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Mixed Signals

In the field of public education, we are often faced with the dilemma of addressing perceived shortcomings. We typically respond by implementing new strategies, new approaches, some new innovation or another. The prevailing wisdom over the years has been to correct the problem by doing more, by piling on: “if we add this one great thing, all will be well.” Except it doesn’t work. It runs the risk of creating a culture of “initiative overload” and it allows a quagmire of mixed messages.

It was great to revisit an article written by Alfie Kohn for the September 18, 2002 edition of Education Week. His article is titled “Education’s Rotten Apples.” In it, he gives specific examples of some of these mixed messages and the unfortunate results they produce. Here are a few.

  • The amazing potential of a peer mentoring program designed to help kids self manage their behaviors and develop empathy is diminished by the co-existence of detentions, suspensions and other “got ya” approaches; including rewards or other incentives for desired behaviors.

  • Collaboration that occurs in a competitive environment, suggesting that the goal of collaboration must be to “beat” the other guys.

  • The simultaneous use of canned incentives to get kids to read (points and prizes) along side deliberate and thoughtfully designed decoding instruction with a focus on deriving meaning. This leads to what Kohn suggests: “It’s hard to treat kids like budding bibliophiles when they’re also being treated like pets.”

Each of these mixed messages are innocent enough, intended to yield positive results. Each of these examples, and scores of others that could be added, seek to accomplish two things: maintain the status quo while attempting something new. Yet, however well intended they may be, these conflicting dualistic approaches are flawed for three primary reasons: 1) they’re confusing, 2) they erode the essence of student motivation, and 3) they do not support what kids need. Today. In this moment.

Confusion. So, which is most important? Independence and empathy or compliant behavior? Working together toward a common goal of discovery, or is the goal simply “winning?” Racking up points and recognition, or becoming a competent reader? It’s difficult to address both sides of these binary outcomes. To have both starring one in the face as parallel expectations is certainly confusing, if not frustrating. And, yes, it’s counterproductive.

Motivation. We know, and have known for a long time, that the effectiveness of long-term learning is closely correlated to the motivation of the learner. Should that motivation be extrinsic (influenced by the demands, rules and expectations of others) or intrinsic (driven by one’s personal interests and inherent values)? We can’t have it both ways. We cannot continue in our ill-advised efforts to embrace both of these motivational approaches. We’ve been trying to satisfy both for decades, and have ended up serving neither. Again, citing Alfie Kohn, “Two kinds of motivation simply are not better than one. Rather, one (extrinsic) is corrosive of the other (intrinsic)—and intrinsic is the one that counts. To make a difference, therefore, we have to subtract grades, not just add a narrative report. We have to eliminate incentives, not just promote literacy. We have to remove coercive discipline policies, not just build a caring community.” In other words, we have to stop giving mixed signals.

What kids need. The children occupying our classrooms on this Monday morning are experiencing a far different set of circumstances and pressures than previous generations. They are citizens of the 21st century. Even the oldest among them were born in this century. They are doing the best they can to become prepared for futures that are difficult to forecast, or even comprehend, due to the rapid societal changes they must try to embrace and keep up with. The education these kids are being provided is well intended and, by most measures, sincere it its desire to prepare them for what lies ahead. Except for one thing. It doesn’t offer a preparation for what lies ahead. It’s an education that expertly prepares them for a century that has passed. The curriculum, the instructional strategies employed, how learning is measured - it’s all perfectly orchestrated for a bygone era. But, it’s not what today’s kids need. And, it’s not what they deserve.

To do the work, to realize society’s goals for our children, and, most importantly, to allow our children to realize the goals they have for themselves in a complicated and rapidly changing world, we must operate with clarity. However, I contend that the required degree of clarity is missing. That the profession clings to its past practices and zealously advocates their continuation in a vastly different cultural and economic environment, is proof enough that a clarity of purpose is lacking. I question whether we really know what we hope to accomplish in this societal experiment called public education as we operate within a transformed reality labelled "the 21st century.” Further, I question just whose goals we most value: those of the institution of public education, rooted in tradition, or those of the children occupying our classrooms; goals that are aligned with, and figure prominently to, their interests and their aspirations. But, one thing is clear - there is no room for mixed messages.

By the way, does it strike anyone but me as curious that in 2019 we’re addressing the same issues Alfie Kohn was raising in 2002? How much longer can we wait? More importantly, how much time can kids afford for us to squander before we figure this out?

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