Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Rules, Regulations, & Initiatives vs. Environmental Interventions

A few weeks ago I had an interesting conversation with a good friend of mine, Scott Schwister, who told me about a story he heard about underground or unlicensed illegal preschool daycare centers in New York. Evidently the cost of preschool tuition has risen so high that a growing trend has been for many families to band together and run their own preschools in each others homes. Officially these schools do not exist but in practice they do. On the surface this didn't seem to be all that interesting of a story except that it seems to support or coalesce with some other thoughts I have had recently.

It seems like whenever we try to solidify something too much; whenever we over-regulate something; whenever we try to define something too closely, that which gets left out or is made to be dissident finds a way to subversively exist anyway. Therefore, if we want a behavior or practice to cease, banning it will never work. If we want kids to stop putting gum under their desks the answer is not to ban gum, banning it will likely not solve this problem, the gum will end up there anyway but detecting it will be harder on our parts because the kids who want to chew gum bad enough will find new ways of hiding it from us. If we want kids to stop using cell phones in the classroom the answer is not to ban cell phones, banning cell phones will only force students to find more covert ways to use them. If we want to make sure everyone who practices medicine is competent, the answer is not to raise the standards by which one becomes eligible, such a policy will only cause a scarcity in the market, drive up healthcare costs, and force people to seek out alternative treatment.

Around the same time I had this conversation with Scott I also saw this story on The Young Turks:

This story clearly depicts yet another example of an undesirable behavior taking place due to a false scarcity created by regulation. I don't support what this rogue sperm donor is doing but I do acknowledge that this exists simply because of regulations that are supposed to prevent it.

This same issue is at the heart of the unending abortion debate as well as the war on drugs. There are countless documented cases of illegal abortions that have occurred in our past in times when the act was strictly forbidden and today even most Republicans and Democrats agree that the war on drugs has been a huge failure.

The answer to all of these issues is not one of regulation but one of environment. If we create the conditions where people will choose not to do drugs, not to have abortions, not to need rogue sperm donors, not to need to use unlicensed preschools, etc. then we go much further toward achieving the goals our rules and regulations were designed to achieve.

For the past two years I have been intrigued by the rise in both homeschooling and unschooling. This rules vs. environment concept when applied to this topic lends an interesting perspective. We hear all the time about how high the dropout rate is in this country. By some accounts it is nearly 33%. Dropouts do not cease to learn, learning is a natural human behavior, they simply cease being schooled. What percentage of that 33% could be considered unschoolers? What percentage of those who drop out drop out for reasons that have to do with regulations that make staying in school unbearable? What percentage of those who register as homeschoolers are really unschooling? According to both John Holt and Grace Llewellyn that number is pretty high. Could both the high dropout rate and the rise in homeschooling be indicators that something we are doing to schools is having the same effect as the others I mentioned above?

If we focused on creating environments that kids would want to choose rather than loading our schools full of restrictive policies and if didn't over-regulate the curriculum, didn't make school so much pressure for both students and teachers, if we didn't set the path of learning down for students instead of letting them find their own way, if we didn't setup school to be a game of winners and losers competing for high marks, would we have such high figures of both homeschoolers and dropouts? Could a large part of this 33% simply represent a section of our population who have rejected this idea that we ought to be competing and progressing? And, what of specialization, categorization, labels? Our school policies, how they are run, how they are legislated, and the purposes they serve make them absolutely loaded with over-regulation. In this way these institutions are just like the Cider House Rules.

Its not just the "thou shalt not" policies that have this effect but the "thou shalt" policies are equally as problematic. One place in schools we see this effect all the time is with school and district initiatives. We get these all the time. If a school wants to promote something administrators will have initiatives. BYOD initiatives, 1:1 initiatives, mobile learning initiatives, etc. Usually these initiatives come down as mandates, as add-ons to the normal practice of teaching and learning. And, quite often they are mandated even in places where they do not exactly fit. What we end up with is unnatural adoption. Rather than allowing something to happen because it is a good fit (i.e. allowing the use of cell phones in projects where they are beneficial for learning) initiatives tend to force the adoption of a tool or practice even where it is not a good fit. In the end this causes more harm than good for whatever cause the initiative was trying to support. Many teachers will say, I tried it and it didn't work, we would rather go back to banning this than to keep up with this initiative.

I like to think of the initiative issue in sculptural terms. There are basically three types of sculpture: additive, subtractive, and modeling. An initiative is an additive approach to policy. It adds something to an already built structure in hopes that its addition will force a positive change. At times this is the correct approach but more often than not it backfires. On the other hand we could take subtractive approaches. Michelangelo was famous for saying that when carving stone he didn't create the sculptures, he just removed all the stone that wasn't part of them. The same approach can be used with school policy. If we want a BYOD program in our schools the most natural way to go about it is simply to allow it. Remove any policy restrictions that are preventing it from taking place. In the long run this will force a more natural change. Instead of forcing the hand of teachers to integrate something without questioning whether or not it is appropriate to do so the subtractive policy approach forces teachers to find ways to deal with the presence of student-owned devices. This makes the integration of a technology far more authentic and likely to have more longevity.

One problem is that there is a lot of money out there to support initiatives. But, no one will award a grant for a subtraction. Therefore we end up with reform after reform, initiative after initiative, that fail to take hold long-term. In the case of technology integration, to quote Larry Cuban, "Computers meet school, school wins."

The flipped classroom is another example of the rules & regulations vs. environmental intervention/additive vs. subtractive issue playing out. For a number of months there has been quite a lot of debate online about the use of tools like Kahn Academy as well as teacher-created videos to replace lectures. These videos in and of themselves are not harmful and in many cases can support student learning. But, I think what most opponents are arguing against is their imposition in classrooms as initiatives, as another additive policy. Kahn cannot replace a teacher who can actually interact with students and it is true that the kind of teaching that is used in Kahn academy videos supports a very traditional and somewhat bland style of teaching. But, it is a useful resource to have on hand much in the same way as I might have a series of textbooks or reference materials on my shelf. With Kahn and the flipped classroom the issue of initiative funding is even more pronounced since the Gates Foundation is throwing so much support behind the idea. In this case, as in so many others, funding a basically good idea and turning it into an initiative will likely kill it. Flipped classrooms will end up with the same fate as so many other school reforms that have gone out to pasture.

I could go on and on with more and more examples of how rules, regulations & initiatives, both prohibitive and supportive, muck things up and usually end up with an outcome in opposition of their goals. The point is that what works to change behavior are not rewards and punishments, but changes in the environment that allow people to make the right decisions. If we want students to benefit from a flipped classroom allow it as an acceptable teaching and learning strategy. If we want to increase student access to more personalized technology allow them to bring their devices. If we want fewer students to drop out of school make schools better and more humane places. If we want fewer abortions make social and economic changes that will make a young mother feel more confident that they are supported in having and raising a child. If we want people to use less drugs change the environment to make them happier more content people to begin with. How do you create change? You create conditions that allow it to happen.

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