Designing Better Barrels

I first learned about the Stanford Prison Experiment in my college psychology class, but I didn’t really spend a whole lot of time thinking about its far-reaching implications until I began teaching AP Psychology 6 years ago.  It was then that I began to read articles written by Stanford professor Phillip Zimbardo (the man who conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment back in 1971), and eventually his book The Lucifer Effect, that I began to explore the common theme of his writings.  In brief, Zimbardo believes that the situation is a powerful determinant of human behavior.  With this belief, Zimbardo challenges the long-held belief that the good people in this world do good things and the evil people in the world do evil thing.  Instead, certain situations have the knack for bringing out the best or worst in people (of which we are all capable).  Instead of looking to punish “bad apples” in society, Zimbardo suggested that maybe it was the “barrel” that was bad and not the “apples” themselves.

The more I thought about it, the more I started looking for its application in all areas of life.  What if the bad (or even just the less socially beneficial) behaviors in the world could be changed simply by changing the situation?  There was a series of VW commercials that tapped into this type of thinking (you have to watch these), where people started behaving better when the situations were creatively modified.  As a teacher, my thoughts have often wandered to how this could be applied to schools, classrooms, or any learning environment for that matter.  What I hate seeing is how many students enter high school with a deep resistance to learning and school in general by the time they are 14; it doesn’t get much better by the time they graduate.  I can’t say I blame them.

There were many aspects of school that I hated.  I hated reading things that I wasn’t interested in.  I hated testing.  I hated boring lectures.  I hated the routine of the day or the sterility of the environment.  I hated being paced.  I hated meaningless homework and busy work.  I hated having to become proficient in a subject I had no interest in.  Even crazier is that I was pretty much a straight-A student all the way through school, so to most observers, school was an amazing experience for me and I was able to thrive there.  This was not the case.  What’s funny to me is that the same things I hated about the typical public school system as a student are the things I hate from a teacher’s perspective.  There has to be a better way to learn.  A system of learning that strips a people of their inherent desire to learn is a broken system.  As much as it seems that it needs to be fixed, I am of the mindset that what it really needs is to be scrapped and redesigned altogether.

One thing I believe is that education needs to become decentralized and non-standardized.  Every year, millions of American students drop out of school, and millions more begrudgingly stay, even though they are bored, uninterested, failing, or all of the above.  These kids are not “bad apples.”  At one point, they were excited to go to school and learn.  It is the “barrel” of the school system that has failed them.  Our young students need opportunities to learn what interests and excites them from early on and throughout their education.  As of now, we force kids to wait until they graduate to do this.  We hold it as the carrot for enduring 13 years of factory-style education.  By then, much of that love of learning has gone dormant or has been beaten down.  They associate learning with all those negative experiences.  The downside of this problem cannot be understated.  We are severely inhibiting the human potential of our young people, which limits the capacity of our society to improve.   Like Zimbardo knows though, if we want people to be better, we need to pay attention to the situations we put them in and work to make them as optimal as possible.

Matt Dale
The Open School

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