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Monday, August 20, 2012

"Trickle Down Theory" in Bullying Prevention

The Race to the Top initiative required states to adopt teacher evaluation systems that would raise the overall level of teaching competence and thereby raise student achievement.  This approach was supposedly an improvement over the NCLB, which relied on standardized testing to ultimately raise student achievement.  Both of these reform “strategies”, use evaluation to drive positive change and to motivate the people in schools to change how they educate.   The bottom line message of both approaches in “get better results or else bad things will happen to you.”  

In an earlier post, I talked about McGregor’s Theory X and Y of management: Theory X assumes that people are basically unmotivated and irresponsible and need to be tightly controlled and Theory Y assumes that people are basically motivated and responsible if they are given the right working conditions.  It is very clear that when it comes to school reform, Theory X "rules" for how teachers and students are viewed and treated.  The most blatant evidence for this was a Newsweek cover story that  read: “The Key to Saving American Education: Fire Bad Teachers”.

What does all of this however have to do will bullying prevention?  I think that it has everything to do with it and the fact that we don’t talk about these larger issues in relation bullying prevention is one of the main reasons that we fail to make progress in schools.  We, as educators, are so overburdened with things to do and are filled with anxiety that it is almost impossible to step back and look at the situation we are in and how so much of what we are told to do actually runs counter to what we know about how people learn and grow.  (I think however that most educators know this but feel fairly helpless about doing anything about it.)

I found an interesting book, Contradictions of Control by Linda McNeil written in 1988 long before NCLB or RTTT was even conceived.   It is a scholarly work that examined the underlying assumptions of the basic structure and organization of our educational system.  She explores the effect of school management on the teaching and learning that happens in the classroom:  “… when the teachers in today’s schools see their autonomy threatened by administrative controls, they are more likely to resist this loss by exerting greater control in the classroom…When students see this disproportionate attention to controlling functions, they too resist in their own ways.”  The only exception I have with her statement is that most students don’t resist they usually except it and have learned to “play the game of school”, which is do what you are told and follow the rules.  I do feel that she is absolutely right when she draws the connection between teacher autonomy and student autonomy.  As teachers have less autonomy and feel controlled especially by fear of “bad consequences” for not performing they will tend to give their students less autonomy and exert more control over them. Theory X begets Theory X.
Unfortunately this Theory X approach is so pervasive in our educational system that Theory Y approaches are seldom seen.  As result, any deviation from Theory X approaches is viewed as laissez-faire and inviting chaos.  (Interesting to note that Theory Y approaches are being used in businesses especially ones that rely on creativity and innovation, e.g. Pixar, Google, Apple, Zappos. Daniel Pink devotes a lot of his book, Drive, to explain why Theory Y is more effective in business.)

People who are bullied over time sadly become used to it and cannot even see it as bullying.  It is just the way things are to them.  When people’s actions are primarily governed by constant fear and anxiety and not by their own needs and desires, they can  easily ignore and forget their own needs and desires.  When  using fear to manipulate and control people,  i.e. bullying,  becomes institutionalized, it is no longer seen as bullying or abuse but rather as the rules and regulations that need to be followed “or else”.  Fear makes people think only about their own survival and less about others.  People become motivated more by avoidance of bad things happening to them and less motivated by the desire to learn and grow together.

Bullying can hide easily in organizations that are governed by the use of fear and anxiety.  Although policy makers may be motivated to achieve positive results, the ends do not just the means when it comes to education. When fear and anxiety is used to control educators, it becomes almost impossible for educators to act in accord with their original moral purpose of helping students.  They are put in a position to manipulate students to achieve results in order to keep their jobs and avoid shame and judgment.   Environments like that are breeding grounds for bullying. 

We need to be careful about how we go about getting change at the “top” because “trickle down” unfortunately  does work in education.  You really can’t bully your way to bullying prevention or to real learning.  There is however another way. 

A way that is based on a  simple common sense fact we all know:  when people feel in control of their lives and have meaningful work to do they have less of a need to control others.   When people feel connected as a community, there is no need to separate people into winners or losers.  It seems that  more and more  educational policies are promoting a type of learning environment that makes it more and more difficult for the optimal conditions for learning to emerge.  Effective bullying prevention shouldn't just be about controlling students to stop bullying; it requires us to give more autonomy, meaning and a greater sense of community to students and teachers.  These are the key factors for building  an "immunity" to bullying within a school: make a place where real learning takes place.

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