Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Creating a helping relationship: questions to ponder

Carl Rogers, 1902-1987

In a 1958 essay titled "The characteristics of a helping relationship", Carl Rogers, the noted humanist psychologist, formulated the following ten questions, which I present in his own words. He crafted them in the context of being a therapist, but they naturally apply to all kinds of relationships, including the relationship between a teacher and his/her students:
  1. Can I be in some way which will be perceived by the other person as trustworthy, as dependable, or consistent in some deep sense? 
  2. Can I be expressive enough as a person that what I am will be communicated unambiguously?
  3. Can I let myself experience positive attitudes toward this other person --- attitudes of warmth, caring, liking, interest, respect? 
  4. Can I be strong enough as a person to be separate from the other? Can I be a sturdy respecter of my own feelings, my own needs, as well as his? Am I strong enough in my own separateness that I will not be downcast by his depression, frightened by his fear, nor engulfed by his dependency? ...[for] then I find that I can let myself go much more deeply in understanding and accepting him because I am not fearful of losing myself. 
  5. Am I secure enough within myself to permit him his separateness? Can I permit him to be what he is --- honest or deceitful, infantile or adult, despairing or overconfident? Can I give him the freedom to be? 
  6. Can I let myself enter fully into the world of his feelings and personal meanings and see these as he does? Can I step into his private world so completely that I lose all desire to evaluate or judge it? 
  7. Can I be acceptant of each facet of this other person which he presents to me? Can I receive him as he is? Can I communicate this attitude? 
  8. Can I act with sufficient sensitivity in the relationship that my behavior will not be perceived as a threat?
  9. Can I free him from the threat of external evaluation? In almost every phase of our lives --- at home, at school, at work --- we find ourselves under the rewards and punishments of external judgments: "That's good"; "that's naughty", "That's worth an A"; "that's a failure." "That's good counseling"; "that's poor counseling."... in my experience, they do not make for personal growth and hence I do not believe that they are a part of a helping relationship. Curiously enough a positive evaluation is as threatening in the long run as a negative one, since to inform someone that he is good implies that you also have the right to tell him he is bad. 
  10. Can I meet this individual as a person who is in process of becoming, or will I be bound by his past and by my past?
I like this list. A faculty member at another institution pointed me at it, saying that he likes to consider these questions before teaching class, as a way to reflect on how much "regard, empathy, and genuineness" he could "experience (and express clearly) in every class."

For me too, many of these questions resonate with the way I like to interact with students, particularly my Ph.D. advisees. I have learned over time that it is most rewarding to view them not as resources to be exploited, nor as clay to be molded and shaped according to my inclination, but as individuals to be supported in their own personal journeys towards realizing their potential. 

These are not easy questions, and I believe that answering them all in the affirmative represents an ideal that may not always be achievable in practice. For instance, question 9 poses a conflict for a faculty member given that a significant part of their official responsibility when teaching a class is to provide an evaluation of the student's performance. But these questions are certainly worth pondering if we aim to be helpful to others.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Let kids play on mountains

For amusement, late this evening, I took up pen and paper to show my 8-year-old how lines have equations to go with them. You know, simple things like y = x, y = 8-x, y = 5... He patiently helped me identify a few points on each line, and watched me connect them. He was particularly amused  to see the equation approximating the relationship between his age and his younger brother's.

He then asked, what about circles? Do they have equations too? So I showed him x*x + y*y = 4, focusing on the positive quadrant, carelessly mentioning there was something called square-root, and showing him where (sqrt(2), sqrt(2)) was on this circle.  This concept he had never heard of before intrigued him.

He then asked, does every number have square roots? I showed him sqrt(4) as another example. He could then figure out square roots of 0 and 1, whose consistency pleased him.

He then asked, what about negative numbers, do they have square roots too? I didn't launch into a lengthy explanation, but pointed out simply that square-root of -1 is nowhere to be found on the number line he is familiar with.

I was thrilled, of course, at the sheer effortless-ness of this conversation, which took all of ten minutes, and touched on such a wide range of mathematical topics, from analytic geometry to surds to imaginary numbers. But my point is not at all to show off my son as a genius of some sort. Like many kids his age, his biggest interests and activities revolve around video games, spinning tops, cartoons, and hanging out with friends.

I believe what this little incident truly exemplifies is that any kid can make creative jumps and connections and ask great questions quite easily when they're simply curious, when their learning is not being controlled via rigid structures, when it is not boxed into an arbitrarily fixed place and time and dragged in lock-step with everyone else. It helps to have an environment that supports this kind of freedom and stress-free exploration. I am grateful for his amazingly unique school, Play Mountain Place, which lets him follow his own interests at his own pace. Learn more about it at

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Inclusive education

At its best, education must be inclusive, and focus on helping everyone grow their abilities.

In the campus bookstore I came across a wonderful book titled "The Power of Neurodiversity," by Thomas Armstrong. In one part Armstrong describes a unique school called William W. Henderson Inclusion Elementary School in Dorchester Massachusetts. In this school, he writes, special education students (about a third of the student population) are included in classes full-time with other students. He quotes former principal William Henderson (now retired):
We challenge students with Down syndrome as well as our most academically advanced students to read as much as they can. We challenge our students with cerebral palsy as well as our fastest runners to exercise as much as they can. We challenge our nonverbal students as well as our most polished speakers to communiate as effectively as they can. We challenge our students with autism as well as our "social butterflies" to interact as positively as they can. The goal for every child at our school is to "get smarter, feel smarter, and act smarter"
Armstrong writes that instead of putting everyone on exactly the same page, this school accepts the diversity of abilities and inclinations and encourages each student individually in academic and non-academic subjects. At the same time, he points out that this approach is much more than having a special ed teacher working with some students at the back of the room while the regular teacher instructs the rest of the kids.

It is clear that such an inclusive classroom experience benefits all students. As a society, we will all benefit from breaking down boundaries that separate people with different abilities.

The above youtube video shows a celebration event at this school.

The founder has written a book titled "The Blind Advantage: How Going Blind Made Me a Stronger Principal and How Including Children with Disabilities Made Our School Better for Everyone," with proceeds going to the school.  I have not read it yet, but it's high on my list.

*** update ***

After I wrote the above, a reader posted a comment recommending that I present some evidence or citations to support the claim that inclusion is beneficial.

First of all, let me say that the idea of inclusion as an educational principle draws its primary support from its appeal to our "better nature", our sense of compassion, our desire to live in a society that draws fewer boundaries between its citizens. The more inclusive a classroom, the more aligned it is with these inherently desirable goals.

Second, I am not sure how much weight I would  place on scientific studies about inclusive classrooms. Like many social problems, there are simply too many variables to control for and it is hard to quantify benefits. No two school classes, in terms of the background, composition, and dynamics between the children and the adults around them, are the same. Inclusion is unlikely to be implemented in a uniform manner, due to varying levels of understanding and support for it. And the long-term benefits in terms of fostering a more open outlook among the children, and improvements in self-esteem are not amenable to ready evaluation.

Having said these, I give below pointers to a few articles discussing research on inclusion in the classroom.

Rebecca Hines authored this 2001 article titled "Inclusion in Middle Schools". It points at research, particularly, as described in the following book:

Kochhar, C. A., West, L. L., & Taymans, J. M. (2000). SUCCESSFUL INCLUSION: PRACTICAL STRATEGIES FOR A SHARED RESPONSIBILITY. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Hines writes that Kochhar, West and Taymans have identified a number of positive benefits of inclusive education, ranging from higher levels of achievement, greater teacher resources, and improved understanding and social acceptance. She identifies other studies that have shown that inclusive classrooms do not have less instruction time, though they do require greater time spent on coordination among co-teachers. She also identifies organizational, attitudinal and knowledge barriers to the successful implementation of inclusive classrooms. 

Another widely cited book that presents further arguments in favor of inclusive classrooms along with guidance on implementing inclusive classrooms based on collaborative teaching is the following: 
C. Walther-Thomas, L. Korinek, V. L. McLaughlin, B.T. Williams, Collaboration for Inclusive Education: Developing Successful Programs, Pearson, 2000. 

The European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education has written a comprehensive survey of research from fifteen European countries on Inclusive Education and Effective Classroom Practices

At the other end of the spectrum, here is a qualitative research account of one particular inclusive teacher's classroom: E. Brown, "Mrs. Boyd's Fifth Grade Inclusive Classroom", Urban Education, 37(1), 2002. 

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Criticisms, and a defense, of the education system

A review article by Steven Brint in the Los Angeles Review of Books, titled "The Educational Lottery" is worth a read. He discusses a number of different perspectives on higher education, based on his evaluation of four recent books on the topic.

He writes that
The American education gospel is built around four core beliefs. First, it teaches that access to higher levels of education should be available to everyone, regardless of their background or previous academic performance. Every educational sinner should have a path to redemption. (Most of these paths now run through community colleges.) Second, the gospel teaches that opportunity for a better life is the goal of everyone and that education is the primary — and perhaps the only — road to opportunity. Third, it teaches that the country can solve its social problems — drugs, crime, poverty, and the rest — by providing more education to the poor. Education instills the knowledge, discipline, and the habits of life that lead to personal renewal and social mobility. And, finally, it teaches that higher levels of education for all will reduce social inequalities, as they will put everyone on a more equal footing.
He identifies various classes of critics that attack these pillars:
  • Critics he refers to as new "restrictionists", who feel that a college education is wasted on those who are not prepared for it, who argue that college education has been watered down to support this universal access, who in fact argue against allowing/encouraging everybody to go to college, because it is not even ultimately useful to them.
  • Those he calls "educational Romantics", who believe that much of schooling is a form of servitude and limits creativity and rail against all systematized forms of eduaction.
  • He identifies some who rail against the "fool's gold" idea of education as paving the way for social mobility and equality. 
  • And finally he discusses the sect of "true educators", for whom the purpose of education is inner transformation, not sociological. As an exemplar of this opinion, he cites Philip W. Jackson, who has written a book titled "What is Education?" 
Brint writes about Jackson's work:
For Jackson, the good teacher strives for perfection, leavened by a loving outlook. Striving for perfection is important to Jackson. Like religion, education aims high. It wants to tell the truth. It is a moral enterprise, because it seeks to make everyone it touches better than they currently are. Because education is about truth, it is also about correction. The possibility of elevation, as Hegel knew, requires the negation of error. Yet because they must kindle an interest in the spirit of learning, teachers are inclined to downplay students’ weaknesses while applauding their efforts. Because she wishes students to remain on the path of improvement, the teacher makes more of their contribution to knowledge than perhaps is warranted. 
To transform people, education requires a particular attitude of students too: the attitude of receptivity and affection. “We feel close to those objects toward which we profess love,” Jackson writes. “We identify with them … We possess them. They become ‘ours’ … These forms of attachment reduce the separation between subject and object. They bring the two closer together, which is the principal goal of education.” Because education is a relationship between teacher and student, students need to be known by their teachers. The possibility of identification with the subject matter flows as much through the teacher as through the course material. If students do not feel known by the teacher, it will be difficult for them to identify with the course materials, and even to feel the desire to know more about the topic. They must want, at some level, to be like the teacher. For the student, learning involves both grasping and shaping. Students grasp course materials and the spirit of the subject through appreciation, and they shape them for their own uses through assertion.
Ultimately, though, Brint, who I would term a pragmatic conservative, a defender of the status-quo, dismisses all these criticisms as being limited in their perspective, hopelessly idealistic, or worse, dangerous.
Heretics often offer penetrating insights about the flaws of dominant doctrines. They are usually less perceptive about the limitations (or dangers) of the alternatives they favor. The new restrictionists run the risk of forgetting about the problem of inequality and further privileging the privileged. Romantic dissenters do not often require the complement of deep knowledge and discipline on which adult creativity also rests. The “fool’s gold” school has no concrete plan for erecting a just social system in which workers are paid a living wage, non-corrupt labor unions are encouraged, and the wealthy are taxed enough to support decent public services. And “true educators” live in a rarefied world of one-on-one tutorials and private education, one that, however inspiring, is utterly divorced from the contexts in which most teachers actually work.
Brint argues that the system as we have it may be inefficient and under-performing, but may be the best possible compromise for our society. He advocates instead more incremental changes such as cutting down class sizes, stiffer entrance requirements, use of clickers to improve participation, performance-oriented evaluations, and somehow (magically?) ending the "attitude among under-motivated students that 'the only thing that matters is the credential'."

I'm left dissatisfied and underwhelmed by his conclusions.