Turning Teenagers’ Peers Into A Positive Influence

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New research suggests that changes in way teenagers view risks and rewards when in the presence of their peers are not only a critical part of their development, but may also provide a key to motivating them, writes Sarah Sparks in Education Week. Emerging evidence suggests that changing teenagers’ behavior in positive ways requires taking account of their social circles:

“In an ongoing series of studies, Temple University researchers Laurence Steinberg and Jason M. Chein and their colleagues have found that teenagers take more risks and are more sensitive to potential rewards when they think peers are watching them—even if they consciously believe they aren’t affected by peer pressure.

‘In the same way a young child is developing in the context of her family environment, a middle schooler and high schooler is developing in the context of peers,’ said Kevin M. King, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle, who was not part of the Temple research.

‘There are huge changes in the social environment,’ he said. ‘[Adolescents] are going from one classroom to many, from parents’ making all the early friendship choices to making [their] own.’

Rather than focus on preventing adolescents from doing bad things, Mr. Chein suggested that educators focus on leveraging positive peer pressure: ‘When adolescents are with their peers, they’re more likely to pursue rewards, and those can be academic rewards.’

Programs that give students ‘social rewards,’ such as leadership opportunities and chances to meet other students in ways that improve their social status—such as peer-discipline courts—can channel adolescents’ natural inclinations positively, researchers have found.” (Read more here.)

It’s great that researchers are now focusing more on the situations teenagers find themselves in—in this case, whether their peers are present or not—and how these conditions affect behavior.

Have you seen cases in which teenagers’ attunement to peers was used in a positive way? I’d love to hear about it.

Note: After I put up this post, a heated debate broke out on my Facebook page over the appropriateness of “manipulating” young people’s behavior. Reader Courtney Ostaff feels such social engineering is unethical, while others—Lauren Lowenthal, Matthew Tabor, and Doug Lemov—argue that such prodding and shaping is not only appropriate, but the responsible thing for parents and teachers to do.

A slightly edited and condensed version of the debate is below; what do you think?

Courtney Ostaff: Does no one else feel uncomfortable about blatantly manipulating children to achieve adult-directed behavior? Isn’t it unethical to purposely manipulate someone else to force them to abide by your standard of behavior? Don’t you think the average 15-year-old is sensitive to that sort of manipulation? Where is there room for the most successful type learning, self-directed learning?

Lauren Lowenthal: Blatantly manipulating children to be functional adults is, in my view, one of the most important goals of education. This is the real world.

Matthew Tabor: Courtney, if replicating the conditions of the world in which a child will live—a world that includes interaction with others—and preparing them to function in that world, is considered “blatantly manipulating children,” then yes, I suppose I’m all for it.

Doug Lemov: You could argue that this is one of the fundamental premises of a great school—i.e., build a culture that valorizes achievement and character and effort among the stidemts so they pull each other up rather than pull each other down. At the best schools (Uncommon’s and others like them) this is what you would see… there’s a healthy obsession with engineering that kind of dynamic.

Matthew Tabor: I’m with Doug Lemov on this one—but I don’t understand why this is much of a revelation, as it goes along with what we know about basic human/behavioral psychology. When we put it all together, we’re saying that kids who have a tendency to group feel more comfortable when functioning in/around those groups, and that comfort encourages more latitude with behavior. It’s interesting, but it’s also not hard to think, “We needed new research to know this?”

Courtney Ostaff: Schools are not replicators of real world conditions, however. It’s disingenuous to suggest that they are. What real world environment groups everyone within 12 month age groups? Further, no one would expect a five-year-old to be functional as an ER nurse, for example. What I understand is that you’d rather have children be press-ganged into a corporate cogs than to gain self-motivation for individualized learning.

Matthew Tabor: I usually check out of a discussion when I read a phrase like “corporate cogs,” but I’ll bite. No, Courtney, it’s not an exact replication of the complex real world—but it’s not Lord of the Flies, either. Applying what we know from research like this does not, as you’ve presented, force an either-or. It can inform excellent complements to individualized learning.

Lauren Lowenthal: A solution does not have to apply to everyone to be valuable. The perfect is enemy of the good, and I am a realist about the world, and what it does to people who do not know how to function within the system—which is actually pretty flexible and accommodating.

Doug Lemov: I’m with Matt and Lauren. And I think you might reflect on the word “manipulation”… even without the word “blatant” it’s pretty loaded. it’s naive and irresponsible to assume that if we don’t make an effort to shape decisions young people make that they somehow go “un-manipulated” … I think that peers and popular culture do most of the manipulation. teaching values and character seems like more of a gift than brainwashing. Do you really let your own kids decide whether drugs and pornography and self-indulgence are for them, unfettered by adult mediation? Really? Cuz I don’t.

Lauren Lowenthal: I think the blatancy of the manipulation is key. We admit, we are educating you and we are training you because you need this, and in our experienced, adult wisdom we think it is so important for you, and for society, for you to learn, that we have set up elaborate institutions and rewards to encourage your cooperation, which is in your own best interest. No hidden agenda there.

Doug Lemov: I’d just use the word “transparent” for that, Lauren. But I agree.

Courtney Ostaff: 1) Anytime you “build a culture that valorizes” anything, you’re discouraging questioning of the status quo. I think we have quite enough of this valorizing in our country at large. I’d rather have my students question my rationale for learning anything, and work to persuade them that what they’re learning is valuable, if only in the long run, than to have them be passive receptacles of knowledge. Open Child A, Insert Knowledge B, doesn’t qualify as education in my book. It’s analogous to Pavlov’s dogs.
2) I don’t think it’s naive and irresponsible to value children’s opinions as to the validity of their own education. In my opinion, the true value I want to teach my children, both my students and my own child, is the ability to rationally examine the premise behind manipulation. If they choose to buy into the artificial incentive, that’s fine—as long as they’ve thought about it, first.
3) Isn’t part of character education teaching children to make good decisions? Isn’t part of teaching students how to make good decisions, teaching them to examine the premises underlying manipulation, regardless of whether that manipulation proffered by their peers, popular “culture”, or their authority figures? Otherwise, aren’t we saying, “Do as I say, not as I do?” And how far does that hypocrisy get with teenagers, anyway?
4) If they think about the lures of ” drugs and pornography and self-indulgence” and come to their own conclusions about why that is bad, isn’t that preferable to them merely giving lip-service to what they think adults want to hear? If, in the process, they find good things about “drugs and pornography and self-indulgence,” isn’t it better to have that conversation about why they think it’s good? Then you can lead them to an understanding of the appeal, and give them useful tips to combat the appeal. Isn’t that better than ignoring the fact that there is a probable valid attraction to “drugs and pornography and self-indulgence”?

Lauren Lowenthal: Who said anything about discouraging questioning and not explaining? Of course dialogue should be encouraged. However, I think you are doing a kid a serious disservice to pretend they have a choice about accommodating society’s structure. Unless they are very rich or prepared to live off the grid, that sort of false, idealist notion of “choice” results in unemployment and loss of other quality of life opportunities. This is all too high-minded to be useful. The discussion would be more valid if approached from kids’ point of view, priorities and brain function.

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