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Schools of Conscience Newsletter Contents
A Word From Don
Schools of Conscience Q&A
#1 Q: Aren't Teachers Already Nurturing?
#2 Q: What are good primers to understand when designing the curriculum for K-12 education?
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Don Berg's Answer:
You are right that teachers want to be nurturing and may naturally be so.
Unfortunately, due to the system in which they are embedded,
teachers who nurture students are about as effective as toddlers directing rush hour traffic.
My policy proposal makes it clear that learning follows from nurturing, just as living follows from breathing and eating; if one stops then the other will, too.
This is an important question because it exposes the difficulty of applying systems thinking to schools.
Behind this question is the intuitively seductive but mistaken idea that education can be created in schools by just the well-intentioned behaviors of teachers and students.
It is natural for our minds to focus on the easily observable behaviors of teachers and students when considering schooling.
It is more difficult to think about the system that determines their behavior at school.
While we all want to make productive changes, we will continue to fall short as long as we are not clear about the ways that systems create or destroy educational outcomes by affecting how
the individual teachers and students behave within the situation of schooling.
It is also critical to our success that we figure out what kinds of actions are necessary to improve the system.
Let me illustrate what I mean.
Let's substitute soccer for education.
Imagine that we are concerned with how well soccer coaches are performing.
We look at the performance of their teams in order to indirectly measure their success as coaches.
At first glance we might think that coaches of winning teams are better than the coaches of losing teams.
But we also have to recognize that there are some things that are outside the control of a coach.
When a professional sports team franchise has a small budget, then it is harder for the team manager to recruit the best players.
Therefore, we have to judge soccer coaches not just by their win-loss record but by how well they use the players that
The system is not ideal because the playing field on which soccer coaches play is not entirely level.
But as long as we can get a handle on how a coach uses her available players to create an appropriate level of success, then we can reasonably discern coaches who are better from those that are worse.
As the leader of a professional sports team, she has to rely on the skills and abilities of her players but she also has the ability to creatively use strategies for training players and guiding their play.
Now imagine that the rules are even less fair.
The standard size of a goal in professional soccer is 8' tall and 24' wide.
Now imagine a goal that is the same size as in professional hockey: 6' tall and 8' wide.
Further imagine that each team may have to defend a different sized goal each season.
The size of the goal you defend is arbitrarily
determined each season by a goal assignment system that is also arbitrarily changed once in a while, but not randomly.
The system just vacillates between favoring and disfavoring the same few teams over and over.
While the details of exactly who has the most advantage or disadvantage changes, the broad pattern is generally stable across the league as a whole.
So, let's work out what this means.
Defending a small hockey sized goal would be easy, while great athletic abilities would still be required to defend a standard goal.
The ease of defending a small hockey sized goal would create a strong bias favoring teams defending small goals to end up in the playoffs and one of them winning the championship.
And most important to us, the relative skillfulness of coaching would become impossible to discern because so much of the disparities in performance would have to be attributed to a combination of the luck
of the draw and the inherent biases in the system, not to the skills and abilities that coaches, or even players, bring to the game.
Notice that the soccer system we have imagined operates in a fundamentally unfair way and not because of anything that the coaches and players within the system are doing or not doing.
It operates unfairly independent of their levels of skill, knowledge, intelligence, or any other individual attribute they have.
The system operates unfairly because of the rules that govern the context in which the coaches and players behave.
In this situation making this soccer system fair is dependent on changing the rules about the goal.
No matter how many rules are put in place to incentivize desired individual behaviors, no matter how free or well regulated the markets for good players and coaches are, no matter how public or corporate the soccer clubs become, no matter how well we can measure the
skills and abilities of players or coaches, the pattern within the system will not change in any fundamental way until the system of determining the goals changes.
This is the situation we have in K-12 education.
There is a system in place that arbitrarily assigns goals to children.
Those goals are frequently unrelated to their skills, abilities, and interests.
This sets up a dynamic within schools that undermines nurturing and nurturing is the foundation of education.
The foundation is undermined when primary human needs are neglected and/or thwarted.
The people who operate the school system never question their authority to assign goals to students and teachers, let alone consider the possibility that more local determination of learning and teaching goals would be better for supporting primary human needs.
So, why do we need a policy regarding nurturing? Given the current rules that
govern our education system and how it assigns goals, whether teachers exhibit nurturing behaviors, or not, is simply made irrelevant by the operation of the larger system.
Regarding the long term outcomes for most children, most of the individual nurturing behaviors of most teachers are rendered impotent because of the context created by the system in which they are embedded.
Affecting the larger system requires a policy intervention, but not just any kind of policy intervention.
It requires a policy intervention that will substantively alter how teachers and students have their primary human needs supported; currently these needs are systematically neglected or thwarted.
I suspect that most teachers are nurturing, or at least want to be, and that they already make a meaningful difference in the lives of some small proportion of their students despite the nature of the system.
But as wonderful as that is, the system has no
mechanism for supporting, let alone encouraging, individual nurturing behaviors. In fact, the system suppresses nurturing behaviors.
In 2009 the peer-reviewed journal Educational Psychologist published a literature review article by Professor Johnmarshall Reeve on why the majority of teachers act in ways that thwart the primary psychological need for autonomy.
He suggests that both the system and the individuals in the situations studied reinforce behaviors that are exactly the opposite of nurturing in a variety of ways, not because of back room conspiracies nor venal depravity, but because of tragic misunderstandings.
The deleterious effects of the system overwhelm the positive effects of nurturing individuals because the system is currently organized in a manner that undermines nurturing, the very foundation upon which education is built.
Ironic, don't you think?
The system is not all-powerful, so it does not always
undermine the foundation completely.
But it does its undermining work relentlessly day after day after day and it does more harm than most people want to acknowledge.
The policy proposal in my book, Every Parent's Dilemma, is a strategic starting point for shifting the system toward reinforcing the foundation of education instead of undermining it.
By explicitly acknowledging that satisfying primary human needs (a.k.a. nurturing) is the foundation upon which education is built, mainstream schools can learn from the alternative schools that have already shown the way.
It is not necessary to replicate the details of the alternative schools, though that should be considered, but it is necessary to apply the principles behind their nurturing practices.
The science of primary human needs provides us with the principles we need.
My next book will present a framework for strategically shifting the
system after an appropriate policy is in place to ensure that productive changes are properly supported.
The policy is intended to create opportunities within the system to stop the undermining of the foundation of education and eventually to reinforce it.
The policy in my book, Every Parent's Dilemma, provides a framework to systematically enable the naturally occurring nurturing behaviors of teachers to stop being systematically suppressed and start being protected and encouraged.
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I've just started working for a company in the education space, and I would love the best resources to understand the current state of K-6 education. I'll be speaking with teachers and educators, but
would love any resources that have helped you understand education for kids in 2015.
Design considerations for kids and how they learn: what psychology and learning considerations do we need to help kids learn…
Don Berg's Answer:
In reference to the psychology of education I would suggest that your design take into account the three primary psychological needs of all humans.
These are the foundation upon which education must build, so neglecting them will ensure your curriculum is less than optimally effective.
Needs are primary when they are universal to all humans, have non-neutral effects on well-being, and are not derived from any other needs.
The three psychological needs are for relatedness, competence, and autonomy.
context of curriculum development you should understand that the commonly understood application of "teacher-proof" curriculum as a tightly controlled sequence of activities with little room for input from either teachers or students thwarts the primary need for autonomy.
Here is a link to a handout I created for a workshop on the support of primary psychological needs: https://www.teach-kids-attitude-1st.com/support-files/motivationhackshandout2-pgcolor6jul14.pdf
I'd be glad to follow-up if you have any questions.
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