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September 1, 1996
Vol. 54
No. 1

The Caring Classroom's Academic Edge

Social-emotional learning
At Hazelwood School in Louisville, Kentucky, pairs of students are scattered around a 2nd-3rd grade classroom. Heads bent together, students brainstorm with their partners why Widower Muldie, of the book Wagon Wheels, left his three sons behind when he set off across the wilderness in search of a home site. Although this story of an African-American pioneer family is set in the rural America of more than 100 years ago, these inner-city students have little trouble diving into the assignment: Write a dialogue between Johnnie and Willie Muldie, ages 11 and 8, who are left in charge of their 3–year-old brother.
Teacher Laura Ecken sets the stage: Let's imagine that we're Johnny and Willie. It's the first night all alone without daddy. We've put little brother to bed, and we're just sitting up talking to each other.
Before students launch into their work, Ecken asks the class to discuss “ways we can help our partners.” The children demonstrate remarkable forethought about how to work together: “Disagree without being mean.” “If your partner says something that don't fit. then work it into another part.” “Let your partner say all they want to say.”
Over the next hour, students become intensely interested in figuring out what the Muldie boys might have said to each other. The teacher offers no grade or behavioral reward for this task, nor is any needed. Students are friendly, helpful, and tactful, but also determined to write the best dialogue they know how. In one partnership, John says. “We could talk about how much we miss daddy.” Cynthia counters, “But daddy's only been gone for a day.” After a few exchanges on this point, John and Cynthia agree to talk about “how much we're going to miss daddy.” In another partnership, Barry makes use of a strategy suggested by a classmate in the preceding discussion: “How about if we use your idea to 'help me hunt for food' later, because right now we're talking about how the boys feel.” Students seem remarkably comfortable questioning and expressing disagreement; the easy camaraderie extends to the many partnerships that cross racial and gender lines.

Fruits of Community

That children at Hazelwood School care about learning and about one another seems perfectly natural. But it didn't just happen. The school's staff has worked very hard over the past five years to create what they call “a caring community of learners”—a community whose members feel valued, personally connected to one another, and committed to everyone's growth and learning. Hazelwood's staff—and educators at other Child Development Project (CDP) schools across the country—believe that creating such a community is crucial to children's learning and citizenship. A growing body of research suggests they are right.
At schools high in “community”—measured by the degree of students' agreement with statements such as “My school is like a family” and “Students really care about each other”—students show a host of positive outcomes. These include higher educational expectations and academic performance, stronger motivation to learn, greater liking for school, less absenteeism, greater social competence, fewer conduct problems, reduced drug use and delinquency, and greater commitment to democratic values (Battistich et al., in press; Bryk and Driscoll 1988; Hom and Battistich 1995).
Our approach in the Child Development Project is to take research findings about how children learn and develop—ethically, socially, and intellectually—and translate them into a comprehensive, practical program with three facets: (1) a classroom program that concentrates on literature-based reading instruction, cooperative learning, and a problem-solving approach to discipline; (2) a school-wide program of community building and service activities; and (3) a family involvement program.
We originally developed these approaches in collaboration with teachers in California's San Ramon and Hayward school districts. We then extended them, beginning in 1991, to six additional districts nationwide (Cupertino, San Francisco, and Salinas in California; Dade County, Florida; Jefferson County, Kentucky; and White Plains, New York). In both the original and extension sites, students in CDP schools were studies and compared with students in matched non-project schools (Solomon et al. 1992).

Five Principals to Practice

  1. Warm, supportive, stable relationships. Do all members of a school community—students, teachers, staff, parents—know one another as people? Do students view their classmates primarily as collaborators in learning, or as competitors in the quest for grades and recognition? Teachers at our CDP schools carefully examine their approaches, asking, “What kind of human relationships are we fostering?” The recast many old activities.For example, at one California elementary school, the competitive science fair has become a hands-on family science night that draws hundreds of parents. With awards eliminated, parents are free to focus on the pleasures of learning science with their children. A Dade County, Florida, elementary school removed the competitive costume contest from its Halloween celebration, so that children could enjoy the event without worrying about winners and losers. Other schools took the competition out of PTA membership drives, refocusing them to emphasize participation and celebration of the school's progress.Teachers also added or redesigned many academic and nonacademic activities so that students could get to know one another and develop a feeling of unity and shared purpose as a class and school. “A big change for me is that on the first morning of school, the classroom walls are blank—no decorations, no rules,” explains a teacher from California. Like many of her Child Development Project colleagues, she involves students in interviewing classmates and creating wall displays about “our class” that bring children closer together.In the first class meetings of the year, students discuss “how we want to be treated by others,” and “what kind of class we want to be.” From these discussions emerge a few simple principles— “be kind,” “show respect,” “do our best”—that are remarkably similar across diverse schools.Says one teacher, When you invest time up front in having the kids get to know one another, the picked-on child never has a chance to emerge. Kids find out that they share the same favorite food, hobby, or whatever; they see one another as human beings. The child who might have been the nerd in previous years never gets seen that way because classmates remember that the child's favorite food is McDonald's hamburgers, too.
  2. Constructive learning. Children naturally try to make sense of the world—to figure out how magnets work or why friends help. Good teaching fosters these efforts to understand, but also hones them, helping children become ever more skillful, reflective, and self-critical in their pursuit of knowledge. How can teachers support and extend children's natural efforts to learn?First, educators can provide a coherent curriculum, organized around important concepts, rather than a potpourri of isolated facts. Second, educators can connect the curriculum with children's own natural efforts to make sense of the world. Children should see mathematics, for example, as a powerful means for understanding the world, not as arbitrary principles that apply only within classroom walls. When children see how the ideas and skills of school help them understand and act upon the world—how they are genuinely useful—they begin to practice these academic skills throughout their home and school lives.Third, lessons can be set up so that children must weigh new information against what they already know, work through discrepancies, and construct a new understanding. When children make discoveries, struggle to find explanations, and grapple with evidence and views that differ from their own, they are likely to reach more profound levels of understanding than they can achieve through simple rote learning. The students at Hazelwood School who wrote a dialogue between the Muldie boys were constructive learners in all these senses.Like other books in our project's literature-based program, Wagon Wheels pursues important issues: What experiences have shaped the lives of diverse Americans? How have acts of principle, courage, and responsibility shaped history, and how do they shape our own daily lives? These issues are explored not just in literature and social studies, but in class meetings, problem solving, and in many other ways.In addition, to make sense of an experience that happened long ago, Ecken's students needed to draw on both school learning and their own experiences. Would being left without parents and in charge of a younger brother feel any different in 1878 than in 1994? Finally, the task of writing a dialogue challenged students to take the perspective of the boys in the story and to reconcile their thinking with their partner's perspective.
  3. An important, challenging curriculum. In an era of rapid technological change, certain skills and habits are likely to remain important—thoughtful reading, self-critical reflection, clear communication, asking productive questions. But the de facto curriculum defined by commercial textbooks and standardized tests often emphasizes something much less enduring—isolated subskills and piecemeal knowledge. Like Jere Brophy and Janet Allman (1991), we believe that curriculum development must “be driven by major long-term goals, not just short-term coverage concerns.” These goals should be broadly conceived to include children's development as principled, humane citizens.Numerous critiques of the curriculum in this country argue that it sells children short by presenting material that is too simple and too easily mastered—for example, basal readers whose barren language and shallow ideas offer little reason to read. That a more challenging curriculum is more compelling to children, even so-called slow learners, is a tenet underlying some recent interventions (Hopfenberg 1993).
  4. Intrinsic motivation. What kind of schooling produces eager, lifelong learners? Certainly not schooling that relies on the power of extrinsic rewards—prizes, honors, grades, and so forth. In fact, studies show that these can actually undermine children's interest in learning (Lepper and Greene 1978). Awarding prizes for creating science, reading books, running laps, or a host of other worthwhile ends can diminish interest in the activity itself by focusing children's attention on the reward, and by implying that the task is not inherently worthwhile (Kohn 1993). As one sage commentator quipped, “If we want children to read books, we should offer them books as a reward for eating pizzas, not pizzas for reading books.”To minimize extrinsic rewards, educators need a curriculum that is worth learning and a pedagogy that helps students see why it is worth learning. The students writing a dialogue between the Mulide boys were motivated by the task itself. Wagon Wheels raised the issues of timeless importance, and the teacher took care to introduce the book in a way that piqued students' curiosity and helped them make personal connections to the book.
  5. Attention to social and ethical dimensions of learning. Everything about schooling—curriculum, teaching method, discipline, interpersonal relationships—teaches children about the human qualities that we value. As students discuss the experiences of African-American families like the Muldies, they grow ethically and socially. This growth stems from the content they encounter, the experience of working with classmates, and the reflection following partner work on their difficulties and successes working with others.Child Development Project teachers scrutinize disciplinary approaches not just for whether they help children behave in the short run, under an adult's surveillance, but whether they promote children's responsible behavior in the long run. Teachers engage children in shaping the norms of their class and school, so that see that these norms are not arbitrary standards set by powerful adults, but necessary standards for the well-being of everyone. Teachers also help children develop collaborative approaches to resolving conflicts, guiding them to think about the values needed for humane life in a group. Playground disputes become opportunities for students to learn about the needs and perspectives of other students, and to practice skills of nonviolent problem solving.Finally, teachers look at the many programs, special event, parent-supported activities, and policies of the school through the lens of social and ethical development. Do these activities help children understand the values that sustain democratic society? Do they give students many opportunities to develop and practice qualities that we want them to have as adults—responsibility, collaboration, tolerance, commitment to the common good, courage to stand up for their beliefs, and so on?

Synergy of Academic and Social Goals

It is common to think of the academic and social goals of schooling as a hydraulic—to imagine that fostering one undermines the other. But when schools attend to all five elements described above, they create environments where children care about one another and about learning.
For example, students work harder, achieve more, and attribute more importance to schoolwork in classes in which they feel liked, accepted, and respected by the teacher and fellow students. Warm, supportive relationships also enable students to risk the new ideas and mistakes so critical to intellectual growth. It is no coincidence that, to create an environment in which students can discuss classmates' incorrect solutions to math problems, Japanese teachers spend a great deal of time building friendships among children and a feeling of classroom unity.
Schools that provide an important, challenging curriculum, and help children connect it to their own efforts to understand the world, become allies in children's quest for competence—and teachers in those schools have a head start in being seen as supportive, valued adults.
A shift away from competition, rewards, and punishments helps all students—not just the high-achievers—feel like valued members of the classroom community. Faced with a competitive , skill-and-drill curriculum, educationally less-prepared children may preserve their self-esteem by reducing their efforts. They may psychologically withdraw from the classroom or school community, leaving it powerless to influence their social, ethical, or intellectual development (Nicholls 1989).
The caring classroom is not one that avoids criticism, challenge, or mistakes. Parker J. Palmer (1982) has written: A learning space needs to be hospitable not to make learning painless but to make the painful things possible...things like exposing ignorance, testing tentative hypotheses, challenging false or partial information, and mutual criticism of thought. [None of these] can happen in an atmosphere where people feel threatened and judged.
Like a family, the caring classroom provides a sense of belonging that allows lively, critical discussions and risk-taking.

Countering Conventional Wisdom

We think relatively few American schools have managed to sustain a simultaneous focus on students' social, ethical, and intellectual development. What will it take to achieve this on a much broader scale? First, it will take changes in thinking; the agenda we have proposed runs counter to much current conventional wisdom in education.
Such changes cannot be expected to come quickly or easily. Because adults, too, are constructive learners, they need the same five conditions that children do. School improvement hinges on a sense of community and collaboration among teachers, conditions that enable teachers to risk changing practice and to admit and learn from mistakes.
At the schools participating in the Child Development Project, teachers spend up to 30 days over three years in staff development. The schools have worked consciously to build strong personal connections among staff members. They do this through social events, shared planning and reflection, and often by meeting regularly in “learning partnerships” of two to four teachers to discuss their efforts to reshape practice. In an era of tight budgets, such time for adult learning is difficult to obtain.
Finally, we need to recognize that community and learning are interdependent and must be pursued in context. This means that it is not enough to ask whether a new science curriculum increases students' mastery of important scientific concepts; we must also ask whether it fosters their capacity to work with fellow students, their intrinsic interest in science, and their recognition that science depends upon both collaboration and honesty. This is a big picture to keep in focus. Educators who have traditionally worked in isolation from one another—specialists in subject matter, pedagogy, school climate, motivation—must help one another to keep it in perspective.

Battistich, V., D. Solomon, D. Kim, M. Watson, and Eric Schaps. (In Press). “Schools as Communities, Poverty Levels of Student Populations, and Students' Attitudes, Motives, and Performance.” American Education Research Journal.

Brophy, J., and J. Alleman. (1991). “Activities as Instructional Tools: A Framework for Analysis and Evaluation.” Educational Researcher 20, 4:9–23.

Bryk, A. S., and M. E. Driscoll. (1988). The School as Community: Theoretical Foundations, Contextual Influences, and Consequences for Students and Teachers. Madison, Wisconsin: National Center on Effective Secondary Schools.

Hom, A., and V. Battistich. (April 1995). “Students' Sense of School Community as a Factor in Reducing Drug Use and Delinquency.” Presentation to the 1995 American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting.

Hopfenberg, W. (1993). The Accelerated Schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Lepper, M. R., and D. Greene. (1978). The Hidden Costs of Reward: New Perspectives on the Psychology of Human Motivation. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Nicholls, J. (1989). The Competitive Ethos and Democratic Education. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Palmer, P. J. (1983). To Know as We Are Known: A Spirituality of Education. San Francisco: HarperCollins.

Solomon, D., M. Watson, V. Battistich, E. Schaps, and K. Delucchi. (1992). “ Creating a Caring Community: A School-Based Program to Promote Children's Prosocial Development.” In Effective and Responsible Teaching: The New Synthesis, edited by E. Oser, J. L. Patty, and A. Dick. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Eric Schaps has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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