Monday, November 28, 2011
Create learning environments that bring out the "angel in the marble"
One of the most difficult aspects of working with groups of young people is managing behavior. As adults, when unruliness or its potential ensues, it can be hard not to revert to "adult default," ignoring our desire to incorporate youth voice in order to re-establish a more comfortable level of control.
So how much should effective "behavior management" be about managing behavior, and how much should it be about managing (or really, creating) the environment? To me, the goal of behavior management is not for the adult to control the child -- the goal is for the child to learn a sense of independence and inter-dependence that brings about self-control.
Making a case for the child-centered classroom, Pereira and Smith-Adcock say that "as an individual, the child thrives when encouraged to freely explore and construct personal meaning through making choices for self and experiencing the results of those choices." And in fact, we know from other research that when this need to discover independence is not met, the result is more negative behavior and less motivation.
Interestingly, our English word "educate," from its Latin roots, literally means to draw out of, or lead out of. This implies that education is more about bringing out what is already there than filling in what's missing. I like this -- it removes the emphasis on control of the learner and places it on control of the learning environment. Like Michelangelo, who said, "I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free," our job in educating young people can be simply to carve away the conditions that prevent young people from making use of and refining the capabilities that they already have. Perhaps this view could help make the "dream" of the ideal learning environment a reality.
Here are some steps I have developed for creating an environment that helps youth learn self-discipline:
Create your vision for a healthy learning environment. Based on a report by Milbrey McLaughlin, the most effective learning environments are youth-centered, knowledge-centered assessment-centered, and community-centered. See a previous blog entry on the ideal learning environment for a summary of these points.
Develop a healthy environment to prevent negative behavior. Create a plan for how you will arrange an inviting physical atmosphere. Discuss with youth the collective needs and expectations of the group. Develop predictable but flexible structures, along with a meaningful, logical sequence of lessons. And above all, plan plenty of opportunities for everyone to get to know each other.
Maintain the healthy environment. Maintaining health is about following through on your commitment to it. How you might consistently acknowledge each young person for who they are and encourage and respond to the good that they show? Involve youth in both maintaining expectations and rules, and assessing how plans and structures meet their needs.
Redirect negative actions to help youth see their "inner angels." Sometimes only a strong intervention can turn harmful actions into a teaching moment. And in fact, not doing so can have worse consequences than the action itself. Consider how you will proactively address negative behavior with individual youth, to help them separate their actions from who they are as a person. Also consider how you might proactively address actions that harm the entire program (such as a crisis, or any way in which the group may have exacerbated a situation).
Do you work to create learning environments that bring out the best in youth? What strategies do you find effective?