Schoolyard Nastiness and Anti-Tyranny Training

I, too, despair at watching my president stoop to schoolyard nastiness.

—David Leonhardt, New York Times, June 30, 2017

Schoolyard Nastiness! Why do we take it for granted? And why do we expect the adults in our government to behave any better than they did in school? We shouldn’t. If school were preparing our young people for full functioning in a good democracy, you would see kids working on their anti-tyranny repertoire like this group of third graders at Johns Hill, a public magnet school in Decatur, Illinois.
Having finished their writing assignment, they are sitting on the floor at the back of the room playing a game with 20 white dice, each of which has a different word on each of its six faces. Bailey has just made a sentence: “The cute wife gave a soft laugh.” But two of the other players dispute it as a valid sentence. Janice insists that “soft laugh” doesn’t quite work. Henry, the scorekeeper, tends to think Janice has a point and suggests that Bailey could make it work if it were “The soft wife gave a cute laugh.” All four immediately agree and Henry puts a seven in Bailey’s column on the scorecard.

Henry rolls the dice and starts a new sentence. Janice says, “The subject’s fine, but what’s the predicate?” All four of them suggest possibilities to Henry who eventually comes up with “I like to hear your face laugh” before the sand finishes running through the three-minute timer.

The game progresses gracefully through constant conflict: “You can’t flip the dice to other sides to find other words.” “I’ll give you 4 points for the first four words, because that’s a sentence, but the rest doesn’t make sense.” “Bailey’s in the lead. 7 + 10 = 17.” “You don’t know that; we haven’t totaled everything yet.”

The ability of these children to conflict gracefully is remarkable. Rarely have I seen a group of adults disagree as often as these 8-year-olds in such a friendly, mutually supportive way. Each child is a decision-maker in competition with three other decision-makers, and nobody gets mad.

How to resolve differences, how to collaborate, how to learn from others, how to get a group to create something of value…, leadership! Research shows, and good educators have always known, that skills like these are the primary skills for success. There is no correlation between any standardized test score and any measure of adult effectiveness. Useful intelligence requires high social-emotional learning, and the children know it in their bones. Before our individualistic culture pollutes their brains, they seem to know that collaboration produces better results than acting alone. There is no point to being “smart,” if we can’t make good decisions, and good decision-making requires mobilizing our emotional self and our relationship self, and developing our anti-tyranny repertoire.

The core of the problem is that, when it comes to school, we don’t even talk as if these skills are critical for intelligence. We call them “soft,” “non-cognitive” skills, even though we know that these skills are hard and require high-cognitive brain work. Furthermore, we don’t assume that school is the best place to learn and practice them. Yet, what better way to learn these skills than to take kids away from home for half the day to face challenges together under the tutelage of professional educators.

Collaboration is conflict going well

It’s time to call it the Hard Curriculum, and act as if we know that the Hard Curriculum is what makes the difference between success and failure in life as well as government. If education is simply about increasing knowledge, school is now obviously obsolete. Want to know something? Ask Siri; she knows more than your teacher.

If schools were held accountable for what really matters, we would count the number of questions, the number of decisions, the amount of risk-taking, the number of disagreements, and how often students change their minds. The important, difficult issues that need to be discussed in school do not have easy answers, so our kids need to get good at arguing, and come out of school knowing that conflict is a fact of human life and an opportunity. We need all educators to make their classrooms places of collaboration: lively conversations, thoughtful arguments, buddy programs, cooperative learning groups.

If it feels sometimes like the American democratic experiment is failing, maybe, it is because schools are being held accountable for sorting kids by irrelevant numbers rather than preparing them to be leaders in a democracy. What we see in the schoolyard is what we should expect to see in our government.

 

 

 

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9 Responses to Schoolyard Nastiness and Anti-Tyranny Training

  1. jon madian says:

    Very thoughtful, thought provoking, and relevant…

    Rick, I wonder how we got into the “mind-set” we’re in now and like you, I wonder how we move past our shallow academics?

    Our current approach to SEL as one more subject, like STEM, another subject, with nothing being taken from the curriculum and both being added as subjects and not as ways of being and thinking perpetuates our failed model.

  2. What you describe happening at John’s Hill Magnet School in Decatur, IL happens in any Montessori classroom, whether public or private, when the teacher has a quality Montessori training supported by administrators who also have faith in the potential of children. This kind of educator understands the powerful transformative power in using Montessori principles and practices when interacting with children of all ages. It is a very effective way to assure that Democracy will flourish.

  3. Anne Marie Schar says:

    I am having difficulty getting past the first sentence being voted wrong. I realize that’s not the point. I really do. But I can’t get past it.

  4. Rick says:

    Anne Marie, which is the statement you think is being voted wrong? And what do you think is the truth? I am afraid I have not made myself clear. It’s a sad state of affairs that we talk as if Schoolyards will, of course, always be nasty. No?

  5. Walt French says:

    This (great!) post should be a jumping-off point for so many other related issues.

    The justification for having public schools is, of course, that they prepare kids to be successful in society. Yet the society is sending us inchoate signals of what “success” means.

    I’d love it if you turned this into “what will result when kids learn those actually-hard skills; how will we tell whether a given teaching approach is working for all our kids; how can the general public be brought on board & even demand these changes?

    Big Qs, I know. Thanks for opening up the ability to ask them!

  6. I agree completely about the value of learning collaboration (it took me a while to more fully appreciate it), but I wonder if there isn’t something else—or perhaps another path to the same place—that education needs to support: uncovering and valuing a deeper sense of who we are, which means not only who am I but who are you. My friend Azim Khamisa who works with children’s violence prevention programs calls it “developing the inner navigational system”. When that’s there, nastiness, rage and hatred tend to go away in large part because identity is no longer so easily threatened.
    On a synchronous topic, I watch “The Americans” and saw it’s final episode with its reinforcement of the theme of the growth in children and adults alike of an “inner navigational system”. That inner GPS/ allowed the characters to act against the authorities that had defined their lives. The show didn’t sugarcoat the difficulty of this and the characters all paid a terrible emotional price. In a haunting way, it was both sad and inspiring.

  7. Very interesting. I have a German friend who told me students there are taught to argue from an early age. Often a teacher will have the students form two groups, however young I guess, and turn their desks so as each group faces the other. The teacher then presents a debatable proposition. They debate civilly. Then it is over. This is a basic repetitive process. As a result, graduates are more open-minded, but also skilled at evaluating argumentative points. I think it would have been very helpful for me to keep me quickly seeing things as either “right” or “wrong”.

    It i also a very good reason for having schools.

    My German friend considers British people lack this discipline and are worse off for it — they become sniffy at arguments and withdraw. Bad for the economy if nothing else.

  8. Lyn says:

    Way to go, Rick! Glad to hear from you, as always –

  9. Mark Crosley says:

    Those of us who were lucky had a few teachers who encouraged kids to have their own opinions and to resolve differences in ways that were not just peaceful, but were learning experiences in themselves.

    But we all had teachers who were bullies, who expected children to do only what they were told to do, and speak only when called on. They taught us that it wasn’t important whether you could work together, just to be “in charge.”

    Now we have a nation of citizens who were taught to behave, rather than to think and collaborate. And a bully-in-chief leading us. I hope the next generation from schools like Johns Hill have the wisdom to revive our democracy.

    (BTW, Anne Marie is referring to “The cute wife gave a soft laugh.” I agree with her…it’s a very nice sentence.)

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