Monday, June 2, 2008

Changing Behavior

As school leaders much of what we are asked to do involves changing human behavior. We are asked to push teachers and staff to embrace best practice. We are asked to find ways to increase student learning and achievement. Essentially we are judged by how effective we are at producing change in the schools we lead. How effective are we at moving some of the stubborn asses we work with towards new behavior?

How then do we go about changing human behavior? A great new book that is climbing its way up the New York Time's bestseller list is titled "Influencer". What is so compelling about this book is its research driven look at numerous instances of how having the courage to address core behaviors and beliefs can lead to substantial change. As most of us begin our summers free of some of the distractions the normal hustle and bustle of school provides we begin planning. We start to ask how can we make the next school year even better? Most of these plans involve changing behavior of staff, students, or parents to be successful.

"Influencer" breaks the elements that change behavior into three groups: personal, social, and structural. The authors relate these points to two demonstrated accomplishments where the ability to change behavior has had profound impacts. The first is the little heard of campaign to eliminate the "Guinea" worm in tropical villages in Africa. The success of this campaign is so profound that this disease is almost entirely eradicated from Africa. No magic pill or forced immunization campaign brought about this change but only an effort to change human behavior. Another powerful example in the book is that of Dr. Silbert and the Delancey Foundation in San Francisco. This organization for years has been rehabilitated those souls lost to chronic crime, violence, and substance abuse into productive, happy, contributing members of society. How do they do it? They change human behavior by addressing three levels of motivation: personal, social, and structural.

The first part deals with personal motivation. Before the change can take place in action it must take place in thought. Thinking must change. One great way to change thinking is by the use of the vicarious story. Reaching the core of flawed or contrary thinking rests with allowing others to see through story why the thinking must change. This provides the internal motivation at the personal level. After this comes the demonstration of why the change is needed and beneficial. In Africa the Guinea worm survived because of poor practices using unfiltered water. Tribal and community leaders were recruited to visit a test village where inhabitants were taught to filter the water using cotton screens. They returned to tell the story of how tribes and villages have defeated the guinea worm. These simply pieces of fabric filtered out the guinea worm larvae from the water. Once ingested these larvae grow to be full size worms which puncture the skin as they leave. Exiting takes weeks to months and is excruciatingly painful.

The second step in changing behavior involves social pressure. Using peer pressure in a good way can help aid with compliance. Leveraging peer opinion and pressure can be a great motivator for change. We all seek the approval of our peer group for our behaviors. Enabling peers to influence one another in a positive way can lead to change. In the Delancey organization living arrangements and rituals are deliberately organized to confront one another on behaviors that are damaging to themselves and as a whole.

The third rests with changing structures. Changing structures deals with how behaviors are recognized and rewarded to increase the desired behavioral change. Careful consideration must be put into place before incentive programs are introduced. The authors recount numerous stories where incentive plans have gone horribly wrong. They also document some situations where incentives worked very well. The authors reference studies at hospitals where the main culprits in spreading germs by not washing hands adequately was actually physicians. A simple incentive plan of starbucks gift cards for those caught properly washing their hands worked wonders for compliance and significantly reduced the number of deaths and illnesses caused by poor hygiene on the part of physicians.

It is interesting to think what applying these strategies to some of our chronic poor-behavior problems might do. What would it look like to apply these three principles to a desired change around student absenteeism or the nuisance of dress code violations?

Let's give it a collective try. A reader of the blog from South Carolina is interested in what school's do to address the issue of students arriving late to school. Let's see what we do and see if the level of effectiveness of individual school programs correlates in anyway to these three principles mentioned above. Please take the time to fill out the survey below.

1 comment:

Mike Parent said...


Thanks for the recommedationf ro reading. I have been looking fro soething to read that can help me think about transforming my school as I take the helm. My school has good people, but they don't know what they don't know (i.e. Backward Design, eb 2.0 tools, Standards based curricula, assessments, and effectively using the 21st century Bloom's Taxonomy).

I'll get it on my Kindle, read it between classes this summer, and give yo more feedback later. ENjoy your time with your family.