At the heart of any community is the acceptance and tolerance of all members in that society. Therefore, the best start we can give our emerging citizens is an educational setting where children from all experiences and socio-economic levels attend as equals. This by definition is in a local comprehensive public school. The failure to address the current calamity that is testing the federal government comes from the fact that 70% of the male Ministers in cabinet attended private schools and the Prime Minister went to an all-boys, selective school. They were educated in an environment that lacked contact with children from circumstances of which they have no experience, they are raised in a mono-culture.
Mono-Cultures have long been known to have an adverse effect on the production of food. Although the economic advantage is obvious, planting, harvesting and packaging are relatively uniform resulting in increased profit margins that benefit the few. However, there is a cost to the health of the plants and the surrounding environment.
The continual use of one type of species means there is a concentration of the nutrients extracted from the soil and this needs to be replaced by specific fertiliser that is sourced from another area. Further, the practice of mono-culture farming leads to mutation of the plants with a reduction of resistance to any disease that is encountered.
The practice on mono-culture farming is perhaps more disturbing when we consider it’s practice in the farming of livestock. Of course, there is the same economic rationality: specialisation leads to profit maximisation but like the species concentration in plants, animals suffer from lack of diversity. Studies have shown that the use of a specific genetic strain in a bovine population leads to a decrease in the fertility of the herd, a reduction in the resistance to disease and a loss in vitality.
The extreme catastrophe of this in-breeding is seen in the world of dog shows. Breeders have selected pairs of dogs that are closely match up with the view of getting a more exaggerated physical character that is admired, especially by the judges. The most tragic case is in the breeding of the British Bulldog. These poor dogs are now so disformed they live in continual discomfort struggling to breath, susceptible to disease and are depressed. The deformity is so pronounced that bulldogs bred for showing can only give birth via caesarean section, their head is so large it won’t fit down the birth canal!
So, what is the point of this information? I will argue that the lessons from the natural world do apply to our social world and this mono-culture approach to the nurturing of our children particularly with regards to schooling.
Just like any biosphere the step-by-step brain development of any child depends on the environment in which it is raised. We develop our behaviours by addressing the problems we confront in ways that satisfy our sense of belonging within that environment. If I attend a ‘selective’ school of any kind I will be limited to the culture of that school.
It’s not hard to appreciate that, if I attend a wealthy boy’s school, one that has the best facilities, an ‘inbred’ culture that has evolved over many years I would develop the behaviours that reflect those values.
The first public recognition of the toxic masculinity of these schools was seen on the ‘4 Corners’ 2020-episode exposure of the hyper-masculinity of the boys from St Kevin’s school in Melbourne. Despite attempts to downplay this as a one-off incident, the activities of an ex- Kambala School student, Chanel Cantos has revealed otherwise. Ms Cantos sent out a partition asking for girls that had experienced forms of sexual harassment and rape. She was overwhelmed by the response with over 100 testimonies indicating that a significant number of boys from the Sydney elite schools had little or no respect for the girls.
I would argue that these boys had their ethics and character nurtured in a culture that lacked healthy exposure to girls in their formative years and as a result, they never developed the neural pathways that lead to a healthy respect for girls.
This is the most sensational example of the destructive effect mono-culture schools have on the boy’s social development. Attending such a school encourages this sort of behaviour and so impressionable adolescents conform to the presenting social norms to belong.
However, this is not the only example. Another issue is the presence of schools with a religious bias. Around the middle of the last century I attended a public school. I had heard about a nearby Catholic School but had no idea what that meant. They were ‘different’ to me and as I found out later ‘they’ had the same opinion about us. One weekend with my mates I came across a group of these ‘cathos’ and to all our surprise we were very much the same. However, the identification of a group as being ‘other’ of the foundation of prejudice. The student within that religious school will think of public schools as others and public-school kids think of, say Muslim kids as others. The creation of ‘others’ has fuelled the major atrocities throughout history with an extreme example being the holocaust perpetrated in during the Second World War!
It is human nature to want to be better that ‘others’ and when children are separated on religious grounds it will be because the parents see their religious norms as being better that those outside that religion; this creation of a mono-culture at a school weakens the student’s ability to socially integrate with their whole society. I expect there will be a strong protest about that statement but what else can happen!
These same arguments can be easily applied to the creation of selective schools for ‘gifted’ students just as they can for ‘special schools’ for the ‘disabled’. Whenever you create a school culture that identifies those outside that school as ‘others’, as being different you depreciate the social health of both the child that attends that school and the ‘other’ and that has huge life-long consequences.
So, why are these schools still in existence and growing? Why do our governments continue to fund, at ever increasing levels these schools? Well its not to get a better learning outcome! In January, Trevor Cobbold of the Save our Schools organisation demonstrated that these elite schools do no better than the less wealthy public schools in the NAPLAN tests when socio-economic factors are included. There is no logical answer for the existence of a type of school other than the comprehensive community public school where the whole complex human diversity resides and as the World Health Organisation concludes regarding nature, this exposure to diversity is the foundation of a healthy and strong society!
Whenever people talk about the qualities of successful people they always cite a healthy sense of ‘self’. This is described in terms like positive self-esteem or self-confidence and there is no doubt that how we feel about our selves really does impact on our performance. The same relationship holds for our students; if they feel confident they approach their lessons with a positive attitude. But, what about those students in our classes who suffer low levels of self-esteem, those who has suffered abuse or neglect or those who come into the system with undiagnosed disabilities. These kids are already at a disadvantage even before they start the lesson!
The emergence of our sense of self occurs in our childhood. In the first three years there is a massive period of learning through trial and error and, because our cognitive memories do not take shape until the hippocampus becomes active all these memories are emotional. This explains the degree our sense of self is based on emotions; we ‘feel’ confident.
At about the time a child reaches the age of eight their sense of self is reasonably stable. At this time, we ‘know’ who we are and that ‘who’ is the aggregation of the emotional and cognitive memories. However, as stated earlier this sense is highly skewed to our emotional sense. It is my understanding that this emotional dominance over our sense of self is the reason cognitive interventions are limited in their success when dealing with those children who have suffered early childhood abuse.
For children who have suffered abuse or neglect, the consequence they received for their actions produce levels of fear and anxiety no matter what they tried to do to get their needs met. Eventually they will either accept their inability to succeed or cease trying and disengage from their world. This feeling of worthlessness and incompetence underpins what I refer to as toxic shame.
Many, or most of these damaged kids suffer from this toxic shame, that is they expect to fail, they don’t make mistakes, they believe they are mistakes (see Newsletters Toxic Shame – 3rd July 2017 and Faulty Beliefs – 6th November 2019). The challenge for the teacher is to refute this negative mindset by producing a classroom atmosphere where the lesson is no threat to their sense of ‘self’, eliminating the negative impact of their faulty beliefs! By consistently presenting an environment that esteems the student their attitude will change but this is not a quick nor easy solution. Remember, these beliefs have been formed over many years so it may take many years to make a change. The teacher has an opportunity to make this happen.
All beliefs are just memories that are formed in response to our needs and the environment in which we find ourselves. The illustration below crudely explains how this process functions.
The student comes into class from home with a certain attitude, they might be feeling great after a big breakfast and positive encouragement from mum or they might be hungry leaving home early so they didn’t get hit by their angry father who was abusing their mother; this is how they come to the class, their ‘antecedent condition’. The situation is the classroom and the lesson and this is where the teacher has some control. The decision on whether or not to participate depends on how they feel about being in class, do they feel secure and accepted and how the teacher frames the lesson, is it interesting, do they think they can do it!
From then on, the process is much more difficult for the teacher to influence. The student will decide on the action they take and the efforts they make to complete the task. The quality of the results of their work may vary but how the teacher reacts to their effort provides the affective consequence of their actions and that feeds back into their memory, especially their emotional memory! Knowing how this process works and using all your teaching skills you can build a positive sense about their efforts. This acceptance of their attempts can change their sense of ‘self’!
We need to create an environment around building, or re-building their sense of ‘self’ in stages. The first stage is to get a predictable connection between the child’s actions and the consequences. The more we can make this a successful and importantly a pleasurable experience, that ‘experience’ will feedback into the emotional and cognitive memory bank, their sense of self, the second stage! This takes some creative manipulation of the curriculum and lesson delivery.
There will obviously be times when their actions will be inappropriate and they should get a predictable, negative consequence. It is at these times the feedback is delivered in a way that addresses the behaviour but respects the child. If this approach is adopted eventually the child will understand that ‘they made a mistake’ but they’re NOT a mistake!
As always, the skills the teacher needs to have, other that their pedagogical knowledge is to be able to:
Have a structured and persistent discipline and welfare policy
Set understandable expectations for the behaviour and class work
Develop strong professional relationships with their students
The following Newsletters have detailed descriptions of these features:
Creating Structure - 12 August 2019
Structure - 15 June 2020
Be Persistently Consistent - 26 October 2020
Expectations - 17 February 2020
Relationships – They Know What You’re Thinking - 25 June 2018
Special Relationships - 10 February 2020
The road to recovery is incremental, as the student experiences success their memories will be changed, their sense of self will change and the student will attempt to take on situations they denied themselves previously. They will say yes to opportunities and more notably they will say no to those who try to deny them what they need.
Authenticity, what is it and why is it important? In our modern world to be true to yourself is almost considered the principle of living a good life. But, modern examinations have brought into question the value of living such a life. In this space we are concerned with your influence on your students and how does authenticity, being yourself play out in the classroom.
If you look at definitions of authenticity they may vary in detail but are generally about the ability to be genuine, acting in a way that is consistent and true to your beliefs. This is important for the conclusions I will draw but the journey to that resolution will clarify what authenticity is for any leaders such as teachers and principals, not to mention political and bureaucratic leaders.
If you look for a description of the characteristics of an authentic person you would arrive at the following broad statements:
They are realistic about their contributions in any given situation
They accept their self and the independence of others
They take responsibility for their actions and readily admit to mistakes
They know what they are doing and why they are doing it
So far things are straight forward however, most research on authenticity and in fact consideration about our own authenticity is based in self-evaluation. This means we appraise our level of agreement with the above characteristics based on our own beliefs and how our actions have influenced our emotional response.
An example of this type of authenticity would be the President of the USA, Donald Trump. I believe Trump would consider himself to be authentic, surprisingly many others must also see him as genuine but I would argue that for many others Trump is far from having the characteristics outlined above. In fact, in my assessment he would fail on all counts. I would consider him inauthentic and so we have to conclude your own authenticity is not based on your assessment but on that of others. In the case of the president, his legitimacy depends on us not his own judgement.
This is when it gets troubling, people are not so simple, they will be driven to get their needs met and these needs will vary from situation to situation from time to time. An appropriate action in one circumstance will be a misdemeanour in another but both could be considered authentic within that circumstance.
If we accept that, then a teacher who believes he/she must take charge of a class, adopt a command/control belief system into their decision making then when they ‘lay down the law’ to misbehaving students they are authentic. Their connection between feeling good about how they have acted is a convincing confirmation of their authenticity but how do the students feel about this?
So, we come back to our original definition and authenticity is the ability to be genuine, acting in a way that is consistent and true to your beliefs however those ‘beliefs’ must be shared by the people we are dealing with. In our case it is our students; do we all share a common set of principles that apply in our school/classroom?
Throughout these Newsletters, remembering our objective is to assist teachers dealing with difficult students we have consistently repeated the mantra be consistent and persistent. But, the thing is what are you to be consistent and persistent about? Referring back to Trump, he is nothing if not persistent and consistent. So, we have to have a shared set of principles on which we can act and the students can judge our authenticity. These principles are:
Structure – the student and the teacher know what is most likely to happen when a student acts in a certain way. We are talking about consequences for actions. When we mention consequences, it is generally considered we are talking about the link between dysfunctional behaviour and negative consequences. This is understandable when you consider the students we are targeting but just as important is to have the same predictable consequence when the students act in an appropriate way.
Expectations – this is like structure but it is providing the conditions that build up the memories that allow the student to predict what will happen in the lesson. This includes them knowing the ‘behaviour rules’ but also what the classroom is for. What happened last lesson will allow them to imagine what will happen next lesson so it is important to build up a positive set of expectations for your class.
Relationships – this is invariably identified as the dominant characteristic in the evaluation of effective teaching. There is so much to having a successful student teacher relationship but there are dangers if that relationship crosses professional boundaries. However, the real expression of a successful relationship is the ability for the teacher to reject the inappropriate behaviour of the student while maintaining their mutual respect.
In a sense your authenticity is rapped-up in the sharing of beliefs between yourself and others and your consistency in acting in a manner that is directed by those beliefs. When you do this, you will not only enjoy the pleasure of feeling authentic you will also have the benefit of your students sharing that sense of authenticity. But, keep in mind you will make mistakes and if you accept these with good humour you will only enhance your humility and that is at the heart of authenticity.
A footnote: This newsletter refers to many previous blogs and so I have provided a bibliography.
Relationships 26th February 2018
Consequences – Neither Punishment nor Reward 2nd April 2018
Question About Controlling the Structure 4th June 2018
Transference 14th August 2018
Trust – The Glue That Sustains Relationships 3rd December 2018
Empathy 18th February 2109
What’s the Chances 13th May 2019
Relationships – They Know What You’re Thinking 25th June 2018
Whenever politicians who reflect the opinions of the press are faced with criticism of the education system, they immediately adopt the knee-jerk reaction and put an intense focus on numeracy and literacy. In an already crowded curriculum this intensification requires cuts somewhere; the easy answer is in sports and the arts. In our culture, sport is revered and does have physical benefits meaning it is the arts that face the chop! This view degrades the arts, if examined closely they contribute massively to the economy and importantly to the psycho/social health of the nation. This Newsletter will focus on one aspect of the arts, music.
There has long been an understanding that the study of music increases a child’s intellectual capacity. However, even though studies from Harvard have not been able to confirm this hypothesis, they still acknowledge the benefits of musical studies. Primarily, it promotes healthy development of the brain which leads to an increased efficiency of a child’s basic ability.
In a most simplistic descriptions of brain development, we learn to achieve desired outcomes. Attempts at acting in a particular way initiates the connection between the brain’s neurons to direct the movement of the body (the only thing the brain can actually do is initiate movement). The more the action is repeated the stronger becomes the neural pathway and as more and more behaviours are learned; we develop a network of pathways that can be accessed to help us navigate through life. The governing maxim for neural development is ‘the more the neurons are fired together the more they are wired together’. Therefore, the richer the networks the more resourceful the brain.
Learning a musical instrument is the great connector right across the brain; it not only recruits both sides but the ‘independent’ behaviours primarily regulated on a particular side, have to be synchronised to create music. The benefit is that the neural pathways are not in a specific section of the brain as is the case for some behaviours they are across the whole brain especially in the:
Occipital lobe - for reading and interpreting rhythm
Parietal lobe – integrates incoming senses
Temporal lobe – processes sound
Frontal lobe – integrates incoming senses
Anterior corpus collosum – coordination across the brain
The synchronisation is not only across the cerebrum but incorporates the lower levels of the brain. When the rhythm matches that of the brain’s alpha waves it creates a sense of calm.
The cerebrum has areas that specifically oversee specific tasks and it is in the cerebrum that new learning takes place; this is the most important cognitive consideration for schools. The synchronised necessity to create music forces the expansion of potential cognitive connections and that influences our intellectual performance. These benefits are reinforced through practice, the consolidation of the networks and increased connectivity!
The benefits for the students have been demonstrated over the years and are numerous. The increased formation of networks and the connectivity across the brain through the unique demands required to produce music result in:
Improved short and long-term memory
Better results in cognitive tests
Increased ability to focus on a task
Improved gross motor skills
Enhanced physical and psychological health
More effective language development
The result is the students have better learning outcomes, healthier sense of self and they approach their lessons with more confidence.
The power and importance of music is bluntly illustrated in an examination of dementia and/or Alzheimer’s disease, afflictions that devastates the brain. There is some belief that music, like all enhanced cognitive activity helps delay the onset of these ailments but there is no dispute about the importance of music as a lifeline for these patients. It is the procedural and explicit memories that are first lost, things like events, knowledge and reasoning but the memories of music remain.
The value of music in calming an individual’s levels of distress has been demonstrated by David Akomo from Weber State University. His team confirmed the value of Shamic drumming by reducing their levels of anxiety when dealing with Vietnam Veterans who suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The use of rhythm is an integral part of all music and dance therapy to deal with all forms of mental disturbance.
Music is undoubtedly important to us as a species, all cultures practice it and there is a common predicable structure that has a soothing effect. There is evidence of it being performed for over 30,000 years with artefacts such as percussion instruments, bone flutes and jaw harps being found in archaeological digs. It really is a primitive but deep form of communication that not only conveys the message, it assigns a level of importance through the emotional content of that message. Historically it has been used in most cultures as a healing process or an appeal to some god.
Music has always been a cohesive element in any community. It is used in all ceremonies such as weddings, funerals and the like and it brings special meanings for couples and individuals; music moves us all. Why this is so is unclear but it is probably due to the beat. Humans prefer the repeated regular sound – it is hard not to link this back to a heart beat a not unimportant sound! In music this beat can come through different rhythms such as 4/4, 2/4, or 3/4 but it is in these divisions of eight both for the pitch and rhythm!
Education systems are, or should be always looking for ways to improve the learning outcomes for their students and it is no surprise that Finland, that country that is always held up as an exemplary model has made music compulsory for students throughout their whole school career.
But, what about those students, who have suffered early childhood abuse or neglect we are most interested in helping? Oliver Sacks said it best; ‘music evokes emotions and emotions bring with it memory … it brings back the feeling of life where nothing else can’. He was referring to dementia at the time but I contend it equally applies to those kids who have their feeling of life ripped out of them. It provides a structure and predictability, two pillars to help these kids regain control of their lives. Music will help them gain the benefits outlined above without the threat of their emotions being publicly examined. Music, and dance is used as a tool for therapeutic interventions. Perhaps the rhythm of the music mimics the soothing rocking of a mother who was there just to make them feel alright!
In the last Newsletter (The ‘Gas-Lighting’ Gambit – 22nd February 2021)we discussed how students can use the technique of lying to avoid facing the consequences of their behaviour. Unfortunately, teachers will have to spend a significant proportion of their time solving school-yard crimes never mind the increase demands for investigations of disputes made on school executives. Despite the protests of many parents, who insist that ‘their child would not lie to them’ it is a fact of life that kids will lie on occasion especially if they are trying to avoid trouble!
I recently came across an article in Scientific American by Roni Jacobson ‘How to Extract a Confession … Ethically’ and, I thought the process used by President Obama’s High Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG) which meets the standards of the American Psychological Association might be of interest. These ‘standards’ were a result of the reports of torture in the Iraq War. You are not being asked to investigate real crimes, that’s not your job but the techniques will help you solve the inevitable disputes.
Just a note of caution – if a real felony has been committed or you suspect one may have been perpetrated you must not investigate the crime, refer on to your departmental supervisors who may engage the professionals. Any investigations you may try to make can contaminate the evidence that may later be required.
The following are the steps developed to get to the truth of the matter in an effective and still ethical way:
Think about the ‘good cop – bad cop’ scenario you see in all the movies and then eliminate the bad cop. Develop an empathetic approach to the student you are questioning. You want to build an atmosphere of cooperation as you approach the problem. Explain why you are interviewing them using neutral non-verbal cues and a calm steady voice.
This is the important step, not only to get to the truth but because you are genuinely concerned for the student. The all-important relationship between you and the pupil can survive even after you establish their ‘guilt’. Remember the child is not the behaviour, we want to find out what happened and if needed provide the consequences, this is how we teach responsibility so it is their actions that are being investigated not their worth.
Fill in the Blank
Reduce their tension by asking some closed questions not necessarily related to the purpose of the meeting, this will get them used to answering. Later, these ‘closed’, yes/no questions should be avoided when we are investigating these yes/no answers allow them to avoid addressing more complex issues. Then lead into the interview by telling what you know about the situation in a manner that suggests you already know what happened. As you go on with your narrative the guilty student will often start to add details or correct part of your story without realizing they are doing so. These are usually as a way of defending themselves but by providing additional information they are establishing their presence at the incident.
Don’t go ‘in for the kill’ when this starts to happen – you are building a case, be patient. Research conducted in 2014 indicated that people who are interrogated using this method tended to underestimate how much they were telling the interrogator.
If a group of students are involved they know they are under suspicion and try to get their stories coordinated, they may even rehearse their answers ahead of time. In the age of mobile phones, I have seen texts between students where their stories are ‘coordinated’. Never interview all the students as a group but question them independently and keep them separated until you have finished your interviews. This way they will be unsure if their partners in crime have stuck to their story.
However, under the pressure of the interview individuals must try to keep ‘the story’ intact while they struggle to remain calm and relaxed. This is the time to ask them something unexpected, something out of the blue about the incident or suggest a different scenario. This is when they often slip-up while they try to fit these ‘new facts’ into their fabricated story. It will be impossible for all the students to fabricate the same explanation.
Ask Them to Tell the Story Backwards
It might appear counter intuitive but students who are telling the truth will add more details as the retell their story, this is why surprises work so well. Those students who are lying will try to stick rigidly to their story being careful not to make changes. However, memories are never consistent, every time you recall an event your memories change this is how memory works. This is why you should be suspicious if everyone’s story is exactly the same.
This technique of getting them to tell their story in reverse order exploits the difficulty liars have reconstructing their story from the back to the front. Again, the HIG investigation found that liars produced twice as many details when telling their story in reverse order often contradicting their original story.
Withhold Evidence Until the Crucial Moment
On some occasions the participants will immediately ‘spill their guts’, they will confess but these types of students will tell the truth eventually; they are not the difficult students we are talking about. These more problematic children require a more skilled approach to finding the truth.
In a follow-up study following, the HIG report it was established that when people were confronted with evidence of their wrongdoing early in the interviewing process they either clammed up or became hostile. This is why you never present all the evidence at the beginning. If you do this the process of ‘gas-lighting’ becomes the go-to behaviour and you will have a much more difficult time getting to the truth. But after a period of time, when you have established the conditions the release of evidence will often be accepted because they give up trying to sustain the lie.
There will be times when you ‘know’ what happened but you can’t prove it but at these times keep in touch with reality. It’s more important that you are seen to be caring, trying to solve the problem in a fair-minded manner. In fact, the victims will eventually understand this but more importantly the perpetrators will accept that you are fair and knowing they may have a small sense of victory you move on with your integrity intact and relationships in one piece. You live to fight another day!
The principals of the company have had long careers in education with a combined total of eighty-one years service. After starting as mainstream teachers they both moved into careers in providing support for students with severe behaviours.