Saturday, October 3, 2015

PBIS, Token Economies, and Dreary Estimates of the Human Potential

My school, like thousands of others across the country, is working to implement a system for encouraging positive behavior called PBIS (positive behavioral interventions and supports). If you work in public schools, odds are you’ve worked with PBIS and have some notion of what I’m talking about.

The idea behind PBIS is that our more traditional method of disciplining kids, based primarily on punishing them for wrong behavior, has largely led to negative outcomes like suspension. For many students, responses like suspension merely put them on a path toward dropping out.

The PBIS model works to create an environment in which there is a systematic effort to acknowledge and affirm the positive behaviors of students and staff. It also seeks to create an environment in all parts of the school that lowers the potential for misbehavior by being extremely clear and explicit about the expectations for school conduct.

I’ve heard PBIS trainers say that “research shows that” 80% of people want to follow the rules, if only they were clear about what the rules were. The thinking is that 80% of people would follow the rules most of the time so long as those were clear. 

As for the other 20%, PBIS has a multi-colored triangle that outlines a frame of responses for those who chronically violate expectations. The thinking is that it’s smart to have a set of “tier 2” responses ready for students who need a little extra help getting their behaviors in order, and a set of “tier 3” responses for students who are particularly challenging or behave in especially harmful ways.

At the bottom of the triangle are tier 1 strategies, which attempt to prevent and resolve minor misbehavior that nearly all students are bound to engage every now and then. Examples of this include arriving to class late, forgetting to bring required materials, or having a minor dispute with a teacher or other student. Tier 1 strategies are geared toward supporting the majority of students (those who want to follow the rules) make sound decisions. They include posting and regularly discussing school-wide norms and expectations from day one. 

“We treat one another with respect. We engage with our academics. We act as scholars at all times.”

They also include noticing and affirming behaviors that support those school-wide norms and expectations. 

“Thank you, Darius! I like the way you’re ready for work. Great job, Monica! You’re sitting silently.”

Much PBIS work is necessary in schools and communities. There is an aspect of PBIS that troubles many educators, however. 
PBIS systems often advocate offering students superficial, inauthentic rewards for conforming to behavior expectations. A common form of this is the token economy. In the classroom, this might include teachers creating fake money that students receive for participating or turning in homework on time. School-wide, administrators might hand out tokens or points when they see students behaving in the hallways or at lunch. These tokens are then turned in for rewards later, like at an arcade.

What is bothersome about the token economy is that it seems to ignore more meaningful incentives humans have for behaving well in school and community.

Token economies are often rationalized by relating them to the money-based economy we participate in at a societal level. All of us are motivated to work and participate in the money-based economy, so why shouldn’t offer students the same incentive opportunities?

Considered in this way, PBIS strikes me as only marginally more progressive a system for discipline than the more traditional, punishment-oriented system is seeks to replace. Like that more traditional system, it seems to be based on a pretty dreary estimate of the human potential. While, compared to a punishment-only system, PBIS has an expanded notion of what drives human behavior, its notions of what those motivators are doesn’t even begin scratch the surface of their depth and possibility. Its assumptions seem dangerously oversimplified.

External motivators do drive desired behavior, but we have to be really careful about their use. This is particularly true as people mature. There often comes a time when the attempt to use external motivators with highly developed people can backfire. I, for one, am likely to feel condescended to when another person tries to exact a behavior from me with an external reward. 

The motivators for most people’s behavior are far more nuanced and complex than rewards offered in a token or money-based economy. Relying on rewards that appeal to a person’s baser desires (cookies or pizza parties, for example) communicates that these are the real rewards worth working for in school when the reality is that there are much deeper and more meaningful reasons for participating in a well-functioning classroom or school community. 

Furthermore, capturing a student’s interest in a token economy in which the rewards are in no way naturally connected with their behavior might limit them from exploring, experiencing, and understanding a deeper part of his or her self - the part that finds purpose in a sense of vital engagement in work that is meaningful. 

When schools have a hard time communicating to students the meaning in their work, it becomes clear why a superficial system of consequences and rewards is required to control their behavior. 

Sadly, many of our public schools today are overburdened with mandates to focus on packaged curriculum that would seem dry to any of us. Few people can derive a sense of vital engagement and purpose from preparing for test after test after test. Whatever we were put on earth to do, test-taking it was not. In this context, pizza parties seem about as powerful a motivator as any.

So we can see that meaningful discipline systems are undergirded in schools by work that engages students in purposeful education and helps them see their role in their community and their world clearly. In other words, schools have a greater purpose than preparing students simply to fill job openings and going on to participate in the “real economy.” 

Students and citizens are motivated far more deeply by incentives outside the bounds of the money and tokens. Today, the word “economy” is so closely connected with the concept of money that many of us have a hard time separating one from the other. But there are economies that are not based on money. Indeed, before the invention of money, humans still participated in complex systems of give and take that created powerful motivators for people to behave.

Humans are complicated beings with diverse and nuanced reasons for their behavior. At their best, those who live and work in community (like at school) respond most readily to relational obligations they regularly create for themselves and others. This is especially apparent when you ask people who work in social services why they do what they do. The need “to give back” is an obligation that has been created for individuals raised in and by healthy communities. Individuals sense that the positive things that were done for them must be “paid back.” Reciprocity is also borne out of an intuitive understanding that acknowledges and accepts the importance of helping others.

Most schools and many communities in our society, do not spend much time thinking explicitly about the relational obligations that we create (and are created for us) on a daily basis. 

They are there, however. You see them most often in families. Most of us would be unwilling to accept money for doing something for an immediate family member. 

But they can also be seen between strangers on the street.

A little while ago, I was browsing an independent bookstore that I just discovered. While I was pursuing, a husky man with a big beard came in and picked up ten books that he proceeded to put down in front of the owner, who sat behind the cash register, to purchase. As the owner began scanning each of the books, the man began to speak in a strong Eastern European accent:

“Before, when I was homeless, I stole many books from this store. I sold them on the street for money. Now, I have come back to make up for my transgressions. I would like to buy these books and donate them to your library in the back.”

We feel relational obligations when it becomes clear that we have harmed another person. The harm we do to others stays with us and affects us until we have the opportunity to make it right. This is true for people across the continuum of social-emotional, cognitive development. However, many of those who are in earlier stages of development need significant support in order to see how their behaviors affect other people in order to begin to understand and sense the obligations they’ve created for themselves in harming others. This, I would argue, is the authentic work of school discipline systems.

It seems that an unfortunate number of people don’t understand or believe that these deeper human motivators exist in all people, and especially in students. There is a depressing sense, embedded deeply in our culture, that people are only (or at least mostly) self-interested. Given the opportunity, people will take what they can get for themselves and leave others on their own. Therefore, if we want people to behave, we’re going to have to make it worth their baser brain’s while. 

I would argue that this is a byproduct of our peculiar industrialized, affluent, Western, highly competitive capitalist culture; and not innately human.

When people are disconnected from community, and when the deeper bonds of relationship with those around them are either not present or badly bruised, they tend to act more selfishly. They often don’t feel that those around them care about them or can be trusted - other harmful byproducts of our unique culture that values fierce independence (which often leads to intense isolation) and whose notion of success is based on winning the comparison and competition game perpetuated relentlessly by corporate media.

It doesn’t have to be this way in schools. 

Students who are mentored in schools where comparison and competition are not highly valued, if at all, and are supported in thinking about and caring for themselves and their peers are significantly more likely to understand and respond humanely to their relational obligations.

Social and relational obligations are the most authentic of human motivators. However, young people need time spent discussing their behaviors and teasing out the obligations they’ve created. Beyond that, they must spend time thinking about how to respond to those obligations in humane and courageous ways.

When schools and systems get too big, when we’ve forgotten what really drives us as humans, when we’re too overworked in schools covering standards and preparing for tests; it’s easier to fall back on superficial systems of punishment and reward, like a token economy. But when we do that, we drastically underestimate the beauty and significance of what it means to be human and the potential that each of us has to grow into a force for peace and justice. We sacrifice a valuable opportunity for offering our young people an actual education.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

What and Why We SHOULD Teach

It's time to give it up. I'm abandoning it whole-heartedly. Here and now. I'm leaving it behind forever.

What am I talking about?

As long as I've been a teacher, I've been trying to be something that I should never have been: dispassionately objective. Now, most people who know me personally would probably laugh at the idea that I've ever pretended to be that. I speak out often. I engage people with politics. And I've sometimes acted with a chip on my shoulder.

But ever since I began teaching, at some level of my consciousness, I've held onto this naive belief (with increasingly less and less vigor) that I should attempt to be a technician of teaching - that my ultimate purpose should be to learn the latest and greatest techniques to help students learn sets of skills and facts that could ultimately be quantified. And, importantly, in doing so, I should not allow students to know my beliefs and opinions - or, at the very least, I should not allow them to influence their thinking.

Well, that chapter in my life is over. I'm declaring it dead here and now. Goodbye teacher technician. There is no right place in the world for you.

Why am I doing this? Why kill the part of myself that so many teachers point to when asked what makes them good at what they do?

You see, I have this strong opinion about the world in which we live.

It's fucked up.

I don't cuss often in this space. And I don't use fucked lightly here. I thought about its use long and hard.

How would a reader take it? Lightly, as means of keeping her engaged? Or heavily, as a deep expression of my sorrow and pain at what I observe?

It's meant to be heavy.

Nearly thirty-two years into my life, I've come to hold one opinion more strongly than all others. And that is this: Much of modern society deals in death and dehumanization. We are slowly (but with increasing rapidity) destroying our earth and ourselves, a superficial division between a single system of life.

Although it should be clear to anyone who's paying attention in the richest country on earth, it is perhaps not as obvious as it might be to those who live on humanity's margins.

Those of us who drive fancy cars and live in gated communities with pools, the time for golf, and private masseuses are often not confronted directly with the ravages that our global monoculture of consumption has afflicted on our planet and species.

As a straight, white, "educated," wealthy, healthy, male living in the richest country in the history of the world; I attribute that I have mainly been confronted with this reality to two things: 1) I have been privileged enough to travel to many "poor" countries, and 2) I have worked nearly a decade in some of our country's "poorest" neighborhoods. (I put poor in quotations because I mean to highlight the idea that material wealth is not what everybody means when they use the words rich and poor.)

And in a way, these experiences have been my true privilege in life: to see outside the cultural lens with which I was raised in order to understand others.

That which drives the cycle of consumption and destruction can be attributed to the same root problem that drive many social problems, including the many isms that social justice education seeks to redress.

That root problem is that our modern world's cosmology believes each of us to be individuals whose primary purpose is to compete against one another in order to achieve what we've defined as success. In that pursuit, while we may do well racking up material goods or money (our imaginary system of "wealth" that leads to the long-term destruction of life), we have become isolated, alienated, and completely disconnected from both our earth and one another in so many different ways.

In other words, we have forgotten how to love.

The fundamental anchors that moor our systems of modern education promote this loveless drive for success.

In the name of life, we must change our cosmology, the story we tell ourselves about reality, immediately. Seen through this lens, education takes on a new sense of urgency. And it is not the urgency we commonly associate with getting kids to pass tests.

As my thinking about learning and community matures, I've abandoned almost entirely the precepts that have guided schooling in our country over the last two centuries or so.

Systems have a tendency to create humans in the image of those who run them. Public schools are no different. Most of us who attended public schools internalized their basic structures and practices. As a result, we find it difficult to imagine what alternative might exist in their absence.

When I discuss current practices in public schools with others, I often find myself returning to a fundamental truth a great many of us seem to have forgotten. And that is this: Science estimates that modern humans have inhabited the earth for approximately 200,000 years. So, for 200 millennia, humans have found ways to learn, participated in culture and various types of societies, and found ways to humanize themselves and one another. It has only been for a tiny fraction of that time that the modern school has attempted to "aid" in that learning, or humanization. 1/1000th of that time. For the other 199,700 years, humans somehow found powerful ways of learning and being without our schools.

The modern school, while often well-intentioned, is far from ideal. It long ago abandoned the quest for wisdom, and has replaced it with the banking system of education described by Paulo Freire focused on filling students with information and skills. It has become a very two-dimensional system of education that promotes the idea among both students and staff that the earth, knowledge, and others should be objectivized in the quest for "success."

Through various practices, we foster a culture of competition rather than collaboration. We have debate rather than dialogue teams, high-stakes tests rather than authentic formative assessments, persuasive rather than reflective writing, lists of standards to be mastered, a focus on winning rather than learning in school sports, etc...

I do not mean to imply that debate or sports do not offer an individual value. I do mean to say that used in this way, they mostly foster isolation and promote the idea that success (and what we should strive for) comes as a result of working against rather than with others.

So I'm sorry. I can do this no longer. I will not continue to be a silent bystander who acts as an accomplice in the destruction of the world.

From this point forward, I will be very clear that I have a bias as an educator.

Educators, if we are to be more than indoctrinators, must imbue love. And here, I don't mean what our culture imagines love to be: romantic, weak, sappy, and mostly powerless.

I mean real love. The kind that makes clear that all of us are in this reality together. We are not here to compete, dominate, or have more than anyone or anything else.

Some would, and have, snickered at this notion as idealistic. They believe it is a lame and ignorant vision for our future disconnected from reality. I believe that perspective wholly denies the extent of the human potential, of life's desire for deep and authentic community. I believe that perspective to be ignorant of the power we have to change, and largely borne of the trauma and cultural pathology that accompanies the worship of competition, economic efficiency, and perfection.

So that is what and why I will teach. It is what and why we should all teach. I've come to believe that if there is such a thing as truth, it is this; it is love. And I'm not going to feel bad or unprofessional for being direct about that bias. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

Engaging Those Who Disagree Through Love and Vocation

The board room was packed, and the tension was palpable. Scores of teachers and community members had turned out to tell the board not to sign a contract with Teach for America.

When it was my turn to speak, I was angry. I was angry and frustrated. I tried to look into the eyes of the people behind the suits who I was speaking to, but it was difficult.

There was the school board, who seemed to mostly go along with whatever the superintendent wanted. There was the superintendent, who I believed made most of her decisions based on a desire to secure a job at the state’s education department. And then there was the district’s communications director. He always wore his pristine suit wherever he went and had recently told our local NPR affiliate that the district was interested in a partnership with TFA because it was difficult to find traditionally certificated teachers for vacancies they were trying to fill. I didn’t believe him.

When I spoke to them, I must have sounded venomous. Because I did not teach in the district considering the contract, I felt free to express my anger openly. On a few occasions I raised my voice, and I came close to explicitly calling the communications director a liar.

When it was over, the crowd clapped for what I had said, and I felt a sense of pride. When the board voted unanimously to approve the contract with TFA, despite every person in the room speaking against the decision to do so, the crowd made a collective groan of frustration and anger and left the room in unison, despite that the meeting was not over. The room went from being over capacity to being nearly empty in a matter of a minute.

Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and author of The Righteous Mind, points out that very often, when we engage in political discourse, especially when we are arguing with someone who has a different point of view, we are actually not attempting to communicate with them. What we’re actually trying to do is communicate with the people around us who agree with us.

I think that’s exactly what I was doing when I gave my mostly angry speech at that board meeting. While I thought I was trying to express the kinds of words and emotions that would help the board members and superintendent understand the error in their ways, what I was really doing was showing my solidarity with the crowd.

What must the superintendent have thought of my speech? Or the communications director? I imagine that if they’d talked about it afterward, which I doubt they did, they would have mentioned how little I understood about the workings of the district, or the need to fill vital teaching vacancies. Whether they would be right in their lamentations is besides the point. I suspect they would have felt them authentically.

It strikes me that there are two places from which those of us in public education (and really any line of work or profession) draw motivation: 1) from a sense of vocation, calling, or need to do good work in the world; and 2) from a desire for success - money, reputation, and power.

It also strikes me that in our professional lives, all of us are motivated by both of these to one degree or another. There are moments when we’re more motivated by vocation than by success and vice versa. And there are those of us who draw more deeply on a regular basis from one of the motivations than from the other.

On the other hand, I also find that I draw on two different motivators when it comes to affecting positive change in my community: 1) frustration and/or anger and 2) love.

When I spoke before that school board, I was manifesting frustration and anger. I did that because I had found a way to dehumanize my audience by imagining that they participate in the work of public education solely out of a desire for personal success. In doing so, I allowed myself to wish them ill will, and, as a result, I don’t think they heard anything I had to say.

When attacked by others, it is the rare person who is able to put their ego aside and truly listen to what is being said. More often, when we feel threat, we close our ears and look for ways to prove the speaker wrong.

This is why we must be cognizant of how we seek to affect change and how our actions actually impact those around us. If our primary goal is to rally our base, then yelling and being angry can do that. But I’ve found that the negatives tend to outweigh the positives.

After that board meeting was over, the crowd regrouped in the parking lot even more angry than before and began talking about strategies to unseat the board members on election day.

When we get to this point as a community, we’ve resigned ourselves to no longer engaging the other side. We allow ourselves to take a shortcut, like thinking about how to get rid of a board member, and avoid the harder work of engaging those who disagree with us.

Why should we seek to engage those who disagree with us? Because when we do, we allow them their humanity. In doing so, we allow ourselves our humanity. And in that act of humanization, we must remember that we should listen at least as much as we speak.

Affecting positive change through love is deeper and more challenging work. It requires discipline, patience, and resolve. But its fruits are abundant.

When we yell and scream at those who disagree with us in the battle for saving the public in public education, we lose energy and hope fast. In fact, I’d say the yelling and screaming are already a sign of desperation. This method almost entirely fails to engage the other side.

John Lewis, the US House of Representatives Member who played a prominent role in the Civil Rights Movement, talks about being trained to make eye contact with those police who would beat him for marching in the movement. The goal was to force the aggressor to confront the humanity of their victim. But the same is true for those of us under attack. A true act of love requires remembering the humanity of the aggressor.

We who defend public education believe it has the potential to be an incubator for a strong civil society that does not go to war for profit, destroy the natural environment, or set material wealth as the determining factor of a person’s value. When we confront the forces who believe in high-stakes testing and ranking students to determine which jobs or colleges they should matriculate into, we must do so with love as our intention.

This does not mean that we should be less urgent or demanding in our actions. But it does mean that our tone should be different.

Had I addressed the school board that day with the intention of love and humanization, I would not have raised my voice, felt an increase in my stress level, or found it difficult to make eye contact with my audience. I would have spoken more smoothly, with more confidence, less stress, and more intelligence. My remarks would have been more difficult to write off as those of an angry, ignorant teacher.

Rather, I would have forced them to come face to face with the humanity of both myself and my students. A part of them, no matter how deeply it might be buried, that is motivated by a desire to live out their vocation and their humanity would have been touched. Were I to see one of them again, at perhaps the grocery store, it would have been far less awkward to start a conversation. And I, holding the confidence that I’d spoken my truth in a way that acknowledged both my own and their humanity, would have found it far easier to engage them in meaningful dialogue.

We should not imagine that any of us have the right to make our system of public education in our own image. But rather acknowledge that a meaningful way of educating our children will come out of this deep dialogue in our local communities.

A pre-requisite of this dialogue, however, must be that we engage with it as educators by vocation rather than educators seeking personal success. Only then can we have a dialogue that manifests love, restores our humanity, and takes us closer to restoring the public in public education. This is part of what we fight for.