Therapeutic Learning Environments

At school, even a small reprimand from a teacher or perceived insult from a fellow student can trigger explosions of rage, expletives, and other inappropriate behavior.

. . . At Lincoln, the teachers and staff follow a few deceptively simple rules: Don’t take anything the student says personally and don’t mirror their behavior with an outburst of your own. The teachers give students time to calm down, often in the principal’s office or a special “quiet room.” Later, they inquire about what might be bothering them and ask if they want to talk about it.

. . . As the Lincoln staff discovered, helping teachers de-escalate their reactions to student misbehavior is critical to building trusting relationships. “Things like language [and] tone of voice can really trigger or re-trigger some kids, especially kids who have known trauma.

–James Redford and Karen Pritzker, “Teaching Traumatized Kids” on The Atlantic

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Relationships Foster Resiliency

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Strikingly, even some children who had “gone off the rails” in their teenage years managed to turn things around and get their lives back on track by the time they were in their 30s and 40s, often without the help of mental health professionals.

Many of the factors involved in such turnarounds, and several of the factors associated with resilience throughout the children’s lives, involve relationships of some kind, whether within the context of a larger community – a school, a religion, the armed services – or in the context of one important person.

Our relationships really are key,” says McCubbin. “One person can make a big difference.

Wider research suggests that the more risk factors children face, the more protective factors they are likely to need to compensate. But as McCubbin says, “A lot of the research supports this idea of relationships, and the need to have a sense of someone that believes in you or someone that supports you – even in a chaotic environment, just having that one person.” . . . 

The idea of resilience as an adaptive process rather than an individual trait opens up the potential for other people to be involved in that process. McCubbin sees the importance of relationships as being wider than only protective relationships with people, and she and her team have created a new measure of “relational wellbeing” to try to capture this. “We think of relationship as with a person,” she says. “But what we really found was that it was relationship with the land, relationship with nature, relationship with God, relationship with ancestors, relationship with culture.” [Bold added]

—Lucy Maddox, “‘I saw things children shouldn’t see’ – surviving a troubled childhood” on Mosaic

The Gap Starts at the Top

In essence, we have upper-middle class white people who usually live in predominantly affluent, white communities controlling the educational options of millions of disenfranchised black and brown children who usually live in impoverished, racially segregated communities.

Why then are we baffled that, despite our well-intended reforms, there’s such a persistent achievement gap between black and white children?

The gap starts at the top and cascades, not trickles, down.

—Marilyn Rhames, “Black Like Them: Why a ‘Surge’ of Color Could Change the Face of Ed Reform” on Ed Post

VAM and School Ecosystems

Wiring diagram for “Wilson’s Central Pattern Generator” By Thomas.haslwanter (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0]
An excellent essay published in March’s Educational Researcher (1) by Susan Moore Johnson (2) brings the lens of complex systems to bear on the controversial issue of VAM.

Johnson takes to task the hasty moves of policymakers to bring VAM to the forefront of teacher evaluation. She focuses specifically on the problematic assertion by proponents that VAM is an effective measure to isolate and measure individual teachers. Johnson brings what she terms an “organizational perspective” to the issue—in other words, she considers how VAM might play out from the perspective of a school as an ecosystem, rather than as a set of individual, isolated teachers.

Johnson’s perspective is unique in that she explicitly acknowledges the impact of social networks on teacher and student performance. She refers to a 1988 James Coleman analysis, “Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital,” which suggests that:

. . . whatever human capital schools acquire through hiring can subsequently be developed by interactions among teachers, principals, and others within the organization through activities within subunits such as grade-level or subject-based teams of teachers, faculty committees, professional development, coaching, evaluation, and informal interactions. In the process, the school organization becomes greater than the sum of its parts, and in this way, the social capital that transforms human capital through collegial activities in schools increases the school’s overall instructional capacity and, arguably, its success.

It probably goes without saying that the recognition of a school organization as “greater than the sum of its parts” is something we’re pretty adamant about here on Schools & Ecosystems.

Johnson asserts that the traditional structure of a school as an “egg crate,” in which teachers are isolated from one another, is a problematic model:

Compartmentalized school structures limit the potential development of individual teachers, who lack direct access to their colleagues’ expertise. However, social capital theory would suggest that if provided systematic opportunities to engage with their peers outside their classroom, the human capital of individuals—in this case, their instructional effectiveness—could be shared and augmented. Given this line of argument, the more robust the teachers’ instructional repertoire and the more opportunities they have to exchange and integrate promising ideas and techniques into their own teaching, the more likely it will be that all students—not only those assigned to the more effective teachers—will experience the benefits of expert teaching. This analysis suggests that teachers are not inherently effective or ineffective but that their development may be stunted when they work alone, without the benefit of ongoing collegial influence.

I’ve personally worked as a teacher in two very different kinds of school environments: one in which I was mostly isolated from my peers (due to divisive internal politics and management), to one in which I meet daily with colleagues to discuss student work and instructional practices. And I can attest to the significant impact that a collaborative and positive organizational environment has had upon my professional development.

Johnson would phrase my experience as an example of “how social capital augments human capital.” She points to the influence of context and peer learning as a factor in professional development:

. . . changing the context in which teachers work could have important benefits for students throughout the school, whereas changing individual teachers without changing the context might not (Lohr, 2012). Given that possibility, it is worth learning more about the components of a teacher’s workplace that promote greater satisfaction and more interdependent work.

. . . both theory and empirical evidence suggest that students and their schools stand to benefit when teachers work closely and collaboratively with colleagues.

Johnson also explores the “unintended consequences” of relying on VAM to evaluate individual teachers, a warning that we’ve echoed here in response to Gov. Cuomo’s misguided push for greater weight on student test scores, and which also echoes similar issues that Dana Goldstein has pointed to in her historical exploration of teacher evaluation.

 

She concludes that “that expanding the use of VAMS in teacher evaluations (even if it represents no more than 30% of the teacher’s total score) might compromise the school’s potential for improvement.”

Johnson therefore suggests that “reformers should lead the way with efforts to improve the school throughout as an organization that supports effective teaching and rich learning.”  She suggests including teachers in the hiring and professional development process in their schools, as well as in recognizing and sharing instructional practices from teacher leaders, such as Peer Assisted Review (PAR) programs.

This is the kind of thinking that I wish we heard more of in education reform circles—not hasty, breathless championing of the latest panacea, but instead reflective approaches that consider schools as whole organizations, complex adaptive systems ripe with social interactions and relationships.

1 Educational Researcher, Vol. 44 No. 2, pp. 117–126 DOI: 10.3102/0013189X15573351 © 2015 AERA. http://er.aera.net

2 I was alerted to Susan Moore Johnson’s essay by a link to a Marshall Memo from an April 9th USDOE Teacher’s Edition newsletter.

District Stewards, Rather Than District Leaders?

“If a key challenge facing New Zealand’s education system is the lack of trust between ‘the Ministry’ and ‘the Sector’, then rebuilding trust is paramount. No single initiative or programme can do this of course, and progress will be measured over years, not months. But after spending seven months asking educators what support they most wanted from the Ministry, the most common response was to be understood and supported. As one principal put it, “It’d be nice to have someone from the Ministry ask the questions you’re asking, and then serve as a resource to connect us with others who can help”. . . .

“Toward that end, I propose the Ministry create new Sector Stewardships . . . [to] build a bridge between policy and practice.  . . .

 

“Both schools and Stewards would understand that the only deliverable item in the programme would be this: Stewards should return to their Ministry offices with exactly one issue or question that they observed the school grappling with. Stewards would then endeavour to help the school think through the issue, and perhaps connect educators from their host schools to Ministry resources that might help the educators in some way. This would be done in collaborative fashion with the aim of building a human relationship between the Ministry and the sector, one school and one employee at a time.”

–Benjamin Riley, “Science, Data and Decisions in New Zealand’s Education System