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Monday, November 19, 2012

Always let your conscience be your guide

Conscience: the sense or consciousness of the moral goodness or blameworthiness of one's own conduct, intentions, or character together with a feeling of obligation to do right or be good.

Last night on 60 Minutes, there was a segment about research being with done with babies as young as 3-5 months. It seems that babies at such a young age already show signs of moral judgment by preferring a puppet who has done a good deed rather than one that did something mean or unkind. The research also showed babies preferring puppets that liked the same food that they liked and this ‘bias’ towards similarity, could override their preference for the puppet who did good. It seems that as we are born ‘wired’ for language development, we are also born wired for moral judgment. The researchers commented that part of raising children meant nurturing and supporting this preference for doing well while at the same time helping them see and understand that differences among people are ok.
The key take-away is that children are not blank slates that need to be shaped and formed into being good. It is the old nature versus nurture debate that has been resolved toward an elaborate interplay between the two. I don’t think the implications of this research and other similar types of research have made their way into our educational system when it comes to behavior management.
I began my career in special education and was well versed in behavior modification theory and practice. I recall that one of the major assumptions that behaviorists held was that all behavior was a result of elaborate systems and sequences of stimulus and response behavior. They dismissed any ideas that attributed any behavior to internal processes or mechanisms. For them there was no “there there”. Cognitive structures described by Piaget were just mental constructs that could not be proven and therefore be misleading and a waste of time. The result of this school of thought resulted in a very behavioral focus for any attempt to deal with behavior that was inappropriate or not desired. In a way this approach is appealing since we can’t go inside of a person and make changes, we can only response to the person’s behavior. I think, however, that our need to simplify can blind us to aspects of human development, although complex and difficult to understand, are critical to education. Not everything can or should be reduced to merely managing behavior.

In the case of PBIS, the proponents of it will cite examples of it working and how it brings order to chaotic environments. As I stated in the previous post, it is not its success that I question. If it is working for whom is it working? Does it help adults keep kids on schedule and moving through a building? Does it help insure that every student takes out a book when the teacher says to take out a book? I will admit that it can do that and the better that it does those types of things, the less likely the adults in that schools will change anything about the school and the nature of education.
Perhaps the best story to counter the behavioral approach and its inherent limitations is the one Ed Deci offers in his book, Why We Do What We Do. He said that when he was just starting his career in psychology he noticed that young children needed no behavioral manipulations to learn-they naturally explored objects, were curious, would engage in trying to solve puzzles, etc. He wondered why when they entered school they suddenly needed rewards and consequences. He thought more about the institution that stifled the learning, than about what was wrong with the child who wasn’t learning in school. Learning and doing what you are told are two very different things, but I think schools have lost perspective on the difference between the two.
Ironically it is the success of the behavioral approach and of getting kids to do what they are told, that inadvertently makes bullying so difficult to address in school.
There are many reasons for this:
  •  When students have less autonomy in the adult world, they will tend to seek it in the peer world, especially if they have few outlets for autonomy outside of school.
  •  Moral behavior is more than following the rules. Moral behavior sometimes requires even breaking some rules think of MLK and Gandhi.
  • Bullying can easily occur within the rules of most schools.
  •  Intervening as a bystander requires a degree of risk taking that is not encouraged or supported in school environment that is primarily rule governed.
  • Pleasing adults in control to gain favor or approval becomes the primary focus for students or becomes what constitutes good behavior in their eyes.
  •  Control of behavior is external so when the external controls are not present, kids can lose their bearings and are at a loss for how to act.
Kids who become empowered bystanders can operate in an ambiguous world; they take risks, they use judgment, and they ultimately decide how to act based on an internal compass-their conscience. The more they act that way the stronger it will get. We set the bar too low for our children if all we do is expect them to follow the rules and gain our approval. Although it is a more nebulous endeavor, our goal as educators should be to work with parents in helping develop a child’s moral conscience. It is much better designed for addressing bullying than learning just to follow the rules.
I think the story of Pinocchio (even the Disney version that featured the song “Always let your conscience be your guide”) provides a parable for child rearing. Children cannot remain puppets whose strings are manipulated by adults. They have to live and make mistakes and ultimately find who they really are “without strings” in order to be full human beings. The stories we tell, the examples we set, the love and freedom that we give our children does ultimately guide (not control) them into being full human beings.

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