Bringing Student "Voice" Into Education

On Friday, March 22, 2013, The Washington Post published an article about the "The Independent Project," a youth-driven initiative whose mission is to help students design their own schools. For some readers, it may seem that this movement is merely a direct result of the utter failure of schools designed by adults, and that the primacy of the student’s desire to get rid of grades and testing is merely a direct result of the utter failure of a movement that has left far too many students, and most of their teachers, way behind. Not only are we falling behind in attendance and graduation rates, but also in passion; in the desire of young people to participate fully in this thing that we have come to call "becoming educated.”  For me, this Project is a result of all of these failures, and of much, much more.

The guiding principle of the Project is to give students a "voice."  This will not only provide a means of including them, it will become the actual means of educating them. Most of what young people now engage in at school, once they can decode letters and numbers, is a process of disciplining and challenging their minds. Sadly, much too much of this is still done through the primitive act of memorization. In contrast, higher order brain activity is a process that advances creative problem solving, and relies on coherent communication.

Young minds should be as heavily engaged in acquiring self-knowledge, and other-knowledge, as in acquiring knowledge of the natural and abstract worlds of science and math. Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is the literacy of being able to read others and to respond appropriately; in short, it is about communication…it is about voice.  The specific spirit inside each student has a specific voice, and that voice grows and is strengthened by the opportunity to exercise it in discourse and inquiry, which is the true meaning of being liberally educated. The outcome of this will be that when young people have an opportunity to develop strong voices, they will become strong leaders - of themselves, and of one another. How poetic, then, that the groundswell for this right-minded approach to educational reform comes from those who will tolerate being voiceless no more.

To watch The Independent Project in action, view the video below on students designing their own school:

Testing and Competition

In the New York Times Magazine article Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman tout the benefits of stress and competition for developing young minds.  They argue that brain science and genetics can help us better understand how stress impacts the “Worriers” and the “Warriors”, and why some perform better than others in high stress situations, ultimately concluding that academic competition is beneficial for both.

Although it is certainly the well-researched case that people respond to stress differently, I’m not sure the authors have applied their ample findings to answering the right question. In fact, using stress management findings to help kids better tolerate academic testing flies in the face of every wise and humane thing that has ever been learned from the Emotional Intelligence and the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction movements.  We did not come to be a “Prozac Nation,” in a globally warming world, because unbridled competition was a positive thing.

We are at a moment in history where the future of the planet, and us as a species, is dependent upon mutuality, coexistence, and the creativity and compassion to think about old challenges in new ways. As a clinician and narratologist having led Emotional Intelligence trainings in schools for many decades, I can say without hesitation that the effort to prepare students to score highly on tests runs counter to everything good that might come from having them spend the first twenty years of their lives in classrooms. Dr. Daniel Siegel in The Mindful Brain asserts that: asking students to simply memorize and repeat material is actually teaching them how not to learn. When students are led to make discoveries with passion and compassion, and given experiential opportunities to put these discoveries into practice, there is simply no need for testing. They are eager to implement, and even further explore, what they’ve noticed. When they can share this excitement with their peers, as colleagues and fellow travelers, they care not who might achieve the highest scores because they have all “scored.” 

Whatever brain science has come to show about those of us with largely ‘warrior’ minds and those of us with largely ‘worrier’ minds – and I’m sure there is ample evidence toward these genetically and environmentally driven propensities – the goal should not be to become a species that can embrace its own stress in some race toward “testable and comparative achievement,” but to become a species bent on envisioning and then creating a world community in which we learn and share together, and are more likely to innovate social good corporations than test-prep machines; and far more likely to enjoy the process. If there is anything to the theory of evolution, and I for one believe there is, let’s hope that we have evolved beyond a series of exams indicate that a mind has been well-shaped for good citizenship because of it’s ability to decipher factors and spell arcane words.  My own two creative and curious children stopped enjoying school after “standardized testing” entered their lives, just as many of their friends – now sporting migraines and ulcers – did. The body does not lie. This is not a way to educate, no matter how adept we may become at “managing” the stress of this wrong-minded thinking.

The Fourth "R": Reflections on Sandy Hook

What occurred inside that devastated school building in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012 is a direct result of what does not often enough occur inside of school buildings: the study of emotional intelligence. Although this boy was apparently somewhere on the autism spectrum — which is itself a social skill deficit — and ended up being pulled out as a child and schooled all alone at home for a time, all children need intense social skill training. As one later classmate said of him about his experience during high school, “No one took the time to find out why he was the way he was.”

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While schools can’t know what goes on in a child’s home, they certainly can endeavor to get to know what goes on inside the child’s head…and heart. They may not be privy to the reasons for a family to feature the collection of guns and rifles, and value shooting as a sport, but they can be privy to what comes into their building. As Dr. Dan Siegel says in The Mindful Brain, along with reading, writing, and arithmetic, reflection needs to be cultivated as the fourth ‘R’ — reflection on self, others and the world around us; in other words, the cultivation of attuned and pro-social behavior. Students must be taught to do it, and teachers must be taught to guide them; social skills are as vital to the survival of our society as the decoding of letters and numbers…maybe more so. How tragically ironic that a relationship-oriented principal and a dedicated psychologist went down with all the other beautiful and innocent lives on the ship of disaster that was sunk by an emotionally illiterate high school graduate, one who had quietly morphed into a sociopath due to something that was neglected decades ago and continues to be neglected in many schools all across this country. We need to be training all educators to inculcate emotional literacy in their students; that is, the ability to read and communicate with one another, which in turn enhances empathy for one another. Daniel Goleman echoes this in his book, Emotional Intelligence:

Educators, long disturbed by school children’s lagging scores in math and reading, are realizing there is a different and more alarming deficiency: emotional illiteracy.  And while laudable efforts are being made to raise academic standards, this new and troubling deficiency is not being addressed in the standard school curriculum.

This can’t be a special assembly held twice a year. It needs to be part of a daily curriculum; that students are led through an exploration of their inner lives, written and orally, and are helped to respect and understand that of their classmates. We owe that to the precious children who lost their futures, to the families whose lives have been shattered by this senseless event, and to the young witnesses who will struggle to find meaning in this for the rest of their days.

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