What is a Bully’s Mindset?

I read an article last week, and watched its accompanying video that discussed bullying behaviour from the perspective of evolutionary psychology.  It suggested that bullies act the way they do not out of a lack of self esteem, but because they have a high one that they seek to maintain, and that bullying builds popularity and social status that eventually lead to greater mating potential.  Furthermore, they’re genetically predisposed to the behaviour and there’s not much that can be done about it, except perhaps to provide alternate pathways for status and achievement to kids hardwired this way so that they they’ll not need to bully others in their pursuit of status and popularity.  To me, this is akin to buying off the gangster with “protection money”. Some of this may make sense in isolation, but it seems to me that there has to be more to the story.  Especially because there doesn’t appear to be any evolutionary advantage to being hardwired to be meek and gentle, and very little to being empathetic, yet all these qualities exist (though I do recognize there are theories to explain each of these qualities too).

This has been bothering me for a week and it wasn’t until I started reading Carol Dweck’s Mindset yesterday that I started to put the pieces together.  Admittedly, I’m only 80 pages in, but as I read, Dweck’s description of those with a fixed mindset continually reminded my of my most difficult, bullying students. These students constantly seek to reaffirm their superiority, they are afraid to take risks for fear of demonstrating a deficiency, and seek the easiest paths to success.

Is it possible then that bullies aren’t genetically hardwired, but come to school with a fixed mindset for social prominence, or are even put in a fixed mindset by our school systems?  Dweck does a great job to explain how people can be inadvertently, and intentionally put into a fixed or growth mindset, yet; she makes it clear that whatever your initial abilities or talents may be, your qualities are not fixed.

“Mindsets are an important part of your personality, but you can change them.  Just by knowing about the two mindsets, you can start thinking and reacting in new ways.” p.46

And so it may be that bullies act from a fixed (but changeable) mindset that drives them to be socially dominant at whatever the cost, and the reason that buying them off appears to work is because they are also prone to take the easiest path to success–and there’s no risk involved with taking a buyout.  As effective as this appeasement model may be (as long as the buyouts continue), it isn’t morally right.  It would appear to me that if we can change the mindset of bullies, we would be off toward a much more successful path.  I am excited to finish reading Mindset to learn more on how I can go about doing that.

Do you think traditional approaches to bullying are effective, or do either of these two perspectives change anything for you?  I’d like to hear and discuss it with you!

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Teaching the Tough Topics

In every age there are those topics that are the “tough” ones.  We know there are valuable lessons there, but the content isn’t directly in the curriculum.  Sometimes we skirt around them because they’re often controversial.  They deal with the important life lessons, and the content contained within them is not only controversial (at least to be talking openly about it) but sometimes graphic. Topics vary from sexual health, to aboriginal education, cybersafety, bullying and LGBT rights.  Of course this is not an exhaustive list, but each of these brings up so many questions:  Should we teach about (or through) these topics?  Should we leave it to parents to broach the subject?  Should we inform parents ahead of time if we choose to “go there”?  Should there be some sort of protocol for dealing with these types of topics and appropriately preparing students, and debriefing afterward?  There are no shortages of examples out there, good and bad, that give us opportunity to reflect on, “what would I do in that case?”

Just last month, a teacher in St. Vital, Manitoba showed the Love Is All You Need Video to his grade 7 class and got in hot water when one of his students suffered a medical emergency and passed out as a result of viewing the video.  In it, a “hetero” girl is bullied by the dominant LGBT culture in a role reversal that results in her committing suicide.

Of course, if we don’t teach about these topics, and give students the tools they need to navigate an increasingly difficult adolescence, then the results can be as just as devastating, as was hammered home by Amanda Todd’s suicide, shortly after posting this video on YouTube.

In my classroom, I take these topics very personally and teach through them.  We regularly hold talking circles in which we do our best to respect the ancient tradition, and use it as a tool to build community and have open, frank discussions about the hard topics and what’s happening in student’s lives: both the good and bad.  One of the norms that we rely on, is what’s said in the circle, stays in the circle (with the caveat that I am bound by law to report some things).

Not only has First Nations’ tradition given me a tool to work on these topics, it is one too.  I work hard to break down stereotypes and racial barriers in my class.  Of course, many of the stereo types have deep roots in the Indian Act (in Canada) and in Indian Residential Schools (on both sides of the boarder) and the atrocities that took place there.  Dealing with these has the potential to bring in a lot of graphic discussion and material–but it’s also the truth; and there can be no reconciliation without it.  I think it needs to be done though, and I don’t ask permission and I don’t send out warnings, but I do respect students, I do respect culture and varying viewpoints, and I do both prepare and debrief students.  Perhaps I should do some things differently.  Perhaps not.

What do you do?