Bullying

Parenting, Schooling, and Planning the Future For Your Child

It is easy for parents to get caught up in the belief that it is their responsibility to identify a pathway for their child to proceed down en route to a successful life, and then direct them down that pathway. Likewise for educators, it is easy to believe that it is their responsibility to shape children and adolescents into eager students who will go to college, which will lead to success. It is easy to believe that the more we push children, demand of them, direct them, and handhold them, the more likely it is that the child will become a success. That is the narrative that society pushes, oftentimes blaming parents and educators for not doing enough, not doing it earlier, and not doing it with more rigor. 

Parents and educators do not deserve so much of the credit or blame when it comes to shaping children into successful adults. First, the way we define success is problematic in itself (consider what success means to you in light of these 5 deathbed regrets and these 24 regrets). Second, social and economic conditions that children are born into have a far greater impact on their future than proactive parenting or schooling does, and ignoring this most often leads to forms of victim blaming and practices that promote it (e.g., grit). And third, adults overestimate the benefits they provide to young people by way of deliberately trying to guide them down certain pathways, while grossly underestimating the harm they can cause by doing so.

Parents and educators generally want the best for children. They want a world where their children come out ahead, or at least keep pace. And the more that parents and educators try to prevent children from taking full control of their lives; because they fear the children will make suboptimal or wrong choices, or that they won't go down the right path; the more likely it is that they will deter the children from finding out who they are, where they want to take their lives, and how to make the most of it. In an attempt to put them on a right path, they end up moving each child away from an authentic, unique path that best fits each one of them. Some young people find ways to rebound; many do not. As a whole, adults end up doing more harm than good.

A better way forward for parents and educators is to focus on removing the obstacles that prevent young people from taking control of their education and lives. Addressing trauma or psychological distress is an obvious place to start. Next, remove toxic environmental conditions (e.g., bullying), or remove children from such toxic environments. Then, remove structures and practices (e.g., compulsory attendance, mandated curriculum) that undermine self-efficacy and prevent them from taking charge of their lives. Then, step back and breathe. 

Note, removing these obstacles does not mean removing adversity or denying them the opportunity to experience failure. All of the aforementioned obstacles inhibit growth, are not natural, and are unnecessary. When young people are able to focus their time and effort on their interests they will stretch themselves through meaningful challenges that move them further down their own pathways. 

It is time that we adults stop seeing ourselves as authority figures, decision makers, guides, or the ones who will protect children from themselves. It is time that we instead see ourselves as sounding boards, helpers, resource providers, and living examples of people who are leading remarkable lives themselves. 

If you also believe that we need to elevate the role of children and adolescents in their own lives then we encourage you to get involved in what we are doing at Abrome. 

Tackling Bullying in Schools

Antonio Buehler, founder of Abrome was invited to the Laura Bush Community Library to speak about how to tackle bullying in schools. This presentation leaned heavily on the bullying series we provided earlier this 'academic' year. Those posts are listed below. This video is shared courtesy of the library.

Five Steps to End School Bullying: Change the Context (Essay 6 of 6)

Bullying is not the only problem with schooling, but it is one that literally brings violence into children’s lives, and in worst case scenarios it ends lives. In this essay series we laid out five actionable steps that schools need to take to end school bullying. First, schools must incorporate age-mixing as a means to reduce hierarchy and competition, and increase empathy.[1] Age-mixing in three or four year batches is helpful but not sufficient. For maximum benefit, schools should consider age-mixing from Kindergarten through 12th grade, and perhaps even more broadly than that. Second, schools must eliminate competition, starting with grades.[2] Grades do not aid in the learning process, but they can shut it down, and they almost always create an unhealthy rank ordering of students. This ordering ultimately leads to various forms of bullying. Third, schools must give students full agency over their learning.[3] Allowing students to pick from some electives or to determine the sequence in which they learn something is not sufficient. The adults must be willing to step aside so that students feel as though they are in control of their lives, which lessens the likelihood that they will try to control the lives of others. Fourth, schools must respect their students.[4] This requires that schools commit to the principles of anti-oppression, trust students to take full control over their learning, and avoid manipulating student behavior through punishments and rewards. And fifth, schools must promote empathy in their communities.[5] They can promote empathy by embracing diversity, modeling empathetic behavior, and tearing down hierarchy within the schooling community.

In this series we have pointed out how these five steps promote superior learning and academic achievement, as well. That schools continue to reject the five steps to end bullying, when those steps would also improve the quality of education, raises some serious questions about the motives of the various stakeholders in the traditional schooling industry, both public and private. What could possibly be so important to traditional school administrators, school boards, politicians, accreditation agencies, and content providers that they would refuse to advocate for and take the steps necessary to build intellectually vibrant environments free of bullying? Part of the answer can be found in the realization that the bullying in schools does not come only from other students, it comes from the adults, as well.[6] Such bullying can range from a vice principal berating a student for violating a rule to a teacher embarrassing a student for not knowing the answer to a question, and in some of the more backward schools in America, to corporal punishment or the threat of criminal charges against students. 

So what is a parent to do when their children are trapped in schools where the adults bully the students and where peer bullying is promoted directly or indirectly through the practices and structures of schooling? Politicians, bureaucrats, and school administrators can talk about school reforms that will help reduce bullying over time, but parents do not have the luxury of waiting for years when their children are being subjected to environments of bullying in the here and now. Fortunately, parents can do for their children overnight in one simple step what tens of thousands of schools refuse to do by way of the steps we laid out. Parents can change the context.

If the waiters at your favorite restaurant made fun of the way you ate your food every time you went there for dinner, you would stop going to that restaurant. If you found out your trainer was telling everyone at the local gym what your weight is and how you are too lazy to get it down, you would stop using that trainer. If your neighbor’s dog attacked you every time you went over to their house, you would stop going to their house. We know that if something is hurting us that we should remove it from our lives.[7] We change the context. Yet when our children are being bullied at school, the idea of removing our children from school is unfortunately considered by too many to be an unnecessary overreaction that does more harm than good. Instead, society tells us to teach children how to cope with the bullying, to work with the school staff to find ways to limit the incidence of bullying, and to lobby the school board to address the problem of school bullying.  

Life is far too short and far too precious to leave children to suffer in schools, especially when we know that pulling them out of school will eliminate real harm from their lives. Change the context. Identify a local alternative school that has incorporated the five steps we have laid out. Change the context. If you don’t live near such a school, move. Change the context. If you cannot afford to attend an alternative school, downsize your life so that you can, or homeschool or unschool. Change the context. In doing so you will allow your children to recognize their personal worth, to feel in control their own lives, and to lead healthier and happier lives. As a bonus, your relationship with your children will improve considerably. They will recognize that you are on their side, proactively working to help them enjoy life. Change the context.

 

(1)   http://www.abrome.com/blog/2016/10/3/five-steps-to-end-school-bullying-age-mixing-essay-1-of-6  

(2)  http://www.abrome.com/blog/end-bullying-collaboration-not-competition  

(3)   http://www.abrome.com/blog/2016/11/25/five-steps-to-end-school-bullying-agency-essay-3-of-6   

(4)   http://www.abrome.com/blog/2016/11/29/five-steps-to-end-school-bullying-culture-and-philosophy-essay-4-of-6

(5)   http://www.abrome.com/blog/2016/12/19/five-steps-to-end-school-bullying-empathy-essay-5-of-6

(6)   Unfortunately, the media and education schools largely restrict their focus on bullying to that committed by students, not by educators. However, the bullying that comes from adults, the ones young people are told to trust, can be far more pernicious. This has parallels to how the media and education schools often focus on students and their families to explain away academic shortcomings, instead of turning the focus on the adults who run the system. Here is a report from Australia that provides examples of how adults often bully children in schools:  https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/emotional-abuse-hidden-form-maltreatment#sch.

(7)   We are not suggesting that standing up to bullies or trying to influence change in systems is not a worthwhile endeavor. In fact, the course we are suggesting in this essay will force schools to address bullying.

Five Steps to End School Bullying: Culture and Philosophy (Essay 4 of 6)

Nothing carries the day in education quite like culture. A great culture allows all members of a community to feel valued and loved, it promotes and contributes to learning, and serves as a bulwark against bullying. But in order to experience all of these benefits, a learning community and their culture must be built upon the foundation of a great educational philosophy.[1] Unfortunately, the structures and practices of traditional schooling corrupt even the most well-intentioned philosophies of education. 

At the core of a successful philosophy of education is respect for the learner. Most parents, administrators, and teachers demand respect from young people, but they rarely focus on respect in the other direction. When young people are not respected, the learning process is subverted, and the seeds of bullying are planted.

In order for learners to be respected, three conditions must be met.  First, a learning space must be committed to principles of anti-oppression and they must reject hierarchy. Second, learners must have full control of their learning. And third, learners must not be manipulated through punishments or rewards.

The easiest and most immediate action schools can take is to commit to principles of anti-oppression within the learning community. Whether adults want to admit it or not, schools were founded upon the basis of oppression. At the very minimum, traditional schools engage in an ongoing practice of demeaning and marginalizing students based on their age. Even if oppression was not built into the structure of schooling, which it is, it would be a natural outcropping to the assumption schools hold that young people are ignorant and incompetent, and therefore need to have their lives dictated to them by adults. But the oppression in schools extends beyond just ageism. It expands to ableism based on physical disability, and spreads beyond ableism and picks on young people based on their mental health, emotional state, and learning differences.

But going back to the history of schooling, there was a very clear objective by the architects of our modern day schooling system to tear down select communities and cultures (e.g, immigrants, indigenous people) for the purpose of assimilating young people into the dominant social order.[2] And this coercive effort to undermine communities and personal identity is not an archaic form of oppression, it continues to this day, although it is now wrapped in much more altruistic language. While oppression is part and parcel of schooling, it is amplified most aggressively against students of color, immigrants, and students of low socioeconomic status.[3] From a social justice perspective, we should demand that the institution of schooling acknowledges and addresses the ongoing oppression of young people. But even if one were uninterested about the broader social justice concerns of schooling, it should be apparent that oppressed students (even if it is only a small minority of students) are going to internalize the belief that power justifies bullying.

The second ingredient of an educational philosophy that schools must adopt in order to promote respect for the learner is to allow young people to take full control of their learning. We spoke at length in the prior essay in this series about learner agency, and how it is good for education and necessary to combat bullying.[4] Simply giving young people a few options in what, when, where, and how they learn is not the same as allowing them to have agency over their learning. Agency requires stepping back and allowing the learner to make all of the decisions related to their education, while recognizing that caring adults can certainly assist on the journey, when invited. It is also worth pointing out that giving respect to young people also requires allowing them to be full and equal partners in the community. It is not sufficient to simply give them a space to learn without giving them the opportunity to shape that space in accordance with their needs and resources, while balancing that with the needs of the other members of the space.

An educational philosophy that prioritizes learner control directly impacts and improves the self-confidence and self-awareness of students.[5] It allows them to experience at a young age the dignity that is often only afforded to well-educated, professionally successful, financially well-off members of society. Self-confidence and self-respect help undercut the drivers of bullying. Further, when learners are able to take their education in any direction they want, they find themselves avoiding the competition that often pits students against other students. When young people are able to learn for the sake of learning, their standing relative to their peers becomes a non-issue, and that also helps undermine bullying.[6]

The third condition that must be incorporated into an educational philosophy is the elimination of punishments and rewards. While some may consider this an extension of learner agency, it warrants additional attention as busybodies are so often eager to try to nudge students down preferred pathways, or to turn self-directed education into “learning opportunities.”

The most obvious form of punishments and rewards in schools are grades, which we have previously addressed in this series on bullying. But punishments and rewards also include compliments, verbal rebukes, praise, detention, honors status, and even criminal charges.[7][8] The author Alfie Kohn has written extensively about the effect of punishments and rewards on children.[9] In his writings he leans heavily on the work of Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan (who we talked about in the prior essay) to highlight how punishments and rewards can undermine intrinsic motivation. He also references dozens of studies that reaffirm Deci and Ryan’s claims that manipulative efforts to get students to engage in certain types of learning experiences are counterproductive, and that those efforts ultimately decrease interest and performance in the work that adults are most focused on.

If education was the goal, schools would immediately cease their use of punishments and rewards. Likewise, if reducing bullying was the goal, they would also cease the use of punishments and rewards. As Kohn points out, punishments and rewards can elicit temporary compliance, but that those efforts will ultimately “generate anger, defiance, and a desire for revenge.”[10] Since the revenge will rarely be directed directly at the adults who are manipulating the students, it will most likely be redirected toward other students. Kohn also points out that the focus on punishments and rewards illustrates for young people how one can bypass reason and rely on power to get one’s way. School teachers and administrators may not realize it, but they are providing the blueprint for schoolhouse bullying through their practices.

Bullying can be stopped in an environment with a great culture. A commitment to anti-oppression, a willingness to trust young people enough to give them agency over their learning, and a refusal to try to manipulate them through punishments and rewards are essential to building that culture.

I believe that our experience instructs us that the secret of Education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do. It is chosen and foreordained, and he only holds the key to his own secret. By tampering and thwarting and too much governing he may be hindered from his end and kept out of his own. Respect the child. Wait and see the new product of Nature. Nature loves analogies, but not repetitions. Respect the child.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

(1)   A learning environment with a great educational philosophy but a bad culture is a miserable place to be. Countless democratic schools and self-directed learning environments, for example, have failed and shut down because of poor messaging, or conflict and miscommunication among families, guides, and learners. And while a good culture can help mitigate or hide some of the harm to children created by a poor philosophy, it cannot undo the harm.

(2)   To begin your investigation into the history of schooling I recommend the documentary Schooling the World, and the book The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto.  

(3)   A commitment to anti-oppression would also address cultural background, ethnicity, gender, immigration status, nationality, language, race, religion, physical appearance, self-expression, sexual orientation, parental education, and other factors. It would also recognize hierarchy within the learning environment and would work to deconstruct it. The list provided herein is not comprehensive, and organizations committed to anti-oppression would consider ongoing evaluation of their practices as necessary to minimize and prevent marginalization.  

(4)   http://www.abrome.com/blog/2016/11/25/five-steps-to-end-school-bullying-agency-essay-3-of-6

(5)   Abrome’s educational philosophy is one that we would like to see other learning organizations replicate.

(6)   http://www.abrome.com/blog/end-bullying-collaboration-not-competition

(7)   Shockingly, schools are even punishing the victims of bullying. Their reasoning is that the victims are partially to blame for being a party to incidents in which they were bullied!

(8)   The criminalization of schooling has only recently become a hot topic in the media, but it has already spurred a good amount of legislation to reduce the use of criminal charges to induce desired behavior in students. However, schools across the nation, particularly in the south, continue to station police officers on school grounds, and they continue to dole out criminal charges for classroom disruptions, truancy, and fighting.    

(9)   Alfie Kohn’s book Punished by Rewards is a must read for parents and educators.

(10) http://www.alfiekohn.org/article/risks-rewards/

Five Steps to End School Bullying: Agency (Essay 3 of 6)

While this essay series focuses on the problem of bullying, I would like to take a step back for a moment and address self-motivation, which is critical to academic and life success. Self-motivation is what makes or breaks many people once they come out the other end of the schooling apparatus, whether it be high school, college, or graduate school. There are many people who do well academically in school, only to fall on their faces in the “real world” because they never learned how to take control of their lives and drive toward a self-defined goal.[1] Following a syllabus and neurotically studying to perfectly answer every question that will be on the test might give one a perfect GPA, but it leaves little to no time for young people to author their own lives.   

Self-determination theory (SDT), made famous by Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan, states that there are three needs that are essential for the psychological health and well-being of an individual: competence, autonomy, and psychological relatedness. When these three needs are not met over a sustained period of time, there are significant and substantial risks that an individual will suffer mentally, physically, socially, and emotionally. And in traditional schools, autonomy is virtually absent. That lack of autonomy undermines self-motivation which does not bode well for the future happiness and success of students. It is also a major driver of bullying in schools, which destroys psychological relatedness and further undermines the well-being of students.  

A decade old research study conducted at W. F. Boardman Elementary School in Oceanside, New York, focused on SDT to identify the causes of bullying in the school.[2] What they found, similar to most traditional schools, is that there were very few instances in which their students could act autonomously in their learning, even though teachers thought they were providing their students with ample choices and opportunities for self-expression. Most remarkably, this study focused on the bullied, and not the bullies, and lack of autonomy, real or perceived, was a common factor for those who were most bullied. A lack of autonomy in education can easily be extrapolated to a lack of autonomy over one’s life, and those who feel they have the least control over their lives seemingly become easily identifiable targets for bullies.

In addition to grooming the bullied, the lack of autonomy in school grooms the bullies as well. First, we know that those who have been bullied are much more likely to become bullies themselves.[3] Hurt people hurt people is a cliché that bears true in bully-infested schooling environments. Second, there is ample research that shows that a lack of autonomy over one’s life promotes dysfunctional behaviors, many of which manifest themselves as bullying. While education researchers have touched upon this dynamic, prison researchers have done a much better job addressing the matter. The only American institutions that provide people with less autonomy than schools are prisons, jails, and parts of the military (e.g., basic training), each of which are also plagued with bullying.

Research by Anthony Bottoms highlights that while dysfunctional behaviors were common in prisons, the more prisoners were prevented autonomy in their daily lives, the more likely they were to engage in dysfunctional behavior, including violence toward other inmates.[4] Further, Bottoms highlighted the success of the Barlinnie Special Unit in Scotland for violent offenders. Breaking with convention, this unit provided greater than usual prisoner autonomy in spite of their more complicated prison population, and significantly brought down dysfunctional and violent behaviors, including bullying.[5]

Student autonomy means handing the reins of education over to the learner. It does not mean there is no role for adults, but it requires that adults abdicate their role as authoritarians who dictate where, when, what, and how students learn. Student autonomy allows learners to make the decisions that are relevant to their education, and gives them the belief that their approach to learning will have a significant impact on the outcomes of their learning.

While lots of schools may give lip service to the idea of autonomy, very few have offered even a small sampling of it to their students. They may allow students to choose a topic to research, who they can work with on a project, or the format of the end product that they will be graded on, but such narrow options do not equate to student autonomy. One place schools can look to within their system for proof that greater autonomy is possible in learning are individualized education plans (IEPs). IEPs have traditionally been reserved for students that have been labeled as learning disabled, but schools should expand them to all students. IEPs are an attempt to personalize learning, and the most effective IEPs allow the student to have greater ownership over their education by given them an opportunity to provide input into how they will learn, what they will learn, and how that learning will be assessed. Unfortunately, the structures and practices of schooling prevent even the most forward thinking traditional schools from taking increased autonomy as a tool to promote learning to its logical conclusion.

Because the schooling system treats children as though they are incompetent and ignorant people who are incapable of taking control of their education, they promote a sense of learned helplessness. This behavior or belief that develops in young people, in addition to handicapping their ability to learn, leaves them vulnerable to being bullied by others, or to developing into a bully as a means of externalizing control on others since they have no control over their own lives.  

Giving students full autonomy in education can help undo the harm to the bullies and the bullied, and it can prevent future bullying. This is a step that all schools should eagerly embrace. However, doing so would require them to let go of the structures and practices they were all trained to employ, and that they are evaluated on.

 

(1)   Our measure of “doing well” academically differs from that of most educators and parents. Their measure of doing well means getting the highest grades and ranking the highest among one’s peers. Our measure of “doing well” entails deep, meaningful, and enduring learning experiences that allow young people to lead remarkable lives. However, it should be noted that far more young people in the traditional schooling system are not doing well relative to the tiny few who are doing well.  

(2)   “Interrupting the Cycle of Bullying and Victimization in the Elementary Classroom”, Phi Delta Kappan, Volume 86, Number 4, December 2004, pp. 288-291. http://www.ernweb.com/educational-research-articles/successful-anti-bullying-program-focuses-on-victims/

(3)   There is a chicken and an egg aspect to bullying. Bullying requires the bullied and the bullies. However, once the cycle starts, there are ample numbers of people who were bullied waiting in the wings to become bullies.

(4)   Bottoms, Anthony E., William Hay, and J. Richard Sparks (1995). “Situational and Social Approaches to the Prevention of Disorder in Long-Term Prisons.” Long-Term Imprisonment: Policy, Science, and Correctional Practice. editor. Timothy J. Flanagan. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage.

(5)   Some may take issue with our use of prisons as a way to highlight the point about the lack of autonomy in schools. While we do not intend to minimize the inhumane treatment of inmates in prison, it should be noted that there are many parallels between schools and prisons. Both are hierarchical institutions where the students/inmates have no choice but to follow the directives of the staff. There are punishments for non-conformity (e.g., dress codes) and there are rules that cannot be questioned. Additionally, there are legal consequences for those who flee schools (truancy) and prisons.

Five Steps to End School Bullying: Collaboration, Not Competition (Essay 2 of 6)

We previously pointed out that the first step to ending school bullying was to end age segregation.[1] The second step is to eliminate competition and grades.

The most overt (and odious) function of schooling is a sorting function. Edward Thorndike, the father of modern educational psychology, pushed for standardized classes, homework, and tests in schools in order to rank students. He figured that ‘smart’ students would thrive under these conditions, and that less intelligent students would falter.[2] He did not see students faltering as a shortcoming of the system, he saw it as a desired outcome. He would ask you, why waste resources on students who were unlikely to benefit from the time and money invested in them? 

What Thorndike did not know, and what we know today, is that learning is not linear. Learning happens in spurts, and cannot be set to a developmental timeline. Some of the most intellectually curious learners seem to be going nowhere for long periods of time, while those who appear to most quickly learn subject material often get lost in the long run. Yet our schools still judge students as Thorndike wanted them to be judged over a century ago—by the speed at which they can master predefined tasks.

Schools judge and sort students by grading them. In the overwhelming majority of traditional schools, students are given a letter grade (or worse, a numeric grade) for each class that they take. This helps administrators and teachers quickly determine whether the students are dumb, average, or smart by subject area (although they often use the euphemisms basic, proficient, and advanced). While the adults may appreciate being able to measure and rank students, young people tend to absorb these grades into their self-worth. And because schools would be unable to rank students if they gave all of them perfects scores, most students are going to accept that they are less than intelligent. This may come in the form of “I am not good at math,” “I am a bad writer,” or “I don’t like science.” And unsurprisingly, when students come to embrace the belief that they are not good at certain subjects, or that they are dumb, they often give up on the learning process.

While grading is detrimental to the self-confidence of most students, and undermines the learning process, it also tends to negatively alter the behavior of parents. Parents generally understand that the prospects of their children getting into top colleges out of traditional high schools requires that their children rank at the top of their class. In order to rank at the top of the class, it is not sufficient to master the content of the classes they take, or to love learning. Instead, they must get the highest grades in all subjects. When the ultimate measure of academic success becomes whether or not one gets higher grades than all of his peers, there is no room for anything less than winning. Winning isn’t everything in the eyes of these parents, it’s the only thing.

With a hyperfocus on being number one, cheating becomes one way to rise in the hierarchy above one’s peers.[3][4] Other students become relegated to nothing more than competition, and this idea is reinforced by teachers who are quick to accuse collaborators of cheating.

Additionally, the focus on outperforming peers then bleeds into other activities that colleges care about when considering traditional schooled applicants, namely sports and clubs. Participation and engagement alone does not allow one to rise above. Instead, students recognize that they must be the Captain of the football or volleyball team, the President of the debate or robotics club, the Editor of the student newspaper, and the President of the student council. And while cheating becomes the way to squeeze out those extra points to get the top grades, a Machiavellian approach to stepping on classmates and teammates often becomes the way to rise to the top of extracurricular activities.

In the schooling environment where everyone wants to be number one, bullying becomes ingrained in the fabric of the culture of the school. If they cannot be at the top of the class academically, at least they can assert their position socially. Where hierarchy is everything, many students resort to bullying as a way to secure their spot at the top of the class, or at least above select others (the bullied). And because so few can be at the top of the class academically or socially, there is significant pressure for schoolgoing children to engage in bullying, or to lend support to bullies.[5] Even the popular kids, the ones us adults so often assume to be doing the best, often engage in bullying. And disturbingly, the students who are the most popular with the teachers and administrators are often given the longest leash to engage in the most aggressive forms of bullying.[6]

In order to eliminate the bullying effects of competition in school, schools need to eliminate competition. Unfortunately, most schools cannot fathom a world without competition, because competition is the bedrock of the academic experience, and it is what is expected from parents, administrators, and bureaucrats. The simplest and most meaningful step toward eliminating competition is eliminating grades. Some schools give lip service to the value of reducing the pressure of grading, and a smaller subset of schools will ‘refuse to rank’ students to address the harmful effects of competition, yet they continue to grade students.[7] Schools can eliminate academic ranking by eliminating grading.[8]

The next step schools should take to eliminate competition is to embrace age-mixing, as articulated in the first essay in this series on bullying. When students are surrounded by other people appreciably older or younger than them, the urge to compete lessens dramatically. There is little reason for a ten-year-old to attempt to show that they are superior to a six-year-old, or a 14-year-old. Simply put, society does not expect six-, ten-, and 14-year-olds to compete with each other. Hopefully, someday, society will no longer expect ten-year-olds to compete with ten-year-olds, either.

Once schools eliminate grading and age segregation, they will be able to truly embrace collaboration in lieu of competition.[9] In a collaborative environment, the emphasis is not on how much more one knows than another, it is on what students can accomplish together. In such an environment, every member of the community is valued for what they can contribute to the experiences of others, and the need to jockey for position relative to one another disappears.

The collaborative environment we propose does not take away opportunities for leadership roles. Those leadership opportunities will be able to grow out of demonstrated interest and intentional action in the pursuit of one’s goals. Without the focus on beating one’s peers, there is less of a stigma in joining someone else’s project (becoming a follower). And in an environment with age diversity, it is natural for younger people to join in the efforts of older people without feeling as though one is not measuring up to the leader.   

When we eliminate competition, we eliminate the existence of losers. In an environment where no one becomes a loser, the need for bullying evaporates.

(1)   http://www.abrome.com/blog/2016/10/3/five-steps-to-end-school-bullying-age-mixing-essay-1-of-6

(2)   https://www.amazon.com/End-Average-Succeed-Values-Sameness/dp/0062358367

(3)   http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/08/education/studies-show-more-students-cheat-even-high-achievers.html

(4)   http://www.glass-castle.com/clients/www-nocheating-org/adcouncil/research/cheatingfactsheet.html

(5)   https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Christina_Salmivalli/publication/12829538_Participant_role_approach_to_school_bullying_implications_for_interventions/links/54ec20030cf2ff89649f1ed3.pdf

(6)   https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201005/school-bullying-tragic-cost-undemocratic-schools

(7)   College admission committees are not thrown off by schools that ‘refuse to rank’ their students. The committees get a profile of each high school, and back their way into figuring out how each applicant compares to their peers. Further, if multiple students from a given school are applying, it becomes readily apparent where in the rank order the various applicants fall. This reality can often exacerbate the stress that comes from grades, as students work frantically to improve their unknown position against peers.

(8)   It is important to note that in addition to promoting a bullying culture, as previously mentioned, grading is harmful to students from a learning perspective. Even if schools were uninterested in addressing the issue of bullying, it would make sense for them to eliminate grading. An argument against eliminating grading would be that grading is necessary to assess what the students are learning. However, the reality is that assessments do not require testing or grades.

Non-graded assessments, in general, still undermine learning. Students benefit the most when they are able to deeply engage in learning without external pressure. If students know they are being evaluated, even if there are no consequences to the results of the evaluations, they are more likely to lose interest in the activity. This point is described well by Alfie Kohn in an essay on grading: http://www.alfiekohn.org/article/grading/.  

(9)   While many argue that just a little competition peppered into a collaborative environment is better than full collaboration or no collaboration, the truth is that any amount of competition gets in the way of collaboration. Once again, Alfie Kohn covers this well in an essay on competition in collaborative classrooms: http://www.alfiekohn.org/article/competition-ever-appropriate-cooperative-classroom/.  

Teachers give terrible advice on how to deal with teachers

I recently stumbled upon a Quora question posted by a parent who wanted to know if she should speak to her daughter's teacher, who is a bully, about the teacher's treatment of her daughter. The Quora question asked:

"My daughter's 1st grade teacher refused to let her use the restroom, and she ended up wetting herself. Should we talk to the teacher? 

"The request to use the restroom was made 3 times before my girl wet herself. A week later, my daughter was hit in the nose by a boy that sits next to her. Then the teacher refused to let my daughter go to the nurse (she wears a contact lens, and is not allowed to put in eye drops w/out the nurse)."

I found the parent's question to be reflective of the unfortunate power dynamic between less affluent parents and teachers or school administrators in the society we currently live in.[1] Parents too often defer to teachers and administrators, believing that professional educators must know better how to make choices for children than parents. And even when it is clear that a teacher is bullying a child, parents too often walk on eggshells around the teachers and instead turn their attention to helping the child alter her mindset or behavior to conform to the actions of the teacher.

However, it was in the responses to the question that I was most annoyed. Multiple people came to the defense of the teacher and/or shifted blame to the child.

Daniel Kaplan, a 15 year veteran public school teacher commented:

“You could go talk to the principal instead, bypassing the chain of command, but what if things aren't quite as they appear? What if your daughter isn't sure of the truth herself? What if she misunderstood? What if she isn't quite telling the truth? What if it isn't the whole story?”

 

Becky Dole, a 33+ year educator commented:

“You also need to consider the possibility that you don’t have all the facts. Do not ever bypass the teacher. At least get the teacher’s side of the story. THEN, if not satisfied, go to the principal. Most districts have a chain of command and post it. If you go over someone’s head, you are likely to be discounted and get the reputation (not just this year) as a difficult parent.”

 

Emily Richards, another teacher commented:

“Unfortunately, teachers have to err on the side of caution with toilet breaks. Some kids - given the freedom to go to the bathroom during lessons - do crazy things like start fires. Far more common - children will realise that you’re the teacher that lets them go to the toilet, and they’ll abuse the liberty. The same rule applies to lending out pens, letting them use your printer or accepting crappy excuses for not having their homework.”

 

Gabriele Alfredo Pini, a first grade teacher commented:

“Two truths to keep in mind:

·      Children lie. Even when they want to tell the truth.

·      Teacher make honest mistakes.”

 

I believe parents should have a few takeaways from these responses by teachers.

The first takeaway is to never ask a teacher for advice on how to deal with abusive teachers. It is human nature for teachers to make excuses for other teachers. The more someone identifies with a profession, the more likely it is that they will make excuses for other members in the profession (e.g., military, police, politicians). If you’re going to ask someone for advice on how to deal with someone who is abusive, do not ask someone who feels an allegiance to the abuser.

The second takeway is that too many teachers seem to believe that schools should be treated as if they were military units. Both Daniel and Becky talked about a “chain of command,” which makes a lot of sense because schools are often quite militaristic. In schools children are often expected to speak only when spoken to, they are expected to stand or walk in formation, they are expected to adhere to restrictive rules and standards, they are expected to conform to the culture of the school, and in many schools they are even expected to wear a uniform. However, children are not soldiers, and they should not be treated as if they were. My response to Daniel said:

“There is no chain of command. It is a school, not a military unit. Children are not soldiers, and teachers and principals are not NCOs and officers. The teacher doesn’t deserve a consultation. The teacher is clearly unfit to be working with children. The responsible thing to do flew out the window when the teacher refused to allow the child to go to the bathroom or go to see the nurse.”

The third takeaway is that too many teachers have a belief that children are inherently dishonest or sinful, while teachers are inherently well intentioned. Daniel, Becky, and Gabriel all suggested that the child who wet herself could have or likely lied. Gabriel extends this unfounded assumption to every single child. Emily, meanwhile, suggests that left to their own devices, children are going to abuse whatever liberties they are given, and even “do crazy things like start fires.”

And the fourth takeaway stems from the other three, parents should take the responsibility of protecting their children into their own hands instead of leaving it in the hands of tone-deaf teachers and administrators. The teacher who would not let the little girl go to the bathroom is clearly too incompetent to be trusted with children. However, the quoted teachers are also people that children should be protected from. If children are treated as dangerous, untrustworthy, and naturally deviant or sinful, then psychological harm follows. These children learn to not trust themselves, and to always defer to abusive authority figures for decision-making and permission to act. That is not healthy for the children, for the relationships between children and their parents, or for society as a whole.  

And this was my response to the original Quora question:

“I would not talk to the teacher for much the same reasons as Laura Machado Toyos outlined in her answer. However, I would also bypass the principal. While the teacher who did not let your daughter go to the bathroom acted woefully inappropriately as a teacher, an adult with responsibility over children, and as a human being, one should recognize that the treatment was based on a disregard for the child, and that is present in all traditional, compulsory schools.

“What other type of environment in our society requires people to ask for permission to go to the bathroom? Other than school, jails and prisons are the only ones that I can think of.

“Schools prioritize control and management over student autonomy. Schools treat children as if they are incompetent beings, or worse, inherently destructive of sinful beings. And that type of assumption doesn’t only lead to some children wetting themselves, it tears down their sense of self-confidence and self-worth, oftentimes causing irreparable psychological harm.

“I would recommend that you pull your daughter out of school. Instead of subjecting her to harmful environments, I would encourage you to look into alternatives to schooling. In particular, look at progressive alternative schools such as Sudbury schools or Abrome, homeschooling, or unschooling.”

Remember, there are alternatives to school.

1.  There is ample evidence that more affluent parents are more willing to speak up and make demands of educators than poorer parents are, as well as evidence that school administrators and teachers are more responsive to the demands of wealthier families.

 

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life

At Abrome, we are currently trying to build an educational alternative that will eradicate the traditional model of schooling. Our blog posts generally revolve around what we do at Abrome and how various educational theories, psychological research, and economic and sociological realities relate to what we are trying to do. However, on Monday I took a break and went to see the movie Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life (PG), and I just had to write about it and encourage parents to go see the movie with their children.

The movie revolves around a young man named Rafe who has a wild imagination that flows through the drawings he keeps in a special notebook. He also has not had the best experiences at school, seemingly due to behavioral issues, and is on his third school since his younger brother died from leukemia. He understands that this is his last shot at public school, and the threat of being sent away to a military school looms on the horizon if he does not make it work at Hills Village Middle School (HVMS).

His first day of school does not get off to a great start. After staying up all night drawing cartoons in his notebook, he is stopped by Principal Dwight as he is approaching the front doors of the school. Principal Dwight informs Rafe that the clothes he is wearing violates one of many school rules. While Principal Dwight is droning on, telling Rafe to get to know all of the rules in his rule book, Rafe’s friend Leo shows up behind the principal and mocks his every gesture. Rafe is thrilled to see Leo, who also says that he was pushed out of his old school. 

In class, the first thing Rafe experiences is laughter from his classmates when they find out what his last name is, and then a student tells him, “welcome to hell.” Bullying is baked into the environment at HVMS through the common structures of schooling which include age-based segregation, competitive testing and grades, and the oppression of restrictive rules and abusive adults (e.g., Principal Dwight). The social conditions within the school and society also contribute to a bullying culture. While giving a pitch for his student council campaign at a school assembly, a male student encouraged people to vote for him because, “my dad is super rich and my mom is smoking hot.”

While bullying contributes to the misery of schooling, so does standardized testing. At the aforementioned assembly, Principal Dwight attempts to rally the students to focus on the upcoming B.L.A.A.R. (Baseline Assessment of Academic Readiness) test. Unfortunately for Rafe, a fellow student grabs his notebook while he is drawing up a sketch that mocked Principal Dwight’s focus on the B.L.A.A.R., and this brings the assembly to a tense halt. In retaliation, Principal Dwight destroys Rafe’s notebook.

Distraught, Rafe holes himself up in his room at home. Fortunately, Leo comes to the emotional rescue and encourages Rafe to find revenge by engaging on a campaign to undermine Principal Dwight’s oppressive rule. Leo convinces Rafe to figuratively destroy Principal Dwight’s rule book. With eight weeks left until the B.L.A.A.R., Rafe and Leo begin to plan and execute elaborate pranks that systematically violate each of Principal Dwight’s beloved rules. 

As Rafe and Leo violate prank after prank, with the outcome always seen by an amused audience of students, many older viewers will be brought back to their middle school years, wishing that they could have done something about the needless limits they had on their freedoms, while younger viewers may find themselves imagining themselves taking on the man in their schools in their own ways.

Just beyond the pranks, the B.L.A.A.R. is a constant, brewing threat. Not just for the students in terms of a stressful waste of time, but more so for Principal Dwight and Vice Principal Stricker, who are judged based on the scores of their students. Rafe recognizes how pointless the B.L.A.A.R. is, and comments at one point, “I’m learning more by breaking the rules than by preparing for some dumb test.” Principal Dwight, on the other hand, is willing to expel students in an effort to boost the test scores for the school, much like many public schools have been documented pushing out poor performing students or those with disciplinary issues. 

In the course of breaking all the rules at school, Rafe falls for a social justice oriented classmate named Jeanne, while trying to navigate around a bully named Miller. And at home, Rafe and his little sister Georgia have a complicated relationship, likely complicated by the passing of their brother, while they both suffer through socially painful interactions with their mom’s obnoxious boyfriend, Carl. The acting is not as moving as the story, although I doubt many people can get through it without shedding some tears, particularly during a moving plot twist toward the end of the movie. 

All in all, the movie does a fine job of highlighting some of the problems inherent in schooling. Rafe’s homeroom teacher asks at one point, “what is this obsession with testing and categorizing kids?,” which hopefully plants a seed in the mind of every student and parent who sees the movie. Unfortunately, the movie does not take this question to its logical conclusion given the reality that all traditional schools will continue to test and categorize young people for the foreseeable future. Fortunately, for those who are willing to pursue an answer, there are many alternatives to school, including progressive alternative schools, homeschooling, and unschooling.

I encourage people to go see this movie, preferably as a family, and then discuss the themes that were raised during the movie.

Five Steps to End School Bullying: Age-Mixing (Essay 1 of 6)

A 2013 CDC Study found that 19.6% of youths had been bullied on school property in the previous 12 months, and 14.8% had been electronically bullied.[1] In a 2011 National Crime Victimization Survey, close to 1.2 million students reported that someone was hurtful to them at school once a week or more. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people, and bully victims are 2 to 9 times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims. And while many parents focus on the violent bullying that is more often associated with boys, bullied girls are at an even higher risk of suicide.

When we launched Abrome, we believed that our model of emancipated learning would most strongly appeal to families that wanted their children to gain entry into the world’s top colleges and universities, without having to sacrifice their health and happiness.[2] However, it quickly became apparent that school bullying was the primary driver for the plurality of families that looked into Abrome. This subset of families wanted to end the misery associated with schooling. They were desperate for an alternative to schooling.

Bullying does not have to be a rite of passage for young people. There are a variety of factors that drive bullying, and educators and parents are able to influence, mitigate, and alter those factors to limit or eliminate bullying. This is the first of six essays that will lay out how we can end school bullying.

The first step to eliminate school bullying is to eliminate age segregation in schools. Unfortunately, by their very nature, schools segregate children from society. From the ages of 5 to 18, the expectation is that children disappear from society for the bulk of the day so that they can be schooled. While the motivations behind segregating children from society to school them were a mixture of noble and nefarious, the practical reality of segregation was an unnatural extension of childhood; an infantilization of young people.[3] While educators and parents cannot easily change the way young people are segregated from society, they can substantially change the segregation that exists within schools.

There has been ample research that shows that age-mixed classrooms produce substantial academic benefits to students.[4] However, less publicized is the benefit of age-mixing as an antidote to bullying. Age-mixing is powerful for what it brings into a classroom, and what it leaves out.

By mixing older children with younger children there is an injection of empathy into the classroom. Older children are drawn to serve as mentors and protectors of younger children, and they quickly hone in on the well-being of the younger children. This empathy also brings a level of calm into a classroom, no matter how visually and audibly chaotic it may seem. As Peter Gray points out, “the presence of little kids has a pacifying effect on big kids. Even when they’re not interacting.”

What age-mixing leaves out of the classroom is the social pressure to assert dominance over peers. Without younger and older children in a classroom, there is a natural tendency for young people to introduce new forms of hierarchy. This often results in unhealthy and abusive relationships among peers wherein family wealth, familial connections, athleticism, attractiveness, and brute force (among other factors) becomes the basis for social hierarchy. And the way these hierarchies are often validated is through mechanisms of bullying, which quickly and clearly highlight who is at the bottom of the hierarchy.   

It is worth noting, however, that age-mixed classrooms are not sufficient to stop bullying. First, there are other factors that will be addressed in the following essays. Second, age-mixing in two to four year bands is not nearly as beneficial as age-mixing between very young children and older adolescents. Because children mature emotionally, mentally, and physically at different rates, multi-year groupings of children may at times mimic what single-year groupings look and act like. A wider range of age-mixing is necessary to fully extract the empathy and concern that older children will have for younger children. Schools in our society are generally bound by the 5- to 18-year-old age range, and that should be considered the minimum range of age-mixing for a school. Ideally, our children would be able to interact with people outside of the 5- to 18-year-old range, on a daily basis, with the opportunity to regularly interact with infants and retirees, alike.[5] 

Age-mixing is a necessary step to effectively end school bullying. The greater the range of age-mixing, the better. 

1.   This study covered only high school students. The incidence of bullying is higher among middle school students.

2.   Anecdotally, we have observed that the families most focused on elite college placement seem to be believe that sacrificing the happiness and health of their children is a necessary trade-off for admission success.

3.   For example, one of the drivers behind compulsory schooling laws was an effort to protect children from child labor, which I would argue was a noble effort. Unfortunately, a nearly universal driver behind compulsory schooling was the attempt to condition or indoctrinate young people to become good citizens and loyal servants of the church or state.

4.   One of the most appealing features of the growing micro-school movement is its eagerness to embrace mix-aged classrooms. For micro-schools, this is often a necessity as they do not have the scale to have break out students by year group.

5.   In fact, despite the large anti-bullying industry that has popped up to help insulate schools from the liability associated with their bully-infested environments, the only intervention that has had a substantial impact on bullying is one that brings babies into the classroom.