For those who work in education, this is no surprise. While organizations like the Fraser Institute fret about math and language test scores and how we rank internationally, those in the trenches dealing daily with students and their sometimes very troubled lives, worry about other things – like where will that child be 10 years from now given his/her troubling circumstances? Helping children deal with the ordinary challenges and conflicts of growing up that seem inordinately huge when you’re 10 or 11 is part of what we do as educators. Some days, though, we seem to spend more time acting as social workers trying desperately to uncover reasons for anxiety, non-attendance, poor performance and supporting children through the small and large tragedies that mark their lives – family breakdown, parental unemployment, illness, death, poverty, abuse, hunger, learning challenges, family violence, parental mental health issues, disabilities, parental addictions and the myriad other difficulties that humans face – than we do teaching.
For those who’ve been in education for any length of time, you will know that issues we never had to deal with in the past, such as anxiety, have now become commonplace. Alarm bells about the state of children’s mental health – and some would argue, everyone’s mental health, are ringing everywhere. It may be that it is only awareness that has increased, that we’ve become more open to talking about what was previously kept hidden. Perhaps mental health problems, however, are increasing because something about how we live our lives has changed. I don’t know. I am not qualified to speak to this. I haven’t conducted nor read the research.
What I can speak to – in only an anecdotal way – is where a solution to the increasing mental health problems in youth might lie based on what I’ve observed in my students. To do this, some context is needed centered on:
1. Parent Feedback
2. Pedagogy and how my classroom is structured.
3. Integrative Thinking
Over the past few weeks, I’ve had conversations with several parents who, unsolicited, spoke about the impact the way we learn in my classroom has had on their children. Please note, this is only a few parents and I am not their children’s only teacher as we are on a middle school rotary schedule. What they noticed in their children may not necessarily be attributed to how I teach. None-the-less, what each said is significant enough to cause me to wonder if there is something bigger worth investigating.
Parents spoke of how they feel their children are now equipped with strategies to solve problems and some feel their children have become better able to negotiate interpersonal relationships. It’s not that these children have suddenly stopped having problems, it’s that they have strategies for dealing with them. All feel this has given their children an improved sense of well-being.
How I Teach
Four pedagogies are woven into my process: Knowledge Building, Integrative Thinking, Inquiry and Design Thinking. There are overlaps between all and unique features to each. Together they represent a powerhouse of strategies that lead to students becoming:
1. effective collaborators who learn to leverage each other to get better ideas
2. deep and flexible thinkers
3. capable problem solvers
What students build over the course of the year in my classroom is a toolkit of strategies. I leverage curriculum to take students on a year long journey that builds thinkers, collaborators and problem-solvers. Of course, there are varying degrees of success; the goal, however, is to move all children forward. I’ve been building the process over the past 5 years and I would say that this is the year that the pieces have really come together. I can see that I’ve begun to produce a different kind of student.
It was one of my most capable students who in discussing the many processes we’ve learned this year recognized the significance of Integrative Thinking. It is what has allowed students to embrace and work through tensions rather that hide away from them. What Integrative Thinking offers is a stance or attitude toward complexity; a set of thinking tools and strategies that help make thinking explicit; and a process for finding innovative solutions to challenging problems. Students learn they are capable of solving really challenging problems by using the tools and strategies to solve really challenging problems. They become equipped and I think this ‘equipping’ might be part of a solution to the epidemic of anxiety that children are showing.
Roger Martin, who developed Integrative Thinking theory, says, “The critical starting point (of integrative thinkers) is their stance toward the world in which they operate and their conception of their role within that world.” He makes a distinction between the attitude of conventional thinkers who become stuck and integrative thinkers who are able to move forward. He goes on to describe the differences between conventional and integrative thinkers.
CT1: They believe they can see the ‘true reality’ of any situation;
CT2: Views that oppose theirs are ‘not reality’, and are therefore wrong;
CT3: No better model could exist, because they are looking at ‘reality’.
In contrast, integrative thinkers hold the following stance about the world in which they live:
IT1: Existing models do not represent ‘reality’ but rather are a construction;
IT2: Opposing models are there to be leveraged;
IT3: Better models exist that are not yet seen.
Conventional thinkers’ view of the world influences their view of their role as a ‘model chooser’ as follows:
CT4: Where an opposing view exists, it must be crushed;
CT5: the situation at hand must be simplified to avoid unnecessary complexity;
CT6: choices and actions must be taken quickly and decisively.
Not surprisingly given their view of the nature of the world around them, Integrative thinkers view their role as a creative ‘model builder’, not chooser:
IT4: I am capable of building a better model;
IT5: I will wade enthusiastically into complexity;
IT6: I will give myself the time to create a better model.
Integrative thinkers believe better models exist, that they are capable of creating them and they are equipped with strategies to create those models. Integrative Thinking is empowering.
Given what I’ve observed and what parents are describing, I think it is worth investigating how Integrative Thinking might play a part in improving the mental well-being of children.