Clarifying expectations

How do we effectively deal with student complaints, appease parents who are not pleased with what happens at school in terms of their children’s learning, and keep teachers motivated despite difficulties and conflicts at work? These are questions that school leaders constantly grapple with. However, due to lack of strategic thinking and the inability to confront people in situations engulfed in unpleasant interpersonal tension, ineffective leaders tend to either brush off the issue and let things remain the way they are or partially respond to quickly fix the problem, hence temporarily neutralizing the situation. These are ingredients for disaster, in the long run.

Uncovering the mask

Instead of trying to pretend to know much about leadership and behave professionally toward resolving issues, we would do ourselves a favor if we go back to the basics of human interaction and problem solving. One does not need to be a rocket scientist to solve the day-to-day conflicts and tension that arise in a school. We should bear in mind that professionalism in work does not necessarily mean that we give up our natural tendencies and ability to work with others on humanitarian levels. In an attempt to professionalize everything, we forget that some problems are easily solved if we pay attention to the basics of human living.

Simple suggestion

When students, parents, teachers, counselors, and leaders come to me for advice on conflict resolution, I give them one simple suggestion. However, I also realize that it is not easy for everyone to see the value of the proposal made to them. My suggestion, almost always, requires them to get together and talk the issue over with people who affect and are affected by the whole situation. In my opinion, as long as conflicts involve people, there is no other better, more humane way than to talk things over and get things clarified. This is a fundamental strategy used by humans since time immemorial. And it has never failed, when done properly.

The answer that I give to teachers, counselors, and leaders when they face conflicts that need immediate resolution is to get together with the people involved in a conference. Conferencing is powerful. Conferencing allows people to re-establish lost trusts, build bridges that were previously burned down, and develop relationship based on openness and transparency, even if this means building everything right from the scratch.

Vital component and process

Regardless of how a conference is executed, the primary aim of any such exercise should be to clarify expectations. Often, problems are perceived (not real). Most problems are problems because we look at them as such. In reality, they may not be problems. However, when something is perceived as a problem, that itself is enough to ruin a social institution like a school. An effective way to handle misperception is to bring into light existing perceptions, analyze and evaluate them, correct wrong perceptions, and adopt new, more accurate ones. This has to be done out in the open, in the presence of people implicated in the conflict situation.

For example, if students complain about a teacher being ineffective, then it is the responsibility of a leader to bring those two parties together and 1) allow them to express their perception toward and expectations of each other, 2) compare perception and expectations to identify similarities and differences, 3) correct wrong perception by clarifying expectations and coming to a consensus as to how each party would respond to each other’s needs, and finally 4) be committed to operating in the context of new perception and expectations.

At the heart of this whole process, it is important to know that both parties are not to be blamed and in their own way, are doing their best to function well in the school. The actual problem that we need to address is clashes in expectations and our response should be to get people together and clarifying expectations.

Learning by thinking

Child psychologist Jean Piaget is famous for his theory of cognitive development. Among others, he espoused that cognitive functioning greatly depends on life experiences. In other words, the more experienced one is, the better his or her thinking. However, mere exposure to experiences is not what Piaget was talking about.

Cognition improves significantly only when one’s accumulation of experiences is qualitative, rather than quantitative. Hence, an individual with excellent thinking does not necessarily have to be the most experienced. A truly “smart” person is one who constantly uses whatever limited experiences he has to his own benefit. He does it by ingeniously connecting elements of different experiences to form meaningful understanding of events, situations, and concepts.

“Hands-on” movement

People who misunderstood Piaget’s theory of cognitive development over-emphasized the importance of exposing students to activities through hands-on learning. This was prevalent in the 90s, a time when educators became passionate about promoting experiential learning – learning by doing. At that time, a lot of teaching focused around providing students with direct experiences with concepts being learned. Teachers were pre-occupied with demonstrating how to do something, and students were equally busy with replicating what was demonstrated to them. This was a typical happening in a science class, with a laboratory component. It also became the instructional modus operandi for subjects like social studies, math, and language arts. Teachers tried to integrate activities in possibly every lesson so that students could learn by doing.

The missing component

There is nothing wrong with hands-on learning where emphasis is placed on having students learn by doing. “Doing” connotes gaining rich experiences by coming into direct contact and interacting with physical and social realities around us. This contact and interaction help shape our understanding about everything in life. In fact, abstract thinking develops as a result of us doing concrete things that eventually lead to insight into abstract ideas.

However, it was the way “learning by doing” was implemented that caused problems in academic learning. I still remember “doing” a lot of things, in science, geography, and history classes because schools back then were required to engage students in projects and long-term mini research. However, none of those activities helped me to think or engage in meta-cognition (thinking about thinking). Teachers as well as students were doing things to produce products (that would demonstrate fulfillment of leaning objectives) without being concerned about the process of learning. We were told what to “do,” but never how to think.

Hence, the missing element was “heads-on” learning. For a long time in education, this component was overlooked because we became pre-occupied with hands-on learning. This is still evident in many schools, especially for younger children, where pure activities-based teaching defines their learning experiences. Most of these schools presume that when a child is provided with a lot of activities that relate directly or indirectly to learning, concepts are attained and formed, almost automatically, by some unexplainable cognitive process that takes place in the his mind as a result of his interaction with the host activities. This sounds almost like the hit and miss strategy.

Hands-on plus heads-on

While the hands-on learning era was a huge leap from the traditional “memorize and regurgitate” era of industrial revolution, it is not sufficient for the 21st century minds. There is a dire need for sound and comprehensive educational approaches that would enable students to prepare to face a world that “thinks.” This implies the need for an education that focuses on both hands-on and heads-on learning. Students must learn by doing. But they should also be taught how to think – before, during, and after performing a series of tasks that relate to their learning.

Academic success begins at home

The popular notion that children from high socio-economic status (SES) are more intelligent and perform better at school is outdated. The relationship between socio-economic background, as measured by monthly or annual income of parents, value of total wealth, location of residence, etc. and academic achievement is not as simple as it has been talked about in the past. In fact, the simplistic view about the relationship between SES and academic achievement leads to difficulties in explaining why some children of poor families excel and succeed in life.

The twist

When parents are asked, “What are some of the factors that determine students’ academic success?” one could expect answers like, “good breakfast, exposure to education early in life, parents’ education, birth order, physical and emotional health, etc.” Unfortunately, there is a more important factor that skips our attention. This factor trumps all other factors because of the inherent impact it has on children’s psyche, their learning, and consequently, their academic achievement.

It is the parental involvement factor!

While it is true that there is a direct, strong relationship between SES and academic achievement, the relationship is mediated by parental involvement. In other words, it does not really matter whether a student comes from a high or low socio-economic background. What really matters is the sustained existence of active and visible parental involvement in children’s education. This explains why some children from poor families are academically successful while some children from wealthy families become academic failures.

Powerful example

The internationally acclaimed neurosurgeon, author, and inspirational speaker, Dr. Ben Carson, who at the young age of 33 became the director of pediatric neurosurgery at John Hopkins Hospital (18 times winner of the best hospital of the year award in the US), owes his success to his single mother. Dr. Carson is a specialist in the separation of Siamese twins and has pioneered work in radical hemispherectomies, which is the removal of half the brain to help seizure patients. Dr. Carson came from poor and broken home. His mother, although illiterate with only third grade education, worked multiple jobs to sustain the family. As they were growing up, Dr. Carson and his brother were strictly told that they would do more reading than watching TV. In fact, they were only allowed two to three TV programs every week. The rest of the day and night were spent in reading and studying. Dr. Carson’s mother was actively involved in his education, constantly reminding him about the value of schooling, and inspiring him to believe in impossibilities.

Expressing care

Have you wondered why a student’s behavior, motivation level and engagement in learning change for the better when his father or mother visits the teacher at school to talk about his education? Our natural tendency is to think that the student is “sorted out” because somehow his parents’ presence has instilled fear in him. However, I would like to think of it as stemming from something more positive. Students become genuinely interested in education when their parents get involved and pay attention to their school work, talk about their relationships with other students, teachers, etc., and motivate them to set high but realistic academic goals.

Talking to children about education, about schooling, about the future – all these serve as a springboard to enhance students’ learning that would subsequently improve academic achievement. In essence, parental involvement and participation are invariably appreciated and valued by students. Academic success of students is not the responsibility of teachers alone. Academic achievement is as big a responsibility of parents as it is of teachers.

Teaching optimism

It is difficult to believe that a low-cost and “unsophisticated” movie like Slumdog Millionaire could win eight Oscars. However, there is one thing about this particular movie that made an indelible impact in the lives of its viewers, and millions of others who heard about it. The central message communicated in the movie was optimism. By virtue of being unpretentious about life and its challenges, the movie allows people to face difficulties with courage and confront the future with a positive attitude.

Optimism syndrome

This corresponds to another interesting phenomenon that takes place at Harvard University. The most famous class at Harvard University, attended by some 900 students twice a week, is a class on Positive Psychology taught by a young professor named Taal Ben Shahar. This class focuses on providing insight that leads students to the path of happiness, optimism, and hope. There are more students enrolled in this class than classes that teach them how to make more money and become rich, i.e., Economics. This goes on to show that people value virtues and positive life experiences, even more than money and success in career.

Why do we need it?

Research indicates that optimistic people are generally healthier as a result of the harmony experienced between the mind, body, and spirit. On the other hand, being pessimistic significantly reduces longevity, increases stress, and deters achievement as well as productivity.

At school, the difference between an optimistic and pessimistic child is invariably noticeable. A pessimistic child engages in persistent negative self-talks to the extent that he believes that he is not “good enough.” This feeling discourages him from even trying to experience success. His abilities remain dormant because he refuses to let go of his incarcerating negative thoughts and their corresponding behaviors.

Surprisingly, this is the state of majority of students in schools. Pessimism does not care about nationality, race, socio-economic status, and gender. It plagues everyone equally, especially children and teenagers as their negative thoughts often go unchecked, hence uncorrected.

Good news

Optimism can be taught! Teachers have the opportunity to plan and deliver lessons on optimism, or they could creatively integrate optimism into all other subjects. Some educators believe that this kind of teaching is more important and effective compared to merely teaching of academic subjects. In the future, success will not determined by mastery of knowledge and/or skills alone. The increasingly complicated nature of our world and its requirements will severely punish and drain people’s sense of hope and meaning, unless they are prepared to see things positively. Only an optimistic person would succeed because he would consistently re-frame crises into opportunities through creative solution finding.

Optimism in action

Regardless of a child’s current level of performance, it is the moral duty of every teacher to design learning opportunities to enable him to experience success. Without the experience of success, students are not motivated to achieve. Without achievement it is impossible to become positive about present and future responses. Even the lowest achieving student could be helped to experience success by deliberately observing and acknowledging his progress over time. Praising and reinforcing the slightest improvement in such a case would help the child a great deal to strive to do better next time.

In the face of failure, it is more constructive to recall past successes and use them as a frame of reference to move into a more optimistic future. Teachers should avoid labeling and liberate students from limiting terms such as “high or low performers.” Rather, it is healthier to help an individual student to become engrossed in developing himself by comparing qualitative differences in his own performances across subjects, tasks, and cognitive engagements.