What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate!

I recently decided that I would plan to go back to school in the summer, a complete change from my earlier stance that I would not go back to school, period, no way, no how, end of discussion. I have been reflecting on my change of heart, trying to figure out what caused it. Well, there’s more to it than that; I know that an increase in knowledge is what caused the turn-around. I feel like I’m thinking about education in an entirely new light and I’m thinking about my job from an entirely different perspective.

To be fair to my old perspective, I still do not believe that teachers are being taught how to teach effectively, and that they are still being taught the same old, tired theories that have gotten us here, but I have found a silver lining – the tides seem to be changing.

One of my big problems with how teachers are taught to teach is the explanation of Pavlovian conditioning. Now, granted, I am not an expert in the field of behavioral psychology, but I believe very strongly that this sort of conditioning is very harmful to the human psyche. But it is being used every day in schools and pre-schools everywhere, and has been for years. The results have been disastrous. Children for years have been told what not to do. Punishments have been put into place to discourage those who don’t follow the rules. Bullying and fighting has increased and more and more students feel disconnected from their authority figures.

The problem, it seems, is that our students are not being taught how to deal with people, and when they are taught, it is through the same conditioning methods used for everything else rather than through examples by teachers. No wonder – their teachers were raised on the same conditioning methods. Children aren’t learning about how to have healthy, mature relationships. Some may learn it at home, but most aren’t. And they aren’t learning it at school. Scores are going down as well. Is there a correlation? Is it the teacher’s job to teach about how to have healthy relationships?

One of the definitions of education that I love is one by Leonard Peikoff from his “Philosophy of Education” lecture series. He states that the definition of education is “the systematic instruction of the young to develop in them the powers necessary for mature life.” I agree wholeheartedly with this definition and add that one of those powers is the power to effectively communicate and deal with people.

It starts young – two, maybe three years old. A child takes a toy from another child because he wants to play with it. The other child cries. We soothe one child and give him his toy back, and then we reprimand the other child or put him in time-out. But what have we taught either child? We have taught one that when he cries or whines, he will get what he wants, courtesy of an adult. We have taught the other child that he gets attention from the teacher if he misbehaves. Positive or negative, it is still attention from the teacher in the mind of a child, and this kind of attention does not teach him the proper way to handle the situation – namely, asking the other child if they can share the toy or take turns, rather than taking the toy through the use of physical force. Likewise, the child that had the toy in the first place did not learn to use his own communication skills to tell the other child that he didn’t like their actions and to describe how he wanted to be treated in the future.

From this age, communication problems explode into parents being unable to talk to their teenagers, spouses being unable to communicate problems effectively, and employers wishing that they had people working for them who could communicate to them, customers, or coworkers. The problem has reached the point that some college degrees require a course on interpersonal communications.

Our job as teachers is not just about teaching children the three “R’s” but teaching them the skills they need to effectively navigate life, as well. This requires us to teach young children how to effectively deal with their emotions and to communicate their feelings to the necessary people effectively. It requires us to teach anger management skills to young children so that they will be able to handle life’s curveballs safely and calmly. But most of all, it requires us to make sure that our interactions with the children in our care involve the same types of respect, communication, and safety that we require the children to show to each other. One of the ways that this can be accomplished is to talk about your own feelings with the children. If they are not listening and you feel yourself becoming frustrated or angry, tell the children how you feel and invite them to join you in an appropriate anger management exercise, such as breathing. The best way to teach is through example, and when the children see you engaging in the same behavior that you are asking them to exhibit, the chances that they will exhibit that behavior are great.

Teaching social skills to an entire classroom of children requires work, consistency, and patience, but the rewards are great. When you see children sharing and working together in a mature manner, and you know that it is because of all the work you have done, it is one of the greatest feelings in the world.

Update: After some research, I have come to the conclusion that Pavlovian conditioning is not what I should have referred to. Pavlovian conditioning is a conditioning of the reflexes, which has nothing to do with the subject matter. The rest of my opinions in this post still stand. I’m sorry for any confusion that this may have caused, and I hope to clear up what kind of conditioning I am actually referring to in an upcoming blog post.