Treating the Symptoms, III

After a few days of symptoms – bad cough and low-grade fever – my son went to the doctor on Tuesday.  As good doctors do, she treated the symptoms and addressed the cause.  He had a bad ear infection – not uncommon over his decade-plus of life  – but he’s starting to feel better.  The antibiotics (for the cause) and other medications (for the symptoms) have started working.

After all, treating the cause without the symptoms can be just as foolish and short-sighted as the reverse.  As Debbie put it in her Google+ comment about yesterday’s post,

… I always talk about addressing an issue at two levels: the surface, what we see/hear and what lies underneath.
Surfacethat behaviour is not ok. It stops now. Do this instead, etc.
Underneathnow, let’s look at the motivation behind the behaviour. Why did it happen? What was the real intention? What were the fears, needs, goals, etc? How can we deal with this so that other unwanted behaviours/solutions don’t arise?

re: students .. what a wonderful gift we can give them, to address causes and not just symptoms.
re: co-workers… how can we mentor this skill if we don’t do it ourselves, or is it the old “do as I say and not as I do mentality” .. hmm and is that part of the factory model?

When the behavior is unacceptable, when it’s hurting the community – or the person who’s doing it – it must stop.  But if all you do is stop the behavior, if you don’t “look at the motivation,” it will just restart like an untreated ear infection.  As Emily noted,

To a large extent the symptoms are the “game.”  And one of those symptoms is the inability to take risks and see other points of view.  This is why my colleagues, I feel, are so scared of students taking charge of learning.  My colleagues have learned this game well.  But they don’t quite understand how to really play it.  They just follow the rules.

Symptoms … and causes.  Rules … and the larger game.  Ms. X was fretting and fussing again Tuesday morning, this time about a “bad, lazy” student who had come to her for help with homework.  “I asked him to show me what he’d done, and he hadn’t done anything!” she said.  “He said he just read the assignment, but he didn’t write anything down.  So I told him I couldn’t help him.  Can you believe it?”

I could – but I couldn’t.  Ms. X had labeled the student – who actually came to her for help – as bad and lazy, when she had refused to help him. Labels, frustration, pain-punishment cycle … no awareness.

Symptoms … and causes.  Behaviors, labels, and motivations. Between classes, I looked down the hallway and saw … Ms. X cubed?  Three colleagues slumped against the wall, broadcasting apathy and disempowerment with every muscle as they “stood outside their door” like “good teachers.”  Many students in my next class came from them; they’d all seen the Slumped Brigade on their way.  And they were as low in energy as the previous class had been full.  Small groups were to start reading four Tres Columnae Project stories (this one, and the three parts of this one) on which we’ll build a large project this week.  But five or six of us just sat there, looking as sad and powerless as Ms. X cubed.  “We don’t have enough devices,” they said, “so we can’t get online.”  They looked even sadder when I pointed out how often they’ve abused school-owned devices, how many classmates had technology to share, how many solutions were available.

Symptoms … and causes.  Brendan noted

It can be very difficult, especially for people who want to please others, to break out of the currently-running script….   And because there may be “no way to win,” it’s easier to engage in whatever action provides security and anxiety relief — talking with friends, or, if need be, turning to the authority for the inevitable pain and punishment ritual.

Symptoms … and causes.  Where should you start the treatment?

Many years ago, at a prior school, Dr. Q was the model of a 20th-century school leader – and that was good, since it was still the 20th century.  He worked 15-hour days, personally monitoring dozens of teachers and two thousand students.  He read every lesson plan, every week, returning them with comments and suggestions.  He walked the halls, white cloth in hand, checking for dust.  But strict as he was, many students loved him.   “I really like Dr. Q,” K said to me one day.  “He’s strict, but he’s for the students.”

In fact, Dr. Q was strict because he was for the students.  Slumped, passive teachers – and slouched, disengaged students – were symptoms he wouldn’t tolerate.  He treated the symptoms effectively, because that’s how he intended to reach the causes.  As another excellent administrator says, “I can’t change attitudes, but I can change behavior.  And changing behavior changes attitudes.”

Of course, changing attitudes also changes behaviors.  “Start anywhere,” say the folks at Walk Out Walk On, “and follow it everywhere.”

Sadly, for all their behavior modification plans, their pain-punishment cycles and incentives, factory-model schools are terrible at change.  “Good kids” stay “good,” “bad” ones stay “bad,” and “special” ones stay stuck in the programs (theoretically) designed to move them into the mainstream.  To start is to seek change, but factory-schools seek stability, like the “industrialists” Seth Godin describes here.

And Debbie asked, if

we, who are trying to “get it”, don’t interrupt the cycle and ask the big questions then aren’t we in fact contributing to the cycle? Shouldn’t we be using the same techniques that we use for students in our interactions with adults as well?

How do we ask those uncomfortable questions – and make real progress on symptoms and causes – when everyone around us is actively pretending that the same-old-same-old will magically lead to different results this time?

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Published in: on December 5, 2012 at 10:53 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] a Google+ response to yesterday’s post, George described the sudden, predictable, end-of-semester higher-education rush […]


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