by Patrick Bassett on 6/14/2013
As is typical for my end-of-the-school-year blog, I share below some readings I believe are germane to, and useful for, the independent school community constituents committed to learning new strategies for the age-old task of getting better at what we do. Below you’ll find my “short takes” on a handful of books that fit that mold.
• Susan Eva Porter’s Bully Nation: Why America’s Approach to Childhood Aggression Is Bad for Everyone is far from just another “little shop of horrors” accounting of the deleterious effects of bullying and the stern discipline and strictures adults should apply to stem it. In fact, it’s just the opposite: a contrarian view of the universal and timeless realities of childhood aggression, the damage adults do by overreacting to run-of-the-mill social tussles and micro-aggressions that are normal, and the deleterious impact of reducing admittedly painful playground conflicts into just three blanket categories: bully, victim, and bystander (the latter now instantly guilty by association, or by inaction to intervene).
Filled with scores of revealing case studies she has witnessed, or counseled about as a child and school psychologist, Porter’s huge contribution is an attempt to reverse the dangerous trend she sees that oversimplifies, misreads, and over-amplifies much of what is now called bullying — such as exclusion at the lunch table in the school cafeteria, or from the pick-up dodge ball game on the playground, or the smarmy cuts on social media. Moreover, when parents of kids who are the target of teasing, unkind remarks, social exclusion, or more serious bullying want a black and white “crime” with capital punishment (“throw them out of school”), and schools adopt inflexible and unrealistic “zero tolerance” policies, we now teach some kids that they are incorrigibly bad to the core and others that they are helpless victims, lessons that are both over-reactions and examples of unhealthy adult “fixed” mindsets rather than “growth” mindsets.
What truly hurts, social pain, is just another in a long list of what seems, at the time, cataclysmic challenges pre-adolescents and adolescents face, and for which they need the opportunity to learn, grow, and develop the “grittiness” necessary to survive the turbulence of life. For those who truly want to understand the subtleties of what bullying is about, Bully Nation is an important contribution to the canon. Reading the book to learn how the parable of Buddha, the suffering woman, and the mustard seed apply is worth the time and effort alone. And considering that the new and wildly expanded definition of bullying “is more about today’s parenting than about child aggression” is a worthy counterpoint to conventional wisdom on the subject, because adults now “conflate desire for children to behave well with children’s ability to do so.” This book is a must-read for parents and educators, who will learn the truth of Mark Twain’s observation that “Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.”
• Catherine Steiner-Adair, school and family psychologist and clinical instructor at the Department of Psychology at Harvard Medical School, offers in her new book, The Big Disconnect, a compelling accounting of how technology has become for families “our new home page,” the central organizing factor of our lives, focus, and relationships (or lack thereof). While Steiner-Adair acknowledges the advantages of the wired world, she develops convincingly the observation by psychiatrist Gene Cohen that technology’s powerful stimulation, hyper-connectivity, and interactivity are, for children and adolescents, like “chocolate to the brain,” and argues that parents unwittingly have accepted technology not just as the digital babysitter, but more disturbingly, allowed it to become “the third parent.” This book would be a great assignment for faculty/parent book clubs.
• Jim Collins’ Great by Choice presents the next leg in Collins’ journey to identify qualities shared by consistently high-performing companies. He defines them as 10xers: at least 10x better (up to 500x better) performance than their matched peers operating in the same industries, over 30 years, 1972 – 2002: i.e., Amgen, Biomet, Intel, Microsoft, Progressive Insurance, Southwest Airlines, Stryker.
This work takes the leadership factor we learned about in Good to Great, the Level V Ambition, and deconstructs it into three self-reinforcing attributes: i.) fanatic discipline; ii.) productive paranoia; and iii.) empirical creativity. The principle of fanatic discipline Collins defines as setting achievable performance markers; adopting self-imposed constraints; and projecting a proper timeframe. He notes that these three factors are all largely within any organization’s own control to set and achieve (in my opinion the most important insight of the book, since it means any organization, including all independent schools, can be “great by choice.”) The most compelling illustration in the book is the first one, the race to the South Pole, the story of Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott. Amundsen’s approach to the imposing and dangerous challenge to him and his team in October 1911 was to prepare via rigorous research and testing of conditions and equipment and to adopt what Collins uses subsequently as a metaphor for other organizations, “the discipline of the 20-mile march.” Collins reveals that Amundsen’s application of the three factors was decisive in making him the first to succeed in reaching the South Pole under highly adverse conditions. However, Robert Falcon Scott and his team — with the same starting line and time and conditions — relied on intuition rather than empirical testing, and haphazard daily goal setting, resulting in getting there second and exhausted, thereafter sadly losing all lives on the return trip.
One of Collins’ examples of productive paranoia is Bill Gates and Microsoft, legendary for maintaining hypervigilance in good times as well as bad, always entertaining the “nightmare scenarios,” always knowing that there is a 100 percent certainty that eventually conditions will, unpredictably at some time, turn against one’s fortunes. Just exactly the leadership lessons NAIS recommends in strategic thinking for schools: “Create conditions for the best” but “prepare for the worst.”
Finally, on empirical creativity, Collins illustrates via yet another compelling analogy: First “shoot bullets, not missiles,” since bullets are low cost, low risk, and low distraction to the current business, versus missiles, which are high cost, high risk, all in, with huge consequences for failure. Great by Choice is a terrific read for one’s administrative team and board, sure to offer plenty of applications for the changing landscape and the change agenda for independent schools.
• Timothy Quinn’s scholarly but succinct study, On Grades and Grading: Supporting Student Learning Through a More Transparent and Purposeful Use of Grades, provides educators and parents a wonderful window on the true purpose of grading, its misuse, and strategies to realign grading away from “sorting” of students for honor rolls and college admissions and back to providing data and feedback to students in service to their growth and progress along a learning continuum.
In Part I, the book makes the case for three purposes for the judicious use of grading: to generate data upon which decisions can be made about future practice; to motivate students; and to provide them with feedback. In doing so, Quinn addresses the challenges of preoccupation with grades (students, parents, and colleges) for sorting purposes, in which teachers should have little interest or commitment.
He shares useful distinctions on grades vs. assessments vs. feedback; on normative vs. formative assessments; on grades as motivator or de-motivators; on the effect of grades in promoting a fixed or growth mindset; etc.: i.e., this study is a comprehensive review of the controversies and conundrums regarding the topic.
His conclusion: By de-emphasizing grades (and emphasizing learning), the appropriate use of grades can paradoxically improve achievement, the difference between developing talent and selecting it. In Part II, Quinn elucidates clearly the various topics that educators endlessly debate: grade inflation; numbers vs. letter grades; summative grading; failing grades; retakes and rewrites; grading behavior and dispositions; grading collaborative work; self-grading; technology and grading. Overall, while definitely not beach reading, I’d grade the book as “Mastery (100 percent or A+).”
• There is a growing convergence in thoughtful schools around the advantages of “positive psychology” in teaching and learning. We see it in the “strengths movement” that advocates finding a student’s strengths rather than focusing on learning “deficiencies” as the key to strategies for overcoming learning challenges. We also find it in the nascent “mindfulness” movement, and we find it in the “appreciative inquiry” approach to diversity work and strategic planning.
Now we have the guide to implementing it at the earliest stages in Patty O’Grady’s Positive Psychology in the Elementary School Classroom, a helpful read for parents and teachers who seek guidance along the path “from finding the golden mean of emotional regulation to finding a child’s potencies and golden self.” Core concepts help to explain how feelings permeate the brain, affecting children’s thoughts and actions, how insular neurons make us feel empathy and help us learn by observation, and how the frontal cortex is the brain’s hall monitor.
Neuroscience teaches us that there is no bad behavior per se, only poorly regulated emotions and underdeveloped strengths. O’Grady illustrates her themes via 12 practical techniques: greeting students as they enter class; conducting various kinds of classroom interactions from friendship circles to goal-setting meetings; committing via pledges, creeds, and agreements; reflective journals; organizing clubs and teams to teach academics and positive psychology simultaneously; learning centers that teach feelings, strengths, friendships, flow, and scaffolding of accomplishments; service learning to help others while practicing one’s own signature strengths; e-learning to engage thoughts and feelings in flow; using the arts to teach children emotional strengths; visualization and observation of strengths; self-assessment and self-awareness; self-talk via positive self-narratives.
• Abigail James’ The Parents’ Guide to Boys: Help Your Son Get the Most Out of School and Life is yet another tour de force entry in her pantheon of books on gender-specific insights on parenting and teaching, this one on boys, revealing that, to quote Plato, ” Of all the animals, the boy is the most unmanageable.” James’ work is Scout-handbook, chock-full of good guidance for parents of boys at all ages, “from 18 months to 90 years of age.” Given that boys are increasingly struggling at home and at school, this book arrives just in the nick of time for us to do something about the crisis. Nuggets include teaching your son that…
James’ List of 10 Things to Do for Your Sons:
So, dear reader, beyond my limited list above, let’s “crowd source” summer reading for our boards, faculty and staff, and parent communities. What are your recommendations?