the evenings in this way? I think Dan was on to something with these questions.

Take some time to think about what kind of school you work at, or what kind of school your kids attend. Is it the kind where kids feel a sense of belonging, safety and care... like family, or is it some other kind of school? If it is some other kind of school, perhaps ask yourself what you can do to change that feeling.

Beware Behaviorism!

 flickr photo via Kevan

I'm admittedly confused regarding the controversy in education surrounding behaviorism. It is highly arguable that most behavior is rewarded or punished. These punishments or rewards are often referred to as "carrots or sticks." In the context of the oft-used metaphor, (someone must dangle a carrot or threaten with a stick to get the proverbial mule to do what is desired,) there seems to be a suggestion that the reward or punishment must come from an extrinsic source. I don't think this is an accurate description of behaviorism.

All behavior elicits a response, and it seems to me, this response will be a naturally occurring one relative to the subjective, or perhaps unknown purpose of the behavior, (assuming that all behavior is purposeful.)

I'm not an operant behaviorist by any stretch... I just don't think that operant conditioning is natural or effective in nurturing positive behavior. Let's face it, engaging classrooms lead to engaged students... in the context of behaviorism, can we not call the engaging classroom the unconditioned stimulus, and the authentic, positive teaching and learning that takes place there the unconditioned response?  If so, behaviorism is alive and well in North American schools, and thank heaven it is so.

Externally applied operant conditioning, (of which the effectiveness in schools is suspect,) is using positive and negative reinforcement to 'do to' in the effort to solicit a desired response, but there is so much more to a behaviorist approach than the cliche 'carrots and sticks' that opponents of what they refer to as 'behaviorism' allude to. I would assert that there is so much more to positive and negative reinforcement in general than many people realize, (positive and negative reinforcement can be unconditioned as well- e.g. if a teacher yells at a student to stop doing something he/she isn't supposed to do, and the student stops, the unconditioned cessation of the student's undesirable behavior has negatively reinforced the teacher's yelling.)

Educators need to explore the scope and context of behaviorism within a new and collaborative mindset if we are to be considered students of our own craft, which boiled down, is really just a very pure study of human behavior; is it not?
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