Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Empathy Training – Link and Ruminations

I don't have a new essay ready, but I want to post this link. It's a New York Times blog post on a Canadian empathy training program for elementary- and middle-schoolers. The article speaks for itself, but just so you don't think I'm being lazy, here are three reasons why I think Roots of Empathy is a great program. (but please read the article first! The following discussions are more ruminations than well-researched essays. Many of the claims I make are supported by nothing but my own experience; their validity as arguments must rest ultimately on the extent to which the reader's experience and intuition coincides with my own. Cave Skeptic!)

1. It's cheap! All you need is a mother willing to volunteer and an instructor to lead discussion. No special equipment, no need for high teacher-student ratios. And the entire program requires only 18 hours of instructional time over the course of the year.

2. It's an example of a curriculum that generates its own engagement. The teacher does not need to motivate the class with grades, nor to gussie the lesson up with games, jokes, and dramatic presentation, for the content of the lessons itself draws students in. The result is that the students are focused not on a game or a joke or a good grade, of which the lesson is a mere appendage, but on the actual content of the lesson itself.

From a certain orthodox progressive standpoint, every lesson should have this quality. To most of us, that seems at best an unattainable ideal, at worst a recipe for a watered-down, incomplete, and undisciplined education; to a radical few, the acts of coercion and cajolement by which we induce students to study are the byproducts of a deeply misguided educational system. Whatever our view on the matter, however, when we see this quality of complete intrinsic engagement in a lesson that is also highly effective towards its instructional aims, we ought to take note.

3. It's an example of values education that steers clear of direct instruction.

Values education—the attempt to build students' characters; to make them into better, kinder, wiser, more moral persons—is increasingly seen as an important task of grade-schools. Indeed, values education is a major part of the No-Excuses model. In a country as culturally heterogeneous as America, where it is often difficult to find commonly-accepted rules of conduct, it's only natural that moral education should be taken up by the schools (see my June 29th post)—and this need is vastly more pressing in the inner-city, where troubled home-lives and drug- and crime-ridden neighborhoods render out-of-school moral training almost non-existent. When the moral and ethical instruction once provided by parent and community is removed to the classroom, however, the form of that instruction must change, and a great deal more ingenuity will be needed to achieve the same results.

Most of the in-school values education that I've observed, primarily at No-Excuses schools, tends towards explicit discussions of a particular value and of the behaviors associated with it; and this discussion generally centers around the exact context that the value being taught is supposed to impact. For example, a lesson on respect would involve discussions of respectful interactions between teachers and students, between students and students, between parents and children, etc. This sort of instruction has its place, but on its own I am skeptical of its potential to change underlying beliefs rather than merely set guidelines for "appropriate" behavior, which will be followed, if they are followed, out of respect for or fear of the school's authority.

The Roots program takes a different approach. Instead of directly addressing the behaviors of kindness and bullying that it seeks to encourage or eliminate, it approaches the issue obliquely, teaching students to take the perspective and recognize the emotions of a very different sort of creature from the peers whom they might bully or defend on the school-yard. Roots aims to induce not merely a change in behavior but a change in deeper mental structures.

The principle behind direct behavior-based values instruction is, in fact, a profound one: it is the principle of habit building. No-Excuses educators talk a lot about habits, good and bad. From this point of view, a character strength—empathy, respect, curiosity—can be treated as a set of good habits; if students are induced to practice the behaviors associated with those character strengths those behaviors will eventually become habits, and thus the child will have the character strength. This is the same principle by which John Locke, in his treaties on education, enjoins us to teach a child politeness—but values are not manners.

(Locke, I think, is one of the philosophical forefathers of No-Excusesism—a portentous ancestry, especially considering that Rousseau may be the enlightenment-era forefather of progressivism; when it comes to writings on pedagogy, Locke is cogent, Rousseau daft. But we do not condemn Progressive Ed for its ignominious heritage.)

My personal experience is that moral and personal strength consist in more or less equal parts of good behavioral habits and of those deeper mental structures; the latter are difficult to define or measure, but the possessor knows them by their internal experience. We might call them habits of mind. Like habits, they are often half-formed, dependent on our mood and our attentiveness to our own thoughts and emotions. And like habits, we practice them—we remind ourselves that our own perspective is limited; that others' struggles are as pressing as our own; that an unknown subject will prove interesting if we only take the time to get to know it. What's more, when we are unable to achieve the genuine mental attitude to which we aspire—humility, empathy, etc.—we often practice the behavior instead. Thus, the habit of mind and the habit of action are closely connected.

The connection, however, is dependent upon belief in the underlying value that the action simulates. A student who is made to behave respectfully towards those he does not even want to respect gains no mental habit of respect—indeed, he very likely becomes less respectful in his own mind and learns to associate the attitude of respect with the experience of disrespect, so that his entire relationship towards that quality becomes distorted and entangled.

But while it is relatively easy to enforce a behavior, it is much more difficult to induce children to embrace the reasoning behind that behavior—especially, when the one teaching is not a parent but a classroom teacher, often of a different race and cultural background from that of the student. What's more, in a values curriculum based on direct instruction, it becomes very difficult to tell when one has achieved the latter goal: does the child behave respectfully because he's obedient, because he's seeking praise, or because he feels respect? Only in the third case will the change in behavior persist outside the school— or even when the teacher turns his back. Then, too, more sophisticated values like empathy and curiosity—as opposed to, say, respect or discipline—have a more complex set of associated behaviors, which children have a much harder time simulating, if they lack the underlying beliefs.

As a program of indirect values instruction that successfully alters habits of mind, Roots is both rare and brilliant. If all our lessons were this ingenious, school would be a very different place—and America a more civilized country.

(I borrow this phrase, habits of mind, from the writing of Theodore Sizer, the neo-Deweyan education scholar and founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools. We may be able to find the fine line between the neo-Progressive approach to character building and the No-Excuses approach in this simple distinction—between habits of mind and habits of action. In fact, the line is not even as clear as that: the article that inspires this whole discussion was sent to me by the principal of a No-Excuses school. The same principal told me, a couple months ago, that she doesn’t think direct (behavioral) values instruction is very effective; a program like Roots is much more to her liking—though, of course, who wouldn’t like a program like Roots? Now, if only they'd start it up in NYC.)

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