Sunday, August 17, 2008

“Kids, I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids today . . . “

In recent weeks, USA Today reported on a study by the Foundation for Child Development (FCD) that found that kids today are not all that different from kids of yesterday  (or at least the yesterday of their parents’ childhood).   Reading levels and appetites are similar, math skills are somewhat better, high school graduation rates are up very slightly, and suicide rates are unchanged. 

I was taken with this report because I had just finished two one-week workshops focused on children’s and adolescents’ moral development, working closely with several dozen K-12 educators ranging in age from 23 to 58.   A clear majority of the participants signaled a perception that “thing have gotten worse” since they were in school.  We spent a good bit of our workshop time trying to figure out the origin and accuracy of that perception.    What was worse and what was better, especially with respect to the moral development of the young?

If the FCD study is to be believed, not much has changed in what kids know and are able to do.   But let’s consider these findings as well:  Kids today are “at much lower risk of death from accidents, violence and disease, are slightly more likely to live below the poverty line, are substantially more likely to be overweight or obese, and are less likely to attend church but more likely to believe religion is important.”  “Family mobility is down, teen birth rates are down, and rates of smoking, drinking and drug use are on the decline.”

This suggests that some conditions of kids’ lives have improved (physical safety and community continuity) while others have not (poverty, overweight).  Kids have responded to all this by acting in apparently smarter ways with respect to sex and drugs. Other data suggests greater interesting community service as I mentioned the other day. In other words, the empirical picture is mixed but definitely not all bad news.  

So why the general moral malaise among educators?

I suppose some of it is just the tendency of the older generation to blindness when it comes to the maturity of the younger generation.  Officer Krupke sings the anthem of the elder captured in the title of this entry in “West Side Story.” Nearly twenty-five hundred years ago Socrates commented on the folly of youth and of the inability of one generation to live up to the memory of the previous one.   But I’d say there’s more than this generation gap at work in educators’ current perceptions.

Cultural diversity may be one factor.  I don’t want to maintain that today’s educators operate in conditions of greater cultural diversity than was the case a century or even a generation ago.   In fact, in this land built by the hands of immigrants, cultural diversity has often been a fact of and factor in teachers’ work.  But today we demand more of teachers than a recognition of difference; we expect the ability to negotiate dialogue across difference.   Teachers can no longer simply demand that students put on the dominant culture; they and their students are expected to navigate multiple cultures.  This is a good thing, but it’s a drain on educators’ energy.   And any drain on energy can result in less generosity when it comes to perceptions of potential.

For my money, there’s one more factor contributing to the perception that kids are less well off, more troubled, less well-behaved.   It is the failure of parents to be parents.   This is a phenomenon I’ve observed in my 40s and 50s aged peers.   It’s a function of mostly positive factors – greater self-awareness,  more openness between parents and children --  but it’s a failure of parenting nonetheless.    Parenting is one role in a game that must be played if kids are to grow and grow up.  The game is “kids test the limits;  parents hold the line.”   Kids must test the limits.  And we parents must hold the line even if the kids are only doing things we did as adolescents  (drinking, smoking pot, sneaking out, dating the “wrong” person,  disrespecting a teacher or coach or neighbor, sluffing off our homework or . . . .).   We don’t have to ground them or scream or resort to physical violence.  In fact, we don’t have to punish them at all.  But we do have to call them on the things they are doing that step over the line.  And we must hold them to the natural consequences of their actions.  (Underage drinking means they cannot be trusted with a driver’s license, for example).  Often this means backing up teachers and coaches even when we’re not sure they are right.  It means allowing our sons and daughters to lose their privileges – or their driver’s license – without rescuing them constantly.  When parents aren’t parents, teachers perceive that kids are running wild.

So I guess this a call to educators to check their perceptions.   Be wary of a premature judgment that kids don’t want and need our firm – if gentle -- guidance and direction.   But it’s also a call to parents to be parents and to all of us to recognize the sometimes weighty expectations we have placed on teachers to navigate the roiled waters of cultural diversity.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Millennials in service

Cross-posted on Social Issues

The Millennials are coming!   Or are they rising?  Actually, they have arrived, says Neil Howe, co-author of the 2000 book Millennials Rising, a volume that has found its way to the shelf of every college admissions and student affairs professionals.     And with them has come a penchant for community service.   Today’s young people spend more hours in community volunteer work and service projects than any generation before them – and with this service comes an oft-underutilized opportunity for the kind of trying, undergoing, and connecting by reflecting that Dewey described as the organic circuit of learning.

But that’s not my point today.  Instead I want to point out that“the service agenda” has become a political message as well.   Both presidential candidates are touting the glories of citizens serving others.   Time Magazine. The Carnegie Corporation, the AARP, Target  and others are together helping to make “The Case for National Service”  (see

I bring this up for two reasons.   First, I am an avid advocate for national service.   I think it would be swell if every American (or American wanna-be) between the ages of 18 and 22 spent at least one year in some form of service (educational, environmental, military, infrastructure-building, security, emergency-responding, or whatever else we can imagine) in exchange for a subsistence wage, further education credits (to complete GED, obtain job training or attend college), and the right to vote.   They would live with other young people under conditions of minimal supervision and have responsibility for paying their own bills (without the benefit of credit cards).    (By they way, I’d also be happy to tie receipt of social security benefits by older citizens to part-time service in domains appropriate to their interest and expertise.)

Second, I think it’s important to give credit where credit is due.   As far as I’m concerned, the millennials’ interest in community service is not an accident.  It’s a function of a push by educators (individuals, schools, districts, state departments of education, and even university professors J) to incorporate service learning, character development and citizenship awareness into curricula and requirements.

I am not saying that these efforts were as widespread nor as well-done as they might have been.  Much of the push to service learning followed the minimalist Maryland dictum that students must amass a certain number of service hours to graduate from high school.  And I’m well aware – based on the experience of my own children – that service hours do not always prompt constructive reflection and are often fudged.  Still, kids listen when we talk even when it seems like they are paying no attention.   And the truth is that service is its own reward.  Not all kids attend to the people they are serving and the situations that require their assistance – but many do.  Once they see that their work makes a difference, they are hooked.  Making a difference is one of those natural reinforcers that young people find hard to resist.

So let’s give the schools some credit here.  (We rarely do, you know.   Consider the blame placed on schools during the Reagan years when our nation was at risk economically because schools were failing.   Then think about the relative Clinton “boom times” a decade later.   Did you hear anybody acknowledging the difference schools were making????  I thought not.)   Schools may not be the only tool for social reform, but schooling does have a significant impact on the quality of community life.  The current focus on service is not purely accidental.   Kids may not recognize that service supports the development of a meaningful sense of self at the same time that it enables a deeper understanding of the structure and function of the communities of knowledge and action in which we live.  It’s up to educators to see and express this lofty goal.   But kids know it’s worth doing, and they want to keep doing it.   Let’s continue to encourage them.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

"I am the one who is talking."

There’s a parochial school in Philadelphia located in the shadow of Temple University Medical Center and in the center of a neighborhood that most would classify as “troubled.”   It is Saint Malachy’s, a school supported by a contingent of Philadelphia Irish Catholics (some of whom are my much loved relatives) but populated mostly by children of color living in that North Philadelphia neighborhood.  As a result of a few contributions of my own,  I have made it to Saint Malachy’s mailing list and, as a result, have been the recipient of various moving missives and powerful poetic communications from the retiring pastor, Father John McNamee.

My most recent communication was the school newsletter and it included The Students’ Creed.  I share it here.

 The Students’ Creed


            I have faith in myself.

            I have faith in my teachers.

            I can learn if I study hard.

            I respect others and seek their respect.

            I have self-respect.

            I have self-control.

            I love myself.

            And loving myself I will be myself.

            And know myself.

            I am the one who is talking.

I found this creed, recited at the start of each school day, quite moving and I’m still trying to figure out why.   It may be the focus on faith, not specifically religious faith but faith as a facet of living well.   I cannot live fearlessly without faith.  Faith in myself and my teachers seems to be a fine place to start.

It may be the focus on students’ efficacy.  I can learn, I respect, I control, I love.

But it’s probably that last line – “I am the one who is talking.”   The self who is coming to moral and intellectual and yes, spiritual, maturity is no abstraction but the concrete speaker.  It is a concept even the youngest school student can grasp.   And I talk not to myself only.  I proclaim to my community that I am present and will be accounted for.  I talk and will account for myself.

There’s no magic in this creed, but I think there’s power that supports kids’ quest to be smart and good.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Theory-practice and moral education

The theory-practice puppy is nipping at my heels today as I begin teaching -- for the second week in a row -- “Children’s and Adolescents’ Moral Development.” That’s the title of a workshop for P-12 educators in my region of Pennsylvania. I’m co-teaching this week with my friend and colleague developmentalist Mary Casey.

The participants in this workshop want “practice,” and eschew theory. But practice is not a how-to manual, and theory is not useless. Pedagogical practice involves socially-framed and contextually-determined, sometimes habituated, sometimes thoughtful, but always particular responses to particular sets of educational circumstances.

Particularity matters when it comes to practice and so does the community of agents within which any practice gets its meaning. And that’s why I can’t simply “deliver” specific actions, or even typical strategies, that teachers can put on the shelf and take down and use when they want to put on a “moral educator” hat. What I can do is coach teachers to richly interpret the circumstances and challenges facing them so that their responses fit – intellectually, emotionally, psychically, relationally, i.e. morally. This is a pragmatist view of moral decision-making and action that relies on the work of Christian theological H. Richard Niebuhr in The Responsible Self, one that is clearly congruent with John Dewey’s understanding of valuation and responsibility.

Interpretation is a complicated process integrating attention, cognition, imagination, anticipation, empathy, and self-understanding. Humans interpret all the time in all sorts of settings, sometimes well, often poorly. Limited or inaccurate or avoidably biased interpretation leads to ill-suited, potentially immoral response. Thorough, grounded interpretation enables fruitful, moral action.

The capacity to interpret well is grounded in experience and knowledge. What practitioners refer to as “theory” is part of that grounding. Aristotle’s emphasis on the role of habit in doing the good reinforces most educators’ intuition that modeling matters and reinforcement of constructive behavior results in “good kids,” focusing them on their own behavior and the internal and external reward for apparently good behavior. Kant’s claim that reason yields a universalizable categorical imperative to be obeyed by the well-oriented will pushes us to look for the principles at work in any circumstance. Piaget’s formulation of stages of cognitive development is really a framework for interpreting student learning, just as Erickson’s socio- crises offer a lens for recognizing some social and emotional forces shaping a youngster’s actions. Kohlberg’s stages of moral reasoning enable an educator to know how to talk constructively with kids about moral dilemmas. Gilligan’s emphasis on relationships in theorizing moral development introduces gender as a potentially important interpretive element. Noddings’ phenomenological analysis of caring as a relationship rather than an individual feeling calls us to scrutinize relationships as interactive.

It matters not for action that someone can accurately recite the stages or categories or principles and connect them with the correct author – but it does matter which stages and categories and principles frame one’s interpreting, even implicitly. It does matter that educators have a richly-developed theoretical sensibility; it matters that they internalize the habits of interpretation that these theories underwrite. It is here that theory is married to practice and cannot profitably be put asunder.

So I have to do more than tell them what Aristotle or Kohlberg or Noddings say. My own practice as the co-instructor of this workshop must model the ways of seeing and understanding that I deem important for their practice as moral educators – and then I have to catch them trying it out and help them recognize the payoff in understanding that will reinforce their new interpretive framework.

“Theory” and “practice” are analytic constructs, pragmatic products of emphasis and point of view. If I am laboring in the field, practice is my lens. If I am laboring in the laboratory or the library, theory is my lens. But either way, both theory and practice are present in my thinking. Dewey of course knew this and said so on numerous occasions. I have to do more than say so in my workshop this week; I have to find a way to help the teachers who are my students internalize this insight so that it shapes what they see and how they interpret the value of our work together.

Christian theologian Paul Tillich asserted that “Morality is not a subject; it is life put to the test in dozens of moments.” His claim fits neatly with Dewey’s distinction (in Moral Principles in Education) between “ideas about morality” and “moral ideas.” Moral ideas are ideas that move us to action. Moral ideas are our answers to life’s tests. Ideas about morality are the medium through which we talk about and reflect on our frames for interpretation. Those frames are central to moral action, but not, in themselves, enough.

So the theory-practice puppy deserves – and will get – my/our attention this week. But along the way, I’ll be trying to shape a concept of practice that will render the theory-practice puppy toothless.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

How do children become good?

This week I begin the first of two workshops devoted to "Children's and Adolescents' Moral Development" with teachers from public, private and parochial schools.   In the course of our week-long encounter, we'll think about psychological, philosophical, pedagogical and personal perspectives on how children be and become good people.  We'll explore in depth the role of teachers and schools in fostering goodness.   

Because it's a good idea to unearth prior understandings (and misconceptions) when beginning any new learning journey,  I'm posting this to invite my student/colleagues to share their own perceptions at this point.   So have at it, folks:   How do children become good? 

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Life purpose and "moral education"

The most recent issue of Education Week included a piece highlighting Bill Damon’s new book, The Path to Purpose:  Helping our Children Find Their Calling in Life.   Damon is a Stanford psychologist and long-time moral development researcher whose earlier work, The Moral Child, sets out a worthwhile vision of what makes a child good.

Damon’s work is a hermeneutically-enriched form of survey research.   He is asking large numbers of young people aged 12 through 26, through paper and pencil surveys and selected in-depth interviews, about their lack of direction in life.    The work, still in progress, has a comparative dimension in that Damon and his colleagues are trying to determine whether the youth of today differ from past generations in their ability to frame meaning and purpose in their lives.

Damon’s preliminary answer is that more than a quarter of young people are “disengaged” and about a fifth have actually found something meaningful to which they wanted to dedicate their lives.   The vast numbers in between have not given up on meaningfulness but haven’t found a way to make sense of their lives either.    Damon calls on schools and communities to address this “malaise.”

Damon’s on target here in my estimation, and this may be one of the premier ways that “moral education” can – and must – be integrated with academic purposes in schooling.   When a young person (in high school or college) learns biology, the purpose is not that he will know the difference between mitosis and meiosis.   One purpose is that he will understand himself in the world as a form of life, as a walking miraculous process, as a complex system, as an atomic unit in a much larger complex system, and so forth.   Another purpose is that she will possess the resources (knowledge, analytic skills, skills of appreciation/communication) to respond in a fitting way to the day’s practical issues re health, innovation, nourishment, etc.   And if he finds himself fascinated with either the mechanisms of biology or the issues that biological understanding illuminates, he may find a pursuit (of employment or leisure) to which he can commit large amounts of time and energy.   Each of these purposes is about life meaning, about one’s way of being in the world, and about the actions that turn meaning into meaningfulness.   This is moral education (as Damon’s background and life purpose would portend)  -- without the direct weight of  moralizing or evangelization or indoctrination.  

These are unquestionably educational issues though perhaps not narrowly academic ones.   Are our school structures, schedules and curricula designed to make it likely that this work is being done?  Are teachers willing and/or able to take up these issues even when time – and administrative fiat -- “permits”?  I’d answer no.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The role of relationship

Earlier today I read a piece in the Austin American-Statesmen (click on the title above to read the piece yourself) describing the dangers facing high school teachers who seek closer relationships with students as a means of developing smart and good kids.   A small but substantial number of middle schools and high schools throughout the country are taking advantage of "advisory" relationships in which a teacher takes primary responsibility for shepherding a finite number of students (say 18-20) through their secondary school career.   Advisor/teachers and students meet as a group on a regular basis and advisors check in frequently with individuals -- and often their parents.

This is a trend to be encouraged in my humble opinion.  And it supplements the kinds of relationships students have long had with mature and responsible coaches and other extracurricular moderators.  Students who are regularly seen, encouraged and challenged by a single significant adult in a school setting will flourish academically and personally.  They will learn how to see, encourage and challenge those around them and contribute to a learning community in the bargain.  However, there are dangers lurking when coaches and advisors don't understand the nature of their relationship with advisees.  The American-Statesman article outlines some of those dangers.

In the case described, a teacher/coach/advisor lost his job for talking with a student about sexual identity.  The male student and family sued the male teacher, arguing that the teacher convinced the young man that he was gay, inappropriately talking with him about non-academic issues.   In a move that's good news for all educators of any kind, the suit was thrown out.   It is a fine line between academic and "non-academic" matters when one is teaching adolescents.  Good teachers can make use of all kinds of material in enabling learning.

However, there are also limits to the role one can play as teacher, coach or advisor -- and that's the point.   One cannot be an effective teacher or coach when the relationship shifts to counselor or friend.   Teacher and coach must push and pull and enable and entice students in the process of learning.  They must set standards, help students to internalize those standards, and, eventually, to enact them.  Acceptance is part of the picture but not the center of focus. Counselors and friends, on the other hand, must be masters of acceptance.  In the case mentioned above,  the teacher spoke on the phone with this student late at night.  Even if, as it appears, the student initiated these calls, this is clearly not the role of teacher.  I don't know enough to hazard a guess whether or not it was "fair" that this teacher lost his job.   What I do know is that in taking late night calls (it's important that it's calls, plural) from a student, the teacher misunderstood what kind of relations serve (moral or academic) pedagogical roles and goals.

The relation (i.e. the habitual interaction between teacher and student) is, I think, central to the quality of the lesson learned in any educative experience.  A student learns to think by thinking with a teacher, to analyze by analyzing with, to judge by judging with, to wonder by wondering with, to write by writing with, to read by reading with, to calculate by calculating with, to discern by discerning with.   These "withs" are the kinds of relations appropriate to teacher-student interactions.

Teachers and advisors and coaches will construct the right kind of relation(s) with young people when they remain true to their own roles and goals -- and know when a different kind of relation, a non-pedagogical relation, is needed.   So schools must have the people to serve those roles waiting in the wings for referral, and teachers must know who those people are and how to get to them quickly.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Judgment better than "godly"?

Yesterday in the (Lancaster, PA) Sunday News, columnist Dona Fisher wrote a column about her close encounter with a traffic cop who stopped her for zooming along on a country road that had a 25 mph speed limit. In response to this "sin," she asked "why do godly people do ungodly things?" I found this question in this context incongruous.

I don't know Dona Fisher. I presume she is a "godly person" (she writes a weekly column called "Matters of Faith"), but I'm not sure I consider speeding on a country road an "ungodly" act. It may certainly be unwise or unsafe or illegal, but "ungodly."?? Fisher's view of what counts as "godly" or moral is revealing. I'm quoting at length here:

"It is unfortunate that our courts are filled with people who have broken laws. Even though laws are set for people to be wise in their actions, they lack the power to make people obedient. So how can our behavior and conduct be controlled?

God's laws never change. We need a fixed authority in whom we can follow in obedience. Those professionals God has placed over us have made the rules for us to follow. Laws are rules that take away our personal freedom and are enforced by a controlling authority and meant to be obeyed."

As an educator working in a public institution, I find this rendering of laws, obedience and morality more than a little problematic. As a citizen in a society where "those professionals" are sometimes less than professional (not to mention downright racist, sexist, homophobic or simply inconsiderate and ungodly), I am frightened at a formulation of "goodness" that removes intelligence from the picture.

But this raises a question for educators and parents that is never fully "fixed," never finally resolved: How do I teach my students/children to question when questioning is appropriate, to obey when obeying is appropriate, to resist when resisting is appropriate, to challenge when challenging is appropriate? I teach them judgment -- informed, intelligent, compassionate judgment; that's the answer. And in careful judgment, the smart and the good coexist.

We'll leave just how to do that for another day -- or many other days. For now, let me say just this: judgment is a practice and any practice is learned by having many opportunities to try it (preferably in "safe" conditions), to undergo the consequences of my try, and to connect the dots between my trying and my undergoing. But I can't (usually) do it alone; someone needs to help me see where I have neglected some important information or moved too hastily or failed to consider all perspectives. It helps to have a coach in any practice. Judgment is no exception.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Mounting a Protest

There is a fragile spirit of student activism rising up as surely as the crocuses of spring poke through in my garden. I don't know whether to thank George Bush for a misbegotten war or Barack Obama for his calculated and eloquent message of youth's possibilities, but it's popping up and taking some pretty interesting shapes. On my campus (and on more than a dozen campuses around the country), a revival of the sixties phenomenon Students for a Democratic Society is planning a Walk Out Against the War for March 20th, the fifth anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq. I think it's swell. I hope lots and lots of students walk out of class – even when, especially when, they will miss something "important" – to attend the teach-in on the quad. I hope there will be a counter-protest, something that seems likely based on nasty opinion pieces in the student newspaper. I hope that any student who has a strong opinion will find a way to express that opinion without judging or demeaning any one else. They will do that if we teach them how – if we ourselves refrain from judging or demeaning. This is, of course, easier said than done.

It matters how we view the war in Iraq. Whatever your position on its original wisdom or current status, you must acknowledge that when young Americans and even younger Iraqis are in danger, that we are bound to consider carefully next steps. Careful consideration takes dialogue across difference. "Dialogue" suggests speaking and listening. Listening means hearing and wrestling with the position articulated by another.

Adults (faculty members, student affairs personnel) can model the kind of dialogue – speaking and listening – about the protest itself that we hope students can demonstrate with respect to the war issue. And university personnel seem to be doing just that. The administration and faculty union have taken a joint position that encourages free speech while reminding students that any action taken has consequences – and that it's within an instructor's rights to hold students accountable for class absence. This is a wonderful lesson in responsibility, the ability to respond in a fitting way in complicated circumstances. Young people will develop responsibility when they have the chance to practice it. This is one such chance. Whether or not an individual student walks out is not the critical element. The fact that they are confronted with this choice is a good thing. They may not succeed admirably in their decision-making, but I am quite sure they will learn something important, especially if the adults around them are listening carefully and responding thoughtfully.