Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Behavioural struggles

Again and again as I talk to other teachers about students' (problem) behaviours, one idea is never too far from the surface.  Give any conversation 5 to 10 minutes and you'll hear "There are no consequences any more.  No wonder the students don't behave."  And this sounds pretty reasonable.  After all, of of the reasons most of us usually behave in the way that society expects is because we do not like the consequences of behaving outside society's expectations.

But the problem with this idea is that it assumes that all students are capable, right now, right this instant, no matter what is going on in their lives, of behaving the way we expect them to.  We are assuming that the reason they are not behaving in the expected fashion is because they can behave properly but they are not making the effort, presumably because they lack the motivation of consequences.  Apply consequences, the thinking goes, and those behaviours will clear up like that.

But what if they cannot, actually mentally, emotionally cannot, behave the way we want them to?  I would like to get you thinking about the fact that behaviours can be hard to control, no matter how old and/or experienced you may be, let alone if you are a teenager.

My tough behaviour is eating.  I love eating.  I love the taste of food.  When I am tired, or stressed, or unhappy eating good food makes me feel better.  And there are consequences to this.  I am six foot 2 (around 187 cm) and at one point I weighed 280 pounds.  Now, I wasn't a candidate for the Biggest Loser but at age 37 my doctor started me on large doses of Niacin, a B vitamin that helps reduce cholesterol.  I understand the consequences of love of eating.  Extra weight damages joints, my cholesterol level, combined with my family history, puts me at greater risk of a heart attack, of dying young.  Extra weight saps my endurance, making it harder to do physical activity with my family.  I know all this.  I am motivated.  What could be more motivating that the risk of death?

Yet motivation is not enough to help me control my eating.  My eating behaviours have been put in place over 42 years of my life.  I cannot motivate them away.  I have to try and be smart about them, figure out when and why and what I eat and figure out ways to reduce my calorie intake while still being happy.  I have to find ways to get more physical activity into my life.  Making these changes requires "skillpower, not willpower", as an anti-smoking expert once told me.

Do you have any behaviours that are negative but you have trouble controlling?  If not, then you are one lucky SOB.  But if you do, then please take a minute to think that at least some of the student behaviours that bother you come from a lack of "skillpower" rather than a lack of motivation.  Please take the time and energy to work with them on their behaviour management skills so that they can behave the way that we want them to.

If you are looking for tools to help students improve their "skillpower", have a look at the Collaborative Problem Solving ideas of Dr. Ross Greene.  I have found those tools to be tremendously helpful in dealing with all kinds of students.  You can get more information at the Lives in the Balance web site.

Should learning be fun?

Note:  I started this post about a year ago.  Here I am finally getting around to finishing it.  I hope the links still work.

A few days ago I saw an email from a Math teacher with whom I have previously worked. She was pointing her colleagues to an article about the riots in Vancouver after Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. The article, by Naomi Lakritz (one of my least favourite newspaper columnists), is critical of how teachers and society deal with children and teenagers. The author of the article is critical of, among other things, the idea that learning should be fun. She makes fun of an article by Larry Williams where he puts forward some good ideas about the value of fun in creating motivation and the value of motivation to help people learn.

A quote from Lakritz: "But learning cannot always be fun; it often requires long hours of mental effort, perseverance and hard slogging. Insisting that learning must be fun teaches children to expect that everything in life must be fun, that they are always entitled to fun, and that if something isn’t fun, they don’t need to bother with it."

I think Lakritz is missing the point about learning. For example, she is a writer and learning to be a good writer (I dislike Ms. Lakritz's opinions, but I can find no fault with the technical aspects of her writing) can certainly involve "long hours of mental effort, perserverance and hard slogging". But I would be willing to bet any amount of money that writing for Lakritz involves elements of joy and/or satisfaction. I am sure that she felt happy and satisfied that her column about the Vancouver riots was picked up as a guest column for the Sports section of canada.com. It would have been positive feelings like those that sustained her though all the "hard slogging" of many years of learning the technical skills of a good writer.

And the fun/excitement/joy satisfaction of doing something well is what motivates anyone to keep working and learning at a skill. As an example, every year, thousands of amateur athletes make massive sacrifices of time, money and energy to compete in sports that our nation pays attention to only at Olympic time. Do those athletes do it to get rich, to be famous? No, they do it because they love their sports and they love doing those sports and they love the challenge of trying to be the best in the world. In other words, they have fun and they enjoy what they are doing. I doubt they enjoy every minute of what they are doing. Working at being a world-class athlete demands a level of "hard slogging" that most of us cannot even contemplate, let alone do.

But the fun, the joy is there.  Clara Hughes has been one of Canada's most successful Olympic athletes ever. I remember her winning medals at the Atlanta Summer games in cycling.  Then she won multiples medals in long distance speed skating.  She has been through more hard slogging so far than the vast majority of humans.  But here are some of Clara's comments about it all.   From August 21, 2007 "With all of this fun, it’s easy to forget the pain and work that this job entails." From March 2005 "...it was so beautiful to go and skate ‘just for the fun of it’."  How about this one from June 21, 2011? "...why the heck I am still doing this sport thing. I realized the reason is exactly that. Joy. The potential as a human being to experience the sensation of joy has been possible for me because of sport. Because of competing. It is my form of self-expression and beyond any satisfaction, any success, well beyond those moments of winning or perfecting performance…the emotion that has lifted me up and urged me time and again to return to the arena of competition is joy."

So, maybe if students found learning as fun as Clara Hughes finds distance cycling and skating, then maybe learning wouldn't be such hard slogging after all.