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Friday, March 8, 2013

No Problem with Problems?

Schools need to be orderly, organized and predictable environments.  It is hard if not impossible to learn in chaotic environments that are confusing and unstable.  Any time you put hundreds of students together in one physical space there is great potential for chaos.  Lurking in the back of every educator's mind is the fear of a class or worse yet school that is out of control.  Viewed from this perspective schools are remarkable places that are able on a daily basis to move kids from place to place, stay on a schedule and get a high percentage of kids to cooperate on a wide variety of expectations and directions.  Schools generally provide a predictable and organized environment for the great majority of students to learn and grow.

When even one student openly defies the the rules of behavior that are supposed to, keep the school orderly and predictable the whole equilibrium of the school can be easily throw off thereby disrupting the learning environment for all students.  These students who act out and break the rules on a regular basis don't just have problems of their own; they become a problem for the whole school and can very easily send teachers and administrators, if not into a panic mode, at least put them on a high level of alert and emotionally color their judgments. As the number of students who can potentially threaten the order and stability of the school increases, the need to a have system in place for maintaining order becomes the highest priority for the school.  This is the reason why programs like PBIS have such appeal to schools and also why they receive high levels of federal, state and local funding.

If a school is beset with behavior problems, that school is at great risk of failure in all domains.  I would agree that these schools have little time to analyze the deeper reasons why so many students might be acting out or misbehaving on a regular basis.  It might be true that  student misbehavior are a symptom of a larger and deeper problem related to curriculum and instructional issues.  Student misbehavior could also be a signal that a student's developmental needs are not being met by the school.  Students who have consistent difficulty in attending and engaging in school also have problems that they carry with them when they walk through the school door.  Schools that are trying to survive sadly don't have the time or the luxury to probe these issues-they legitimately need a quick fix-they need to first stop the bleeding.  These schools need to get every staff person on board and following the same script; they can't afford to  have a collection of individuals each trying a different way to address student misbehavior.  They can't afford such inconsistency since it only adds to the chaos.  Staff need to respond in a predictable and non emotional way and begin to focus on the positive behavior that occurs in even the most dysfunctional school.  For these schools PBIS fits the bill: it brings stability, predictability and organization to schools in dire need of them.

It can be hard to argue with the success that PBIS brings to many schools.  PBIS has a record of success and data to prove it.  If I had to choose between a school barely managing to survive on the edge of chaos and one that gains stability via PBIS, it is a no-brainer-PBIS is the way to go.  This is the position that many schools are in.  They are sinking and PBIS is the life saver that they can't refuse to latch onto and use.  Even schools that are far removed from the edge of chaos and are functioning fairly well would still be attracted to PBIS and its evidence of success.  PBIS to these schools would be like life insurance to healthy people.  It would offer added protection and would address those lurking fears that all educators have about losing control of students.

So What's the Problem?

When so much money, time and energy becomes invested in a program that is viewed as clearly preferable to life without the program in place, it becomes a very threatening proposition to even raise the slightest question or objection to that program.   Like with any orthodoxy, questions, doubts, misgivings, objections are not welcomed as opportunities for reasoned discussion leading to deeper understandings, they are considered heresy and labelled as such.  The success of PBIS and the hard data that "proves" that it works, also makes it extremely difficult to discuss its merits because it is not possible to argue with facts.

The main problem (among many problems) that I have with PBIS is that it does work, not that it doesn't.  My concern is represented with the more problematic question: "For whom does it work?"
PBIS allows the status quo of schools, as we know them,  to continue and function more smoothly.  This makes it harder if not impossible for those in leadership positions to even begin to reimagine schools-or see them in any form other than their present form.  It only makes it more difficult for school leaders to see the possibility of schools being transformed into something new of different. To quote Jim Collins, "the good is the enemy of great", PBIS by stabilizing schools settles for a level of mediocrity that ultimately blocks them from becoming something great.  To further quote Collins, PBIS prevents schools from confronting the "brutal facts" that our schools as they are currently designed are not meeting the needs of educating students for the world as it exists.  It is sort like a horse and buggy company making minor adjustments to survive when the world is moving towards the automobile.  Students need to be problem solvers, self starters, team players, innovative thinkers, people who raise questions and not just answer them.  Does PBIS promote those skills and qualities?

PBIS is designed to fix the problems that offer schools  the opportunity to grow.  Not every problem should be fixed.  Robert Keegan said that we shouldn't just solve problems but some problems should solve us.  Problems have always been the source of creativity and innovation especially when they propel us to go deeper and lead us to more questions rather than answers.  Ask most people about the experience that taught them the most and they would point to a problem not to when everything was going smoothly in their life. PBIS by a providing a quick fix to problems actually prevents schools from digging deeper into problems and emerging transformed for the better.  This might sound  a little too philosophical especially in the light of practical and pressing problems that many schools face, however, failing to look deeper at the source of the problems often creates a situation where long term substantial improvement is traded away for short term quick fix.  Stopping the bleeding is an important first step but ongoing health needs to involve a lot more than that.  Schools shouldn't settle for just stopping the bleeding.  To put this another way: PBIS may work for the adults in the short term but not for kids in the long term.

What concerns me the most, however, about PBIS is the hidden message that it sends to kids. This message is particularly present when PBIS is successful or "works" in a school.  The most prominent message is about the nature of problems themselves and about those who have problems.  Problems are not as Michael Fullan says "friends".  They are things to be avoided.

Problems in PBIS schools are aberrations -things that shouldn't happen.  When problems occur it is because somebody did something wrong.  Think of this way: if PBIS was implemented with the fidelity that it is supposed to be implemented with, it desired state of being would be a problem-less school where nobody broke the rules and everything operated smoothly.  Anyone who breaks the rules is ultimately preventing this desired state of being from occurring.   Problems when they occur need to be corrected as quickly as possible so that the status quo can be restored and maintained.  The school never really has to change only the people in the school have to change-change from breaking the rules to following them.  Those who comply get rewarded, gain approval and are viewed as successful; those who don't comply get less reward, less approval and are not viewed as successful.  This state of being feels pretty good to those in charge when things go smoothly, problems are kept to a minimal and the real teaching of content knowledge can proceed as planned.

It is hard to imagine an alternative to vision of success that PBIS promises without triggering the false alternative of chaos.  This is also why it is so hard to argue against PBIS.  The values of order, efficiency and convenience also fit neatly with the prevailing culture of our society.  The problem with this attitude towards problems and the values of order, convenience and efficiency is that schools are not stores or restaurants but are supposed to be places of learning, places where children learn.  Children are not finished products but are works in progress.  They are experience life for the first time and whenever any human experiences something for the first time mistakes will and must happen-problems cannot be aberrations but are the norm, the expected, and are inherent in the process of learning.  There shouldn't be any "should" involved when it comes to learning.  The message that problems or mistakes shouldn't happen and smoothly sailing is the desired state of being does all of us a great disservice but it is especially a disservice to children who are very vulnerable and impressionable to our interpretations of the world.  They need and want our approval so if they feel that they we want a problem free environment they will do their best to give it to us.  This puts them in a terrible bind:  learning is by its very nature messy and full of problems, it happens by trial and error, and its timetable for mastery naturally varies from individual to individual.  Most schools, especially ones that rely on PBIS, imply that learning should be neat and clear, mistakes kept to a minimum, and mastery evaluated on an arbitrary one size fits all timetable.  Educators may tell kids that it is ok to make mistakes but their words will be drowned out by the loud hidden message that kids encounter in how  schools are managed.

As troubling as it might be to rethink "success",  educators need to consider the long term implications of the hidden message that programs like PBIS send to students about how to view problems.  If the message is that problems should be aberrations and undesirable and fixed as soon as possible, how will that message prepare students for a work environment and a creative life where order, convenience, and predictability are not the prevailing values.  In fact,  a creative life and work environments in the 21st century value initiative, risk taking, thinking outside the box, questioning, and teamwork.  It is unrealistic to think or expect students to spend 12 years in a system that has one set of values to be prepared for a life, a career and world that has a very different set.  Ironically it is no coincidence that the the innovators in our world are often the people who were not successful in  traditional schools but people to had to find a different venue for success that was  usually outside of school.

Since PBIS is so tempting and so much better than chaos, educators need to find a better approach that can keep a reasonable amount of order and predictability while creating an environment that can accept and even embrace problems as opportunities for learning.  Schools, as Tom Serigiovanni said, should be "managerially loose but culturally tight" so that they can influence, guide, support and educate students and resist the temptation to control and manipulate them.

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