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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Prime Time for Bystanders

The other day I was walking down the street and was approached by a panhandler who asked me for some spare change.  Just prior to this I had been thinking about my wife who happens to be the most caring, charitable person I know.  I was caught off guard by this panhandler who directly walked up to me.  I didn't have change and my default response of shaking my head no and continuing to walk was all set to go into effect, but for some reason it didn't.  Instead (to my surprise and his) I reached into my wallet that had several one dollars bills and a few twenty's and gave him a twenty.  I made his day and who really knows or cares what he did with it.  I continued to walk to my destination and tried to figure out why I did what I did-for my behavior was spontaneous and not my default response.  I could only explain my response by attributing it to the thoughts I had about my wife immediately prior to the interaction with the panhandler.  My thoughts of my wife as a "giver" had primed me to give more generously than I typically would have. 

Social psychology research reveals how suggestible people are to invisible influences in the social environment.  I recall a study where people on the way to an interview were given either a hot or cold beverage to hold.  They were asked the same set of questions by the same interviewer yet when their answers were analyzed, those given the hot beverage gave answers that were warmer or more personable than the answers given by the  people who were given the cold beverage.  This results of this study are hard to believe, but other studies has shown similar effects.  This type of influence is called priming.  (Advertisers unlike educators have not overlooked this social psychological research.)  The prior thinking I had been doing about my wife had somehow slipped into the unexpected moment, overrode my typical default response and produced a more charitable act.

Similar to priming as an influence on behavior is the use of "identity" to influence behavior.  People will act according to how they identity themselves and this sense of identity can also be "primed".  People tend to adjust their behavior based on how they think of themselves: I am a caring person so I will help this person out.  Since students are in a formative stage of development, they are very dependent upon how adults think of them.  Educators therefore have a great opportunity to shape the type of identity in students that will lead to positive and more productive behaviors.  We also need to be aware of how we already shape this identity in many of our traditional approaches to student behavior. 

When we use rewards and consequences and become rule focused in our approach, we are inadvertently shaping, or priming students for the very behaviors we don't want to see.  The hidden message behind these traditional approaches shapes students' identity toward being irresponsibile:  they are one step away from being rule breakers unless they are restricted by adult imposed consequences.  It is not surprising then that when they are outside of adult supervision and the restraint of rules and consequences, they follow the identity that adults have inadvertently given them.

An alternative approach would be to send a message that all students are leaders who care and who are responsible.  This  means lessening our direct control and demonstrating a greater degree of trust than we are used to giving. (We are often uncomfortable doing so.)  This means rethinking our default response to student behavior.  We have to avoid the false dichotomy  of equating the  lessening of direct control with a laissez-faire approach.

Here are some ways we can prime students and shape their identity:

  • As Michael Fullan says, "Give people respect before they have earned it."  Treat students as being trustworthy, responsible, caring people.  Rules are okay and should  be visible.  Assume that most kids already know the basics of right from wrong.  We don't need to constantly remind them of it.  (Failures to follow rules are usually  not the result of not knowing them or forgetting them).

  • Give students the opportunity and support they need to act in caring and responsible ways.  Ironically, we often give the kids who are already perceived to be caring and responsible those opportunities as rewards. All students need these opportunities on a regular basis-this is why service learning is so important. 

  • Treat students as the source of the solution to  problems rather than the cause of the problem.  Involve them as active participants in solving individual problems, classroom problems and school wide problems. 

  • Talk about problem situations they typically might experience or have experienced. Don't wait to just talk about a problem after it has happened. 

  • Give them time to reflect upon how they would like to think of themselves and help them see what behaviors correspond to that identity.  (Most kids do want to think of themselves as caring and responsible but may not know how those attributes manifest themselves.)

  • View all kids as leaders and refer to them in that way.  Study leadership and how it differs from "being the boss".  Don't let the cultural images of leaders as bosses be the default response in situations where adults are not around.

The more preparation we give students (the more they are "primed") they more likely they are to respond in a positive way to those spontaneous and often ambiguous situations that can catch them off guard (like many bullying situations).  Most of all we need to believe that the more we act as caring, respectful and responsible people to students and towards everyone, the more we will be priming them to be that way-just as my wife primed me to give more.

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