04 December, 2010

Finding Tipping Points

Malcolm Gladwell has written the book The Tipping Point in which he proposes a framework to better understand some complex social changes. In particular he is interested in "How little things can make a big difference". He is keen to identify these little things - aren't we all !!!

Of course in giving examples of his ideas he has the benefit of hindsight which enables retrospective coherence possible. The rest of us are trying to predict the small things that will make a big difference in our present situations - but complex social phenomena are unpredictable in anything but the short term.

Does this mean that we should disregard Gladwell's ideas? Not at all !! I like the notion that we should
    "Pick something small and try it. If it works, extend it. If it doesn't, learn from it."
But what to pick? The Tipping Point suggests that we might consider

(1) Enabling the contributions of  just a few people, but right ones - those who are
  • Connectors - people (and characters*) whose ideas and practices readily influence what they are doing in our area of interest
  • Mavens - people who have extensive knowledge in our area of interest and are keen to share it
  • Salespersons - people who are influential especially in actively promoting and support new ideas and practices
Gladwell calls this part of his framework The Law of the Few - a small number of the right people can make a big difference.

(2) Introducing small things that will make the new ideas and practices "sticky"**, that is, those small things in the situation that will cause a much bigger and sustained uptake of the ideas and desired practices.

Gladwell calls this part of his framework The Stickiness Factor.

(3) Looking for small things in the context (environment, history, purposes...) that will make a big difference in the uptake of the ideas and practices. It could be as simple as making it easier for people to know what's happening, getting the timing right...
In fact Gladwell believes that the context is often largely responsible for what happens and for what we do. He goes so far to argue that we may be far less rational and even less 'ethical' than we might like to think.

He calls this part of his framework The Power of Context.

Finding these small things that can make a big difference is not always easy. Hence the value of the "Pick something small..." idea. Similarly, Dave Snowden advocates "safe-fail experiments" - initiatives that are safe to try on a small scale because they wont be too costly to implement and can be easily undone if they prove unsuccessful.

Three questions
This is a different approach but worth some consideration. So, when we are trying to improve the social and emotional learning in our schools, Gladwell would suggest that there are basically three questions we might ask
Who are the few people who can make a real difference (three types, and don't forget the students themselves!!!)?
What will make it stick?
What contextual changes should we focus on?

* Connectors may be some steps removed from those they influence, eg, pop stars, book or film charatcers
** Stories, myths and legends are often powerful in making ideas and practices "sticky"

01 December, 2010

Behaviour - does Pavlov work?

What do we really believe about how to improve problematic behaviour?

Finding out is easy - just observe our everyday selves in action, and and listen carefully to the way we talk about behaviour - our actual beliefs are revealed in how we talk and act.

So much of the day-to-day talk about student behaviour implies that many of us believe Pavlov was right - it is all a matter of stimulus and response. That is, if teachers (and parents and ...) get the stimulus right then the kids responses will improve.


In this sense there are supposedly two kinds of 'stimulus'
  • the teacher's actions - a multitude of scripts are readily available for almost any situation
  • the so-called consequences of the student's actions 
Students are assumed to have the capacity to make sense of, and respond to, their experiences and adjust their behaviour accordingly. And of course this is true for those students (70- 90%) who have achieved  the an adequate level of social and emotional learning.

The trap!!

But therein lies the trap for schools and their staff:
  • What is logical to teachers may not make any sense at all to some students, hence
  • What works well with many students (~80%) does not work for all, and 
  • What is explicit (obvious) for the teacher may not even be tacit for student - a student may have little or no awareness of issues and expectations
  • It is easy to confuse intelligence with maturity - two students of equal intelligence may have very different capacities to act appropriately in the same situation
In addition, the Pavlovian view often leads teachers to
  • working ON students by trying to get the stimulus strong enough to make the students respond, or
  • working FOR students by making the response for them, or
  • simply NEGLECTING the student if the whole situation is too difficult
Thus, for many of our most problematic students, the Pavlovian approach is unlikely to change things much - it may offer little in the way of learning to those who make poor sense of their experience, and may further entrench problematic behaviour. "Logical consequences" imposed by the teacher may be experienced as simple "revenge" by the student

Is there an alternative to Pavlov?

The answer is yes. It still involves stimulus and response but the role of the teacher is quite different.  The teacher works WITH the student by mediating
  • between the stimulus and the student helping the student make better sense of their experience
  • the student's processing of the incoming stimulus - helps them think better
  • between the student and their response - helps them make a better response
This alternative is known as a mediated learning experience (Feuerstein) involving
  • emotional literacy for understanding self and others
  • thinking making sense of one's experiences and the way to respond
  • social skills for responding
  • habits of mind for self regulation, better thinking and more successful ways of responding
The more problematic a student's behaviour, the greater their need for long term mediation in order to achieve the social and emotional learning required.

The choice

So the choice is yours  -
  • How do you function in your role with respect to your students?  
  • Are you generally  a conditioner or mediator? Under what circumstances? 
  • And are your students experiencing greater well-being and becoming more successful in their endeavours?
  • How might you adjust your practice in order to make a greater contribution?