Wrapping up my blog series summarizing guest lectures at Leipzig University, I present Professor Paul Wright from Northern Illinois University. He teaches in the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education but, with a strong background in kinesiology and curriculum design, his focus is on creating and implementing physical activity programs promoting youth development and teaching life skills. His activity in this field finds its base in Hellison‘s Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility (TPSR) model. Hellison, as an aside, looks like he could be Sting‘s long-lost twin.
Paul’s lectures were fantastic. His passion for working with youth glowed right through, and his fresh, positive attitude is what I remember best from the whole set.
Working with youth
Paul is a strong advocate of Positive Psychology; that is, focusing on progressive development rather than just on fixing dysfunctions (this is the moving from “0” to “+1” instead of just from “-1” to “0” that I mentioned in my review of Jean Côté’s lecture).
“I’m not going to ‘fix’ people,” says Paul, “Rather, everyone has so many assets and I’ll build on these; this way, their main problems may also get worked out.” To this end, Paul employs a different vocabulary. “At-risk kids” immediately see through the stance that labels them as such, and are likely to continue being negative statistics just because of this label alone. Inviting youth to “drug/violence prevention programs” subtly hints that they are already on their way towards these lifestyles. Even during our classes Paul kept saying that we all have strengths and “things to work on”. At first blush a bit patronizing, I quickly grew to appreciate this philosophy: it suddenly changes working with risk factors to working with potential. Sure, a youth can come from an underprivileged background and be in a rut in life, but she can also be a born leader, or have a great personality… in fact, many “troubled kids” are labeled so precisely because they embody the same characteristics that, if reoriented slightly, immediately become streaks of brilliance. To accomplish this, Paul suggests sprinkling a little responsibility into their lives (reminding me of the addicted man in Lewis’ Great Divorce). To this end, Paul cited the Social and Emotional Learning model of Taru Lintunen, a Finnish academic who found successful people to have self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making skills. Many of these, Paul points out are found in ample amounts in troubled youth! Work with these elements, Paul urges, seeing the child as a whole and not just as a condition, and you’ll be surprised how at quickly things start improving.
More practical advice Paul shared with us included a solution to the all-to-common dilemma of not boring advanced pupils while simultaneously not overwhelming laggers: give more life-skills focuses to the advanced children. Things like letting them teach the laggers are a great example of such a tactic. When I asked how he avoids the same children continuously taking on these leadership roles — thereby continuing to lower the esteem of their lagging counterparts — he smartly replied that there are some tasks to which anyone can be assigned — warm-ups, for example. Through this change we alter the experiences kids are having, and the ways in which they are seeing and interacting with each other.
It is sometimes difficult to get teachers behind the idea of giving up control in the classroom, but Paul has a solution for this as well. “Ask them, ‘Is what you’re doing working? No? Then maybe give this a shot — what’s the harm?’,” suggests Paul. “Also, be explicit with children that skill in sports is outweighed by character, leadership, etc. This way everyone is on more even footing throughout the class.” To this point one of our students, Nuno from Portugal, chimed in to suggest students perform a self-evaluation to see where they are, rather than to receive this labelling by a teacher. Paul wholeheartedly concurred.
Teaching Personal & Social Responsibility
With all the above in place, Paul then outlined his model for teaching life-skills to troubled youth through physical education. First, he was quick to point out that children respond well to proper structure, and that they like challenges. As a quick thought experiment, he had us reflect on what teachers or coaches were the ones who had the greatest impact in our own lives. We all agreed it was the ones who didn’t let us get away with things… in other words, the ones who cared. Paul summed this up with these words: “They had this impact on you because of their relationship with you more than anything else!”
This certainly rang true for me. From my Grade 7 teacher, Angela Mus — who would have us paint outside regularly, who would read books to us, and who encouraged report submissions in picture format; to one of my early judo instructors, Ron Angus — a fridge of a man who was always nearby with a wide grin and with a supportive hand on my shoulder; to my most recent judo mentor, Herman Vermeiren — who taught me the true meaning of the maximum efficiency/minimum effort philosophy that is central to judo… I loved all these mentors more for the relationship we shared and for their clear, unconditional support than for anything else.
Paul adopted these charismatic elements from the founder of the TPSR model, Don Hellison (aka Sting), who was actually teaching discipline to Marines at one point, as well as to those who were undergoing Marine training as an alternative to jail time. Seriously. I couldn’t make this stuff up. Hellison drew his own views from Marvin Marshall, who once wrote, “We need to rethink our thinking about discipline. We cannot change other people, but we can empower then to change themselves.” The key element of the TPSR model is exactly this: a shift in responsibility and decision-making so that a greater part of both are carried by the pupils. Effort and self-direction are emphasized, building a clear path from selfishness to social responsibility. These life-skills are first integrated into the physical activity part of a class, and then transferred to all other facets of life.
On a personal note, it’s interesting that my own philosophy has very much gone down this same track. In creating and implementing a high school mentorship program for my community, the winningest philosophy I found was presenting attendees with great concepts and supporting them in their adoption, but in not forcing anything on anyone. Autonomy is key, though nudging it a bit is sometimes in order, and the end result is often a natural magnetism to what it is you’re offering. Here, look what this grassroots initiative ballooned into:
Implementation & limitations
Paul was forthcoming in the main limitation of the TPSR model as having to do with teacher investment and, relatedly, class size. To instill a strong sense of responsibility and self-correction the teacher must have enough time for building relationships (good moments include before/between/after tasks), for properly orienting pupils towards the day’s goals (instilling the importance of responsibility and providing space for pupil input), for obtaining feedback and planning future sessions (Paul notes here that negative feedback is a good thing! It shows the students are comfortable with the teacher), and for reflection time, where students focus on their own efforts of that day. And, of course, the majority of the time ought to be spent in physical activity, with an emphasis on integrating physical with life-skill development (eg: providing ample opportunities for pupils to practice leadership and social responsibility). Because of all this intensive investment, ideal class sizes include 1-15 students. Scaling upwards is difficult because of the great amount of passion and personal investment that must come from the teacher.
Another limitation has to do with logistics: practical things like transportation to and from the program, as well as provision of snacks throughout it aren’t easy to coordinate, especially given that these programs are generally run after school. To my publicly-schooled Canadian mind, a gym teacher taking on these added responsibilities seemed ludicrous… until I realized that there are a lot of places in the world where this sort of thing not only happens, but is the rule. And, the more I reflect on it, the more I see that yes, this set-up is ideal… the only unfortunate catch is whether or not resources allow for it.
A final note on the TPSR model has to do with the criticism that many teachers present: “I’m already doing all of this!” To this, Paul responds, “… probably not. Are students transferring skills from your classroom to life?” This is the best marker by which you can measure your success as a teacher, Paul asserts: successful skill transfer stemming from your program.
Q & A:
- One career-related regret? I followed my passions to get to where I am, but this has unfortunately meant that I do not have any clear qualifications related to my specialty; I am not a sport psychologist, nor am I a gym teacher. I also tend to stay in my comfort zone because of the skills I have in creating opportunities within it (eg: working with positive psychology forever, but not really diving into other important areas of research like stats). However, this just means that I find good specialists in these fields for collaboration. Still, I do shy from bigger challenges that could prove rewarding because of this affinity for the known.
- One career-related satisfaction? Certainly thinking outside the box and creating opportunities for myself. I found a lot of success through seeing an opening and making it known that I was available for it should it ever be created. Both my jobs in this field — first nine years in Memphis and now my most recent post at NIU, started with my reaching out to the department chairs and finding these jobs before they even existed. My mindset has always been to create opportunities and not wait for them to come to me; I definitely don’t pigeonhole myself into thinking “this is my degree, these are my options”.
- What is your favourite movie? With regards to the TPSR model it has to be To Sir, With Love. For one, it’s an interesting juxtaposition of a black man teaching a class of unruly white British kids, and for two, Sidney Poitier does a magnificent job of flailing and floundering as a teacher until he has an epiphany born out of frustration: he stops treating the students like kids and starts treating them like adults. This changes everything.
- And book? The Shadow of the Wind. This is just a personal favourite; it is Gothic, mysterious, and reminds me of my time spent in Spain.
- With your extensive work with youth, do you ever find yourself pulling a Sidney Poitier and treating them completely like adults? No, not like adults, but also never like idiots. I never talk down to anyone. I want them to feel respected by me, which means I may expect more from them and therefore talk “better” to them than other adults do.
- What is a favourite psychological technique or skill you find yourself using often in the initial stages of an intervention? Positive psychology: acknowledging their strengths and everything positive that goes along with that. When people are acknowledged, this sets a tone that a lot is possible, which in turn leads to better communication moving forward because the person now has more trust in both you and the intervention. Active listening is a second useful technique: maintaining eye contact and repeating back what was said shows the person that they and their words are valued. People respond well to being given respect, and to being seen as an individual. You just cannot go wrong with any interaction that starts in this manner.
- Do you know of any places where they are effectively combining sport psychology with physical rehabilitation? Hm, perhaps the Chicago Sports Concussion Clinic might be worth looking into…
- And lastly, any advice on writing my thesis? Yes: the idea is to create a line of studies — your thesis ought to set up the next question. Setting up this progression of inquiry both immerses you deep in your field as well as prepares you to describe the process of what led you through your specialized quest.