One week ago today another tragic and violent act occurred, this time at Sandy Hook elementary in Newtown, CT. Not to minimize other recent public attacks but without a doubt the nature of the victims in this attack struck an unthinkable chord of horror. With a daughter in kindergarten I found myself struggling to choke out words when trying to explain to her just the basics of what happened. The night of Sandy Hook, in a discussion with friends, I struggled to answer why the recurrence of these tragedies seem to be increasing. I do believe we need to have an honest discussion on the availability of assault weapons as well as the accessibility of mental health treatment but as a former classroom teacher what I came to is the absence of engagement and compassion.
Good teachers will tell you engaged student are less likely to act out. In the classroom that means designing for authentic and meaningful work that should involve collaborating and communicating with others. If we can assume that the classroom is in many ways a microcosm of society we can extrapolate the bad behavior that often comes with a disengaged class to dangerous acts in the "real world". Engaged students not only take part in the learning but in the community of learners in which they are immersed. At the same time that community reciprocates engagement with each individual in a way that allows for formal and/or informal assessment of progress. In a highly functioning classroom a struggling student would never go unnoticed or unsupported by his/her peers I'd like to think the same in a highly functioning society but ours is a society of disengagement. Yes we're more connected via social media but is that true engagement with people? In a truly engaged society the story in Sandy Hook could have been incredibly different. Instead of a withdrawn and isolated Adam Lanza perhaps a community could have identified and strengthened his deficiencies early in his life. Acknowledging the reality of mental illness and the paradox of humanity that brings unpredictable and often uncontrollable behavior I wonder if the increasing inertia of a disengaged society isn't at least partly to blame for the uptick of public attacks.
Does engagement with a community need an ally?
If engagement is at least a part of the answer then it must start at an early age and it must be in a way that is not solely self-serving. If our children are taught (and assessed) to work with others in meaningful ways they learn habits of mind and societal norms that can reap massive benefits down the road. In my work with the Buck Institute for Education we often stress three C's of 21st Century Skills (collaboration, communication and critical thinking) but I'm wondering if it's time to add a fourth...compassion. Inspiring a sense of compassion and empathy in our children can serve as powerful sidekick to engagement. Work that is meaningful to others like Kiva microfinancing, Dots in Blue Water, and the Green Bronx Machine intertwines engagement and compassion by helping students identify instances of cognitive dissonance where they note a situation that needs to be improved or a problem that needs solved.
To be clear, tragedies like Sandy Hook are not the fault of schools or teachers. This is a complex and deep societal problem that unfortunately is not likely to disappear completely regardless of corrective measures. But our schools can be a valuable asset in the pursuit of that ideal. Schools were never meant to be parental surrogates and are certainly unable to solve all of the ills of our society but I'll ask what I think is a rhetorical question.
Why would we not design instruction in a way that engages students and helps them learn compassion?