Treating the Symptoms, I

Over the weekend, I had a cold … or something.  Exhaustion, sinus pain, sore throat, and cough greeted me on Saturday – a classic case of What’s Been Going Around, at the time of year when infections run rampant through schools.  I thought about treating the symptoms – taking some sinus medicine, perhaps, or just lying down with an ice pack on my throbbing head – but realized it might be better to address the cause.  There was nothing to do about the virus itself, but plenty to do about other factors: I was tired, and my immune system had been working overtime.  So I took lots of naps, ate homemade turkey-noodle soup and other immune-system boosters, and gradually started to feel better.  By Monday morning, the cold was almost gone.

That got me thinking about symptoms and causes in general.  Sometimes there’s nothing to do but treat the symptoms.  Sometimes you need to address the causes.  Sometimes you need both.  But how can you tell?

The question is as important for schools as for people with colds or headaches.  All too often, though, schools only see one option.  They treat the symptoms – or try to – and then wonder why the underlying conditions don’t improve.

N and B were assigned to in-school suspension last Thursday.  When the email notice came, it included a sad little paragraph: “Please do not tell N.  She has a tendency to be absent when she knows she has ISS.”  N’s infraction, whatever it was, had occurred several weeks ago, but she finally “paid the price” on Thursday.  (It may have been a real benefit for N to have some quiet time, away from her “friends,” to focus her considerable intelligence on an enjoyable, challenging task.  In class, N desperately seeks attention and affirmation from those “friends” … and she seems to think she’ll get attention and affirmation by annoying and frustrating everyone else but her “friends.”)  With a student like N – with any student who “fails to comply” or “is disruptive” or “is disrespectful” – schools rarely “have time” to deal with the causes or conditions.  So we treat the symptoms  – usually with pain-punishment techniques that don’t work too well – and wonder why things don’t improve.

But B – the B with the dress-code incident – was absent on Thursday.  He’ll probably get an additional ISS day for the black T-shirt, plus a “makeup” one from his absence on Thursday.  I wonder if it will help him.

I think of D, several years ago, who did “deserve” her day of in-school suspension.  She called me a … body part, very loudly, in front of her entire class.  D was having a horrible day, and when she’d calmed down, she both understood and accepted her assigned punishment.  But the incident had happened shortly before Winter Break, and then there were review sessions and exams in January.  By the time February rolled around – and it was “convenient” for D to go to ISS – everything had long been resolved.  Ms. K, the assistant principal, apologized – to me, to D, to D’s mom.   The delay was unfortunate, but the requirement was inescapable.  D had deserved in-school suspension, so in-school suspension she must have – as soon as it was convenient.  Fortunately, D’s behavior had begun to improve by then, and she’d started to feel like part of the community.  The day of in-school suspension didn’t hurt, but it certainly didn’t help.

Schools cling to in-school suspension – and invent awful forms of punishment like what’s described here – because they think or hope the punishments will at least alleviate the symptoms.  But when we don’t address the causes – or the school conditions that make thoughtless, selfish behavior seem attractive – those symptoms will recur.  And just like an ignored sinus infection, or one you treat with an ineffective “remedy,” they’ll get worse over time.

Responding to Friday’s post, Brendan made a profound point on Google+:

I think that one of the biggest causes of seeing false cause-effect chains, is the challenge of recognizing that real ones often involve multiple factors, and/or longer timeframes than are immediately visible.

Most carrots and sticks provide very immediate rewards and punishments.  Grades, of course, often work on a longer time-frame, such as a term, but they have their limits, of course.

And very rarely are much longer timeframes ever considered.  How does one learning moment (or a collection of them) relate to life a decade down the road?  What has a former student not only learned (and perhaps forgotten), but what have to come to believe about themselves, others, and the world at large?

And Whitney added,

Oh, carrot and stick. I’m always intrigued with your thoughts about our ideas for incentivizing and motivating students. We teachers so often ask ourselves when students don’t follow instructions or do as we ask, “Why don’t they listen?! What’s wrong with THESE kids?!” without ever really thinking about what we asked them to do. We then label and blame. I am struggling with this with my own students, who very rarely ever do the homework I assign. Rather than accusing or blaming, perhaps I should ask myself why I’m assigning it in the first place and if it is for good reason, what have I communicated to the students which tells them it’s not really all that important and worth forgetting?

How do treat the symptoms and address the causes?  Listening is a great way to start.  Listening carefully, moving slowly, seeking to understand.  Building – and rebuilding – joyful community together. But how do we make time – or find time – for listening and community building in the midst of a rapid, rushing, important-seeming assembly line of instruction?

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Published in: on December 3, 2012 at 10:56 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] Justin Schwaam, in the ongoing dialogue about the education system, asks, “But how do we make time – or find time – for listening […]

  2. […] than an hour after I published Monday’s post, I saw an amazing example of what happens when you focus on symptoms.  At  7:00 Monday morning, […]


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