Saturday, October 24, 2009

Teaching NFW to Students

I think one of the most powerful insights kids might have into causality and consciousness, and the most productive use of the idea of NFW (no free will) might be through conflict analysis. Kids face incredible levels of conflict on a daily basis. Imagine having to sit next to someone everyday who might, for no apparent reason, wack you on the head or stomp on your foot! This is at all grade levels.

There will always be kids who, for whatever reason, come to school with all sort of destructive baggage. As a teacher, a large part of your job is creating and maintaining a safe, positive environment for learning. This is not only egalitarian, but positively impacts learning for the whole class.

Yet teacher training and expectations routinely neglect this crucial aspect of teaching. In schools with few low SES (socioeconomic) kids, this tends to be less of an issue. Higher SES students come from homes with lower rates of absent fathers, incarceration, drug abuse, poverty, education, etc. Students thus bring less baggage with them into the classroom. But in areas with high rates of low SES students, classrooms are completely different. This is then compounded as a culture of low-performance, stress, hostility, etc. pulls kids farther and farther behind as they age.

The way teachers deal with this disparity generally falls under the umbrella term "classroom management". There are many styles and techniques used, and each teacher will have a style that works best for them. But most of the emphasis is placed on control and behavioral maintenance. A much smaller proportion of time is devoted to explicit teaching of emotional cognition and social skills. Occasionally a curriculum will be adopted, but often without specific training. With high-stakes testing, the schools with the lowest scores will be under the most pressure to spend MORE time on core math and language skills and LESS on emotional/social curriculum. These schools are also going to be less likely to have the funds for any extra programs in this department.

Now, I'm not familiar with efficacy studies of any of these types of curriculum or materials. The variables going into why kids behave the way they do are vastly complex. But we know how to target at-risk students, we just have to find out the best way of going about it. Also, the role of families in the equation can not be stressed enough. Certain types of parenting support has been shown to increase academic performance, especially starting at an early age - as young as 1.5 years.

But now we're getting into large-scale policy questions of investment, ultimately reaching back to the public's worldview regarding human behavior and what people are capable of, which then gets us to FW vs. NFW as a point of origin for this stuff. Do these poor parents have the capacity to prepare their children better on their own, or does society need to reach out and help them learn how to do what is best for their children?

No one really argues that kids have FW, as it is something supposed to have developed by the "age of reason", although I'm not sure how they determine what that age is and how it is any different than other previous ages. Yet by declaring FW in their parents, they are basically saying that these parents are "choosing" to set their kids up for a life of poverty. I'm still not sure how we can allow kids to suffer for their parent's failures. But at the very least the kids ought to be given proper curriculum to try and make up the social/emotional skills they have often been denied.

To me all of this is applied naturalism. I'm more concerned that students have the emotional cognition needed to process external stimuli appropriately. In this sense, NFW memeing may indeed turn out to be an effective conceptual construct for them to use. I'm interested in hearing and seeing more from people who have experience in developing and using naturalist principles with their students and what outcomes they have observed.

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