Wednesday, November 26, 2008

More on "Broken Windows" and Education

I wrote a couple of days ago about the "broken windows" theory and education based on the recent article in Science. The theory essentially holds that small amounts of disorder will lead to more problems b/c people come to accept greater levels of disorder over time as it becomes the norm. And this certainly happens in schools as well as in neighborhoods.

But the authors make a bit of a finer distinction within the notion of disorder and norms. They divide social norms into "injunctive norms" and "descriptive norms" -- with the former representing, essentially, what people believe society deems acceptable and the latter representing solely what people observe, whether they believe it to be acceptable or not. The two are often in opposition -- for instance, if you think that speeding is a bad thing but also believe that almost everybody does it. In such a case I find it odd to call following speed limits a "norm" when you normally see people doing otherwise. I can be convinced otherwise, but I think the two would be better characterized as rules (whether written or unwritten) and norms. One dictates what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior and the other dictates what is normal and abnormal behavior.

The experiments test both how behavior changes when people witness rule-breaking and how it changes when people perceive disorder as a norm. In the case of the former, people are more likely to litter when they hear illegal fireworks being shot off than when they don't. And in the case of the latter, people are twice as likely to steal an envelope with money in it when the mailbox is covered with graffiti or surrounded by litter.

In other words, there are two different ways in which disorder can affect a school: In the case of rule-breaking, when students see other students chewing gum, carrying cell phones, or breaking other rules that might not really be enforced they come to believe that rules, in general, aren't really enforced or important and are more likely to break them. In the case of degradation of norms, when students see others running, shouting, pushing, etc. they're more likely to believe that chaos (or at least unruly behavior) is the norm and conform accordingly. Or at least that's how my experience would lead me to believe their research translates to schools.

So what are the implications? I'd guess the vast majority of teachers and administrators would agree, at least to some extent, with the previous paragraph. But knowing that disorder begets disorder and stopping disorder are two different things. I don't have all the answers, but I would say two things are most important:

1.) Don't make rules that can't or won't be enforced. If you're not actually going to suspend a kid every time you see them carrying a cell phone, then don't say you will. And in the case where the principal sets the rule this applies not just to you personally, but to the staff collectively. If all teachers aren't going to enforce the rule, then it's probably not a good rule to have. If kids see other kids playing on their cell phone in class, and those kids aren't suspended the next day then nobody's going to take that rule seriously. And once kids learn that not every rule has to be taken seriously, every other rule is in peril as well.

2.) Take action against low levels of disorder. That means somebody talking out of turn in class, yelling in the hallway, refusing to do assignments, etc. Maybe rules against such aren't codified, but when something small like this occurs it's important that the student is both made aware that it's unacceptable and that the behvaior is nipped in the bud to whatever degree possible.

Implementing number two is a task that I don't envy. What happens when a kid is made aware that his/her behavior is unacceptable and they continue it anyway? Some sort of consequences must follow. What happens when the student isn't bothered by the consequences and continues the behavior? Now the school's in a pickle (unless, of course, they can expel the student -- but even then such a decision should not be made lightly).

1 comment:

Nancy Flanagan said...

Hey, Corey.

I really appreciate the go-deep nature of your thinking here in this second post. It's very easy for the general public to believe that the reason some schools are chaotic, disordered, even immoral places is because the proper rules are not in place, or not enforced. What follows is facile blaming: the teachers for "not disciplining," the principal for "not backing up the teacher," the kids for "not caring" and the parents for "defending the kids."

Lots of quotes there. But there is a lot of misbegotten blah-blah out there about school discipline, about what it takes to create a learning environment in a society where winning is everything and individualism trumps community.

A well-run school goes much deeper than clear rules and consequences. It begins with common injunctive norms--teachers who all believe in the students' capacity to learn and the necessity of an orderly, safe environment--the broken windows of rude, crude behavior you mentioned. Too often, school discipline is perceived as more procedures, rules and punishments. It's not--you can make as many rules as you like and rigorously (even viciously) enforce them, and still have an atmosphere where zero learning occurs.

It's no surprise that kids often refer to school as prison--the wardens run a tight ship, and no bad deed goes uncorrected, but you're not seeing a climate where human beings feel safe enough to thrive and take a risk. And learning is all about risk-taking and personal relationships and goals.

The reason KIPP-type schools have some success is because they package an environment--a set of norms-- of "this is what we do here" and kids who attend want to be part of the social norms.

My school is in a rural area; most of the kids who move in come from Detroit and environs. They are astonished by the things my middle schoolers take for granted--such as hall traffic procedures, and lining up to go to lunch or assembly. They think it, umm, sucks, and say so-- but the prevailing ethic is to follow simple rules for order and courtesy. We have to work VERY hard to be consistent--but it is possible to run a school with 800 7th and 8th graders based on community. The very worst thing, in middle school, is social isolation. You can use that pressure to build a very humane and thoughtful discipline plan.