Friday, September 28, 2012

A Human Response to Bullying

Last week I wrote about institutional efforts to promote character development and argued that to successfully do so requires both technical and human responses.  This week the SL Tribune ran a story that, for me, perfectly illustrates the power of human responses and the ways in which they can be used to support more technical and formal responses to the challenges faced in schools.

The story reports on an incident of bullying at Sunset Ridge Middle School in West Jordan, Utah and how an entire school community came together to take a stand against bullying in their school.  You can read more about the story here, but here are the highlights:  a new 7th grade student was the victim of bullying, the heartbroken student went to a school counselor for comfort, and the counselor responded.  Up to this point, this story is nearly identical to the other stories about bullying we've heard.  But what makes this particular story unique is the way the counselor responded.  Rather than taking the issue to a faculty meeting where new policies or programs could be discussed, she initiated a very human response.  She sent text messages to 24 "student ambassadors" who then organized a grassroots campaign against bullying for the next day of school.  In response, 1,000 students showed up to school the next day sporting post-it notes bearing anti-bullying messages (e.g. "Stop the hate").  A few days later, friends of the bully turned him in based largely on the response of the school to this incident.  Consider how different this story would have been had the counselor responded with the typical technical response we often see in these situations (e.g. faculty meeting conversations, formal school programming, etc.).

It's important to note that Sunset Ridge Middle School has formal anti-bullying programs (the student ambassadors are a part of the initiative) in place; however, it was a combination of a human and technical response that made the difference.  The lesson here seems to be that the best technical responses are those that create a space for human responses to thrive.  It was the organization of an ambassador program--a somewhat technical response (although it might be a sort of hybrid response straddling the border between technical and human responses) that provided the necessary infrastructure to carry out the very human response that, in the end, made the biggest difference.  Additionally, the formal anti-bullying programming the school had been sponsoring on a regular basis likely made anti-bullying values public and accepted, smoothing the path for a group of student leaders to speak out against a very specific act of bullying in their school.

So, I stand by my argument in last week's post that for schools to make meaningful changes, both technical and human responses are necessary.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Character as an aim of higher education

"True education seeks to make men and women not only good mathematicians, proficient linguists, profound scientists, or brilliant literary lights, but also honest men with virtue, temperance, and brotherly love."

This statement from educator David O. McKay has always intrigued me.  For me, it is simultaneously inspiring and discouraging.  Inspiring because it speaks to some of my most deeply-held beliefs about the purposes and possibilities of education, yet discouraging because it seems like such a long, steep, and unmarked road for us to climb.  This aim, though not shared universally by institutions of higher education, seems to be commonplace in mission statements in one form or another (see, for example, the mission statements from Westminster College, Mars Hill College, and Longwood University, each of which address character development in their unique way); however, the cynic in me wonders how often we succeed in developing students of high moral, ethical, and civic character.  I become even more worried when I consider the ways in which the current culture of higher education, one that often views learning as a commodity and education as a marketplace where this commodity can be gained merely through some kind of transactional purchase like what we do when we go to the grocery store.  see all of the forces working against us in this effort

Clearly, though, there are thousands of students each year who graduate having had experiences which have had deep and lasting impacts upon their character development.  These are the students who leave our campuses with an appreciation for diverse perspectives, a desire to make meaningful contributions in their community, and an integrity born of hard work and overcoming challenges that arose during their educational experience.  

Those of us who work and live on campuses whose missions include a focus on character development would like to think that our institutional efforts (read:  programs, initiatives, or events) were instrumental in facilitating this kind of growth in students.  Hence, we praise the general education program with a required service-learning component, the required attendance at "chapel" or "devotionals," or the inspiring keynote lecture during "character week" as silver bullets that "transformed" students.  In sum, we often come to believe that it is our technical responses to the need for character development among students that are successful in realizing this aim.  

While there is nothing inherently wrong with formal attempts to support character development, we sometimes neglect the power of human relationships in promoting this type of growth among students.  Hence, my suspicion is that the campuses who are most successful in achieving these aspects of their mission are those who also embrace, emphasize, and value a human response to the challenge of educating students' character.  Those who know me could surely make an argument that my alma mater failed me when it came to the development of my character; however, I would like to think that I experienced some gains in this domain during my undergraduate years.  And, when I think about the experiences that were most impactful in terms of my character, it isn't participation in formal aspects of my education that made the difference.  Rather, it was interactions and associations with roommates, classmates, faculty members, work supervisors, and others that had the greatest influence upon me.  Whether it was a roommate offering gentle correction in response to less than upstanding behavior from me, a faculty member describing how he approaches his research as an attempt to answer "big questions," or a work supervisor who helped me see that there may indeed be other perspectives in the universe outside of my own, it was the quotidian of my experience and not the formalities, that had a cumulatively transformative effect upon me.

It would be a mistake for institutions to eliminate formal programs focused on character development.  The existence of these programs on a campus, if nothing else, serve as a symbolic statement regarding the high value we place on developing character among our students.  And, when designed thoughtfully, these programs can facilitate the unplanned experiences which, in my estimation, are much more powerful in shaping students.  But, if these formalities are not supported by a collective effort among the individual members of the campus community to talk about, model, and celebrate character as an aim of education--e.g. the faculty member who offers holistic mentoring outside her discipline, the classmate who refuses to silence or ignore diverse perspectives, or the administrator who models ethical behavior in all of his interactions--programs will have little impact.  

So, the challenge for campus leaders becomes one of clearly articulating a set of values embracing character development, recruiting and retaining faculty and staff who genuinely believe in and work toward this mission, educating prospective students about what it means to be members of the (fill in institution name here) community, and providing a campus environment (which includes everything from co-curricular programs, to physical spaces, to curricula ) where the day-to-day experiences we have with one another have a chance at building our characters.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Scaleable "Solutions" vs. Local Responses

Yesterday, I participated in a forum with educators, administrators, and business leaders who are all interested in the use of technology in learning settings (Accelerating Innovation:  Personalizing the learning environment--thanks to k12, BYU's Center for Teaching and Learning, and TD Ameritrade Investools for making it free to attend).  It was clear that everyone there was passionate about learning and excited about what learning might look like in the future, particularly in schools.  In that way, I felt like I was with kindred spirits and appreciated having the opportunity to connect with and dialogue around important issues.  However, I always feel a bit like a fraud in these settings because I tend to be skeptical whenever I hear people talking about technology "revolutionizing" or "transforming" learning.  Further, the conversations at gatherings like the one I attended yesterday often focus on finding "innovative solutions" that can be "scaled up" and adopted on a massive scale (this seemed to be the only thing the representatives from the USDOE wanted to talk about yesterday).

Clearly, there are technological advances that have this impact upon learners and the learning process, but I think the list is much shorter than many technologists would believe.  More typical is the new "tool" that is developed in a particular setting, touted as "transformational," and then adopted only in the setting where it was developed and a few others where the challenges are similar.  That isn't a criticism of these "tools" as much as it is a criticism of the rhetoric of many educational technologists which is, in short, "we're going to change the world with this new idea."

At the core of these issues is an interesting tension that I saw playing out in yesterday's forum.  And, the tension is framed by two fundamental perspectives on educational reform.  The first is what I'll call the grand solution paradigm which seems to be concerned with finding universal solutions to big problems.  Consequently, their focus is on identifying problems that manifest themselves in virtually every educational setting and sector and then developing "solutions" that can be "scaled up" and adopted on a widespread basis.  

The second perspective operates from a local response paradigm.  Those who align with this approach are very concerned with context in that they approach problems by, first, understanding the complexities and nuances of particular settings (e.g. local cultures, historical influences, individual personalities, and available resources).  Then, they work alongside local stakeholders to respond to the challenges presented by these unique educational landscapes.

There are stark difference across these perspectives.  The first seems to be concerned with "answers" to questions and believes that finding these answers will solve problems for all educators.  They seem concerned with what has sometimes been termed in research as the "grand narrative" and aim to provide new ideas and tools that everyone can use, in nearly the same way.  These are the folks that are much more likely to see themselves as "revolutionaries" and "reformers."  In contrast, localists aren't likely to make any claims at developing "solutions" or "answers," rather they approach educational policy and practice as a dynamic dance wherein teachers and administrators are in a continual state of responding to the challenges and opportunities that present themselves.  Because this is slow and more "tribal" work, they may not see themselves as "revolutionizing" education, although their collective efforts may have that impact over the long-term.

Like most complex problems, the challenges we face in education aren't likely to be overcome if they are approached exclusively from one of these perspectives or the other.  Any sustainable changes are likely to come about in response to a coordinated effort that involves both a search for "scaleable" solutions and an openness to local innovation and responsiveness.  But, when I sit back and listen to the dialogue of the "reformers" I hear too much of the former and not enough of the latter.  Rather than spending inordinate amounts of time "innovating" in search of the holy grail of education (yesterday it was Open Educational Resources), we should be spending just as much time helping local practitioners and stakeholders join the grand dialogue, and then consider what "works" in their own place.  Innovation, while focused on outcomes, products, and ideas, should be just as concerned with processes that allow local innovation to thrive.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Something no educator should ever say

A few weeks ago I ran into one of my favorite professors from my undergraduate years.  He was (and still is) engaging, fun, concerned about students, and a great teacher.  The two classes I took from him were two of my favorites.  But, I have a bone to pick with him.

It has to do with something he said to me at the point in our conversation when we were discussing the newly re-designed Physical Education Teacher Education program at BYU (the program from which I graduated). Commenting on the utility of the teacher education coursework included in the program he remarked "you've either got it or you don't and we're not going to make much of a difference."  That was a surprising (and rather ironic) thing for a former faculty member and department chair to say and it unsettled me.  And, it isn't the first time I've heard this kind of thing from an educator (for the most recent example, see this interview with a faculty member from the media arts department at BYU where, in reference to the skill of film editing, he states "students either have it or not").

How many of us secretly harbor these kinds of thoughts, whether it is about students' ability to learn to write, learn to conduct research, learn to communicate skillfully in formal presentations, or anything else we might claim to be "teaching?"  And, in what ways might these often hidden assumptions influence the way we go about teaching or mentoring students?

Clearly, learners come to us with a variety of abilities and aptitudes and will achieve "success" in varying degrees due, in large part, to the skills and knowledge they bring with them.  However, to believe that someone "either has it or they don't" is an implicit acknowledgement that either (a) we are poor educators and not competent enough to facilitate learning for learners across the spectrum of ability or (b) that, regardless of our skill as educators, it ultimately makes no meaningful difference in the lives of our students.  I'm not comfortable with either of those conditions.

At a bare minimum, those who hold the view I've critiqued here should do a better job of identifying those students who "don't have it" and advising them out of programs like film and teacher education early on so they can find that field where they "do have it."  Additionally, Carol Dweck's book Mindset, should be required reading for all educators so that we can extinguish the false notions of talent and ability that get in the way of good teaching and learning.  If what we do doesn't make a difference, then what are we wasting our time for?