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Posted May 8, 2003 

By Lon Woodbury

A long-standing debate in education and mental health has been how best to help children learn what they need to know to become functioning, contributing adults. Actually, the debate has been going on throughout recorded history, and is one of the most important concerns each society has to tackle. Without an effective system in place to raise their young, a society's future is in jeopardy. To be effective, the system needs to insure that children learn both specific academic content, as well as proper behavior and motivating emotions.

A lot of debate in this country stems from an apparent confusion between the nature of learning and teaching. Sometimes it seems these concepts are almost used interchangeably, with the assumption that increased learning automatically occurs the more one emphasizes teaching techniques and methodology. However, common sense would remind us, just because someone is actively teaching, does not mean the material is actually being learned. We need to remember that learning is the goal, and teaching is a tool. Learning is what the child does; teaching involves an adult imparting knowledge.

The problem becomes even more complicated with special needs children who have behavioral and emotional problems as well as academic needs. When a serious pathology is also present, it complicates the situation even further.

The standard answer in this country in our era of mass education has been to decide what content the children need to know, and the sequence in which it needs to be learned. A curriculum is developed that essentially designs the intervention, consisting of a series of classes that teach the knowledge deemed to be necessary. The teachers subsequently carry out the centrally developed intervention plan, which is based on the assumption that knowledge is acquired as a result of the student successfully completing the classes. The primary intervention is teaching; readiness to learn is either assumed, or, if needed, remediation hopefully helps the students become ready to learn.

During the 20th century this approach has been fairly successful in the mass education of academic subjects such as Math, English and History. However, recent demands for extensive high stakes testing, such as the requirement in President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" legislation, is an obvious recognition that the old system is breaking down even in the academic area. The high-stakes tests are a clear indication of the official view that in order for the traditional system to continue working, it needs this system of additional measurement and motivation, on top of everything else schools are already doing. The focus of this new directive does seem to be on learning, but without interfering with the complicated teaching methodology that has developed over the last century.

In traditional education, the school addresses behavioral problems with punishment. However, if the problem behavior becomes too serious, the student might be referred to a rapidly growing system of juvenile detention facilities and juvenile courts, which essentially have been developed to "teach them a lesson!" Again, the emphasis is on teaching, rather than learning, and the high recidivism rate in juvenile facilities strongly shows that learning is not anywhere near the level we had hoped.

When the behavior problem is determined to be a mental health problem, the solution often is a referral to a counselor. The counselor essentially chooses the DSM-4 diagnosis that best fits the student’s behavior, and then targets the treatment intervention accordingly, as though following an unspoken mental health curriculum. This sounds very similar to the process of teaching, which involves someone imparting pre-determined knowledge. Unless the therapist uses a good dose of common sense in obtaining a social history, vital situational factors can be missed, resulting in treatment that is carried out based on a misdiagnosis. When the therapist misses vital environmental causes, the child might not learn anything because he or she doesn’t think the interventions are relevant.

Emotional Growth schools have found that they cannot teach behavior and the underlying character that drives it -- at least not in the traditional way, with teachers imparting knowledge in a classroom, following a centrally developed curriculum. When working with special needs students, Emotional Growth schools found they need to emphasize the students’ learning, with the teachers acting like mentors. In other words, the students learn better behavior, and develop the character that drives it, by modeling the adults who are working with them.

While students might "blow-off" formal approaches to teaching character, as dictated by a particular curriculum, they are more likely to learn right behavior and character by imitating their adult mentors. This, of course, assumes quality staff who themselves have high personal standards worthy of imitation, and an intuitive understanding of what students with problems need and how to respond to them. This happens best in a solidly structured school where behavioral consequences are immediate and appropriate.

Many alternative academic schools in both public and private sectors seem to have grasped the idea that we should start with what the child needs to learn, and focus on that. One of the interventions used might include teaching, or providing knowledge, but these schools have found it is more important to provide good staff to model and mentor what the child needs to learn, than to emphasize conventional teaching methods. This might be summarized as, “the teacher is the lesson!”

In seems our society heavily promotes professional training, credentials, and professionalism for the staff in our schools, mental health and juvenile justice facilities, yet seems to overlook the purpose for the training and credentials: it is to help the children learn what they need to learn. While the teacher might be the lesson, he or she is not the reason for the existence of the institution.

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