School Research

The question of school research is always complex given limited time and resources. For me, the priority is to investigate issues of intense interest and consequence. This may be somewhat difficult within a large organization, where research ideas are prompted by a broad array of pragmatic concerns. Still, I believe the most interesting research is that which teaches us something about who we are, and what we value. In the social sciences, the greatest threat to meaningful research is an approach that emphasizes “incrementalism.” We often spend considerable time and resources looking into relatively small matters, with relatively small consequences…sigh.

Given a choice, I believe most institutions default to a more pragmatic approach to research, over one that emphasizes deeper inquiry. I think this is the nature of institutions in general, even though it may not reflect the more interesting priorities of individual members. The pragmatic approach promises a digestible result, but doesn’t necessarily reveal what is really interesting about what is happening in schools, or the lives of students. [Certainly, you’ll want to consider that my perspective is that of a psychologist. It’s just that I don’t see this division between youth development and education that is implicit in curriculum, co-curricular activities, etc. I believe kids grow up at school.]

With respect to my own conceptual priorities, I believe academics and character are already fairly well addressed by schools. Authenticity and agency are where the real work needs to be done.

Excuse me if I stumble here, because it is difficult to address such large and complex issues in a short space. Just so that we have a working definition: authenticity refers to one’s essential self – those aspects of selfhood which are non-negotiable; aspects of personhood so fundamental to an individual’s identity that they cannot be compromised. Agency refers to action and the potential to bring about a result of some sort.

I believe one of the most progressive ways to approach these latter two dimensions is to understand that they are increasingly inseparable from the issue of character. We are collectively in the midst of making this type of conceptual transition with respect to understanding what is healthy for young people. I think the notion of “character” education is somewhat outdated, and speaks more to the priorities of those who are middle-aged, than students. In the conversations I’ve had with students, they often define character as “what you do when no one is looking.” I know such teaching is well intended, but this is not a ladder to adulthood or autonomy.

I suggest that those elements of youth that we have understood to be dimensions of character need to expand to encompass the idea of “global citizenship.” In my view, character now sounds a bit insular and self-serving. I vote that students get a promotion to being citizens, and that we undertake a serious study of what they should know. It is difficult to briefly define what I mean by being a global citizen, but I would say that a core part of this is understanding the interconnectedness of human beings – to an extent that one transcends a sense of separateness.

Isn’t this the basic momentum of the world?

Thus the most important research for me continues to be an examination of students, how they are evolving as human beings, and how they might best arrive at a place of agency, and with a deeper sense of authenticity.



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