The Importance of Feedback

This letter is for those parents who are concerned with their child’s learning productivity or who have a child who doesn’t seem to care about obedience. It offers context from the principles in MEganize – Empower your child with an education for life.

Despite my writings about challenging our assumptions and revisiting our paradigms, I have found that this is more easily said than done. I have two examples that I would like to share with you. In both cases I went against my own advice, failed to follow my own manual, and in both cases went down the wrong path. Again, these situations seem arbitrary but because they relate to ‘structure’ within the 1st Quadrant, they offer great leverage into the perceptions or mindset of those within its influence. (So take note!). Also my children suffered the consequences of lost productivity and a strained relationship with me, to my regret and wasted effort.

‘Routine’: focus on the output!

The first situation refers to sticking to a routine. This principle of ‘routine first’ is to my mind cast in stone. However I took the next ‘control’ step which was to allow time to dictate to output. What I mean by this is that in defining ‘routine’ which incorporates the daily learning activities I made the mistake of allocating specific times to specific subjects. This sort of made sense, especially as that was the way we did it at school. Perhaps that should have been my first warning. The very true adage that ‘work expands to fit the time’ is crucial to understanding the flaw in this thinking. Instead of the child focusing on the work to be completed, he was more interested in watching the clock for his next ‘break’. The consequences of this are dramatic. All of a sudden, ‘school’ is only allowed within allocated times, whether or not the work was completed. Any week-end studies too were a no-no, even if they were behind on their goals. This resulted in a constant underperformance and clock watching mentality. Instead of managing their work I was managing their time! So, their focus too became on time. (People do what managers manage). Mea culpa! The ‘structure’ was wrong.

A mind-shift of this nature can take some time and frustration before it comes home. Because I am the decision-maker and teacher I can and have to be attuned to what works and what doesn’t. (This isn’t so in a school situation where 150 year old rules are just followed by the teachers). So, what is the solution? By shifting the emphasis to an early start time followed by a sequence of activities, each which has a predefined output, the work should get done and productivity should increase. This offers better ownership and recognition for work done, which is the ‘growth’ mindset we are trying to encourage. (See Dweck)

If there are problems, the child will be quick to request help as it is in his interest to solve it, rather than dodge it until later. The onus for learning and completing the desired output now falls clearly under the child’s control. As such, this complies with the principle of recognition, a core need, and so should bring success.

Structure before diversity!

How often do you hear, ‘Sorry’ or ‘OK’ from your child but there is NO change in their behavior?

The second error I have made relates to a lack of structure in favor of allowing room for discussion and understanding. What I am referring to is subtle disobedience. We all dislike being told what to do. The more intelligent the child, the more they want to make their own choices. Sadly, this translates into not listening, or doing what they are told, even if explained many times. I warn parents about this in MEganize, based on Dr. Kazdin’s writings. Do not caboose! Why? This is a bottom-up approach! There are a number of repetitive bad habits that children get into that will over time translate into strategic weaknesses. Untidiness, bad eating habits, lying, playing too many games, on-line chat rooms, etc. These are common issues parents face. What is the best way to handle this? My approach to date has been to adopt ‘positive psychology’, ie: explain why the behavior is unacceptable, what possible consequences could be down the line, and even threaten the odd punishment. After years of trying this approach, my conclusion is that this (positive psychology) doesn’t work in respect to overcoming weaknesses! It also erodes your relationship with your child over time as there is continuous conflict (negative feedback) on these issues. This nagging over time becomes ‘noise’ which is filtered out, a standard human process.

In MEganize, I refer to a structure that was used at my school (St. Alban’s College) that worked brilliantly to instill personal discipline, or remove ‘extrinsic demotivators’, that affect performance or contradict accepted values. (NB. This is not applied to learning issues.) We had minimal misdemeanors, and no serious offences at this school with this system enforced. Quite an achievement. Again it relates to ‘structure’ which sets the mindset of the child (or person, as these principles apply to adult behavior as well). In the quest for bringing about change, the child must clearly understand the set of rules. Any and every time one of the rules is broken, eg: sloth, tardiness, or whatever you clearly define; a ‘drill’ is awarded. This offers the child 15 minutes of contributing to ‘society’. This could be weeding, planting grass, cleaning a floor, mucking out the stable, etc. In itself a ‘drill’ is a warning that stays in the child’s mind, and he will try to avoid getting these unpleasant tasks. This is the key ‘top-down’ approach to ownership and change. (Read Soccer – where ’coaching’ reflects our parenting). If 3 ‘drills’ accumulate within a given time period, a further punishment is offered to clean the slate. At our senior school boys got 3 ‘cuts’ with a cane. Girls got a slipper in our sister school. It was certainly not the end of the world to get 3 after breakfast, but it was a clear reminder. In fact, the system was devised so that prefects awarded the drills, thus avoiding the ‘us-them’ scenario and building strong leadership. As there was never any recourse against the prefects, the culture then supported the structure. It is a true upholding by peers. This is the only way to empower your child to take ownership of their habits and behavior. Without realistic feedback and opportunity to practice discretion, the cycle and thus learning is incomplete.

For those who are against corporal punishment I would offer my experience as insight. In younger children, Kazdin refers to using ‘time outs’. This then is the next stage. I received many canings at school, none of which were eventful or by any means a ‘beating’. Just a bad morning, the sting soon forgotten, but a reminder that remained. A responsible man with a good sense of restraint should be able to administer this in a professional manner. I would rate my admonishing by the Head Master in front of the school for poor grades as far worse. Verbal abuse in my experience is far more damaging, and less effective, than a quick ‘quid pro quo’ on the backside. There is no emotion involved here, merely a ‘coaching’ directive based on the law. As soon as emotion is part of it, the matter becomes personal and that implies some form of responsibility and question of fault. The ownership of the punishment must reside entirely with the child, based on ‘the law’. The caning is never given by one who gives drills, thus avoiding any emotional contagion. At home, caning your child is ‘too close to home’, so should probably be avoided.

In Principle

The last chapter of MEganize summarizes the challenge that faces us as a society today from which all our current problems stem. We need to move away from sympathy to one of empathy. “When Christian values are lost, sympathy replaces empathy, and individual needs and crimes become societies’ burden.” As a teacher we tend to share responsibility for the child’s performance. This is a trap and a position of sympathy. As we have seen from the above, this does not empower the child to change or learn. Coaching, the MEganize approach, offers a new mindset, that of empathy, where the child takes ownership for the outcome (within limits of course) of their actions. Real consequences must exist in order to learn by experience. This is the best feedback they can get and incentive to change and conquer self, thus completing the ‘strategic cycle’. Isn’t this the goal of education?

The MEganize approach is principle-based and can be used in all circumstances. This is the ultimate in empowerment and responsible decision-making. If a child cannot make some of their own decisions and experience the consequences, then how can they be expected to learn? We all need to revisit our assumptions and paradigms, especially when we are not seeing positive results to our endeavors. This applies in your home and to our schools, and even in our form of government. The real or fundamental solution nearly always can be found in the vision, structure and culture, or 1st quadrant of the Strategic Change Cycle.

The catch-22 situation that we now face is that because we have not educated our children with an ‘empowering’ structure and culture in the past to make the right decisions, how can we hold them accountable when they do (increasingly) break the law? Sadly the trap again is one of sympathy.

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