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Friday, March 29, 2013

X Marks the Spot, but Why Not Y?

Managerial practices are guided by two underlying assumptions about people, these assumptions are referred to Theory X and Theory Y.  Theory X is the assumption that people are basically unmotivated and need consequences both positive and negative to do their job.  Theory Y is the assumption that people are inherently motivated to do well and will if given the right conditions and supports.     Although one might argue that this is too simplistic a distinction to make in real life,  such a clear-cut distinction can be helpful for reflecting on managerial practices.  To  often our discussions about our practice debate surface differences without allowing us to dig a little deeper.  Examining underlying assumptions can be difficult if not threatening to many practitioners who have invested a lot of time and energy getting better at implementing their practice.

It is clear to me however that our educational system and practices are based on Theory X assumptions about people in general-student, teachers, administrators, everybody.  This basic assumption can be found in grading practices, supervisory practices but most noticeably in our behavior management practices.   Theory X projects a negative view of human nature upon our students and sadly many of  them absorb this assumption and live “down” to our expectations.  The driving emotion of Theory X is fear-those in “management” positions, almost all adults in school, are afraid that unless they tightly control and manage people, those people will not work or conform to the established rules or procedures.  Theory X practices arose under a factory model where workers were asked to do boring and repetitive tasks and needed external control in order to produce quality work.  Theory X practices unfortunately ended up being applied to education and they have held sway over the culture of our schools today.

When it comes to behavior management in schools, programs like PBIS, still try to explain behavior problems primarily as motivation problems.  Although advocates of PBIS will say that the program takes the time to instruct students about how to interact with each other or follow certain procedures, the program still emphasizes the importance of positively “reinforcing” kids for doing what they were taught.   Why can’t kids be taught skills without the accompanied rewards or consequences attached to them?  Why assume that kids would resist such instruction and need motivation for using the skills they were taught?  If kids are told why learning those skills will help them and how they can help everybody get along, why wouldn’t kids see learning those skills as in their own best interests? Ed Deci calls this “autonomy coaching” meaning that adults can coach kids about problems and issues and point out to them why solving them in a certain way will help them. Kids can also have a degree of choice regarding various appropriate ways of behaving.

Ross Greene gives the best explanation of the difference between will versus skill approaches to behavior management in his book, Lost at School.  I think that even the strongest advocates of PBIS would admit that most kids in schools cooperate without the need for rewards or consequences.  I have been in many schools, even ones that are considered problem schools, and the great majority of kids do what they are told to do.  The driving force for programs like PBIS is the small minority of kids who don’t cooperate.  These kids though in the minority can disrupt the order and predictability of the learning environment for all kids.   Advocates for PBIS would probably claim that although most kids don’t need PBIS, applying the program to the whole school, makes it work better for the minority of kids because they see that the kids who don’t need it getting rewards and that will add to their motivation for imitating those well behaved cooperative kids.  This does make sense in a way because they also figure that PBIS can’t hurt the kids that don’t need it.

Greene describes the problem with PBIS type and their theories of motivation programs this way:

“… the vast majority of kids already know how we want them to behave.  They know they’re supposed to do what they’re told.  They know they are not supposed to  disrupt the learning of their classmates or run out of the school when they are upset or embarrassed.  And they know they are not supposed to hit people, swear, or call out in class…And while this may be hard to believe, most challenging kids already want to behave the right way.  They don’t need us to continue giving them stickers, depriving them of recess,  or suspending them from school; they are already motivated.  They need something else from us.”

Greene in the first chapter entitled, Kids Do Well If They Can, offers the following alternative to the traditional motivational (Theory X) approach of school discipline:

“Doing well is always preferable to not doing well, but only if a kid has the skills to do well in the first place.  If a kid isn’t doing well, he must be lacking the skills. What’s the most important role an adult can play in the life of such a kid? First, assume that he’s already motivated, already knows right from wrong, and has already been punished enough. Then, then figure out what skills he’s lacking so you have the clearest possible understanding  of what’s getting in the way.  Understanding why a kid is challenging is the first and most important part of helping him.”

Shifting from viewing from the “will” theory to the “skill” theory of misbehavior is critical to how staff perceive and consequently react to a student’s misbehavior.  If misbehavior is seen as a result of lack of “will”, staff are more likely to have more resentment and anger towards the kid with the disruptive behavior.  Conversely, if staff view the misbehavior as a result of a lack of skill, they are more likely to maintain a positive attitude towards the student and more likely to help the student.  Think of this way-it is a rare teacher who would blame or be angry at a struggling reader, that teacher would realize that the student wants to read well but for some reason is having difficulty picking up the skill.  If teachers viewed students with the behavioral problems with the same degree of understanding and support as they do with kids with learning problems, our schools would be very different and more humane places. (In subsequent posts I will explain how Theory X practices affect bullying in schools.)

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Habit of "Speaking Up"

As I have written about before, it is unrealistic to think that we can just tell bystanders to speak up, intervene or even report bullying and think that they will do it. No amount of cheer leading, ad campaigns or motivational slogans can change people’s habits.  Being an empowered bystander requires a mindset that is developed over time where risk taking, speaking up is not a rare occurrence.  Kids need to be in an environment where speaking up and  becoming an active participant in a community is cultivated by those in leadership positions.
Business are now realizing that getting people to speak up which includes seeing problems, raising objections, questioning and sharing ideas that don’t automatically fit conventional thinking,  is the key to the organization’s ability to innovate and keep pace with a rapidly changing environment.   The problem with the shifting to this more open and participatory,  shared leadership is that people have a lot of unlearning to do.  Leadership cannot just snap its fingers and announce, “Ok, everyone can just speak up now!”  We are wired to protect ourselves from even the slightest hint of perceived risk.   This is why even subtle signals from people in leadership positions are the crucial variable in determining whether people truly feel safe in speaking up or fall into the default mode of keeping their “mouths shut” to stay out of trouble.  Amy Edmondson in her book, Teaming states:
The most important influence on psychological safety is the nearest manager, supervisor, or boss.  These authority figures in subtle and not so subtle ways, shape the tone of interactions in a team of group.  Therefore, they must also be engaged as the primary drivers in establishing a more open work environment. They must take practical steps to make the workplace psychologically safe.  That is the key phrase: take practical steps.  Psychological safety is a share sense developed through shared experience.

We can easily take the above quotation and substitute the word “teacher” for manager, supervisor or boss.  Teachers can create a psychologically safe environment for students.  This means more that just having an orderly environment with the teacher controlling what happens.  That might appear to be safe however it is not type of safety needed for speaking up and risk taking.  The problem with creating a classroom environment that is truly psychologically safe for speaking up and risking taking is that it is hard to imagine what that would look like, since the traditional ways of managing classes and schools seem to value order and compliance much more than speaking up and risking taking. 

Cooperative learning is one very effective tool for creating a psychologically safe environment where the teacher is not the dominant figure in maintaining order.  With cooperative learning and more democratic classrooms students learn responsibility through social interaction and seeing how one’s action impacts others and the whole community-not just whether is gains the approval or not from the teacher.

Since it is so difficult to re-imagine schools, having examples where “those practical steps” that show rather than just tell students that it is ok to speak up and take a risk, can help schools at least have a direction for the type of change they might want to make.  This is why I was excited to discover an example of a classroom where the teacher took “practical steps” to make her classroom psychologically safe.  This type of classroom is one where bullying prevention through student empowerment is part of its DNA and not an add-on program or curriculum. 

I will share one of the “practical steps” that this teacher does that sends a powerful message of empowerment to her students.  At the end of each lesson (I might add that the lessons are very participatory with movement and excitement) she asks and invites the students to give her feedback on the lesson.  She has three categories for responding to the lesson:

  • Authentically engaged-students found the lesson meaningful and relevant
  • Strategically compliant-students participated just out of respect for the teacher’s authority but not because they found the lesson that engaging
  • Retreatism- students were tuned out and just went through the motions of participating.

The fact that the teacher actually asks for feedback from the students is one of those “practical steps” that create psychological safety.  When kids see their teacher invite their feedback, the focus of learning becomes the learning rather than the pleasing of the teacher.  This teacher even goes one step further if the lesson is not authentically engaging she asks her students for ideas on how to make it more engaging.  She then uses this feedback to improve her lessons and acknowledges the feedback as the basis for the change.  In this way the students are not passive recipients of learning but are engaged in shaping and creating it with the teacher.  Some might think that this level of feedback could only occur with older students and it does appear to be a rather sophisticated level of responding but this happened in a second grade class.  The teacher had taught the kids what those terms meant and they gave this feedback on a daily basis.  It illustrates that kids respond (up or down) to the level of expectation we set for them as long as we provide the time and practice needed for that type of responding.
Here is the link to the lesson (it is over 25 minutes long but well worth the time) there is also a transcript available that you can download.

This is a great example of reframing the issue of bullying prevention from what we need to get kids to NOT DO to what type of learning environment do we need to create to optimize the learning for everyone.  That later goal is a lot more exciting and fun and those are pretty good things to remember about learning.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Whoever does the most talking...

I was trained as a cooperative learning trainer.  One saying that has always stuck with me that I heard in my training was:  “Whoever does the most talking does the most learning.”   Whenever I walk into a classroom where the teacher stands in front of the students and lectures, this saying immediately pops into my head.  Now that there is all this attention to the Common Core and getting students to think more deeply and analytically, that saying is especially relevant. 

  As learners we all need to process and understand any experience we have.  We have to put that experience into our own words and also hear from others how they interpret that same experience.  Sharing our thoughts and ideas and trying to reconcile them to other’s thoughts and ideas makes the individual think more deeply.  This intellectual process of going deeper individually is dynamically linked to the social interaction of listening and responding.  This integration of the social and academic is at the heart of cooperative learning.

Cooperative learning is one of the most researched instructional strategies and it is an  evidence based proven method to improve academic learning and social skills and attitudes.  Why isn’t it more prevalent in our schools today?  Look at the major concerns in education and the different initiatives designed to address them-cooperative learning holds the potential to address them in an integrative way rather than the separate silos approach now used. 

There are four main reasons, in my opinion,  why cooperative learning isn’t more prevalent in schools:
  • ·      It is misunderstood as group learning and most people’s experience of group learning is negative.  People have nightmare stories of how they were in a group of students and they ended up doing all the work while the other group members coasted along.
  • ·      It requires ongoing professional development through daily practice in an environment where all professionals are using it consistently.
  • ·      It is based on the underlying assumption that instruction and pedagogy are the key elements for school improvement.  This is not the guiding assumption underlying policy and practice on the federal, state and local level.
  • ·      It is not trendy-it has been around for too long.  It is easier for education to latch on to new approaches or methods that promise something new and different.

If I had the power to recommend one practice that would have the greatest positive  impact on  bullying in schools, cooperative learning would far and away surpass any other program or approach.  To illustrate this I show a brief movie clip from October Sky- a movie about a high school student in West Virginia who later went on to be a rocket scientist.  The movie is about his passion for rockets and outer space.  As he went about trying to learn about rockets he found that his school’s library did not have the resources he needed.  He found out that the nerdy kid that no one liked or wanted to be associated with knew a lot about science including rockets etc.  He decided that if he was going to learn more he needed this student to help him.  The movie depicts the whole process of how a small group of diverse students worked interdependently on a science fair project constructing a rocket.  They became friends through the process of learning together. 

As discussed previously one of the main reasons that bystanders fail to intervene or report bullying is because they view the victim as different and often want to avoid association with the victim.  Too many schools create and sustain environments that promote this social distancing.  You would think that given that the great majority of time in schools is devoted to learning academic subjects that there would be ample opportunities for kids to discover commonalities with all their peers in the classroom.  When kids work together on academic tasks in cooperative groups they can discover how they are truly interdependent and move beyond the surface judgments that they can too easily make about others.

 Getting to know others and appreciating and valuing differences are the best antidotes to bullying.  When the social and academic are integrated on a daily basis by using the tool of cooperative learning, kids experience how social and academic enhance each other-they see how learning is interactive rather than just an individual experience.  When kids do more talking and thinking with each other they will also do less and less bullying.  It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.

Sunday, March 24, 2013


"Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change." -Wayne Dyer

I often plan and conduct professional development workshops.  Although these workshops in and of themselves have limited value for facilitating change, they provide an opportunity for the participants to start to think differently-in short workshops can "plant a seed" for change.  To stick with the garden analogy, you can't just plant a seed and then walk away from it and expect it to grow into a healthy plant.  It will need ongoing care and attention so the developing plant can adjust to changing environmental conditions.  
Ironically, the way we view workshops affects their ultimate value to us. 

Let's examine the life of a professional workshop.  People invest time and energy to leave their place of employment to attend a conference or a specific workshop.  Sometimes people choose to attend; sometimes they are told to attend-this does make a difference.  In both cases, optional or mandated attendance, participants often are looking for something that they can take back to their place of work and use with the intention of doing their job better.  Some workshops/conferences knowing this expectation will even advertise that the participants will emerge from the workshop with practical strategies they can take back and use right away to make a positive difference at work.  
In reality, this does not happen so even if someone walks out of a workshop thinking they got something very practical and are excited about using it, in most cases it won't work over time. 

 The reason for this failure can be found in the quotation I used in a previous post: "Culture eats strategy for breakfast."  Any change, no matter how practical it is, will over time be overcome by the cultural norms of the organization-like a seedling that doesn't get enough water or gets stepped on because there is no fence around the garden.  This doesn't mean that the idea brought back isn't a worthy one, it just means that  the day to day life and habits of thought and action of the organization are so entrenched and well established that the idea has no place to take root or stick to. 

When ideas/strategies from workshops take hold so to speak is when they go back to a compatible culture.  A culture where there are ways of thinking and acting that actively embrace new ideas: cultures of learning.  Ironically those cultures are ones that would continue to change as a result of the daily interactions among the people in those cultures.  An idea or strategy taken back to those type of cultures wouldn't dramatically stick out from the norm and get blowback from people, instead it would attach or blend into what is already happening.  People from these cultures also don't go looking for magical solutions to problems expecting a workshop to provide them.  People from these cultures go looking for ideas that they think will nurture and support the thinking and learning of the people back at work who didn't attend the workshop.  This is a very different expectation and one that makes more sense: ideas can feed other ideas and  conversations among  people can lead to decisions that can ultimately support the growth that is already happening.  Learning cultures don't look for quick fixes or programs that will change everybody.  Learning cultures want to learn more and are open to anything that will support their learning-change in these cultures is evolutionary and emerges through a shared ownership and leadership from people who work together.

This phenomenon is why I am reluctant to do single, one time only workshops for schools that want to do a better job at preventing and reducing bullying.  I view workshops as opportunity to plant a seed, to  bring a different idea into the mix and hopefully promote a deeper and reflective conversation.  My best hope is to get even one or two people to start to think a little differently about something they thought they "knew".  Many people I would expect would find this approach not to be practical and I have received feedback  expressing frustration that the workshop offered "fluff" and failed to give any practical tools or strategies.
This is a catch 22, for cultures that aren't looking for the answers but are open to new ways of thinking, those cultures are probably already doing a pretty good job of preventing and reducing bullying because they already have a culture of respect and openness.  

Conversely, even the most practical hands-on strategy offered to schools who have cultures that don't value learning and thinking and want a "solution", would fail to make much of a difference at that school.

Probably the most practical thing a school can do is first change the way they look at school bullying. When schools do that "practical" shift of thinking, bullying is no longer just a problem to solve but it becomes an opportunity for the entire school culture to change for the better-not only will bullying decrease in that school,  the overall learning/achievement of that school will increase.