Education Opinion

The ABC’s Of Caring

By Alfie Kohn — June 06, 2019 20 min read
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Ruby Tellsworth still talks about the day she returned to her classroom after a break to find her 2nd graders sitting in a group, earnestly discussing something. When she asked what was going on, they told her a problem had come up during recess and they had convened a class meeting to work it out. They proceeded to resolve the problem on their own while she finished her coffee.

Tellsworth’s students did not drop out of some teacher heaven. They had come to care about each other—and to take responsibility for what went on in their classroom—because of her patient efforts, day after day, to elicit just such attitudes. Those efforts result from her participation in a landmark study in social, moral, and academic education that has been under way in California’s San Ramon Valley since the early 1980’s. It is a study designed to discover whether schools can help children learn to look out for others instead of just for themselves.

For the last seven years, the educators and psychologists involved in this pioneering effort, known as the Child Development Project, have been training teachers, designing schoolwide activities, and reaching out to parents. Supported by a grant of roughly $1million each year from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, CDP has suggested changes in what is taught, how it is taught, how classrooms operate, how discipline is conceived, and how teachers regard their task and relate to students and to each other. It is by far the most ambitious program of its kind ever attempted—and it seems to be working.

“I’ve watched a variety of character education fads sweep through the schools,” says Bill Streshly, superintendent of San Ramon Valley Schools. “Most of them have been little add-on programs for whatever the social problem is: sex, drugs, patriotism, kindness to animals. They’re not part of the basic mission of the schools, and they fade out. But CDP incorporates its ethical mission in every part of the school day.”

In some schools where CDP is not in place, Streshly continues, an occasional class period is devoted to values education. “Then it’s, `take out your math books, do the problems, first one through gets an M & M,” he says. “That is when the real values come out.” Those values aren’t always obvious, but they are potent nonetheless. Students are implicitly taught that other people are to be regarded as obstacles to their own success. They also get the message that their achievement, like their behavior, is a function of external rewards and punishments.

CDP, by contrast, is based on the idea that “we need to get them to internalize ethics,” Streshly says. “There aren’t enough M & M’s to keep people on track, to manipulate behavior once they leave the high-surveillance school setting.” Project teachers, he adds, “teach cooperation because cooperation is a part of citizenship that we want.”

The actual program being implemented in the San Ramon schools has several distinct components. First, there is its approach to classroom management. In place of authoritarian, sit-down-and-shut-up discipline or gimmicks to reward obedience, CDP teaches teachers to work together with children to decide how the classroom should be organized and how behavior problems should be handled. Instead of wondering, “What rules am I supposed to follow?” a child is encouraged to ask, “What kind of classroom do we want to have?” Teachers also are urged to develop warm and respectful relationships with students—and to avoid attributing unnecessarily negative motives to their actions—so there will be fewer behavior problems that have to be solved.

That explains why, when some of Tellsworth’s 2nd graders at Rancho Romero School were rude to her, she took them aside, reminded them that she had never treated them like that, and let them know how awful they had made her feel. (They have been more considerate ever since.) And when one of Mary Korzick’s 1st grade students at the Walt Disney School threw a rock during recess, she solicited the class’s opinion on whether a prohibition on rock throwing was a reasonable rule, and why. (They decided it did make sense.)

The second part of the program emphasizes cooperative learning: Children spend part of the day working on assignments with a partner or in larger groups. With respect to both achievement and social skills, CDP staff members believe that allowing children to jointly devise problem-solving strategies makes at least as much sense as either of the two dominant American classroom models—working against each other (competition) and working apart from each other (individualized learning). Hundreds of studies have shown that cooperative learning helps students feel more positive about themselves, each other, and the subject matter. It also has been found to boost academic achievement regardless of the child’s ability level or age—perhaps because, in the words of 10-year-old Disney student Justin Wells, “It’s like you have four brains.”

Joel Thornley, superintendent of the neighboring Hayward school system, where CDP began the second phase of its program in 1988, overcame his doubts about cooperative learning only after watching it in practice. “Once we saw the kinds of responses they get in San Ramon, we had no reservations,” he explains. “Cooperative learning works. If there’s a single bet we’ve missed over the years, it’s making kids sit quietly at their desks instead of letting them work with each other.”

CDP’s third component is a curriculum designed to display and reinforce what psychologists call “prosocial” values: caring, sharing, and helping. Students learn to read by being immersed in works of literature whose themes and characters get children to think about how other people feel and to respond empathetically.

Today, for example, Ann Cerri’s 6th graders are discussing a story about a white boy who meets his first black—an entirely realistic premise in the predominantly white schools of San Ramon Valley. The story’s narrator worries that his new acquaintance will be insulted if asked whether his forebears were slaves.

Cerri puts down the book and asks her students whether this is a reasonable concern. It depends on whether or not they actually were slaves, one girl suggests. It depends on how the question is asked, says a boy. It depends on the area of the country they’re in, someone else offers. Soon the whole class is discussing the matter animatedly, imagining themselves in the position of the narrator and of the black man. One student recalls how he felt when people kept asking him about his grandfather’s death.

Beyond the individual classroom, CDP has arranged for the schools to provide activities that give children practice at being helpful to, taking responsibility for, and learning about others. Each child is assigned a buddy in another class, for instance, so a 5th grader and a 2nd grader periodically have a chance to work together or socialize, and older children can set an example.

Eric Schaps, CDP’s director, is especially proud of this part of the project. He shows a visitor a photograph of a bus full of children returning from a field trip. A 1st grader in the foreground has fallen asleep, his head resting on his 5th grade buddy’s shoulder. “What 5th grade kid do you know who would do this?” he asks. American schools have “systematically deprived kids of this kind of crossage interaction. It’s the experience of caring about another person, not being responsible for cleaning the erasers, that makes one a kind, nurturing person,” he says. And the younger child, Schaps adds, learns that he is cared for.

Schaps ticks off some of the other elements of the program. Older students can give up some free time to tutor younger children—and many do. Classes don’t just collect toys for something called “charity”: each adopts one needy family, whose names are withheld but whose circumstances are described to the children in detail. Students hear firsthand about the experiences of people who are handicapped or from different cultures.

Then there are the aspects of CDP that follow students home. Some homework, for example, is specifically designed to be done with parents. A 2nd grader may bring home a poem about a child who is teased by a sibling. Parents are invited to share their own childhood memories, to help their child compose a poem or story on the same subject.

By themselves, reflects 6th grade teacher Bob Brown, none of these components were “foreign or shocking or new.” He notes, however, that CDP “brought several elements together” that added up to a significant change “in the way you look at kids and the way kids learn.”

The child development project was born in the mind of Dyke Brown, now 74, who, three decades after helping to start the Ford Foundation, was troubled by what he calls the “increasing degree of self-preoccupation in our students.” Drawing on solid research showing that cooperative learning promotes higher achievement than individualized or competitive approaches, that attention to social skills or moral values doesn’t have to come at the expense of academics, and that children are more likely to follow rules when they know the reason for them or have had a hand in creating them, he developed the CDP concept. After securing a massive seven-year grant from the Hewlett Foundation in 1980, Brown found Schaps, a social psychologist who had enough experience working with educators to successfully run a program and who had the methodological expertise to evaluate whether it was doing any good.

Schaps hired a staff, designed a program and a research plan, and then began looking for some receptive schools in which to try them out. They eventually set up shop in San Ramon Valley, a cluster of suburban communities about an hour’s drive east from San Francisco. There they chose six of the district’s 13 elementary schools—two groups of three, carefully matched for size and socioeconomic status—that seemed especially eager to be part of the project. A coin was ceremoniously flipped to determine which three would be the program schools (Walt Disney, Rancho Romero, and Country Club) and which would be the comparison schools to serve as a control group.

They started training teachers in 1982. The training began—as it has each year since then—with a one-day introduction in May, followed by a full week in August, and then one day each month throughout the next school year. Teachers meet in groups of about 13 and get some hands-on practice working together. This serves the dual purpose of reducing their professional isolation and giving them a taste of the approach they will be using in their own classrooms. Someone from the CDP staff observes each teacher weekly and offers advice on how to handle a disruptive child, how to run a class meeting, how to structure cooperative learning, and how to make the best use of texts to promote prosocial values.

The staff now admits to having made mistakes in its early training procedures. CDP worked with kindergarten teachers the first year, 1st grade teachers the next year, and so on. But it took too long to involve the whole faculty that way. Moreover, teachers were expected to master the new concepts and skills almost immediately.

Since then, various aspects of the program have been changed, many based on suggestions from teachers. Some experienced teachers, in fact, have been hired to coach their colleagues and bring the program to other schools in the area. Says Schaps, “Our hope is that the district eventually will spread this on its own, using these teachers to do it.”

Indeed, most San Ramon teachers—even some of those who had misgivings in the beginning—have become believers. “I couldn’t see it at first and I found it very difficult” to learn, says Phil Wallace, who traces his traditional approach to classroom discipline to his military background. But now, having just retired from teaching 4th grade, Wallace works part time as a substitute and sometimes runs across his former students.

“There’s a tremendous difference” between those taught by CDP-trained teachers and the other children, he says. “It’s a wonderful thing to see; these kids are helping each other, caring for each other. I said to myself, `Holy Mackerel! Don’t tell me this actually works!”

Because the main group of children being tracked by CDP experimenters are now in junior high school, the research doesn’t require that the original batch of teachers keep using the project’s approach. Many, however, have no intention of going back to the way they used to do things.

“I’ll be using this as long as I teach,” says Tellsworth. “It’s a way of life now. If I was put in a school where I had to use Assertive Discipline [a currently fashionable approach in which teachers use a system of rewards and penalties to enforce rules that they alone specify], I would leave.”

This, of course, doesn’t mean that the CDP approach was easy for teachers to master. It requires them to abandon the idea that a “good” classroom is a quiet roomful of children who passively absorb information, obey someone else’s rules, and keep their eyes on their own work. It means agreeing to question the assumption that bribes or threats—even if called by fancier names—will induce students to care about learning or about each other.

Janet Ellman, a 1st grade teacher at the Longwood School in Hayward, Calif., laughs as she recalls her occasional frustration when she first tried out CDP’s suggestions for classroom management last year. “Sometimes they just wouldn’t shut up. It was tempting to fall back on external kinds of reinforcement for quiet behavior. But this year, it has been much easier for me to get quiet from my children by bringing them into the process and showing them how it’s difficult to learn sometimes when there’s talking going on.”

Not all teachers remain open to these unsettling proposals long enough to make them work. “Some people were very opposed to CDP because it was very frightening to them,” says Sharon Kushner, a 3rd grade teacher at Disney. “After you teach for a number of years, you fall into a pattern and do things automatically. It doesn’t get changed very easily.”

That was the case for Ann Cerri at first. “A lot of us felt that the structure was being pulled out from under us” when traditional beliefs about discipline were challenged, she says. “I remember feeling a little overwhelmed. [The CDP approach] wasn’t a formula that you tried out and everything was hunky-dory from then on. It was hard work. But in my gut I thought it was the right way to work with kids. I like the way the class feels now, the way the kids and I relate to each other.”

Tellsworth tells a story that illustrates another side of the program. A mother was concerned that her daughter didn’t stand up for herself with her peers. But midway through a school year, the mother overheard her talking on the phone with a bossy classmate and was amazed to find that her daughter was explaining why she didn’t want to play with the other girl, enumerating the behaviors that bothered her, and making it clear that they would get together only if the girl controlled them.

Such tales don’t surprise Schaps, the project’s director. Getting kids to stand up for themselves is part of what the project is after, he points out. “We’re looking for a healthy balance of concern for self and concern for others. We don’t want to turn kids into doormats.” In fact, results of CDP’s tests show that children in the program schools are more likely to stand up for their own views than those in other area schools.

The project teaches children that “you shouldn’t please your peers at the expense of your integrity and what you think is right,” says Marilyn Watson, who is in charge of the teacher training component. Social problem-solving is encouraged, she explains, as is “articulating dissenting opinions”—and there is nothing about caring for others that conflicts with these goals.

Watson, who used to teach education at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., burns calories just having a conversation; her head, hands, and shoulders are always in motion. “We’re not saying there’s no self-interest,” she emphasizes. “We’re saying there’s more to work with than just self-interest.”

Today, Watson is serving as an informal tour guide through one of San Ramon’s nonprogram schools. It is typical of affluent, suburban elementary schools. In the back of a 1st grade classroom is a box of books, one of which, Being Destructive, is packed with “do nots” and “you shoulds.” The book informs readers, “If you are destructive because you do not care, you may need to be punished.”

In the front of the room, the teacher is speaking in a sharp voice and snapping her fingers. “Boys and girls, when I get to zero, you must be looking at me. Five...four...” She points ominously at “CLASS WARNING” written on the blackboard. “You must stay in your seats!” she insists. “If you raise your hand, I will come to you.” She lines the children up so they can look at a map one at a time. She often refers to herself in the third person.

Watson later points out how this teacher, presumably well-meaning and well-trained, is making the children compete with each other rather than learning to work together, how she is encouraging them to depend on her rather than taking responsibility for their own learning and behavior, and how she keeps herself distant from them at the same time.

In a 5th grade room down the hall, only the A plus papers are tacked to the wall. The teacher’s disciplinary approach is traditional, yet the room is far more chaotic than CDP classrooms. “I’m waiting!” she yells to a group of oblivious 10-year-olds. “Anyone talking now will be sure their name won’t get in the paper.”

Next door, a teacher proudly shows off her “checking account” system of class control: A poster board lists how much a student “pays” for late work or a messy desk and how large a deposit he or she will get for an A on a test.

Afterward, Watson concedes that such a system may produce quiet classrooms and perhaps it might even result in higher test scores in the short run. “But you’re aiming for the long run, for them to do it because they want to learn, not because they want money,” she explains. “You can get the [desired] behavior this way. What you can’t get is a commitment to the behavior, a sense that `I’m in charge,’ a sense of personal responsibility.”

The shift in focus that Watson advocates is beginning to generate considerable excitement among educators. The Child Development Project has been honored by the American Association of School Administrators and the National Council for the Social Studies and has been certified by the U.S. Department of Education’s Program Effectiveness Panel. Hundreds of requests for information about the project have been rolling in from schools and school districts, many of which are eager to begin adopting it.

Closer to home, a visitor has to look hard to find any critics of CDP in San Ramon Valley. Bob DuPont, part of a solid conservative majority on the local school board, says he knows of no opposition to the project. “We can—and have to—provide the basic values of positive citizenry in the schools,” he says. “What’s the alternative? If the schools don’t do it, no one will.”

Some parents were nervous when the idea was first presented to them. Fred Messreni, a 44-year-old corporate manager who is on the city council, remembers asking, “What is this program that’s going to be experimenting with the behavior of my [daughter]?”

But, he says, “the concern rapidly evaporated and became excitement about the opportunity she was given. It’s difficult to argue with constructive, positive influences that bring results.”

Another family, the Greningers, say they have modified their approach to parenting after watching what the project has done for their three children at Disney. “We’ve incorporated it into our home,” which means holding family meetings to resolve conflicts, says Barb Greninger. “Every time we’ve included [the children] in the decisionmaking process, it has worked out better.”

“I swear,” her husband, Dave, a Little League coach, chimes in. “The kids who are the troublemakers around here”—he waves at the neighborhood beyond his sliding glass doors—“don’t go to Disney.”

One teacher who does express reservations about CDP is Bill Randall, who recently completed a year of training for his 6th grade classroom. “It takes an undue amount of time,” he says. “People in education are giving so much. You have to ask yourself, `Why am I here? To teach study skills or to teach behavior skills?’ But my main concern is, Does it last? Does it stick in the kids? Is there really a noticeable difference? The ideals sound fine, but what’s the reality?”

The CDP researchers asked the same questions, unsatisfied with mere anecdotal accounts of success. Not all the tests administered to children—or the systematic monitoring of 67 classrooms each spring by observers who weren’t told what the study was about—have shown consistent and statistically significant differences between the program schools and the comparison schools.

One possible explanation—which does not call into question the fundamental soundness of the CDP concept—is that some teachers were less effective at grasping and implementing the principles of the program. Another is that all of the comparison schools have independently become convinced of the value of cooperative learning and have begun encouraging their own teachers to use it—making a true test of CDP’s comparative effectiveness difficult.

Nevertheless, some of the results are striking. Children in CDP classrooms are more likely to be spontaneously helpful and cooperative, better able to understand conflict situations, and more likely to take everyone’s needs into account in resolving them than their counterparts in other schools. Newer research with a group of younger children in the project schools also shows some positive effects, which means that at least some of the teachers who were trained are continuing to use CDP techniques on their own.

These findings also have apparently impressed the Hewlett Foundation. “If the hypotheses hadn’t been borne out, we’d be folded up by now,” says Dyke Brown, the father of CDP. Instead, the grant was extended for an extra three years so that two critical questions can be answered: First, will the positive effects persist now that the students have moved on to junior high school and begun to mix with children who haven’t been taught to care and cooperate? And, second, will such a program work in a less affluent, more ethnically heterogeneous school district—a district such as Hayward?

There are no data yet to answer the first question, and it’s too soon to know for sure about Hayward. Initial signs regarding the latter are promising enough, however, that director Schaps wants to go even further. He will soon be seeking funding to take the program beyond California. If all goes well, 10 sites around the country will be chosen to receive CDP training over a period of four years. Ideally, teams of teachers and administrators in those districts will then be qualified to train still others.

Can teachers just adopt the program on their own? Some aspects—pairing buddies from different classes, for example—could be put into place tomorrow in any school. But other parts, such as the approach to discipline, are more difficult to implement than it might appear. Teachers need extended guidance and support, says Schaps, and they would have particular difficulty making major changes in classroom management without the backing of their colleagues and principal.

Project teachers tend to agree with this. At first, says Kushner, “the classroom was so noisy and I worried about what other people would think. I can’t imagine trying to do this without other people in the school knowing that the kids aren’t going to be sitting down in rows.”

Implementing the program requires intensive teacher training, concedes Paul Mussen, a developmental psychologist who served on the CDP’s advisory board. “It does present real practical problems,” he says. “But the project proves that one can, with great effort, make great differences in how kids interact with each other. It shows that schools can have an effect.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1990 edition of Teacher Magazine as The ABC’s Of Caring


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