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What happened to “good citizenship?”

January 20, 2011

Today’s topic came to me as a convergence of a number of thoughts and observations over the period of a few weeks.  I’d like to examine the idea of “citizenship” — no, not as in the “citizenship” or nationality of a country, but the ordinary, everyday sort of citizenship.

Citizenship is about belonging to a group and “good citizenship,” then, it follows is about being a good, positive member of that group. What I think is interesting is that this trait is something that our young children used to be routinely graded on in school. Today…well, not so much.

This concept was brought home to me several weeks ago when I was browsing through, of all things, Tony Little’s latest book “There’s Always a Way.”  In the center of the book, among other pictures and illustrations is a copy of Tony’s report card from Kindergarten. If you look at the boxes for which he was graded, you’ll notice something very interesting: you will find virtually nothing that assesses and reports on his academic progress or achievement.  Instead, you’ll find assessment points like “I listen when others are speaking,” “I keep my hands to myself,” “I take responsibility,” I keep my hands to myself.” (I’m not going to discuss Tony’s actual grades here; for that, you’ll have to buy a copy of his book!)

But, recently, when I was interviewed on Q13 Fox, in the wake of the AZ Shooting incident in which six people were killed and many wounded, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, I posted a link to the video on the SocialSmarts Facebook  Fan page. The topic of the interview was “uncivil discourse,” in which I discussed the types of words and phrases we use these days and how it can instantly lapse from disagreeing with someone’s viewpoint to vicious character assassination. In response to that posting, one of our supporters, Louise Hart mentioned, too, how we used to be graded on citizenship in primary school, but how that seems to have morphed to where we are merely “consumers” — great at shopping, but lousy at our social skills.

Heck, I, too, remember those days (they weren’t THAT long ago, people!), where I had a line in my report card for “Plays Well with Others.”  It clearly used to be important — what happened?

I think there was a subtle, but vitally important, shift from “getting along” to “achieving.”  It was more about what you accomplished, and less about how. Further, with schools across the country dealing increasingly with the problem of academic under-achievement in their students, the emphasis in the classroom is pushed more and more on academic learning, and less on “the other stuff.”

I hear this often when we talk with schools about integrating social skills education into their curriculum.  While there ARE many enlightened school and district administrators who recognize the value of social skills education, more often I get the argument that “we don’t have time — we have to focus on academics.”  Yet, repeated studies show that time spend on social/emotional learning and social skills results in more productive time in the classroom. More productive time in the classroom results in better academic test scores — exactly the objective schools are trying to achieve. Yet, social skills education continues to be viewed as “non-essential.” The push to introduce academics at earlier and earlier ages isn’t helping, either, because our youngest kids are losing out on the ability to gain vital skills that will enable them to learn better as they grow older.

Face it, if the data that shows too much time in the classroom is being lost to disruptive, unruly students, then reducing that disruption to allow more time for effective learning is a worthwhile objective. And, the burden can’t be exclusively on the teacher.  In other words, just bringing in better “classroom management” programs won’t do much if the students, themselves, lack the abilities and skills that allow them to be managed.

So back to the report card: if you have a room full of students, — or, frankly, even just two or three — who don’t “Listen when others speak,” how do you expect the teacher to teach?  If you aren’t able to “Follows directions accurately” or “finish work [my] work promptly” then how will you do well on your assignment, assuming you “take responsibility” to do it in the first place?

It goes deeper than that. “Good citizens” aren’t the ones getting in trouble for bullying.  “Good citizens” aren’t taunting fellow students on Facebook or harassing them to the point of suicide. The “good citizens” aren’t bringing guns to school — they know it’s against school rules. “Good citizens” are taking care of their own business, are being respectful to others, are behaving appropriately because it’s the right thing to do, not because they’re getting paid to do it, and they are doing better overall — socially, emotionally, and academically. Repeated studies have proven this to be the case.

I guess my point is this: yes, we do want to raise young people who do well academically, who can achieve great things and get good test scores.  But, we also need to consider that the goal of education should be to raise not just good students, but good people. While you may believe that the latter is the responsibility of the parents — and I do agree — it is not only the job of the parents. Just like schools expect parents and caregivers to work on students’ academic skills at home, so should parents expect support from schools in teaching and practicing good social skills. That way the expectation to be a “good citizen” is consistent, no matter where you are and what you’re doing. Which is who we should try to be and what we should be, at all times in all circumstances.

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