Empathy: We Need It Now More Than Ever

While listening to talk radio over the weekend, I heard an analyst posit that there has been an increase in violent shooter massacres across the world. As a rebuttal to the analyst’s statement, someone called in and asserted that there’s been no increase in these types of situations, just an increase in their media coverage, and that we’re more aware of these situations now because of social media and the 24-hour news coverage cycle.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, there actually has been an increase in these types of events. That being said, no one seems to agree on the root cause of these issues. Researchers, analysts, talking heads, and armchair experts have blamed these massacres on everything, including video games, popular movies and music, traumatic home lives, healthy diet imbalances, mental health issues (which may result from Adverse Childhood Experiences/trauma), etc.

Through my preliminary research, I’ve noted that it’s very difficult to isolate one variable as the root cause of these situations. Granted, in many cases, the perpetrators seem to come from broken homes where they may have experienced some sort of trauma that may have resulted in mental health issues. In no way am I downplaying that explanation. In fact, I agree that trauma and mental health issues probably contribute to the majority of these situations. However, I hypothesize that there’s another issue at play.

In my career as an educator, I’ve noticed something very troubling.   Many students (not all) have serious difficulty understanding someone else’s emotions, coupled with the inability to sense and understand how someone else is thinking or feeling. This is usually referred to as empathy. In my day-to-day experiences with students from a variety of grade levels, I’ve seen that many students don’t grasp the concept. Many students lack the ability to predict/foresee how their actions impact others or how their actions are perceived by others. Often times, they can’t put themselves in someone else’s shoes. They don’t conceptualize that, “Hmm. I wouldn’t like it if someone did this to me, so I probably shouldn’t do it to them.” I don’t know why students seem to lack empathy. What’s happening now that’s causing this major paucity of empathy? I can’t put my finger on it, yet.

Regardless, I try to employ certain practices/strategies/approaches that will help teach/display empathy. For instance, while dealing with behavior issues, I always employ Restorative Practices. For years, Restorative Practices have been touted/advertised as a way to decrease the school-to-prison pipeline, and subsequently decrease crime and other issues. Restorative Practices emphasize how our actions can harm our relationships with others and our community. While using these practices with students, we focus on our actions, the consequences, and how members of our school community feel as a result of our actions. Not only do we focus on the way our actions harm relationships, we brainstorm and implement solutions that help repair said harm.

What other ways can we inculcate our students with empathic dispositions? I know some schools have social-emotional curricula. But, I’m just looking for ways throughout my everyday interactions with students where I can help teach and model empathy.

This School Year, Prioritize Teacher Clarity to Maximize Student Learning

I heard an awesome quote today… “Clarity is the antidote to anxiety.” I can truly attest to the accuracy of this quote. We all want clarity in our lives. Guess what? Students really want clarity as well, especially in school and in class.

In regards to John Hattie’s influences and effect sizes, you can’t focus on any other influences or effects without first addressing teacher clarity. You can’t have effective teacher feedback with students without first addressing teacher clarity. You won’t have solid RtI practices for students without first addressing teacher clarity. Teaching practices such as direct instruction and reciprocal teaching will not be successful for students without first addressing teacher clarity.

Feedback has an effect size of .7. RtI has an effect size of 1.29. Reciprocal teaching has an effect size of .74. Direct instruction has an effect size of .60. Those are all solid effect sizes. However, remember… you must first prioritize teacher clarity (effect size of .8) in order to reap the benefits of any of those teacher practices. Clarity is paramount.

One way to focus on enhancing teacher clarity is through the clear and consistent utilization of Learning Intentions and Success Criteria. Learning Intentions are general statements about what we intend our students to learn. Success Criteria let us know if the desired learning (learning intentions) have been successfully or unsuccessfully achieved. Success Criteria help students understand what their work should include.

Sounds easy enough. And, many think, “I’m already doing this with my ‘learning objectives’/’learning targets’ and ‘I Can’ statements.” I don’t deny this. However, it’s the refinement that’s important. It’s the consistency that’s important. It’s more than simply posting these targets, objectives, or intentions.

In my own practice as an administrator, I’m also going to work to provide clarity from my standpoint as well. This will certainly help teachers, students, parents, and community members.

How do you work to improve and increase teacher clarity?

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Illinois Getting Rid of PARCC Tests… Can We Broaden the Curriculum and Focus on Performance-Based Assessments Now?

Illinois may be getting rid of PARCC (other states already have). For some, this is no surprise. Secondary educators lambasted PARCC testing and the tests were eventually removed from the high school setting. Others saw PARCC as another cyclical education reform that just so happened to bring about new types of assessments (“computer-based,” oh my!). PARCC replaced state-standardized tests like ISAT, which replaced IGAP and on down the road since the doom and gloom proclamations in 1983’s A Nation at Risk.

Obviously, in our test-based accountability system, PARCC will be replaced with something else. We’ve heard that the new tests may be shorter, allowing for teachers/administrators/districts to receive the results in an expeditious manner. What is more, it’s possible that the new tests will be adaptive in that test will adjust the difficulty of the questions based on student responses (similar to NWEA’s MAP assessments).

However, it’s my view that these changes aren’t enough. Sure, shorter tests will be good for teachers and students. Teachers and parents have decried that students are over assessed for years. Sure, more expeditious feedback is good. That’s always been one of the major drawbacks of these state-standardized tests. Sure, adaptive tests that adjust according to student responses could be a good thing, if this helps us better identify student deficiencies.

Yet, I’m not sure any of these adjustments will address a pressing issue facing all schools, but especially schools serving disadvantaged communities: narrowing of the curriculum. If these tests are tied to any federal funding (like what happened with Obama’s Race to the Top initiative), there will continue to be narrowing of the curriculum. If these test are used to evaluate, rate, and/or compare schools and districts, there will continue to be narrowing of the curriculum. If districts prioritize these tests and the data generated by them, there will continue to be narrowing of the curriculum. Point being, it’s a different means to the same end. We may have new tests on the horizon. But, the accountability movement/reform in education is still alive and well. When state-standardized test scores are used to evaluate schools/districts/teachers, narrowing of the curriculum will continue to occur.

What is more, as past research has shown, these state-standardized tests only assess low-level thinking skills, numb teacher and student creativity, and prepare students to take tests rather than to think critically and solve real-world problems. With more standardized tests, even though they’ve been shortened and allow teachers to receive feedback in a timely manner, I’m guessing we’ll still have tests that assess low-level thinking skills, decrease creativity, and don’t accurately show all that a student really knows.

I’ve always been an advocate of performance-based assessments, which challenge students to use higher-order thinking in order to create a product or complete a process. The essential components of performance-based assessments help to ensure complexity and higher-order thinking: relevant, real-world oriented, open-ended, time-bound, products presented to an authentic audience, embedded formative assessment and feedback.

Performance-based assessments are not new. In fact, they’ve been around in some form or another since the days of John Dewey. However, when accountability reforms increased the pressure facing today’s schools, we moved away from performance-based measures of learning to standardized measures. This pressure also forced the narrowing of the curriculum. Thus, I (and many others) appeal to our legislators and education policy makers to truly consider what’s best for our students, for our teachers, and for our schools. When moving forward with new state-standardized testing, we must consider all that we’ve learned from the pressures associated with these tests.

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Technology Restriction and Confiscation: There Are Better Strategies for Teaching About Being Safe in a Connected World

Last year, I attended a Protecting God’s Children workshop at a Catholic parish up north. These workshops are required if you plan to work with children in any capacity through the church or in parish schools. A group of approximately 20 people were in attendance that evening. The age range in this group was quite large. We had some teenagers, middle-aged people, and some elderly folks.

Obviously, we talked about the importance of maintaining appropriate relationships with all children. We watched videos and read articles about the safety of children within our care. We discussed various scenarios and were quizzed on making appropriate choices while interacting with children. Pretty standard stuff for anyone interested in getting into education or working with children (public or private).

Interestingly, when we started talking about inappropriate online relationships and social media, an intriguing conversation commenced over appropriate technology usage. A woman in the group started saying that her own children wouldn’t experience these types of problems because she restricts their usage by confiscating their technology before they go to bed at night. In addition, she had their passwords to all their devices and their accounts (which she checked regularly). What is more, as a punishment, she would also take away their phones if they ever misbehaved. One or two other parents chimed in and stated they followed a similar protocol in their homes.

I tried to remain cool, calm, and collected. I tried to refrain from entering the conversation. I tried focusing on other things (like the new Star Wars movie that would soon be in theaters). But, if you know me, you know I have a really hard time with this. Thus, I engaged.

I started with an easy question. “Excuse me… do your children have any social media accounts?” Of course, they responded, “Absolutely not!” (that they know of, LOL). I figured this would be their response. I then decided to ask some leading questions that would surely help. “Do you have video game systems or a SMART TV in your home?” They all said yes. I stated that, if so inclined, one could use either a video game system or a SMART TV to surf the web. They responded that the TV was password protected and that, like phones and tablets, video games were confiscated at a certain time. “What if your child has a project to do that requires him/her to use technology past the technology curfew?” They responded that they would supervise their children as they completed online work. I saw where this was going. But, I thought I would try one more inquiry. “What about when your child goes on a sleep over to a friend’s house?” They stated that they knew the parents of every single friend their kids had, and that they trusted those parents.

I thought with my leading questions, these parents would soon see that they would not only become exhausted in their efforts to monitor their child’s online usage/presence, it would be almost impossible to fully monitor ABSOLUTELY everything. I thought they would see that if a child really wanted to, he/she would find a way online (where there’s a will, there’s a way). I was wrong. They continued to wholeheartedly believe that technology restriction and confiscation would keep their children safe from the dangers of the online world.

I’m not saying don’t set boundaries with children when it comes to technology. However, I’m proposing that rather than trying to hide children from the realities of the online world, we focus on teaching our children how to safely and successfully navigate those precarious situations. Just a few tips:

  • Keep yourself and your children informed about the internet and its rapid changes.
  • Teach kids about the different types of online dangers that exist and what to do if they come across any of them.
  • Teach kids how to keep personal information safe and private.
  • Teach kids about passwords.
  • Encourage your child to come to you if he/she encounters a problem.

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