We tend to teach attitude to children unconsciously by coincidence but to be responsible adults we need to teach it consciously and deliberately.
If our job is to launch children into a life where they can carry out important work in the world, then we have to make sure they get the right stuff to do the job.
Teach Attitude to Prevent
Think of it this way, imagine your children are Space Shuttles and you are NASA.
What makes the shuttle move is fuel.
No fuel, no movement.
Motivation is the fuel for people.
But motivation has two parts that have to be mixed together to light the fires for focused learning; intrinsic and extrinsic motivators.
When adults cut children out of the decision making and planning of their own activities by overpowering them with extrinsic motivators then they run the risk of amputating intrinsic motivations.
Motivational amputees have an attitude deficit that may not be evident, but can lead to hardships later in the journey of life.
All space shuttles have to withstand the stresses of launch and we all know that children today are being launched under especially challenging conditions.
If today's children do not develop the resiliency to handle unpredictable challenges then they are being cheated with potentially tragic results.
NASA is responsible for designing and operating their program safely and they generally have a good record of success.
But on January 28, 1986 disaster struck and the shuttle Challenger was destroyed along with all seven astronauts including Christa MacAuliffe who was going to be the first teacher in space.
We can learn valuable lessons about how to teach attitude from this disaster.
A combination of circumstances caused this tragic loss.
The immediate cause was the failure of an O-ring in the right solid rocket booster.
The reason that the O-ring failed is because it became brittle under the freezing conditions (it was the coldest launch to date by over 10 degrees and ice was seen on the launch platform.)
The reason that they chose to launch, even under extreme conditions, was that they had chosen to interpret the partial failures of the O-rings in previous launches to be a normal and expected feature instead of a warning sign of a serious problem with that crucial component.
(The original specifications did not include tolerances for "partial failures" and over the previous 24 successful launches NASA engineers created tolerances for "partial failures" based on the observed deterioration of the O-rings after each launch.)
So, ultimately the cause of the disaster was NASA's cultural tendency to keep things running rather than face the fact that they had serious problems that needed to be resolved.
Teach Attitude To Address Real Problems
Since the children have already been born, the decision to launch under challenging conditions has already been made.
Our society has many years of experience to show that most kids will survive school and so we have developed tolerances to partial failure rates. We accept as normal the following warning signs:
- many children hate school
- children are isolated in age segregated groups, unlike the rest of society
- many children show the clinical symptoms of stress as early as third grade, and
- most classrooms are essentially dictatorships in a supposedly democratic society.
And we take as dire warning signs irrelevant information like international comparisons of unrelated test scores.
We have a culture of schooling that prefers to keep things going in the usual way in spite of the signs of real problems that need to be resolved.
If parents are NASA, then schools are Morton Thiokol, the supplier of the critically important O-rings.
What schools supply is about a third to a half of every child's waking experiences from the ages of about 6 to 18.
What specifications for this component of a child's life should guide the work of teachers?
Currently under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation our federal government is demanding schools deliver better standardized test scores.
The assumption is that teachers are responsible for delivering units of knowledge, skill, and information that are supposedly measured by those tests.
But, are measurable units of knowledge, skill and information really needed?
Eventually, yes, but those kinds of units are not the most basic elements of what children need to develop during childhood, test scores are not the right stuff for elementary age kids.
Teach Attitude for Survival
No amount of schooling or units of knowledge, skill or information as measured on standardized tests is going to help in the event of disasters or major accidents.
What will make the difference is attitude.
Psychologist Dr. Al Seibert found that there are no distinguishing demographic features of survivors of major accidents and disasters; no amount of schooling or academic skill is going to help if something goes majorly wrong.
To prepare a child to survive a disaster you have to equip him/her with a variety of ways to achieve and maintain optimal states of mind.
In plain terms this means that in order to survive a disaster your child has to be able to change their own mind from the naturally occurring state(s) of panic, anger, confusion, etc. to a state that allows them to focus on their immediate situation and act effectively to ensure their survival.
As a teacher I do not want to be the one who looks back after one of my students has tragically died and realize that I was more concerned with their attendance, grades and delivering academic units rather than developing the kind of attitude that could have helped her to survive.
Nor do I want have to be (nor face) the bereaved parent who valued obedience, test scores and academic performance more than their child's attitude towards life and learning.
Teach Attitude for Thrival
Attitude is both the key to surviving adversity and the most basic foundation for building a good life.
Attitude is more basic, more elementary, than academics.
Elementary school needs to be about attitude, not academics.
Academic knowledge, skills and information are important, but only after they can be acquired in the context of a good attitude towards life and learning.
Attitude is the critical O-ring that elementary schools supply and if students leave elementary school with a bad attitude, or an O.K. attitude that is too brittle to withstand the challenges ahead, then they have been cheated.
We, as a society, have discovered that we are headed towards a dead end and we need to launch ourselves and especially our children onto a sustainable course if we want humanity to survive.
There is no reasonable doubt that difficulties are coming, the only question is who has the right stuff to survive and thrive through the transition period.
We already have enough knowledge, skills and information so the only question is whether we have the right stuff, the right attitude, to survive.
The job of parents and teachers today is to make sure that, even if our own elementary schooling was all about academics, our children's elementary school is all about attitude.
Do we teach attitude by accident or on purpose?