Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Right to Fail - The Right to Learn

My love of the so-called "standards movement" has waned lately.  I see it as a political, rather than educational, movement.  Many years ago, now, I supported the idea because I could see in my teaching environment that both expectations and achievement at a grade level varied dangerously.  This led to both teacher and student frustrations as student moved through the system with widely different educational experiences.  I still favor a system of teacher grade-level "goals" and some form of testing to assess student progress relative to those goals.  What I don't support is the widespread paranoia among educators to push up scores by any means possible.

There is considerable evidence that the brain needs lots of failure before it becomes "smart."  What I mean by that is that the conscious brain is a very small part of the active functioning of the brain.  Like it or not, we all need to experience both success and failure in and area, and the time to reflect on both, before we develop anything approaching expertise or wisdom.

Perhaps the best example of the opportunity of gaining wisdom through failure comes from the airline industry.  As reported in How We Decide,  between 1940 and 1990, no matter what rules and legislative reforms were enacted, the percentage of plane crashes due to pilot error remained at about 65%.  Then, in the early 1990's two things changed in the way pilots were trained.  First, pilots had access to flight simulators, allowing them to practice what they had previously studied only in the classroom.  Not only did they practice, but their trainers WANTED them to make mistakes.   Both successes and failures were rigorously debriefed.  Second, the philosophy of cockpit management changed.  Previously, pilots were the authority in the cockpit.  Pilots, working alone, made errors which could have been avoided if the wisdom of the entire flight crew had been utilized.  A new decision-making strategy was employed with great success.  The strategy is so effective that it is being copied in other high-stakes decision situations like surgery.  Less than 30% of all plane crashes are now attributable to flight crew error.

I see children as hurried in the educational environment.  More time is being put into the topics which are tested.  Old standard techniques, not necessarily supported by science but feeling somehow comfortable to "experienced" educators, are being trotted out again in the effort to push up test scores.  While talking differentiated instruction, meaning that each child gets the instruction they need, the reality is labeling and tracking, discredited techniques from days gone by.  A few are "accelerated." Many are labeled as somehow "less than," and drilled to bring them up towards standard.

There's a wonderful book, The Year of Miss Anges, by Kirkpatrick Hill.  It tells the story of a teacher in a remote one-room schoolhouse in Alaska who truly tailors her "curriculum" to the special talents of her students.  It is so much closer to what I now see as education, real education.  I once read this book to my fourth grade class.  I was curious to learn their response to the book.  At the conclusion of the book, I asked my class for their response.  Predictably, they said that liked it, that it was a good book.  Attempting to go deeper, I asked what made Miss Agnes different.  One of my students responded with a dagger-like sentence:  "She's a good teacher."  I took that personally, and I took it as a challenge.  For me to be a good teacher, I too had to learn to educate the people with whom I worked every day.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Do No Harm

A basic tenet of first aid training is, "do no harm."  Doctors live by this dictum as well.  It's a shame that teachers and parents don't get a daily morning e-mail reminding them of the very same plea.  Doing harm is the unfairly easy for those of us who contact kids daily.  I'm not saying we do so daily, only that we work in an environment that puts us innately at risk.

We are, in the end, emotional creatures.  We associate a feeling with most everything that we experience.  Typically, brain research tells us that we feel first and think second.  In our highly paced lives and in the modern classroom, it's common to be in "reaction mode." That is, it's way to easy to act first and think later.  It's not hard to see how this can lead to snapping out actions which hurt young people.

We imagine ourselves to be rational, though.  Worse yet, we assume that children have a rational development equal to ours.  They should understand our explanations, our rationalizations.  They should understand our shortcomings.  It would be nice.  Evidence seems to be to the contrary.  Kids experience us and they retain those interactions with the feelings that are associated with them.  Steven Glenn likened it to a sort of "bank account."  If we have enough positive deposits, we can afford an occasional negative withdrawal without jeopardizing the relationship.

Late in my career, I retrained my brain to respond to emotionally charged situations with kids with the Jim Fay stock response, "...bummer."  It gave me a space to think.  It triggered my thinking brain to take control before I shoved a foot so deeply down my throat that there would be no way to extricate it.  "Bummer," was not, actually, the only stock response, but it was the most reliable.  That there were other was driven home to me when a student gave me, as an end-of-the-year gift, a book he'd created of, "Mr. Howell Sayings."  Last week, doing a presentation to many of my former students, I twice asked them what I would have said in a particular situation.  They nailed it both times.  Stock phrases for parents and teachers are not perceived as insincerity.  They are first and foremost, a way of teaching.  Second, they protect one's poise so that those focused individual things that must be said can be said with an appreciation of the situation, rather than emotional darts.  I say get them, rehearse them, and use them frequently.  They'll lead to greater closeness and you'll "do no harm."

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Learning from Sports

It's almost embarrassing to say that I enjoyed one of my biggest "ah-ha's"  from a golf book.   In the book, With Winning in Mind,  Lanny Basham offered a graphic to explain his idea that no matter what a person's potential, they could achieve no greater than the limits of their self-image.  Wisdom is wisdom, and I suspect it transcends our parochial interests.  Today I'd like to make mention of another concept that I've run into frequently in the literature of sport:  process.

Golf writers repeatedly intone that great golfers (think athletes and high-achievers in other areas, as well), must build a great routine, a process, and stick to it, regardless of the momentary results.  One can see baseball players going through seemingly silly routines while batting.  Basket ball players fidget before their free throws.  The behaviors have a point, they keep the athlete in "flow," repeating behaviors which are associated with a successful conclusion to the activity.  Although they may not seem so, the behaviors have become associated with the activity and are habitual and instinctive parts of successfully completing the activity.

Adults working with children don't have the luxury of having a limited set of situations in which to act.  In a single day, they may be called to perform in a hundred varied interactions with children.  So what is the process there?  I suggest that the "process" is that of helping to produce a capable adult.  The adult has to build a repertoire of behaviors which lead children toward wisdom and responsibility:  the ability to function successfully in the adult world by the time the child reaches adulthood.  How an adult builds this repertoire is, perhaps, a topic for another day.

For now, suffice it to say that it seems wise for parents to have a clear picture of the child as adult and be committed to shaping the child as opportunities present themselves.  It means that immediate unpleasantness, for example in the form of an unhappy child, is acceptable if parent or teacher is focusing current decisions on the long-term welfare of the child.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Sowing the Seeds of Our Own Destruction

What a title!  What's this about?  Actually, it's kind of a rant.  Over the past few weeks I've been in several classrooms and one teacher behavior I see that really gets me is allowing students to waste time with no consequence.  This comes primarily at transitions.

Transitions are tough.  Children seem to treat every break in the schedule as if it were recess.  They turn to a neighbor and start talking.  The volume rises.  School is forgotten for the moment.  It is precisely at this moment that a teacher's grasp of classroom management is tested.  What do most teachers do?  They begin to give instructions, instructions which are not heard by most.  They get angry.  They ring bells.  Mostly, by their behavior, they demonstrate that it's ok to talk.  Eventually the class quiets, but the time has been spent.  The teachers in the following grades shed a silent tear, because they are being committed to noisy, out-of-control transitions by this teachers willingness to sacrifice classroom efficiency to a set of rationalizations which, in the end, are a bunch of stories featuring "can't's."

Children can behave well, but they have to be taught.  They can be self-disciplining for the most part when they learn that their behavior has consequence to themselves and their peers.  For me, it was a stopwatch.  At the beginning of the year - the very first day, in fact - I explained to students that I didn't mind if they were noisy during transitions because when I was ready to get going, I simply started my stopwatch.  However long it took the class to get ready to work, that much time was subtracted from their recess.  It was fine with me, I told them, if they wanted to spend their down time during transitions instead of at recess.  Students learned.  I never tried to talk while students were off task.

Recently, I was in two classrooms for  presentations.  Many of the students in these classes had been in my class last year.  It was gratifying to see that, although they had trouble settling themselves for their teachers, they quieted for me, well if not perfectly.  Some of my previous students even saw to it that students who didn't know me were told to be quiet.  I did need to bring out "the watch" a couple of times.

My point?  Kids can be quiet and respectful - if that behavior is expected and misbehavior comes with consequences.  A corollary of this rule is that kids don't get warnings.  If a behavior is unacceptable, then it has consequences.  This is reality.  Having great respect for the idea taught by Love and Logic, the consequences for a behavior should fit the crime.  Certainly a child who really had no idea that a behavior was unacceptable will experience a consequence less severe that a child who used a behavior as a weapon.  Fair, most often, is not equal.  But, we learn when we see what happens.  If we don't see anything happen, we don't learn.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

"... and world peace."

I saw a movie once, where the main character was posing as a beauty pageant contestant.  When asked what her greatest wish was, she emotionally responded that she wanted harsher penalties for criminals, then realizing the occasion, she added, "... and world peace."  Everyone was pleased.

I kind of imagine that if school administrators were asked what they wanted most, they'd begin to describe a set of standardized test scores that would knock the socks off the state legislature, and then the administrator would add sheepishly, "... and children who were capable, independent, and had a realistic image of themselves as learners.

It seems to me that the era of accountability has robbed education of its heart.  At precisely the time in our history when we're finally able to take advantage of research about the brain's development and function, we've been moved backward to a time when it was assumed that every child merely needs to memorize a finite set of facts and procedures.  If the child accomplishes that, the child will be prepared to live the life of a good citizen.  That assumption has powered American education for centuries.

I know so much more than my father.  He barely knew television and computers not at all.  In his day, telephones stayed put and voices were recorded on vinyl or magnetic tape.  I suspect that, in many ways, my boys, now in their thirties, know more than I do.  I'm guessing that this is an accelerating phenomenon.  I find it hard to believe that my students need the same education that I did fifty years ago.

The standards movement, with its emphasis on accountability has made hopeless paranoids of  administrators.  The paranoia filters down immediately to teachers.  On one level, we're asked to get to know each child and tailor that child's education to that child's needs.  And at the very same time, we're told what that child, at that chronological age, should learn.  They two are not necessarily compatible.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Just Like Me

"She's just like me!"

We're inclined to think that other people think the way we do, that they believe the same things that we do. While it's true that birds of a feather flock together, it isn't true that they all desire the same worm.  Why is all this metaphoric thinking important?  Teachers and parents constantly assume that what they believe is what children should believe.  We've thought it out.  Right?  How could a reasonable person think otherwise.

Although I'm focused on kids and their development, one need go no further than the editorial page of the local newspaper.  The diversity of opinion in mind-boggling.  People don't just disagree, they have strong negative feelings about those who disagree with them, and they say so.  It is unquestionably human to expect those with whom we have contact to think like we do.

It seems to me that teachers and parents need to take a course in observation and analysis of behavior.  Those who seek to guide young people need to have a clear picture of what a young person is thinking before trying to guide that child.  Research tells us that people use their great powers of awareness to collect data which agrees with their already-held biases.  Consequently, children are not going to be moved unless ideas and opportunities are presented to them in a way that appeals to their world view, not the parent or teacher's.  Adults working with children need to be scientists, not task-masters.

How does this work?  Really, it's easy.  Give a child a task.  See what the child does with the task.  Ask the child to tell you what his or her goals were in completing - or not completing - the task.  Give the child a different task.   Observation and careful listening will begin to complete the picture of that child's goals, values, and motivations.  As one gets to know the child, tasks can be carefully designed to move the child toward desired growth.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Reality Therapy

It's pretty easy to figure out that I'm a great believer in natural and logical consequences.  My own children were raised, philosophically, with the help of Rudolf Dreikurs' Children the Challenge.  From that volume, more than anywhere else, I learned to listen, to give choices, and to respect the development of responsibility over time.  But most importantly, I learned to be a teacher to my children.

When I say, "teacher," in this context, I mean that I recognized that my responses to the actions of my children had consequence.  I was not "dad" to punish.  I was "dad" to guide.  I'll not try to pretend that I didn't ever snap out a response toward my children that I regretted on reflection.  I do know that I frequently apologized for those responses when I had time to reflect.  My children were adults in training and I did my best to remember that when they misbehaved.  Remembering that kept me grounded in my most highly-held values.  The attitude that I carried in parenting followed me into the classroom.

Delivering logical consequences is good for me, too.  Having to "...make the punishment fit the crime..." forces me to delay consequences and to think.  Thinking is good.  Thinking helps balance the heated emotions of the moment against the core values that we wish to teach.  Knowing that a consequence is coming, and knowing that teacher or parent wants to be "fair," scares kids to death.  They'll end up getting what they deserve.  Hopefully, they'll learn something of value.

When I see teachers adding or subtracting checks and stars from the board, or posting misbehavior for all to see, I wonder what they feel they are teaching.  I never, in my whole adult working life, encountered a work environment where I was given either stars or checks.  Had I been given checks for misbehavior, what would I learn from that?  When I performed poorly, I was usually lucky enough to have a boss who took me aside and explained what I was doing wrong and what I should do to improve.  If I suffered, the consequences were typically logical, rational, and usually aimed at helping me improve my overall performance.


Parents often worry about the friends to whom their children attach.  They wonder if the friendships are healthy and positive.  They're not sure if they have the right to pass judgement on those friendships.  It's my opinion that parents should exert influence on their children's choice of playmates.

Without doubt, the major social force shaping the child is the family.  This influence may be helpful or not. A child's attachment to home may or may not be intense.  But, throughout a child's developmental years, and that is from birth to 20+ years old, the home can be, and usually is, the child's primary developmental resource.  Second to the home are a child's peers.  Peer influence is a powerful shaper of personality and values throughout a person's life.  Increasingly, electronic media is fulfilling this role along with close human contacts.  The brain records and replicates what it sees.  So, unfortunately, "reality" tv is real to the brain.

Thus, kids are prone to accept and imitate that which they see.  Teachers have recognized for years that classes demonstrate a sort of personality, different from previous classes.  This so-called "personality" is relatively stable across classrooms and years.  Why?  I think it's because young people see and experience the dominant personalities in that group.  Over time, they become more like those personalities.  Should a parent or teacher "judge" or evaluate the child's social relationships?  I say, "Yes," quite emphatically.  To not do so would be abandoning a major responsibility as an adult:  guiding the growth of those in our charge.

Should the adult forbid such relationships?  I think not.  We've all heard about the "forbidden fruit."  By forcefully attempting to direct the child's associations, the adult runs the great and real risk of pushing their child more deeply into such attachments.  There are better tools available.  By encouraging a wide variety of activities, many with the family, but outside activities like church, sports, and clubs as well, the parent helps the child construct a more divers and realistic "reality."  Having many attachments allows the child to evaluate people and actions in a broader and, I think, safer context.  Even television, with it's slick appeals to dominating the brain, will have less impact on a child's development if the child has broad experience with real people and activities.

Influence is the key.  It can be direct in the way that the "right way" is modeled by parents in the family. It can be indirect through a broad spectrum of activities outside the home.  "Reality therapy"can be a powerful force in shaping the values of our young people.

Friday, September 11, 2009


Our actions are the best mirror of who we really are and what we really believe.  It's no secret that kids tend to grow up to act like their parents.  They learn, not by what their parents say, but by what the parent does.  A passive, uninvolved parent raises a passive, uninvolved child.  An interested, encouraging parent raises a child who is active and reaches out to others in helpful, supportive ways.  The actions of the parents show the child that parent's assumptions about life.  In time, the child views the world with the same assumptions.

The one assumption I'm most concerned about right now is that of how children build healthy self esteem.  The concept of self esteem gets a bad rap currently, because the popular press and traditionalists have pooh-poohed well-meaning efforts to build the self esteem of children by artificial compliments and watered-down tasks - cheap victories.  While on the surface, many adults shy away from touting self esteem programs, their actions show that they still think that they can manipulate a child's self concept.  Nowhere is this more true than in education.  They give presents and prizes and awards for dubious successes or meritorious actions.  They lavish praise, gold stars, and grades.  I suspect that kids, in the end, sense that this is manipulation and are not fooled or motivated by the motivation programs.  Most communication is non-verbal and, I think, kids get the real message.

I read recently in a scathing attack on self esteem programs a worthwhile suggestion which I can paraphrase to say:  expect failure, but persist.  If our children learn that worthwhile victories come at the end of a trail of many failures, they will be strong and capable in the long run.  We've all heard the stories of Edison's experience with the light bulb.  Babe Ruth was once quoted as saying he didn't mind striking out.  He knew that his ratio of home runs to strikeouts was one to seven.  So, in his mind, each strikeout brought him one closer to a homer.  Teaching kids to embrace failure is not so very difficult.  One need only point out that kids have failed before, like learning to walk, but persisted and succeeded in the long run.  Celebrating eventual success as "eventual success" will go a long way to teaching persistence and building a self image which contains a healthy positive image.  It is an adult's job to help kids realistically interpret life.  It's every person's job to be their own cheerleader.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


Where do you belong?  For me, although I’m retired, I feel a strong and enduring association with my old school and the teachers there.  I’m “Dad” to three and “Grandpa” to four.  I’m “Teacher Rich” at the golf course.  I’m friend and neighbor to many who I hold dear.  I belong.  In each context, I’m known by what I do.

Children need to belong.  Just this week I’ve been exposed to this idea from two respected sources:  Charles Fay of Love and Logic  and Denis Waitley in The Seeds of Greatness.  In the final analysis, we form our self concept by what we do.  When we help, give, or contribute, we build positive memories in our mind of who we are.  Remember, the brain thinks heavily in pictures and feelings.  Children who do chores, real meaningful chores, know that they are contributing.  They begin to see themselves as the kind of people who help, people who are needed.  It is well advised to give kids some choice in how they contribute, rather than just assigning the tasks that adults don’t want to do.  

Teach your children how to contribute.  Make contributing fun and a warm loving thing.  I learned this best in a conversation with my daughter-in-law, a master of teaching the values of sharing the work of the family.  In explaining to me how she taught my granddaughter, her firstborn, to clean up her toys, my daughter-in-law explained that at first she modeled.   Slowly, she began expecting my granddaughter to do more, but with Mom’s help.   Eventually, she expected daughter to do it all by herself.  Each succeeding child learned easily from the model provided by their older sister.

In my classroom, students always had roles.  The importance of that can be illustrated by an experience I had late in my teaching career when I was teaching 8-year-olds.  The day after an absence, I ran into my substitute from the day before.  She said that she loved the day.  In fact, she said, “The only time all day that they needed me was when the math computer went down and they didn’t have the password to restart.  They even had it restarted to the point of the password.”  She went on to say that students followed the schedule without being told, knew all the routines for each subject, quickly helped her find materials, helped each other, and worked efficiently without interruptions.  On the very first day of school, these kids had been told that it was their classroom - their education - and that they were expected to make the classroom work.  In truth, I could never find enough jobs for them.  They always wanted to do something “special.” 

We develop a strong sense of security by belonging.  Psychologist David McClelland called it a need, though one which varied in intensity depending on the context.  We don’t really attain membership of any grouping just by birth or title, we must earn it.  When children are given a role, they belong.  They give value and, in their minds, deserve to receive value.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

To Praise or Not to Praise...

Deep in the psychology of parents and teachers is the urge to praise.  In fact, it really goes much deeper.  It is embedded in our culture.  The career .200 hitter closes his eyes and gets a hit at an important point in a baseball game.  His peers say, "Great hit, " "Way t' go," and such.   A golfer sinks an improbable putt.  His partners in the foursome all praise the shot.  The praise seems to deliver a good vibe to the giver and the receiver.  Most likely, the praise is a harmless expression of kinship and good manners.  But when it comes to educating our young, there is a strain folk wisdom that praise is somehow motivating, that we can change a young person's performance in life just by boosting self-esteem through rigorous praise.  I think not.

Self-esteem is, research tells us, an effect of an individual's positive and healthy self concept.  Research over the past half century continues to point to a direct and reciprocal relationship between performance and self concept.  This means that, like the chicken and the egg, it's probably not possible to determine which comes first, performance or self concept.  In fact, it's not necessary.  It is only in valuing performance and self concept that self esteem becomes an issue.  Individuals form a self concept by their actions, they begin to see themselves as "...the kind of person who..." does certain things.  Bit by bit, they develop a clearer picture, though probably mostly subconsciously, of what kind of person they are, what they like, and what they don't like.  Experience teaches them, and thus self concept encourages or discourages them from acting in any area.  It's easy to see how the building of self concept can either enlarge or diminish a person's desire to take on challenges.  If you're not the kind of person who jumps of bridges with large rubber bands attached to your legs, then you probably won't attempt a bungee jump.  If you're the kind of person who takes on physical and emotional challenges, then you can't wait to jump.

So can we turn a demure, cautious child into a bungee jumper with lavish amounts of praise?  The theory here is that if you tell a person often enough that they are good or successful, they will believe it and change their self image.  Research and the observations of thinkers for several thousand years disagree.  It is what we tell ourselves about our actions that determines what we think about ourselves.  Countless research studies have shown that students with strong positive feelings about their capacity to learn, do learn.  Their successes reinforce their beliefs and therefore strengthen their ability to move forward with confidence.  Equally, students whose self beliefs are those of inability to succeed or even cope with a learning environment meet with continual failure and reinforcement of their beliefs.  No amount of praise changes that.  Psychologists call that "cognitive dissonance:"  if a person believes a thing to be true, he will reject the contrary opinion of others and seek out evidence to affirm his understanding of reality.

So, what of praise?  Why is it so deep in our educational and parenting culture?  I think that praise has two functions.  Where an individual feels that an action is successful, praise supports that personal judgement and intensifies the feeling of success, possibly leading to future successes of a similar nature.  Praise is also an expression of empathy.  Therefore, if a person knows that the actor is pleased with the action, praise communicates that the individual's self assessment is correct.  In the process, the praise builds a stronger bond of affection between the parties.  If praise comes in this manner, empathetically, over a long period of time, the praiser develops a bit of trust, influence, or authority with the child.  The child knows that the praiser is in tune with the values of the child.  The child feels supported in his or her efforts to grow and succeed.

So is praise an appropriate tool of parents and educators?  Yes, but only when the praise supports a child's efforts to grow and achieve.  Feel-good praise, artificial positivity, is at best ineffective, and at worst manipulative.  It runs the risk of pushing a young person to crystal negative beliefs about the self.