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Friday, November 9, 2012

Another Hard Question

Why do we need behavior programs for students?

This is another hard question that educators typically don’t ask or even think about.  It is usually automatically assumed that students do.  It is a question that is hard to answer without thinking more deeply about the very nature of traditional school cultures and about what we think about children and learning. 

I think there are many reasons why we don’t ask such a fundamental question.  One is fear of losing control.  Adults in school are afraid of kids defying our power and authority over them.  Another is the higher value that placed upon order and efficiency over learning and problem solving.  Probably the one that is hardest to see is the deeply hidden assumption in our culture about human development and learning.  These reasons are all highly interdependent and woven through the traditional structure and hierarchy of schools in the U.S.
Since adults have so much influence over student behavior (we get what we expect), we create conditions where students act in a way that “prove” us right, therefore, we not only feel justified in continuing to assert behavioral control but seek to become more efficient in doing so.  It hard to conceive of any reality other than the one we have created and continue to support.
At the school where I was principal, we began to see the possibility of this “alternate reality” showing what could be possible and shedding some light on these hidden assumptions.  This  “alternate reality” came into focus most vividly during the third week in October every year.  This was the week that our fourth grades classes would construct an Iroquois village including a long house in the wooded area next to our school.  This was quite the undertaking and the teachers deserved great credit for the time, planning and energy they invested in this type of learning experience.  They did this annually because they saw the benefits of this-the students learned a lot and remembered what they learned and were eager to keep learning as a result. 

Of course this learning experience was a lot more than throwing the kids into the woods and telling them to build a village.  The students researched the Iroquois and knew that their research was essential for this project.  The students worked in teams doing this research and shared what they learned.  They were involved in the planning of the construction.  The teachers even simulated the tribal structure of the Iroquois where each class was a tribe and the girls elected the chief of each tribe (as the Iroquois did).  They also used the tribal structure of meeting in a circle and discussing problems.  The students also knew in advance that they would be sharing this village with the wider school community and each one of them would be a tour guide having to explain various parts of village to the small groups that they led.
I am only sharing a small part of this learning experience for the students. I do so to highlight what happened regarding the students’ behavior.   What almost would pass unnoticed by everyone involved in this annual learning experience was that there was no need for any type of behavior plan for any of the students involved in this project.  In over the ten years of creating the Iroquois village there were no significant behavioral problems with any student.  Sure maybe the students needed to be reminded from time to time about staying on task, but this often just required a quick glance or brief verbal reminder from a teacher to a student.  Very often the students would remind each other to stay on task but for the great majority of the time, the students worked hard, were engaged and enjoyed the experience-and so did the adults involved. 

Just think of the possibilities for misbehavior that could occur with large groups of eight to nine year old kids off in the woods gather sticks and branches. (This thought of this would probably scare most educators from even attempting such a project.) Skeptics might say that this was just fun and real learning wasn’t happening, but the exact opposite happened.  The students became experts about Iroquois culture and were able to reason and understand why they lived the way they did. 
This deeper learning was most evident on the final day of the project when all the students were gathered together in clearing near the longhouse sitting in a circle in their closing ceremony.  Unbeknownst to them a group of European settlers would emerge out of the woods (usually a group of teachers and the principal in disguise) and make them an offer of materials goods in exchange for some of their land.   This brief appearance and proposal then triggered an intense discussion about how they should respond to that offer.

There was no hint of rewards or consequences connected to any of their behaviors.  There was absolutely no need for any behavior plan- learning was its own reward.  The surprise is really why this experience should be a surprise to educators.  People are born to learn and want to learn and when they are learning there is no need to try to get them to learn.  After my many years as a principal when I would sum up my philosophy of behavior management I would say: “If you are meeting people’s developmental needs, they will learn what they need to learn.”  Conversely when we put people into situations that don’t meet their developmental needs, we need very elaborate strategies to get them to do the things we want them to do usually for our own sake-not theirs. 

I believed so strongly in belief in intrinsic motivation that my parting gift as principal to my staff was the book by Ed Deci entitled: Why We Do What We Do.  This is a profound work summarizing his research and should be required reading for every educator.

I will try to explore this topic in future posts and connect it to bullying prevention.

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