My Theory

I was struck with an idea yesterday as I was walking my students to lunch. This theory has taken shape out of a storm of ideas that have been floating around in my head for years, inspired by little observations and encounters I've had while teaching. It has also arisen out of my own introspection and self-study. Ill get to it after I define some terms and lay out beliefs about learning this theory is contingent on.

Humans seek out predictable patterns. It is useful to be able to take in information and turn that information into a projection that can be used to anticipate future events and so plan our own actions accordingly. This is demonstrated in how the changing color of leaves and the eventual shedding of foliage sends the message that winter is coming when food will be scarce and the climate harsh. That projection of future events allowed humans time to plan and prepare, thus leading to some internal satisfaction or rest.

On the other side, we get nervous and anxious when we don't know what will happen next. Some people are able to turn that unseen future into a desirable adrenal response, while others can become paralyzed with fear. We are constantly making predictions, doing our best to anticipate the future possibilities from the information we have in hopes of gaining a foot hold that affords us a better chance of surviving and success. 

Though society in first world America has made things much more predicable for us than early man, there is still possibility for infinite variation and so reason to be anxious in the face of the unknown. We still wonder what our day will look like when we get up in the morning. We come up with routines and patterns that make our time predictable and narrow down the possible options in hopes of finding a little more surety and comfort.

In school, this is seen to dramatic effect. When the teacher has a well thought-out and designed plan for the day, the teacher teaches with more confidence and the students respond to that confidence by feeling at rest. If the student believes that the teacher knows what is going to happen (demonstrated by confidence, the lesson plan on the board) and the student has trust in the teacher's beneficence, cultivated by the teacher's past actions, the child can sit in class an experience comfort, rest, safety, ease, because their day is in the hands of someone that is looking out for their good and knows what they are doing. 

Think of flying on an airplane. Pilots have a "pilot voice" that emanates calm, composure, and experience. Every word they say over the intercom communicates stability and control to the passengers aboard. Captain statements are direct and somewhat absolute--they say things as if they are matters of fact, not decisions that they have to make. If the passengers heard a shaky voice, giving a message full of "I think" and "Maybe," the passengers would begin to question, or at least have a degraded trust in, the ability of the pilot. A pilot's confidence in their own ability to fly and make the multitude of decisions flying requires, leads to the trust and peace of the passengers. Everyone rests easy because they are pretty sure they know how the flight will end. 

This is the same relational dynamic that takes place in the classroom. If the students feel like the teacher has a clear goal, a place they are working to get the students to, a plan for whats going to happen next, AND they trust the beneficence of the teacher, they are going to rest easier. They will experience greater peace not having to worry as much about whether the events that ensue will be helpful or a hinderance to their success.

All that to say, humans like patterns and predictability. We search out patterns and create them for ourselves in an effort to find greater rest that comes from a confident prediction. The teacher creates these patterns of predictability in class with routines, clear expectations, consistent boundaries, an familiar methods of instruction. As much as students groan during a certain assignment, they rest a little easier knowing what is going to be asked of them. 

My theory is this: students can still find that safety that patterns afford in negative cycles. To illustrate, consider the typical disciplinary cycle. This isn't the way I do things--its just one way I know disciplinary issues are handled and one that most are familiar with. 

Undesirable student action-->Conversation with teacher-->Punishment-->Restoration

This pattern then repeats with each infraction and escalates if the student continues to repeat the undesirable behavior. My theory: this is a predicable pattern that affords students the safety of knowing what will happen next, which may drive them to seek it out. Though this is a negative interaction, it still provides students with the satisfaction of predictability.

The solution isn't to vary the approach to discipline, though I have experienced that working in the short term. Students don't really like surprise additions or subtractions to the restoration process. For one student who was found encouraging a fight on the playground, instead of the normal restorative dialogue he was used to, he was asked to create a presentation for other classes concerning the virtues of kindness that he traveled around and presented. Granted, the public speaking element may have been an aversion to the behavior, but I didn't have any serious problems with him after that, which I attribute partially to the different path to restoration due to the conversation we had about it. There was now an element of not knowing what would happen the next time that he seemed to not want to test. I don't use this in managing my classroom--it is still based on the traditional idea that if I make a student experience pain or discomfort and associate it with the undesirable behavior, they wont repeat the behavior. Shame, ostracism, and deprivation all fall under this category, along with this fear of the unknown, not knowing what will happen next, that I am talking about. This approach is primitive and doesn't prepare students for a life as free and caring agents like some strategies do. Sometimes though, that fear of the unknown is an unavoidable byproduct of the restoration process.

But that pattern. Although it is a negative interaction, it still affords a basic scaffold for what will happen next. Furthermore, they receive some attention from an adult. Students can become trapped in this cycle, not because they aren't learning or don't care about changing, but because the cycle is providing more value for them than a desirable behavior would.

I see two solutions. One is to allow them to experience a pattern of desirable behavior. A student can be lured out of that negative cycle by emphasizing the value of very small and seemingly meaningless altruistic behavior. For example, stopping class to illustrate how a student cared for someone else by picking their paper that dropped off the floor. It doesn't consist of direct praise, but they may feel praised by the public nature of your illustration and your positive disposition towards it. I say things like this: "I just watched Jose pick up America's paper for her. Thank you for caring about her. That was really kind." This is different from praising the student, as I'm not saying, "good boy," but rather identifying the actions as movements conducive to relationship and then associating the actions with a positive value. This isn't rewarding positive behavior by giving them things they want, but rather accentuating the value that comes from healthy relationship with others. This presupposes a classroom where caring relationships with others are the pursuit and the thing to be valued, where care serves as the lens we use to examine words and actions. I believe there is an intrinsic reward here that the teacher simply illustrates the value of--humans want to be in good relation with other humans. We want to care and be cared for. Those relationships of reciprocity are epitomized in the healthy relationship between a mother and child and continue to be sought after as we get older. We want that. The teacher needs to only point out a student's movements towards those relationships and affirm that they are in fact, in the direction the student is wanting to go. The teacher effectively say, "That thing you just did to care for your classmate, did in fact, just get you closer to where you are wanting to go."

The second solution is that teachers acquire confidence in having an idea of what they are moving their students towards, or said in another, more Freirean way, confident in what they are working to construct with their students. When a trusted teacher creates an ethos of safe predicability by having an idea of what they and the class are working to create or understand, it serves to meet the need of a student trapped in the negative disciplinary pattern is trying to meet. I believe that if teachers have confidence in their ability to wade the waters of the unknown and constantly changing progression of learning that comes from having an idea of where the students are going, or could go, students wont value the same negative cycles as much. This whole thing is problematic because the progression of learning, the development of a critical consciousness, involves the independent actions of another individual. Its seems like a paradox to have an idea of where you are going while also being receptive to the moment by moment needs, desires, goals, and passions of your students that may change the direction of things, but that seems to be a characteristic of a good teacher. I think I'm trying to say that a teacher needs to have a plan for connecting learning, nesting it in and building it on other learning, in such a way that it creates predicable patterns that will allow students to feel at ease.

So the moral seems to be plan your lessons for the short and long term and give students a taste of positive relational patterns if you want a caring and peaceful classroom.

I'm ignoring the plethora of variables that are influencing the student and teacher at any given time and isolating a few so their influence on the whole process can be examined. I am going to continue to explore this idea.