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Experiencing Values vs. Teaching Them

An article by Tani Prero was published by The Lookstein Center for Jewish Education. The full article can be read here. Learn more about Team Building with Tani here.

In addition, the full text of the article is below.

Experiencing Values vs. Teaching Them

Anyone connected to children or the field of education today knows that our educators and our children face many challenges. With bullying and other inappropriate or problematic behavior, a major goal today is helping children treat themselves and others with respect. We have an ideal for them, and we have the challenge of teaching our kids good “midos.”

Kids learn a lot from modelling. They absorb attitudes and behaviors from their parents, TV, movies, music videos, and from teachers. In today’s snarky culture, behaving with respect towards others isn’t cool.

If this is how many kids perceive interacting with others, how do we teach respect and good midos? How can they ever see these ideals as valuable?

In my experience, it is not effective to teach about respect or good midos in the manner we might teach about a holiday or historical event. To develop a child’s understanding that respect is morally good and even an obligation, the student needs to experience it. There is, of course, a disconnect here; if a student doesn’t already behave this way, how can he learn?

In terms of adopting values, one of the strongest influences on a child is the peer group. When a teacher promotes a particular value, the peer group ultimately decides whether or not to accept it. Even if a few “good” kids agree, if the majority of the class does not accept the value, it will often not be adopted by the others. Even if some kids adopt the value, the majority will pressure (by ridicule or other means) them so they eventually behave like the rest of the group. Of course, there are exceptions, but this is how the model often works. In terms of adopting values, peers matter most.

The Charlie Brown cartoons illustrate this brilliantly. The author, Charles Schultz, appears to depicts this very point. In the world of Charlie Brown we see no adults, only their legs, and when adults speak the only sounds heard are “blah, wah, blah….”

And so, if we want to make sure kids hear more than “blah, wah, blah,” we need to be cognizant that it is the individual kid or their peers who will be the most effective in teaching the values and behaviors we want them to learn and adopt. As educators we need to infiltrate the peer group and its values and bring them to actually experience the benefits of respect. Once they experience the benefits of respect, they can decide as a group to adopt the value, and will have learned how to do that in the process.

We can begin by presenting kids with a situation that evokes feelings of mild tension or interpersonal stress. The leader / facilitator must stand ready to ensure that the tension doesn’t boil over into a conflict. He should also prepare to guide the students through resolving the tension.

The facilitator will often need to step in and guide the children though the process of communication and coordination, while ensuring the activity remains fun and engaging. If the children have any hopes of succeeding at the task and winning the game, they will need to work together. To that end, they can only convince each other to work together when they speak respectfully to each other. As the children talk to each other politely, they see that they succeed together. Through this experience of success, they learn that it helps them to speak respectfully.

Directives aren’t a tool that works here. We can’t tell a child to act a certain way. We are looking to help the children choose to utilize a certain behavior. They will apply this behavior when they see that it benefits them. A teacher can explain a behavior and even give examples, such as what a respectful invitation might sound like, or to even spell out in greater detail how they might say it. In this method the teacher/facilitator presents the students with tools they can choose to use or ignore. The choice remains theirs.

An example of this is one of my favorite games called The Reverse Relay Race. The goal is to have a team run together while everyone holds onto one object. It sounds simple, but thankfully creates many challenges. Some kids in the group can run faster than others, others are great at telling others what to do and others don’t know how to take directions. Add the race element and these challenges become more intense. Quite quickly all sorts of tensions arise. Identifying and processing the interactions transforms them into a fantastic learning experience.

Any challenge in itself can and should be enough to motivate the team, if it arouses their curiosity. As long as the students will perceive the game as ‘cool,’ they will have the motivation to play and learn.

So asking thought provoking questions such as “I see you’re in a predicament. The way you are yelling at Shlomo to help you doesn’t seem to be working. How could you speak to him in a way that will get him to want to help your team?”

Why will motivate the children to try to learn this new behavior? Once they appreciate the challenge they want to win. Additionally, when one of them stands in front of peers as an appointed leader, he will feel pressure to perform and thus receive more peer approval. Here students discover that winning does not mean competition. In our case, cooperation will bring victory.

Another experience guiding students towards more cooperative behavior arose in a session that focused on leadership. In this scenario, the boy who volunteered to be leader made fun of a boy who made a mistake. I explained to the student that the definition of a leader is someone who helps his followers succeed. “When a leader makes fun of his followers does it make them more able to succeed, or less?” The leader thought for a moment. I pushed further with the question, “How else could a leader respond to the mistake of a follower – in a way that will help him succeed?” After that prompt, the boy figured out instantaneously on his own how to speak respectfully to his friend who had made a mistake. The follower smiled brightly at the polite and respectful invitation to join in the game and then he joined in to help.

When the child chooses respectful behavior, sees a positive result, and enjoyed the good feeling, he will want to use that behavior again. Furthermore, those around him will buy in too, since he was the successful leader.

As with any learned behavior, repeated exposure and guidance are necessary to turn into a habit. This is possible, and ultimately, this is a great way for kids to learn to respect!

As we described earlier, children learn from what they see and experience around them. Furthermore the peer group is a powerful force affecting their thoughts and behavior at this stage. Combining these strong influences, with support and guidance from educational professionals, create a valuable process towards an engaging and educational experience.

The Greatness of a Family Hike – and the dog.

The climb to the top surprised me this time. In addition to the sounds of a nice family from New Jersey, happy children, a relieved and pleased dad, and the calming sound of a flowing stream, I heard other noises. Other noises that I didn’t instinctively recognize. I knew the birds calls, I hear them all the time. And I’m intuitively familiar with the patter of hikers’ steps in the forest.

But this time, I heard barking all the time. The family who I led on this hike brought their dog with them. We hiked with a dog. A big golden retriever, full of doggy excitement and exuberance. Many hikers bring their dogs along but this was first experience hiking with a dog. And boy was it fun. He splashed in the river, ran down the mountainside just to fetch a stick, and even got in a fight with a swan and a goose. I’m kind of thankful no bears showed up this time. I wonder how he would have reacted.

When a family goes hiking together, they share such a wonderful experience. They come to a calming place in the forest, and they are away from the computer, video games and TV that distract people from conversation. And they embark on an adventure together. The dog too was part of the fun. I watched as the father and children shared a new experience, they learned new skills together. And in this group, they learned the ways of the forest together.

They took responsibility for each other. They looked out for trail markers, they helped collect wood for the campfire, they prepared dinner, they took turns using my knife to sharpen sticks to roast their marshmallows. They put up their tents, they helped each other unroll their sleeping bags, they figured out how to put up a fly tarp (and its a good thing they did, because it poured that night!).

They also took care of their dog, who after a long day of hiking (and fighting with geese) was so exhausted he just lay down on the floor and shivered himself to sleep.

The sleep that people experience after a day like this grants them a profound feeling of restfulness and peace. Their bodies feel good after all the exertion, they feel happy after a day of discovery and relationship building, and they feel satisfied to have worked and accomplished together. Sleep like this celebrates the day’s accomplishments.

The smiles the next morning shone brightly, albeit groggily. Everyone had a good night’s sleep, protected from pitter-pattering raindrops, we davened an inspired prayer. Another fire, a hot breakfast, and a challenging hike later, the bodies were tired again, but the moods and happiness soared. Even the dog was back to his normal, exuberant self.

Is it Better to Beat the Competition?

Many people love the idea of competition. It powers professional sports, and works as a great motivator. I even know of some team building companies who ironically only work with the competition model.

As a team building facilitator myself, most of the workshops I lead are competition free. In my workshops people work towards a goal, try to beat their personal best, or work against a time limit, I don’t like to have teams work against each other, because in competition, where there are winners there are also losers. While everybody likes to win, nobody likes to lose.

In a recent family workshop, one of the girls in the family asked incredulously during the first activity, “But who am I playing against?” She wanted to know why she should even bother participating in an activity when her success wouldn’t be measured by being better than someone else.

With a bright smile, and an encouraging tone, I told her, “It’s a TEAM building workshop. You’ll be working together here.” She accepted the challenge and got involved.

I always like to refine my approach and make it better, and that includes trying new things. So I decided to try a bit of competition that day. There’s a game I play called “losing your marbles” that involves transferring a ball from point A to point B. Instead of giving each team a personal challenge to meet, I made a classic competition. And guess who’s group lost? That girl. And guess how she felt about losing? Simply put, not good. She almost quit for the rest of the day because she lost.

I’m sticking with the non- competition model for now.

Do people need competition? Do you have any ideas on how to teach healthy competitive skills?

The Blossoming Trees

A purple tree!

One day this past week, I noticed something that stopped me in my tracks. It was a tree in my neighborhood. I know the tree, I’ve seen it so many times every week on my walks through the neighborhood. And it always has green leaves, just like almost every other tree.

But now it does not have green leaves. As its buds are emerging from the branches, instead of green, it has bright purple flowers! This one deserves a wow! And it brought me my weekly thought.

Generally, life is filled with beautiful things. Rocks, mountains, plants, trees and many animals have a beauty that speaks to us. Most of us are busy and don’t take time to notice them. I myself was about to walk past. But sometimes I need to remind myself to stop and wonder at these beautiful sights.

And I saw – a purple tree! The brown dry branches are sprouting brightly colored, vivid purple flowers! Wow!

While life in general has a lot of beauty, it looks to me that the beginning stages of life are endowed with a special striking beauty. Children are adorable, baby kittens are certainly cuter than adult cats. Even baby elephants have a cute ‘babyness’ that distinguishes their look from the look of their humongous parents.

I think it’s to help us recognize the beauty of life itself. When it starts, life is beautiful. And that beauty is inherent in life. Even as adults get withered over time, they are still capable of producing new life, like the dry branches on the tree in my neighborhood.