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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

‘Testing for Joy and Grit’? I Don’t Think So.

By Laura McClure — March 24, 2016 4 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Laura McClure, Morningside Center’s director of communications and editor of TeachableMoment.org, Morningside Center’s teacher resource center.

A few weeks ago the New York Times ran a story I found so disturbing that I had to use some of the cool-down strategies from my organization’s “social and emotional learning” curricula before I could think clearly about it. (My organization, Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, works with public schools to foster SEL.)

The Times story, “Testing for Joy and Grit? Schools’ Nationwide Push to Measure Students’ Emotional Skills,” is about the strategies that some schools are using to encourage students to develop SEL qualities like “grit” and self-control - and about whether these skills can and should be tested.

Where to begin to explain my reaction to this story? Well, maybe with its opening scene: In a fifth-grade class in San Francisco, students are trying to see how long they can sustain “good behavior” like raising their hands to speak and disagreeing respectfully without resorting to insults or side conversations. The winners in this game are awarded prizes like time to play rock-paper-scissors

My question: What makes us think that kids will only be respectful if they get a prize for doing it? Why would we want to send our kids this hurtful message? Don’t we believe that they have the capacity to respect their classmates because they want to? Because they empathize with them? Because it feels good to be kind? Our work in hundreds of public schools shows that kids DO have that capacity!

In fact, there are plenty of studies showing that giving a person extrinsic rewards for doing something deemed “good” actually undermines their motivation to do that good thing. I personally would feel insulted if someone suggested to me that I needed a prize to do something virtuous. Offering extrinsic rewards is a form of expecting the worst of people. Its flip side is punishment: The idea that the only reason people won’t do something horrible is fear of sanction.

Morningside Center’s programs take the opposite view. Our curricula go about systematically building up the strengths students already have - to be caring, to want things to be fair, to want to be part of a loving community. No one gets a gold star for “being nice.” They do it anyway, because of the climate of care and respect that they, their classmates, and their teacher have built together. Forget the carrots.

And forget the sticks too. Fortunately, more and more schools are adopting “restorative approaches” that upend all the old ideas about “punishment.” Instead of making students suffer because they’ve hurt someone, programs like our Restore360: 1) enable students (or adults) to feel part of a community, so they don’t want to harm others in the first place, and 2) help those who HAVE hurt someone understand the impact of their actions, make amends, and be restored to the community. They make amends because they’ve learned something about how their actions affected others - not because they’ve been coerced.

The New York Times story goes on to describe the debate over whether “social and emotional skills” - however we define them - should be part of our standardized testing regimen. After all, “what’s measured gets treasured.”

Oh boy. I do believe that we should test the effectiveness of our SEL strategies. We need to know what’s working and what’s not working to help kids be stronger and happier. Fortunately, there’s a way to do that without adding to the horrible burden of testing students and teachers are already experiencing: It’s called research! The two scientific studies we collaborated on (of our 4Rs and Resolving Conflict Creatively programs) did involve asking kids questions and assessing their “social and emotional competency.” But fortunately, the goal was to figure out what makes for an effective SEL program - not who’s a good teacher or which particular kid is not developing positively - and doling out punishments and rewards accordingly.

One last worry about this story: Its grim depiction of “social and emotional learning.” SEL does cultivate self-control, self-regulation, “grit,” resilience and “growth mindset” (as odious as some of those terms are, at least to me). But I agree with the critics mentioned in the story who say that emphasizing these skills is a way of blaming the victim: We’re essentially telling kids who are facing poverty, discrimination, and underfunded schools that they just have to learn to suck it up. We’re also suggesting that the solutions are individualistic: Each child needs to gain a competitive edge in life by learning to be tough in the face of hardship, and also, perhaps, compliant (or at least “self-regulated”).

We should help young people develop a whole additional range of skills that have a different goal entirely.

On the first day of a 4Rs class (Reading, Writing, Respect & Resolution), students start thinking about what it takes to build a community in their classroom. Everything that happens afterwards is about developing the skills we need to build that community - from active listening, to handling strong emotions, to empathy, to understanding and standing up to bias, to collaborative problem-solving, to working together to make things better for the community. And that community is a wide circle that extends from the classroom to the world.

We can use rewards and punishments to spur kids to grit their teeth and personally succeed in the face of overwhelming injustice, testing their success along the way. Or we can help our kids learn all the skills they need to collaboratively build a more just and peaceful world for themselves and for all future kids - and thrive while doing it.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.