Psyched Up for NCLB

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With the contentious bill up for reauthorization, ed tech advocates would do well to draw on a useful mind game from a decades-old middle school lesson.

Policy & Advocacy I TAUGHT FUTURES STUDIES to secondary school students during the 1970s. A primary purpose of the course was to get kids to realize that there were alternative futures available to them, and that they could have an influence over which future came to be—they had control over their own lives and how those lives turned out. This is not an easy message to get across to freshly minted teenagers, some of whom may have already entered a pre-nihilist phase. Our team of teachers tried to devise lessons that put the students in charge of an activity so that when the lesson was completedthey could see the impact they had had.

One activity that worked splendidly with ninthgraders grew out of a student’s noting that he saw a lot of discarded bottles and cans on his walk to school. In response, we asked all the students to bring in one or two bottles or cans they saw on their way to school. The next morning, trash bags were scattered around the room. After cataloging the trash, the students suggested they could clean up their pathways to school once a week, and the environment would be better for it.

One student contended that they would never see the end of it, and she didn’t want to pick up after “stupid people” the rest of her life. She suggested eliminating the source of the trash; not the people who put it out there, but the bottles and cans themselves. In the days before recycling was common practice, there were “returnable” bottles available. Much as we do now, when you bought a bottle of soda or beer, you could choose to buy a returnable bottle, and when you returned it, you got a deposit back.

Our students decided that their families should buy only returnable bottles. Since they didn’t do the shopping, they would have to get their parents on board. We devised a study to benchmark the discarded bottles and cans the students picked up on the way to school, and to record all the liquids their households bought in returnable and non-returnable bottles. After a month, we performed the same counts.

During the intervening month, students shared their successes and failures in attempting to persuade their parents and siblings to participate in the cleanup effort. By the end of the month, more than half of the students had been able to convince their parents to buy only returnable bottles when that was an option. There was little if any reduction in the amount of trash on the roadside, but students had begun to notice that some of the trash was made up of returnable bottles, so they were making some spare change.

Most important, the students had turned into advocates for alternative approaches to packaging that would create less trash and consume less energy in manufacturing. And the result of their advocacy was to transform their parents from people who may have never thought twice about recycling, into committed conservationists by triggering a simple change in their routines. In effect, the parents changed their thinking to bring it in line with their behavior.

From my scanty recollection of Psychology 101, there’s a name for that phenomenon: cognitive dissonance. The principle of cognitive dissonance was made popular in the late 1950s by Leon Festinger’s book, Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. The website Psychology.org provides the following definition:“According to cognitive dissonance theory, there is atendency for individuals to seek consistency among their cognitions(i.e., beliefs, opinions). When there is an inconsistencybetween attitudes or behaviors (dissonance), somethingmust change to eliminate the dissonance. In the case of a discrepancybetween attitudes and behavior, it is most likely thatthe attitude will change to accommodate the behavior.”

In the case of our students’ parents, being prodded to buy only returnable bottles helped to change whatever attitudes they had about willfully disposing of things.

What could this lengthy parable possibly have to do with education technology? It actually has surprising relevance. In this column I often have exhorted you to write to state legislators and members of Congress in support of funding for technology and the effective use of technology, or have your students write to decision-makers, or invite decision-makers into your school to witness technology use. I’m making that same plea now, because as Congress starts to address the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, this is an important time for our voices to be heard, particularly since everyone else is trying to get their two cents in. Different education groups are issuing reports and recommendations. The private sector, including the Business Roundtable and the US Chamber of Commerce, which together have formed the Business Coalition for Student Achievement, has given multiple testimonies in front of various congressional committees. (The Chamber of Commerce report, “Leaders and Laggards: A State-by-State Report Card on Educational Effectiveness,” can be viewed at a great interactive website.)

Ask your superintendent to write a letter imploring your legislator to support technology funding in the reauthorization of NCLB. By making a positive public statement about technology (although a letter or e-mail is not that public), your superintendent will not only influence your congressional member, but, keeping the lesson of the returnable bottles in mind, is more likely to become an advocate for technology in your district. Does this work? It has for me—twice.

When I was a technology coordinator in Texas, my district formed a committee to create the first technology plan. We put on the committee an influential school board member who was unsure as to whether or not we should spend money on student computers. By the time the committee was finished with its fact-finding phase, the school board member was a zealous advocate who carried the funding item when it came in front of the entire board, where it passed unanimously.

Putting psychology in the service of education technology may seemlike an unusual approach, but with NCLB in the balance, it’s timeto gain supporters by any means necessary.

In another case, when I was with the Texas Education Agency, I was put in charge of the Public Education Information Management System, the statewide student and administrative information system, and told to fix it. I joined with a few other TEA staff to create a committee of the most vocal anti- PEIMS superintendents, members of the state Legislature and the Legislative Budget Board, and local PEIMS coordinators. We developed a plan to improve PEIMS and had the committee carry that plan to the statewide superintendents’ conference, as well as to meetings at the state’s Regional Education Service Centers. Committee members became, if not zealous advocates of the system, at least proponents of improving it.

Putting psychology in the service of educational technology may seem like an unusual approach, but with NCLB in the balance, it’s time to gain supporters by any means necessary. The key is to take some action. We can create an alternative future in education with federal technology funding. You can make that alternative future come into being by contacting Congress, and getting others to do the same.

Geoffrey H. Fletcher is editorial director of T.H.E. Journal and executive director of T.H.E. Institute.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.

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