03 October 2018

Trans-Partisan School Reform Let's End the Neglect of Psychological Needs in Schools

School reform efforts need to address the chronic motivational deficiencies that plague schools today which contribute to chronic behavioral problems that are just as preventable as many of the horrible diseases caused by nutritional deficiencies. 

For example the diseases of scurvy, goiter and rickets are all caused by nutritional deficiencies. 
After scientists figured out that humans have nutritional needs, and therefore that these diseases were really nutrition problems, we took action to ensure that children would not suffer from them any more. 
We took action as a society to ensure that children would get their basic nutritional needs met. 
We educated everyone to know that vitamin C occurs naturally in citrus fruits and that we can get enough vitamin D from a moderate amount of sunlight. 
We even "fortify" foods that don't normally have these vitamins and minerals to make sure appropriate nutrition is more readily available, such as putting iodine in salt and vitamin D in milk. 
To put an end to the suffering that nutritional deficiencies caused we changed our fundamental concepts about the role of food in our lives and we adjusted our behavior. 

Right now we have a school system that accepts motivational deficiencies and children's suffering that results from it as normal, some might even say inevitable. 
But scientists have discovered how to prevent motivational deficiencies by providing for the psychological needs of competence, relatedness, and autonomy. 
In the same way that many people in the past, especially children, suffered for our systematic ignorance of our biological needs for iodine, and vitamins C and D; many people today, especially children, are suffering for our systematic ignorance of the psychological needs for competence, relatedness, and autonomy. 
We need to break down the barriers to school policies and teaching practices that are supportive of psychological needs so that we can prevent motivational deficiencies and the suffering they cause.

Partisan approaches to systemic school reform have been ineffective because they neglect to account for the fundamental psychological needs of the people who make up the school system. 
But we all share several key areas of common ground that can enable a trans-partisan approach to this overlooked problem. 
The most important common ground for both sides of the political debate is creating a better future for our children. 

I propose that another key area of common ground we can adopt across school reform plans is the assumption that anyone who is responsible for children has a primary moral duty to nurture those children. 
I take this assumption to be unassailable and, as a caring professional, not available for reconsideration, so, I offer no logical nor evidential basis for it. 
Taking this duty to nurture as given, I thereby assert that we currently have a school system that forces adults responsible for children to sacrifice that duty on the alter of being in control in order to deliver academic instruction and this is wrong. 

My assertion about how the controlling nature of the school system leads to harm is a considered conclusion. 
The basis for this conclusion is a combination of many years of self-directed inquiry into education and my recent studies in psychology. 
I returned to Reed College after a 20 year hiatus to finally complete formal scientific training in what I had been studying informally in publicly accessible psychology and education books for the last two decades. 
What I discovered is that there has been a wave of recent psychological research (hidden from the public behind paywalls and apparently overlooked by journalists) that has built up an impressive case for humans having at least three basic psychological needs for competence, relatedness, and autonomy. 
These needs are just as critical to human psychological well-being as our needs for vitamins and other nutrients are for human biological well-being. 
Some of those studies also show that mainstream schools tend to have a systemic bias against meeting the basic psychological need for autonomy. 

Mainstream schools are all too often controlling environments and control is the exact opposite of autonomy support. 
Autonomy support is a method of wielding authority in a manner that is nurturing. 
It is the nurturing middle ground between authoritarian and permissive behavioral management. 
Policies from federal to district to building levels have caused administrators and teachers responsible for the day-to-day care of children to neglect the basic psychological needs of those they manage. 
The most fundamental behavioral problem in K-12 schooling in the United States is the pervasive systemic reinforcement of controlling policies and behaviors which directly results in the neglect of the fundamental human psychological need for autonomy. 
The neglect of psychological needs leads to what I have euphemistically called motivational deficiencies, primarily referring to the consistently observed decline in intrinsic motivation. 

But this is a behavioral problem that we can lick. 
My own research into the motivational patterns of two alternative schools suggests that there are some schools that are doing something right because they maintain the intrinsic motivation of their students. 
This is in contrast to the fact that all the studies of mainstream school since intrinsic motivation began to be studied in the 1970's have consistently shown declines. 
It is not necessary to parrot the particular alternative schools I studied because we have a clear picture of how psychological needs relate to intrinsic motivation and for now we can assume they were simply doing a better job of meeting those needs. 
It would be wise to study those school models further in order to discern exactly what they are doing right, but we don't have to wait on that data to start doing a better job of meeting teachers and students psychological needs.

I have developed five proposals within a framework for sustainable school change to address this problem at the root cultural level starting with how we define education. 
The pervasiveness of the problem across multiple levels of our cultural institutions means that it will not be enough to simply provide some professional development workshops to teachers on the topic of autonomy support. 
The process of change needs to support school staff, administrators, and teachers at every level to deeply reconsider their policies and practices and figure out how they can shift their concept of education itself to better reflect the fact that both they and those they are responsible for managing share these psychological needs. 
This depth of change in our cultural concept of disease is what was necessary to organize and implement the public health measures that prevent nutritional deficiencies from ravaging our children today. 
Then from the context of our revised concepts about education we can begin to reform schools such that meeting psychological needs eventually becomes second nature, like meeting nutritional needs is now. 

My plans for creating change consistent with human psychological needs is meant to transcend the issues of pedagogy and school administration that have defined partisan educational politics. 
All humans share these needs, though it is true that there are cultural and developmental variations in how these needs get expressed and satisfied. 
Pedagogical and administrative variations from state to state and even from school to school are to be expected and should be honored. 
What cannot be accepted is continued negligence of the psychological needs of any of the humans in schools. The shift will require quite a bit of leadership in education.
Please join with me in raising awareness of this problem and supporting a new trans-partisan dialogue about reforming schools of all kinds to ensure that teachers and children are having their basic psychological needs met through autonomy supportive policies and practices. 

School Reformers That Want school Reform Like This

I have my doubts about many school reform advocates but IDEA, the Institute for Democratic Education in America has a vision for school reform that I respect and support.
Democratic education is one of the models that has been shown to maintain intrinsic motivation, but at the same time is effectively excluded from being publicly funded by pervasive policies that require controlling behaviors which are antithetical to democratic educational pedagogy.
There is no question that some changes are happening but it is not clear how the mainstream school reformers are making things better.
One of the key outcomes of school reform as I propose it would be better motivation for everyone, which would lead to better ultimate outcomes.
If you have ideas about how to get school reform like this into a school district near you please contact me and share your idea. 
School reform is not going to happen by itself, so reach out and get in touch with me if you support this kind of school reform, I appreciate the feedback.

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