Sunday, February 7, 2016

Preparing Innovative Change Agents for Justice

After spending yesterday in a district discussion about how to remake and rebrand our high school, I spent a lot of time thinking about what we should be preparing students for after high school.

Before I go further, I want to emphasize that I believe that school is not just about preparing students for the future. It's about helping them manage their now. I think we often get so caught up in a focus on the future that we do damage to the now, but that's for another blog post.

When we do think about the future of students, which is often, we talk in terms of creating equal educational outcomes that will prepare them for participation in the economy.

"How can we ensure they'll be able to compete in the real world?"

"What skills and knowledge do they need to have options when they go looking for jobs?"

Now, I acknowledge there is a shred of legitimacy to these discussions. But I find them to be extraordinarily problematic because they presume the purpose of an education for an individual is, ultimately, to make money. And that notion is based on the even more problematic notion that the larger purpose for education systems is primarily to create a highly-competitive economy.

Even if we were to accept participation in the economy as the highest aim of public education (which we shouldn't), the way we talk about preparing students for their wage-earning futures is wrapped in language about how they can be good workers and consumers.

We don't ask how our schools can help students think innovatively to identify and solve the pressing problems facing our world. We don't ask how they'll need to be prepared to be active citizens, researchers, creators of knowledge, or entrepreneurs.

It is for these reasons that the ideas of Yong Zhao and Ken Robinson resonate with me. Both propose that schools must be retooled to develop the skills, knowledge, habits, and dispositions necessary for a student to go into the world and play an active role in its creation and recreation. This seems to me an endeavor fundamental to the human condition.

Where I diverge from Zhao and Robinson is in their discussion of creating an entrepreneurial mindset.

Because entrepreneurs bring together the factors of production in order to make a profit, I actually don't think entrepreneurs are at all what we need.

I've heard Zhao mention that students, if they want to be successful, have to find ways to create things that other people want. He references Kim Kardashian as an example of a person who found a unique way to make a living. To be fair to Zhao, he is a hilarious guy with lots of great material, and he probably does not mean to spread the idea that following Kardashian's model is a healthy path forward for students.

However, I would go so far as to say that any entrepreneurial pursuit that seeks to provide a dopamine fix to that segment of our population privileged enough to afford excess with some form of thought-blocking entertainment (e.g. a new line of clothing, fashion accessory, or other luxury) and does not consider the environmental costs of the waste and social costs of the time that will necessarily be a byproduct is decidedly not what we want to produce in schools.

I agree with Robinson and Zhao that we desperately need to start talking to students with the understanding that they have it within them to change our world. Indeed, they are our greatest hope to change our world. Though, to do that, they're going to have to be even better at thinking outside the box than the entrepreneur.

The entrepreneur can rely on a traditional model for creating goods and services enshrined in our law. Create a business plan, apply for the license, find your capital, etc. But change agents for justice in our society are going to have to step outside even that model.

Change agents for justice are going to need a strong understanding of justice, freedom, love, community, democracy, and civic engagement. They're going to have to identify seemingly intractable social problems. These problems will be the type our economy normally doesn't create space for people to do work around because they don't typically appeal to individuals who want to spend their excess income. They're going to have to do the hard, hard work of identifying solutions to those problems, and then they're going to have to bring together the people and resources necessary to implement those solutions. Along the way, they'll learn lessons, and they'll need to share those lessons with future generations. Perhaps most challengingly, they'll need to find funding to make their solutions happen.

Start talking about students' futures like this in schools, and I bet a lot more people start participating in the conversation.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Critical Link Between Education and Health: Why You Must Watch Paper Tigers

It was an April morning early in my teaching career when, in the middle of a history lecture, I paused because of an unusual noise coming from the hallway.

"Finish copying down the rest of that slide, everyone. I'll be right back," I told my students.

I poked my head out the door to find out just what was going on in the hallway. Megan, one of my students who'd I'd marked absent at the beginning of the period, lay crumpled near the wall rapidly double breathing. I rushed over to help her up and find out what had happened. Her face was red and covered in tears. She couldn't bring herself to speak, so I quickly called the office for assistance.

After school was dismissed that day, I connected with our school counselor and found that just before arriving at school, Megan's cousin had called to tell her that Megan's mother had attempted suicide that morning. The crippling stress of such news was compounded by the fact that Megan had no siblings and that she'd never known her father. Her mom was all she had.

The name and details of the above story have been altered to protect the privacy of individuals. It's very close, however, to many experiences I have had as a teacher in schools and serves to cast light on what educators often experience in schools.

In the mid 1990's, the CDC and Kaiser Permanente partnered to begin the study of how adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) impact longterm life outcomes. Nadine Burke Harris speaks eloquently about the study and ACEs in the video below.



Recent advances in neuroscience have helped us understand how ACEs, trauma, and chronic stress affect not only life outcomes, but the ability of students to focus and learn. They also affect our physical health. We know now, as Gabor Maté puts it, that humans are bio-psycho-social beings. Our physical health and optimal functioning is affected as much by diet and exercise as by our social-emotional health and vice versa. The implications of this new knowledge are so significant that those of us who work in schools have no choice but to educate ourselves on the effects of trauma and the practices of trauma-informed care.

For every student like Megan, for whom we may learn about an emotionally distressing life experience, there are many more who keep silent and cope on their own.

However, it needs to said that the point trauma-informed care is not to train educators to be therapists or to insinuate that every teacher needs to know the deep emotional lives of their students. In a recent post by the Seattle Times Education Lab on trauma's effect on students, one commenter mistakenly perpetuates this view.

Forest Farrington writes,
"This is the most asinine trend in education. Teachers taking the "trauma' approach to discipline must dance around every student disruption in order to sooth their past traumas.  In time, all of us experience some sort of trauma, and in the real world of the workplace, employers won't take the time to consider our past traumas if we choose to behave out of line.  If my child chooses to disrupt her teacher's classroom, I don't expect the teacher to psychoanalyze what's going on with my daughter at that moment; rather, I expect her to immediately address my daughter's choices with redirection, and if necessary, discipline."
Educators who understand trauma do not need to "dance around every student disruption in order to sooth [sic] their past traumas." Rather, teachers who understand trauma learn to hold students accountable for their behavior more humanely and compassionately. This decreases the likelihood that a student who's angry about something in their home life from that morning will deal with a teacher who snaps at them for something minor like being late to class.

In her book Police in the Hallways, Kathleen Nolan notes that it is often the inappropriate adult response to minor misbehavior that can escalate situations. This can lead to disproportionate punishment and youth disengagement with school. When students are unable to manage their emotional response, this can be a recipe for suspension and expulsion when denying students an education is exactly what we're trying to avoid.

Educators who understand trauma understand that students need to be taught how to handle their emotions and how to understand themselves. This does not mean that educators can't hold students accountable for their behavior. To the contrary, it means they continually strive to hold students accountable for their behavior in ways that help students grow.

It's with this understanding that James Redford and Karen Pritzker made the film Paper Tigers about Lincoln Alternative High School in Walla Walla, which the Seattle Times hosted a screening for yesterday morning at Foster High School in Tukwila.

My emotional response to the film was strong, and as a friend commented on Facebook, "if you have experienced childhood trauma, care for yourself as you watch it, and afterwards." But as an educator and the son of a social worker, trauma-informed care training for educators is an issue I feel strongly compelled to advocate for.

Paper Tigers is empowering because it shows us that there is much we can do in schools to better serve our students. And we shouldn't imagine that ACEs affect only students in low-income communities. The rash of suicides in cities like Palo Alto make it clear that emotional health is just as important an issue for affluent communities.

But Paper Tigers also reminds us how deeply ill our society is. Schools must adapt to better educate students, but schools alone will not solve issues of structural inequity buried deeply in our societal systems. Problems like segregation, pollution and waste, climate change, structural unemployment, soaring college costs, and wholly deficient social services must be addressed alongside school reform if we are to have hope for a better future.

Ultimately, it is through this lens that we understand that health and education are intricately connected, so much so that I think they are actually the same thing. It's difficult to learn and be metacognitive when you are unhealthy, and it's very difficult to be healthy and whole without an education.

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.