Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Facebook Study: a question of ethics

Dear Readers: I'm taking time out from my posts on classroom community to examine another important topic. Please leave your comments whether you agree with me or not.         

            I’m shocked that there isn't greater outrage over the unethical study conducted by Facebook and reported last week: in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

            Roughly 700,000 people had their emotions manipulated.  On a purely statistical basis 46,900 of those subjects were already suffering from clinical depression (NIMH says it’s 6.7% of the adult population). Half of those depressed people (23,450) were made more depressed by Facebook.

            This was not a simple observational study in which data were gathered and used. It was an experiment in which subjects’ emotions were manipulated without their informed consent. “Informed consent” does not mean “I have a right to do this if they don’t opt out.”  In my opinion, three things should happen: 1) the subjects should be compensated for their participation; 2) the “researchers” should be fired and 3) all future government funding to Cornell and the University of San Francisco should be contingent on their ability to demonstrate that they have an IRB that can adequately protect the public against such abuse.

            Had this been a study of physical rather than mental health – say manipulating the medicine of 700,000 people to see if it will increase their cardiac or cancer symptoms without their knowledge – we would hear the outrage, but when it comes to mental health, fewer of us seem to care.

            Finally it should be noted that this was a stupid study. Anybody who doesn’t already know that being bombarded with crappy news makes you feel worse is totally out of touch. It doesn’t take an unethical study to prove the obvious.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Safety and Participation in the Classroom

          As I mentioned in an earlier post, the sense of community in the classroom involves several interlocking variables. For example, the variables of safety and participation in the classroom go hand in hand. You rarely have one without the other.  The students who participate are the ones who feel safe and no amount of coercion will make the student participate who does not feel safe. One would think that a classroom should be a safe haven for any pupil, but it isn’t always the case. Feelings of insecurity, shyness, isolation, or simply the fear that they have come to class unprepared can all conspire to make a student feel less than safe and being called on to participate under those circumstances can often make the situation even worse, the anxiety greater and the room feel even less safe. “What will my classmates think? Will I sound stupid? Will the teacher notice that I’m not prepared, haven’t done my homework? Why am I even here? I hate this class.”
            There are a number of things a teacher can do to reduce that sort of anxiety, that fear of exposure. The suggestions given here are ones I’ve used in a college lecture class of sizes ranging from 25 to over 600. I’m not sure how applicable they would be to other class formats or age groups. But maybe the principles will still apply. Some things I found helpful were: Comments like, “This isn’t easy; I don’t expect you will always have the right answer but don’t be afraid to give it a shot; and, by the way, if you have a question, remember that there is no dumb question in here.” can sometimes help. Another technique that seems to work for most students is to interrupt the lecture periodically and ask if there are questions, comments. “No? Ok, why don’t you discuss this section with your ‘group’ for a few minutes?” The “group” consists of the four of five people sitting around a student, a functional unit identified early in the term when students were also asked to keep the same seat throughout the term if at all possible. This was done only after they had a chance to check around for a few days to see where they wanted to sit. The class at that moment for each student becomes those four or five people rather than the 30 or 50 or even 500 who fill the room. You can feel a lot safer with five people you know than with 500 most of whom you don’t even recognize.
            Any other ideas for increasing the sense of safety in the classroom -- for example, in elementary, middle and high school --  and making participation less scary? No? C’mon, give it a shot and leave a comment below
. Thanks

PS. Here are some helpful references about participation in the classroom:
A link to a great Cornell University site on “Increasing Student Participation” :

And a terrific book on teaching by Prof. Stephen Yelon, one of my former colleagues at Michigan State:         


Sunday, April 6, 2014

Feeling Connected in the Classroom


            Back to the topic of creating a sense of community in the classroom. Sorry it’s taken me so long. In an earlier post I outlined the six variables that constituted community in neighborhood studies and were also found to relate to the classroom: connection, participation, safety, support, belonging, and empowerment.
            Now I’d like to take one variable at a time and mention some ways we found useful in promoting that construct in the classroom. The study was done in a college class of about 30 students but I think the ideas with some modification would work with larger or smaller classes whether college, high school, or elementary. Please let me know if you think so. Also mention in the comment section other ideas for promoting each of these variables. If you’re willing to do that we could come up with a set of protocols that would really help other teachers. I’m sure that my own ideas are just a simple beginning so please add your ideas, things that you have found that help in creating a community.
            Today I’ll focus on connection and suggest three interventions that worked well for us. Connection for our purposes can be defined by the question: “To what extent do you know other people in the class and socialize with them?”
            1) On the first day of class I encouraged students to get to know the people sitting around them. They were then given five minutes to begin this process and told that on the final exam they would receive an extra three points for knowing something important about the parson who sat next to them on the first day. I used to do the same thing in the huge intro course (622 students).
            2) I would assign community “roles” to student volunteers; a projectionist who would show films that I got from IT (or later show me how to use the so called “smart room,” since I am technologically challenged.); a librarian, who on their way to class would get or return a film or a book I needed; a time-keeper, who from the back of the room would raise their hand to signal that we had only five minutes left; and finally, a censor, who would wave a hand back and forth if my language might be considered off color. I always asked for a volunteer from a very conservative background to be censor. Early on, I hadn’t realized that some of my language was offensive to a minority of the students. Comments that would make most of the class laugh might make a few cringe. Reminding me to respect that sensitive minority was the role of the censor.
            3) Acknowledge birthdays in class, including my own.
            Next week we can examine the variable of participation and suggest some ways of increasing participation, even for the shy student. In the meantime, please add your own comments below. Happy teaching.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Spanking in school is a bad idea

            An email from a friend last week included a link to an article about a Kansas lawmaker who is proposing legislation that would make it legal for school authorities in Kansas to spank children to the point where they leave bruises; not just spank them, mind you – they can already do that in Kansas – but spank them hard, so as to leave marks. I thought my friend was pulling my leg, so I googled it.  He wasn’t; it’s true:

            What part of psych 101 did that legislator sleep through? And why is spanking a bad idea?  I’ll answer both. She slept through the section on learning where research clearly indicates that while conditioning works well for rats and pigeons, it is less effective in complex human learning. True, you can change behavior in the short run, but as for long term complex learning, it’s not so good. Secondly, rewards work better than punishments, and finally, teaching appropriate behavior is more effective than trying to eliminate inappropriate behavior. So here’s the deal:
            Best –reward good behavior.
            Next best – withhold a reward when good behavior is missing.
            Then – withhold a reward for bad behavior.
            Finally, if all else fails – punish bad behavior.

            Furthermore, social learning, aka identification and imitation, is far more effective than conditioning for complex learning. So what do children learn when they identify with the spanking teacher? They learn that it’s ok to hit someone else as long as they are smaller than you are. They learn resentment and anger at the perpetrator. Since they can’t lash back, the anger gets turned inward, and that, namely anger turned inward, is depression.

            It gets even more complicated when the victims are little boys and the perpetrators are adult women. Not a great beginning for boys whom we want to grow up loving and respecting women, rather than lashing out at them when they get big enough.

            I know; there are times when children are so out of control that they need to be restrained. But aren’t there better ways than spanking? Haven’t we learned anything? Any teachers out there, parents out there, what do you think?