Antonio Buehler, founder of Abrome was invited to the Laura Bush Community Library to speak about motivation for school-age children. We hope you enjoy this presentation.
Today I came across a tweet that turned my stomach. The tweet referenced a promotion video from Hero K12, a “student behavior management” software provider that just raised $150 million of venture capital.
The video itself is only two and a half minutes, but the way they efficiently pack in so much of what is wrong in schooling today is remarkable. To put it bluntly, it was a bunch of behaviorist garbage. It makes the argument that students are animals that need to be conditioned to do what is expected of them through punishments and rewards. This is music to many educators’ ears, because they all know from their teacher training that the foremost priority in school is classroom management. And when classroom management is taken care of, then they can focus on what really matters—test scores.
Hero K12 attempts to walk through the benefits of their technology offerings by following imaginary students Chris and Jill through a day at school. Chris seems to be doing everything right. He starts the day off with a bang, showing up on time, and dressing just how the school wants him to dress. He gets a ticket for performing just how the adults expect him to. Jill, on the other hand, has a rough morning. She shows up late, and is immediately given a tardy pass, assigned detention, and has a message sent to her parents to remind them that Jill has already failed at school, just a few minutes into the day.
In class, students get rewards for completing academic assignments. The video does not tell us how Chris and Jill did, but let’s let our biases take over and assume that Chris did his assignment, and Jill could not seem to pull it together.
A behaviorist would expect that these rewards to confer some sort of special privileges, and Hero K12 shows us that it does. Because Chris got a reward ticket, he gets to skip the line at lunch. Perhaps this means that Chris can spend some extra time with his friends, or get caught up on schoolwork. Jill, because she is labeled a failure, must wait in line with the other failures. Her slow start to the day prevents her from getting the chance to get ahead.
The punishments and rewards continue to compound on themselves. Chris gets to go to the pep rally later in the day where he can let loose and have fun. Chris is a good boy, and gets to do good boy things. Jill, however, is a bad girl, so she must go to detention instead of going to the pep rally. Perhaps making Jill sit in a room by herself while everyone else is having fun will teach her to ‘act right.’
When Chris goes home he finds out that his principal called his parents to rave about what a wonderful student he is (based on behavior alone). Things just keep getting better for Chris, and perhaps this will give him the confidence to recognize his superiority over his classmates. For Jill, home may not be as welcoming.
Hero K12 reaffirms everything that is perceived to be right with Chris, and everything that is perceived to be wrong with Jill. However, what if Jill had a good excuse for being late? Like she needed to take care of a sibling in the morning because of a family emergency? Or what if she works a part-time job in the evening and is not getting enough sleep? It does not matter in the world of Hero K12, though, because only zeroes fail to show up on time.
On top of this, let’s imagine that Chris comes from an affluent white family, and that Jill comes from a lower income black or brown family. And let’s recognize that implicit bias colors how we interact with children. It does not take an expert in child psychology or education to understand that Hero K12 is not so much a solution for schools as it is a disaster for children. Hero K12 promises to promote a positive culture in schools, reinforce accountability, and recognize great students. But the reality is that they are simply putting a more efficient, tech oriented spin on the heavy compliance, no excuses approach that schools have been using as weapons against already marginalized students.
When you think that schools are not harming children enough on their own, you can likely find an EdTech company that can come in and finish the job.
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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
(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.
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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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. The author Alfie Kohn has written extensively about the effect of punishments and rewards on children. 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.” 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.
(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.
(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.
(5) Abrome’s educational philosophy is one that we would like to see other learning organizations replicate.
(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.