Thursday, October 1, 2015

Unearthing Attitudes (Part One)

As I said in my last post, the spirit that drives classroom resistance is difficult to unravel. Uncooperative attitudes slink around under the surface and spawn negative behaviors, but they seldom reveal their true identity.  Of course we can make inferences about what students may be thinking or feeling when they appear to willfully disobey, but if our presumptions are wrong, we may escalate the problem instead of diffuse it.  Teachers who learn to look beneath the behavior increase the likelihood of fostering a change of heart.

A complete grasp on the motives that prompt the actions of others is usually not attainable. At times, I struggle even to explain the reasons behind my own choices; how then could I dare say what makes students resist their teachers, antagonize their classmates, or avoid learning in the classroom?  The best we can manage is to develop a theory that accounts for our observations and then refine our ideas as we work through new situations. 

Despite the limitations, a theory at least removes some of the abstraction surrounding the concept of motivating forces.  It also serves as a reference point when we make choices about responding to student behavior.  The concept that I share in this post and the next is the tool that enabled me to navigate my way out of a three-year struggle with negativity and resistance in the classroom.

Most definitions of “attitude” refer to three main elements: perceptions, emotions, and behaviors.  Our perceptions, first of all, may arise from personal experience, but they can also develop on the basis of what others say or do.  When I was young, I contracted a negative opinion toward reading.  That point of view germinated in my struggle to comprehend what I read, but its roots grew deeper as I observed a couple of my school friends systematically avoid books during “sustained silent reading time.”

If a perception is to mature into an attitude, it must get in touch with the emotions.  For me, that connection occurred in the feeling of defeat I experienced when attempting to answer questions about portions of text that my teachers assigned.  Ironically, it also expanded as I watched my older sister devour books for the shear pleasure of reading.  Even though today she and I respect and enjoy each other—and even occasionally trade books as gifts—we did not always appreciate the finer qualities in one another when we were young! Due to the friction between us at the time, my aversion to books deepened in proportion to my sister’s love for them. 

Finally, perceptions and emotions ripen into attitudes when they affect our behavior.  My frame of mind toward reading, you see, naturally led me to avoid books, but sometimes it also drove me to dishonesty.  In one situation, a well-meaning teacher decided to initiate a contest on the last day of the school year.  Prizes would be awarded in the fall to those who completed the most books during our summer break.  I knew that I would never place in that competition, yet I also could not face the embarrassment of having read nothing at all. So, one warm August afternoon, as the cicadas chorused their lament of summer’s impending demise, I climbed my tree house ladder with a stack of books I had never opened and wrote a list of ten titles to hand to the teacher in September.

In sum, an attitude is a combination of perceptions, emotions, and behavior.  But how might this understanding help us to address the negative attitudes in our students? 

First, the true identity of an attitude is easily mistaken.  From the outside, my childhood avoidance of reading probably looked like obstinacy.  In fact, though, it arose largely from feelings of incompetence and embarrassment—and maybe a smidgen of pigheadedness!

Second, negative attitudes are generally resistant to manipulative strategies.  Today I am an avid reader, but the transformation was not the result of any sort of threat or bribe.  Rather, it shifted gradually, as I occasionally became hooked on books that interested me. Some of those books were required for school assignments; others I read simply because my teachers and parents left them in places where I would find them. 

My attitude toward reading also changed as I witnessed positive reading encounters among people who were influential to me.  Occasionally my mom, for example, would laugh herself to tears over humorous anecdotes in Reader’s Digest.  I also recall teachers who were enraptured by the stories they read to kids, not just once but year after year.  The change in my attitude toward reading, then, was an outcome of a new set of experiences and emotions that I began to associate with reading.

Third, our attitudes are deeply personal to us.  My story about learning to love reading is not everyone's story.  Whereas certain factors in my experience may concur with the findings of motivational research, our unique personalities and experiences lead us to respond to external influence in different ways.  Therefore, this blog will not promote “recipe approaches” to classroom discipline.  You will find various scenarios and theory-related suggestions here, but please do not consider my examples to be formulas.

In this post, I have shared that attitudes are usually comprised of perceptions, emotions, and behaviors.  Occasionally, attitude theories also include a beliefs component.  That element, which we will explore next month, takes on a unique importance when we consider ways to cultivate a change in the attitudes of others.  If you are anxious to learn more about responding to students in ways that affect the heart and not just the behavior, you may find my recent book to be useful: Beyond Control: Heart-Centered Classroom Climate And Discipline.

Until next time, I invite you to deepen your awareness of the perceptions and emotions that drive your students’ behavior.