Until

Here are the slides and notes from my Ignite talk from yesterday. Please keep in mind that my notes were just that: notes. I did not say these exact words on stage. When the video goes up, I'll update this post.

I'd like to share a simple idea that changed the way I view my role as a school administrator. In doing so, I'd also like to challenge you to reflect upon your school's current discipline policy and how you personally deliver consequences to the young people you serve.

Before I make my point, though, I need to start with some definitions. Behavioral Psychologists define learning "as the process leading to long-term or potential behavioral change." Typically this takes one of two forms.

Punishment can be defined technically as "any consequence to our behavior that reduces the likelihood that we'll repeat the behavior again." For example, if I ridicule a student for talking in class, and she does not like ridicule, then she is less likely to talk in class in the future. This is punishment.

The flip side of punishment is reinforcement, which can be defined as "any consequence to our behavior that increases the likelihood that we'll repeat the behavior again. For example, if I tell a student that she is a good writer and she respects my opinion then she is more likely to write in the future. This is reinforcement.

Of course, years of living this way in public education have left us all understanding these concepts all too well. Do your work or you will fail. Put your cell phone away or I'll take it away. Raise your hand and then I'll call on you. In public education, we get behavioral modification.

All to often when we talk about disciplining children what we really mean is punishment. I'd like to make the point today that discipline and punishment are not the same thing. Discipline is something we want our students to embrace from within. Punishment is a tool frequently used in schools that comes from without.

The message to the punished is this: "You're not able to discipline yourself. You have done something wrong. Therefore, we're going to do bad things to you to teach you a lesson." The very nature of this is the opposite of empowering. It removes power.

It was the realization that if I'm to create a culture that is truly empowering then I must punish less. In fact, I probably shouldn't punish at all. Instead what I needed to do was find a way to reinforce much, much more.

Because I like and respect you, I need you to know that I'm not crazy. Remember that reinforcement and reward are not the same thing. I'm not recommending that you ignore anti-social behavior and I'm certainly not suggesting that you start giving our lollipops for all types of good behavior.

What I am saying is that we need to find a way to reframe the way we communicate consequences to turn them into reinforcers. Here's a little trick to help you do this: take any traditional punishment, add the preposition "until" followed by a pro-social consequence, and you should have a reinforcing statement. Let's look at an example.

Consider the statement "You have detention." Assuming that the student being assigned detention doesn't like it, the purpose of this consequence is to reduce behavior. By our definition earlier, then, this is punishment. Now, let's take that exact same statement and apply until to turn it into reinforcement.

In this revised statement, notice that the student still has detention, but I've respected the student enough to add a condition to get out. I've turned the traditional punishment of detention into a reinforcer because instead of focusing on reducing bad behavior, I'm focusing instead on increasing good behavior. The student is now more likely to come to me with a plan. Let's look at one more example.

Consider the punishment "Shut down your computer," said to a student for overusing social media during group work time. Never happens, right. This statement, taken at face value, is punishing because its purpose is to reduce social media overuse by this student in the future.

If we apply my rule and add the until to this statement, we change the focus of the consequence form, "You are bad and cannot handle using your computer" to "Let's talk about this later on when I have more time." This student is now more likely to talk to you later, thus it is a reinforcer.

The cynics and psych minors in the room will tell you that things are never this black and white. While issuing these consequences our goal is still to reduce bad behavior. But the focus of the statement has changed from what you are doing to the learner for being bad to what the learner has to do to be good.

The next time and every time that you issue consequences to  students, ask yourself where you're attention is focused? What message are you sending to students about who they are? Have you given ample opportunity to correct what's been done? Is your consequence respectful?

If the answer to these last two questions is no then step back and ask yourself if you're truly empowering students at all. Be tough on yourself to rethink traditional punishments in a way that will shift the focus from what's been done to what can be done.

Take advantage of consequences by treating them as opportunities to connect with students about their decisions and the effects that they have on others. After all, aren't most behavioral issues in schools related in one way or another to relationships.

As a point of caution, don't be creepy by overusing this idea or becoming overly manipulative. For example, don't give students unrealistic expectations to fulfill like raising their grade from a D to an A to regain your trust for using a cell phone during class.

The last point I want to make is to love what you do. If ever you're considering a consequence for a child that doesn't make you feel good about the work that you do, ask yourself if there's another way to frame it so it better aligns with your personal and school philosophy. Thank you.

Roll Your Own Digital Signage

Last fall, I was lucky to have an interesting problem: our newly renovated learning space included eight 42" monitors, each located above a "laptop touchdown station" where students could plug in to collaborate, practice presentations, etc. The challenge was deciding what to show on these screens when students were not plugged in.

Corridor at Niles New Tech in Niles, Michigan

After researching commercial digital signage solutions, we decided that there has to be a better (less expensive) way to do this on our own. This post will outline what we did to create a social and dynamic digital signage solution using HTML, CSS, and a bit of javascript. While I image that "what we did" will be pretty specific to our needs at the time, my hope is that some of the ideas shared in this post will be helpful to others down the road.

To start, let's talk about the hardware:

  • The monitor we went with was the NEC V422 because it had sound, accepted a variety of input types, and had scheduling capabilities to turn on and off automatically at specified times of day.
  • Behind each monitor was an electrical outlet, an ethernet port, and an HDMI port. The HDMI port worked simply as a local connection for students to plug into that station. It only ran one foot down the wall to a second input plate above the counter.
  • Connected to the back of each monitor via VGA was a simple NComputing L-Series virtual PC.  These boxes were connected to our network via the ethernet jack and were the necessary link to make our digital signage work.
  • On the other end of the network connection was obviously a server running the virtual PC installations.

That was about all the hardware we needed to make this thing work. The rest of the work was in the software. Here's what happened on each:

  • My network admin setup the NComputing devices to automatically restart, login to the network, and open Chrome in full-screen mode every night. Since I didn't do any of this work I can't provide much detail beyond telling you that it worked. Of course, there were times when a particular device lagged or didn't work properly but the fix was usually as easy as restarting the individual box manually.
  • We set http://sign.nilesnewtech.org as the homepage in Chrome for each of these setups so that it would always open to our signage webpage.
  • We then set the timer on each monitor to turn on at 7am and turn off at 4pm. Every morning, when the students came in, the signage would be on every screen. If students wanted to "take over" a monitor locally to use it as an external monitor, they simply changed inputs and plugged in their laptop via HDMI.

Screenshot of the Niles New Tech digital signage webpage.

Once we had monitors connected to virtual PCs that automatically opened a webpage every night, our next step was to design and code a webpage with some interesting content.

When designing the site, I knew that I didn't want to create anything that would require much future updating through the backend. In other words, if I had to go back through the HTML every time I wanted to make a change, I knew this solution would fail. I don't have time to spend my day in code.

With this in mind, I started looking for javascript solutions that would take advantage of APIs to pull content from other sources like GoogleDocs, Twitter, or Flickr. By taking advantage of these services, I was able to create a single webpage that dynamically pulls content from these services throughout the day. My teachers, students, their parents, and visitors can all easily post content right alongside our school calendar and announcements. 

Here are the resources I used:

  • The calendar is a simple Google Calendar embedded into the page. You can setup your parameters for this right within the Google Calendar embed interface.
  • Everything that follows requires the jQuery library.
  • The HTC Hero inspired digital clock / weather widget is called jDigiClock.
  • Both the News & Announcements and Shout-outs sections of the site pull content from Twitter and are powered by electronaut's LiveTwitter plugin.
  • The image slideshow that pulls recent images from the school's Flickr is powered by Flickrfeed.

Screenshot of index.html

Once I found all of the resources needed to make the signage work, I started coding. Attached is a zipped up copy of everything I have at http://sign.nilesnewtech.org. Your free to steal the design and everything I've done. I've simply pulled together resources from other places. 

Download the files here.

Other things you'll need to do and know:

  • The News & Announcements section pulls content from a specific Twitter account. I gave access to this Twitter account to my teachers and secretary so that they could post whenever they had something to share. A notable benefit of doing this is that you can share the Twitter account with parents and students through other places (like your website, on Twitter, etc.). It's not only useful for the sign. (Edited on line 50 of index.php)
  • The "Shout-outs section pulls content from tweets that include a specified phrase (like a hashtag). This allows anyone to get their words on the screen just by using that tag in their tweet. This is an important and powerful part of the sign - it keeps people looking. (Edited on line 51 of index.php)
  • You'll need a Flickr account to link up to the pictures. (Edited on line 7 of setup.js) We all installed Flickr uploader apps on our phones so that we could easily take a picture of student learning in the classroom and upload it right to our shared account. Then, the next time the sign refreshed, it would show the new pictures you just took.
  • There are refresh rate caps with Twitter. You may need to change the refresh rates on lines 50 and 51 of index.php if you have a lot of signs pulling from Twitter simultaneously.

That's about all I have to share. I realize that this is not a very good technical post for those of you without a coding background. I simply can't think of any way to explain much more without turning this into a coding tutorial. If you have questions or hang-ups, feel free to post questions as comments or you can find me on Twitter @ptrkmkl.