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Monday, October 29, 2012

Leadership and Imagination

A failure of imagination is a circumstance wherein something seemingly predictable (particularly from hindsight) and undesirable was not planned for. (Wikipedia)

When we put a student on a school bus and do not prepare him or her for managing that challenging environment, we are demonstrating a failure of imagination.  In a previous posting, I described the differences between the school environment and the bus environment and they are very different worlds.   Not only do we fail to prepare students for riding the bus, we inadvertently make it more difficult to successfully manage it.  We teach students to function in a controlled environment supervised by adults whose job it is to focus on students.  The bus is anything but  a controlled environment and is supervised by an adult whose main job is to DRIVE THE BUS.  No wonder students often take the bus ride as their opportunity to take this "freedom" and apply their own order and control.

It is very much like the Lord of the Flies where the students set up their own set of rules.   It is not surprising also that some students who might feel like they have very little control over their own lives will use the bus environment to meet their social needs by demonstrating how they can control  and dominate other students. It is also not surprising that students who don't have this need to control others (most of them) and might know that bullying is wrong,  have few strategies for how respond to these situations.  Some kids might by chance have the confidence to stand up to bullying.  Most students however can be at a loss about what to do and many in fact just feel guilty and inept when they fail to stand up to bullying.  If you add the fear factor whereby students feel that they will be the next target, it is even harder to expect them to do anything other than protect themselves.

As educators we should be able to predict that riding the school bus presents significant challenges for all students.  It is easy, however,  given so many other things going on in the school competing for our attention, to think that unless something bad happens and comes to our attention, that all is well on the bus.  We should know that leaving what happens on the bus to chance is not a good idea.  We should know that not seeing or hearing about problems is not a reliable indication that there are no problems.  The standard method of addressing bullying on the school bus is a glaring example of a failure of imagination.

"Some men see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say why not?"- Robert Kennedy paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw

Perhaps the failure of imagination is ignored because we educators are not able to "dream of things that never were and say why not?"  Our failure to sufficiently address the bus problem is our failure to envision the possibility of the bus being anything other than what it is.  Sometimes some problems are viewed as so intractable that we just keep looking for ways to fix them and fail to imagine that the status quo is not permanently fixed in place.

As say this from experience as a presenter.  Very often when I try to articulate how school culture could really change, the response I often get is a question about how to fix the status quo.  It is liking continuing to fix leaky pipes or faulty electrical systems in a building that should be abandoned.  Once you move to a new building plumbing and electrical problems happen a lot less-the whole experience of living that new building is radically different-a different set of problems and opportunities.  

For example I recently did a webinar about the Peaceful School Bus and received a question about how to handle a fight on the bus.  That is a good question and a real problem but it was a leaky pipe type of question and not related to the new building I was trying to describe.  I recognize that it is hard to see the possibility of something other than the status quo, but my key point is that real and substantive progress will only happen when the school community starts to "imagine" that another, better way is at least possible.

Leadership is really about cracking open the door ( even a  little bit) so that the "why not"  is visible to everyone.  Positive change comes toward walking in the right direction toward the new possibility (the why not) rather than just trying to fix the problem (the why).

Two videos of Peaceful School Bus in action

Peaceful School Bus segment on local news

Monday, October 22, 2012

Bullying Fatigue

Someone once said to me, "Don't you get tired of talking about bullying in the work you do?"  The answer is "no" because I don't see myself as someone who just talks about bullying.  To me the problem of bullying is symptomatic of a deeper problem facing our schools, so I feel that what I talk about is changing schools for the better.    This is not an easy message to digest for many reasons:

  •   People can get more discouraged about the problem of bullying and what is needed to address it. 
  • The change is more extensive and substantive than the one required for addressing one problem.
  • The mindset and tools for making these changes are not readily accessible for many people in schools.
Ironically, the problem of bullying might just be the best opportunity that schools have for making substantive change in how students are educated.  John Kotter of Harvard University has written many books on the change process and he emphasizes one key element of change that is often lacking in many attempts to change any organization-a sense of urgency.  He says that data alone and rational arguments for change fail because they aim for people's heads and fail to touch their hearts.  True change when it does occur starts from the heart and then joins with the head .  (In my book, I describe this distinction of heart and head as will and skill.)   He qualifies his definition of urgency by stating that it can't driven by panic or fear but rather by  a sense caring and valuing the organization, i.e. the people, values, beliefs and principles of the group.

Right now the change mechanisms being employed are based upon raising levels of achievement measured by test scores with a sharper focus on improving the quality of teaching through stricter and more accountable evaluations based on rewards for teaching better and often dire consequences for not.  One could argue that these methods  also create of sense of urgency but I think it is not the urgency that Kotter describes.  They are designed to make teachers think less about the "we" and more about "me".  At at time when schools really need to work together as a community,  educational policy is almost forcing teachers to focus more on just themselves and their own well being.  Students who don't do well could more likely pose a threat to teachers.   A strong case could be made that these types of policy are designed to bully teachers into doing better.  (A type of bullying that is done to impress the general public demonstrating that those in positions of authority are getting tough and producing results.)

I don't see these ways of changing schools as even being truly effective( for reasons many others have accurately articulated). Bullying prevention presents a better opportunity for change for one very simple reason: it goes to the heart of why people became educators in the first place.  Michael Fullan describes this as "moral purpose".  I think that this is an untapped energy source that many policy makers don't even believe exists.  I do believe that educators care deeply about students and about helping them.  They might have been in systems that have buried this basic moral purpose but that doesn't mean that its not there or wasn't there at sometime.  If bullying prevention can be tied to the fundamental value and core belief of the importance of caring for students, I have to believe that people will do what needs to be done to meet this "sacred responsibility".  Tapping into this core belief (often buried deep) is not easy and requires strong and skillful leadership, but it is the only way to go.  It holds the greatest promise because it appeals to our higher aspirations as educators.  It is the positive urgency that Kotter describes because it is based upon caring and valuing people.  It can be a way of getting positive school change through the back door outside of the "change" initiatives advertised as such.

Bullying prevention is like getting a foot in the door to changing the direction of a school.  A strong leader can use the problem of bullying as an opportunity to change the direction of a school culture-it will be still be a long and challenging journey but at least it is one going in the right direction driven by a moral purpose.  A school community  starts the journey to address the problem of bullying but ends up changing the culture of the school where it becomes a more optimal place for learning for all of its members.  When bullying prevention takes that direction, bullying fatigue  is not something to worry about because too many other good and positive things will be happening.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Education or Training?

I attended a Catholic high school and had to take two years of latin.  Although it was not my favorite subject, in retrospect it was a valuable experience. It is useful to know the origin of words because the words we use do reveal how we think.  The word "educate" comes from e duco which means to "lead out of".   I interpret that to mean that there is something within each person that an educator  guides and nurtures to maturity.  This implies that an educator takes the time to recognize and affirm a person's unique capabilities.   Education is not imposing a set of learning objectives on a person or forcing someone to learn.  It assumes that a person is born with a desire to learn and grow and that a person will do so if given the right conditions, guidance, and support from the educator.   Unfortunately it seems that much of what is called education today is not really education but rather training.

Training is not "leading out of" but rather assumes that a person is a blank slate and needs to be shaped and molded according to a preconceived outcome.  This does not mean that training is bad and shouldn't happen.  There are times and purposes where training is needed.  There are instances or situations where people need specialized skills to perform a specific task.  For example, it is appropriate that people be trained to respond to fire drills-it is and should be a rote response that needs to happen automatically without thinking or reasoning.  There are academic tasks that could also require training, e.g. learning math facts.  Training can support education when the "rote or routine" tasks can become automatic so that students can be freed to think and reason.

Training and education can also work together in the social world.  It is helpful for students to be trained in using manners or other social skills.  Such training can help them succeed in many social situations, however, learning to deal with ambiguous situations requires judgment and reflection.  It is also understandable and inevitable that students will make mistakes in the social world.  Adults need to be there to help them learn from those mistakes without feeling condemned or labelled. 

Efffective bullying prevention requires the right balance of training and education.  Many programs or approaches rely just on training and view education as being either unnecessary or "too soft".  Educators need to ask themselves one simple question when they are responding to a student who has made a social mistake:  "what does the student need to learn in order to be more successful in the future?" Ironically this question requires the educator to use judgment and discretion based on the unique circumstances of the particular incident.  Ultimately, bystanders face ambiguous, uncertain situations without clear cut rules to guide them-they will only be empowered when we educate them to listen to their consciences and to trust in their abiltiy to take a risk for what they know is right.  We need to believe in  the "something"that is already there within them and to help them believe in it also.  Education however can never be a quick fix and relies on human relationships. Education is really the community learning how to be a community.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Verbs not Nouns

The labels we place on students unfortunately stick to them and define them.  This is why referring to any student as a bully is a very dangerous and damaging proposition.  Adults who refer to a student as a bully  place a value judgment on the student is as person.  Using the term "bully" instead of "bullying" can trigger the following:

  • Create distance between the student and the adult.  Students will fail to trust adults who negatively label them.
  • Make it less likely that a student will accept responsibility for acts of bullying, since it would also mean accepting a negative label or judgment.
  • Define the student as someone who can defy adult authority and get away with it.  This is way of asserting independence of adult control.
  •  Solidifies the social identity of a student as being "cool" and able to control others.  Once other students perceive a peer in a certain way, it is hard for that student to stop acting in accordance with that role (even if he/she wants to change).
  • Makes bullying more attractive for students who want to escape being a target of bullying or want to raise their social standing.
  • Increases the likelihood that students who feel like they have little or no control over their lives, (including being able to control how others see them) will resort to bullying to get some degree of control or autonomy of their lives.
  • Decreases the likelihood that adults will be viewed as people who can help and support them.

This is why the idea of  "getting tough" with bullies is so misdirected.  It plays into a criminal justice mindset which alienates most students even the ones who could be empowered bystanders.  The more that adults use power and threats as a way to control students, the more they appear to be the "enemy" or the "oppressor" to more and more students.  This perception ironically transforms responsible reporting of bullying into snitching-betraying the peer group in favor of the adults.   When "punishment" becomes the predicted response of adults, students are reluctant to report since they know that it does little to adequately address the problem and probably makes it worse.  In their eyes it only harms a peer with whom they feel a stronger allegiance than to the adults in charge (if even they don't condone what the peer did).

Verbs however give students more flexibility and options for change.   This is very similar to Carol Dweck's work on mindsets. The concept of "making mistakes" is easier to accept and change than thinking you are "stupid" for making mistakes.  When adults model making mistakes and tell stories about how they learned from mistakes, they are letting students know that they are less likely to judge/label them when they make mistakes. 

Verbs serve another important function-they "script the critical moves" for people.  The Heath brothers in their book Switch, describe that any ambiguity related to a change in behavior for a specific situation, only makes that change more difficult and less likely to happen.  Even the slightest perceived risk or possibility of not just of failure but of discomfort, will most likely keep people from trying something different.  This is why telling kids not to be bullies, doesn't offer them any real alternatives for what to do differently or implies that they need to change who they are (worse yet admit that they are currently flawed and need to be fixed).   The same dynamic holds true for bystanders if adults just tell them to be responsible and either intervene or report in face of bullying.  Adults instead need to coach students in specific terms, e.g. if you see someone being bullied, here are some concrete things you can do and/or say:

  • talk to the student who was bullying afterward  and tell him/her to "cool it"
  • sit next to a student who could be targeted as a way to prevent bullying
  • if you observe bullying and don't feel you can do anything at least walk away rather than be an audience
  • find an adult you trust and share what you saw
Students will also be more open to these strategies and more receptive to messages about bullying when adults can transform the issue of "bullying" from something that is bad and has to stop into the larger and more relevant issue of how people relate to each other.  Adults need to recognize and acknowledge that the social world is so important to students.  When adults recognize the social world (rather then just the academic world) and the inherent difficulties "we" all face in navigating it , they will portray themselves as resources and coaches rather than people who just want to control and police students. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Problem of Power

Effective bullying prevention must be part of a larger overall transformation of how we educate our students.    Bullying prevention efforts that are added to the "status quo" of a school become just another program or initiative that dies a slow death because, as I said in a previous post,  the culture of the school eventually devours it.  Since power is at the heart of bullying, effective bullying prevention should lead a school community to examine and understand how power is used throughout the school.

 The best article that I have found to explore this topic is by Elizabeth Hinde and it is available at:

School Culture and Change

I highly recommend it to anyone interested in any aspect of school change.

Here are some excerpts that highlight why schools are resistant to many change initiatives:

"The culture of the classroom reflects to some extent the aspects of other educational cultures to which the teacher has been exposed.  Change that is introduced that is foreign to a teacher's lived experiences is likely to be met with resistance."

"... nothing presents a more potent barrier to change than the power relationship in schools.  The culture of schools is not only determined by these relationships, but they are subject to the least amount of scrutiny."

The article quotes a book,  Revisiting the Culture of School and the Problem of Change  by S. Sarason (1996):

"...schools were places where the students did what they were told to do.  They answered questions-they did not ask them; their special (or not so special) interests and curiosities were to be kept private; they were not allowed to take time away from predetermined curriculum.  In short, the culture of the classroom lacked almost all of hallmarks of productive learning.  And each level of the educational hierarchy viewed the level below it as the teachers viewed the students. (p. 333).

This issue of power is why I feel the PBIS (Positive Behavioral Intervention Support) program  actually is counterproductive for bullying prevention and the necessary transformation of how we educate our students.  Such a statement can be viewed as heretical since PBIS and bullying prevention are very often simultaneously implemented in many schools.  PBIS is also recognized as evidence based program that is eligible to receive federal money.

If a school has teachers and other staff yelling at students and threatening them with punishments to gain control, then PBIS can be effective in getting that type of behavior to stop.  Inconsistent rewards and consequences coupled with emotional flare ups and constant power struggles create a toxic environment.  Having a clear a script and clear limits for teacher and student behavior does bring order to chaos.  I just think that we should have higher expectations for our students and believe that they are capable of meeting those higher expectations.  We need to see beyond just stopping the bleeding.

My issue with the PBIS is not that is it unsuccessful but that it is successful in many people's eyes.  I question its criteria for success and also question  the beneficiaries of its success.   I certainly understand the need for order in schools that are chaotic environments .  In those situations, I think PBIS is like triage or stopping the bleeding when someone is injured.  The problem is the after care-what does it mean to be healthy and fully alive after the bleeding has stopped.  For students what does it mean to learn and live in our world once the chaos stops in a school.

At the heart of PBIS is unquestioned assumption that the adults are in  charge and students just need to follow the rules and expectations of those in charge.  PBIS is just a better tool for making that assumption work in practice.  The basic power  traditional power structure of the school is just strengthened and that order and control  is more for the adults benefit than it is for students.

We do our students a disservice if we highlight and value the importance of following rules over  the value of "productive learning" described by Sarason in quotation above. Proponents of the PBIS  program incorrectly assume that students need the external motivation and control it provides  in order to learn.  They misinterpret misbehavior as a lack of motivation for learning instead of seeing it as  reaction to the often arbitrary and competitive version of learning they encounter in school.   Very often this apparent lack of motivation in some students is really a motivation to avoid failing and all the consequences of failing that accompany the schools' version of "learning".   PBIS's success makes it more difficult for educators to examine these deeper issues and questions.  It's success can make it harder for schools to change on a more fundamental and substantive level;  educators can too comfortably feel that the curriculum and instruction doesn't need to change.  Instead they just need to get the students to change their response to it and PBIS is designed to do that for them.

Ironically PBIS when "doesn't work" in a school, its advocates claim that its lack of success is because the teachers are not following the program (doing what they are told.)  Why would teachers not want to follow a program that will make teaching and managing behavior so much better?  Is it because they are stubborn and refuse to see the light ? Or is it because they resent being told what to do and interpret it as another imposition and restriction on their professional judgement and expertise?

The Hinde article I reference describes the relationship between power and change and answers the question of why PBIS is so often resisted by teachers:

"... the problem of change is the problem of power.  In order for the culture of schools to adjust to allow for change then power must be wielded in a such a way as to allow others to gain a sense of ownership with the goals and process of change.  It is often a delicate balance between mandating change (a process that is usually unsuccessful, as stated earlier) and bringing teachers to believe in the need for and the efficacy of the reform so that they feel a sense of ownership.  Schools that are successful in this endeavor will be able to enact lasting and effective change."

I add that teachers who are treated with respect and allowed to gain a sense of ownership will be more likely to give students more respect and allow them to gain a greater sense of ownership.