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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

STEALTH Approach to Bullying Prevention

I am reading a fascinating book entitled, Thinking,  Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahnman.  He reviews and analyses the research on how we perceive the world and how that influences our words and actions.  Here is an experiment he describes: two groups of people are given a set of words to put into sentences; one group is given an unrelated set and the other a set containing words that related to old age (Florida, forgetful, bald, gray, wrinkled); the researchers then measured the time the subjects took to walk the length of the hallway where the experiment took place.  The people that were given the words related to old age took longer to walk this length of the hallway.  This is  hard to believe, but empirically this effect called "priming" has been consistently demonstrated in variations of this type of experiment.  Kahnman states, "Studies of priming effects have yielded discoveries that threaten our self image as conscious and autonomous authors of our judgments and choices."

Kahnman describes how this type of "fast" thinking or system 1 thinking can be offset by "slow" thinking or system 2 thinking where the brain can figure things out.  Obviously conducting research to discover how the brain works is itself an example of "slow" or system 2 thinking.  The more we know about how easily we can be influenced allows us to know ourselves better and account for this in living our lives.

I do think that this research can be helpful in how we educate our students in two important ways: using this research to create environments that influence students towards positive and responsible behavior and teaching students about how their brain works.  I am not suggesting that we trick or hypnotize students into behaving the way we want them to behave.  I am suggesting that we acknowledge the impact of the environment/atmosphere of the school on how students behave.  This is no different than recognizing that  the environment itself sends a louder more influential message to students than our more direct methods of controlling them.  John Dewey knew this way before the priming research proved it: “we never educate directly but indirectly by means of the environment….the required beliefs cannot be hammered in, the needed attitudes cannot be plastered on…the very process of living together educates…education is thus a fostering, nurturing, cultivating process…”.  People used to say to me that they could "feel" something special about our elementary school as soon as they walked through the front door.  Educators need to recognize and accept these "intangibles" and use them in the right way.  

The second way of using this priming research is to share it more directly with the students themselves.  What is more relevant and meaningful than to reflect upon who we are and how we operate in the world.  This is especially true of adolescents who live in a world of new emotions and feelings and are trying to make sense out of who they are.  I experienced this "need" firsthand the other evening when I was asked to make a presentation on bullying to a group of inner city teenage girls.  As part of my presentation, I showed videos from Dateline about bystanders having to deal with bullying.  I also showed a video clip demonstrating how easy it is to conform to others in social situations.  Rather than telling them how bullying is wrong, how it is against the rules and what they should do, I tried to help them gain some insight into why is it so hard to be a helpful bystander.  I can't say for certain how much my presentation will affect their behavior in the future but I do know that they were very attentive and responsive for the entire 2 hours (5-7 p.m.) which was a pretty good for summer evening and a group of 20 teenagers.

This research on how we think and act opens up a world of possibilities for how we educate our students, however, it only reflects and affirms much of our own common sense about teaching and learning.  The greatest obstacle we face in effectively preventing and reducing bullying is not the lack of knowledge and strategies, is it breaking the habits so embedded in our culture and our schools.  Starting to change how we think and feel about how to get the changes we want is the first step in the right direction. Leadership often boils down to just taking the first step in that right direction and getting one or two people to walk with you.

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