I'm no expert on education, but it seems to me that there are few things that have gone awry in our school system. I have wondered for years why the culture of bullying flourishes so easily when we supposedly run schools in the best way possible for the kids. We're told that all schools care about is giving students a comprehensive education in a safe environment, yet here we are, facing a virtual epidemic of bullying. I believe this is partly due to the radical shift in school administration philosophies over the last couple of decades, and the resulting dysfunctional school environments they have helped create.
"There is growing concern and skepticism with some of the more recent policies and practices in many public schools in North America." ~ Michael Zwaagstra, Rodney Clifton, John Long, Frontier Center For Public PolicyObviously, schools are not the only factor involved, our culture as a whole has developed some serious deficits in the empathy department, not to mention all the other issues in the world today. I'm focusing on schools here for the simple reason that our kids spend so much of their developing years in their school environment, it's one of the most vital areas to address in the fight to create change.
A recent article by Margaret Wente of the Globe and Mail discusses one of the more fundamental problems with how we teach kids - an inherent bias against boys and how they naturally interact with the world. For many years, schools have increasingly graded boys lower than girls, even if they achieve the same test results. The difference is explained away as a lower level of "non-cognitive development". That's progressive “edu-speak” for behaviour. Boys by-and-large don't behave the way our schools have decided (without much supporting evidence) that boys should - like girls. Sitting still, listening and co-operative work aren't impossible for boys, but they need a different approach to encourage such behaviour. Our schools have decided that this is a failure on the part of boys, rather than the obvious reality that it is a failure of education theories currently in vogue.
"As the son of a feminist single working mother, I've never given gender differences much hay before in my life," he says. "But here, the science was showing gaps in differences between men and women that were too large to ignore." ~ Po BronsonMuch of our public school system doesn't recognize this essential difference between genders and adapt to accommodate it. Authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, in their book Top Dog - The Science of Winning and Losing, point out that boys don't excel in environments where they cannot be "top dog" their fair share of the time. Girls are better able to excel at whatever level they are, providing they are at an elite school, where competition is encouraged and results are expected. The public system's efforts to avoid letting children "lose" or learn from mistakes is actually detrimental to children's development. Not giving zeros or even failing grades, discouraging competition, and lowering the bar in an attempt to equalize children's chances of success may actually be making the situation worse.
Many schools also seem to be scrambling to incorporate anti-bullying programs more in response to liability risks than student safety, while others refuse to consider digital reporting products out of a fear of liability. While I don't believe the majority of these school wide programs do any harm, (although some exist that seem distinctly profit driven), I'm not so sure they will achieve their goals over the long term. It's almost a cliche that a lot of average kids reflexively reject such administration driven programs. It's not cool to be too enthusiastic about what the authority figures want to promote, after all. To the extent that they help establish a school wide non-violence policy, and that the better programs focus on training educators how to respond, these programs do help, but they alone won't solve the bullying problem.
We have to move beyond schools as well. Even when ( if? ) the problem of physical bullying can be controlled, kids will still have to deal with a newer, more insidious threat - cyberbullying. I believe that part of the reason that bullying behaviour has become so pervasive is related to the fact that, increasingly, kids have been denied their need to express their competitive nature. Historically this is happening at a time when children have widespread, basically unfettered access to social media, and the tools to impulsively use it. This might also provide the key to positive change.
By using digital media to provide the tools for kids to do something about bullies, we can access the most important communication technique kids use. The same anonymity that allows cyberbullies to get away with unrelenting attacks can be used to facilitate anonymous reporting. The same way social media spreads the abuse far and wide to a huge audience can be taken advantage of in reverse - mass positive messaging to counter the bullying. Both of these ideas are starting to catch on. By approaching the issue as a cultural problem and giving kids the tools to protect themselves and fight back by reporting bullies and supporting each other, we can help them make the changes needed over time. I believe that will ultimately make a greater difference than anything else.
I'll have more to say on this complex problem in future posts.
*Special Announcement* April 10 2013 is the 5th annual Pink Shirt Day in Ontario! For more info, go to the Speak Out website, follow them on Twitter, or visit them on Facebook. To view my own small contribution to the effort, watch this video.