Thursday, April 5, 2012

Self-Destruction as Rebellion

image: Paulina Sergeeva
Patrick Kobler is the founder of Solutions for Schools, a blog hub for those interested in innovative solutions for education.  As far as I can tell, it doesn't appear to be peddling more of the same old teacher-blame nonsense you find in education reform.  Kobler teaches social studies at an inner city high school, and seems genuinely understanding of the challenges facing poor communities and their schools.

In a guest piece on teen pregnancy for edweek, he writes about a student's life who is completely derailed by an unplanned pregnancy.
Most unfortunate is that this student had the potential to transform his life's path from one of poverty to one of hope and prosperity. The American Dream was within grasp. His future options used to be between universities. He is now choosing between a superstore and a fast-food joint, as his only concern is supporting his child, "being a father better than the one I never knew."

This is an enormous problem, and a major contributor to generational poverty.  In my career, I've taught both Kindergarten in a poor community, as well as continuation high school students.  So, I've seen the sort of cycle of underdevelopment that runs through the system.

In my kindergarten class, I saw first hand what is born out in the research: most of my students were coming in with almost zero knowledge of the alphabet or numeracy.  Cognitive skills were quite low, and there were a number of behavioral problems. 

With "at-risk" high-schoolers, it is not uncommon to see low-elementary reading levels.  You ask yourself, "How did they get this far without learning to read or do basic multiplication?"  But it isn't so simple.  Many had moved multiple times, or had terrible truancy issues.  But more common, I think, was this weird sort of "immunity to learning".  You could maybe get them to take notes, work with them one-on-one to flesh out concepts, and it might stick for a time, but it would then disappear. 

What I think is going on is that such students are in a state of severe rebellion against learning.  A process of disassociation happens whereby they go through the motions, but at a deep level resent the whole system and gain control by refusing to learn. 

I actually see pregnancy as a symptom of a similar attitude of rebellion.  For the boys, having sex and being tough is a badge of honor.  (The glorification of fighting is immense - they practice with each other and routinely brag about it).  It is a continuous "F*** You" to the system.   For the girls, not having sex, but actually getting pregnant seems to serve a similar purpose.  They see no future for themselves, and when faced with what seem like impossible life expectations, having a baby is the ultimate act of defiance.

These students have been told all their lives to do the "right thing", and they haven't been able to, because they have never been able to develop the emotional, behavioral and cognitive skills to do so.  In crowded classrooms, with overburdened teachers and a community that is failing all around them, they've fallen further and further behind. 

And yet the societal scolding remains: you can't do the work, you can't behave, you can't follow rules, you and your culture are worthless.  They see this implied not only to them, but to their community in general.  And so they rebel.  And the ultimate rebellion is self-destruction.  It is the attitude of, "If this is what you think of me, I'll show just how bad I can be!"

Now, I think it is likely rare that they hear this message explicitly.  Most social workers and teachers I have worked with have been very supporting and loving.  Yet the sum of the effects of the response to their behavior amounts to an implicit judgement of them as inferior human beings.

There is an important point here that needs to be made.  We, as a society, still fail to integrate what we know about human development with our social response.  At one level, we understand that there are reasons for why people do what they do.  But when it comes to our response, we struggle to incorporate that understanding. 

For example, a student who misbehaves is often scolded for having made "wrong choices".  Now, he did make bad choices.  But he only made them because he hadn't developed the capacity to not make them.  This is why we have so much compassion and understanding for small children.  Yet as they age, we become less and less understanding.  Eventually, we completely give up.  We assume them to be in complete control of their actions and able to have made the "right decision".  Yet this is clearly not true!  While as people age and their developmental process becomes much more complex and hard to track, it is not fundamentally different than that of a small child.  There are still reasons for why they were or were not able to make decisions.

Our failure in education has been, I feel, rooted in our failure as a society to understand human development.  We have not made the connection between development and consciousness, development and behavior.  If we are to truly solve teen pregnancy, we are going to have to solve deeper problems of human agency.  

A good place to start will be to begin to do better, earlier assessments of children.  These will point us towards the kinds of targeted interventions that will allow us to deliver high-resolution developmental remediation where it is needed.

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