A Small-Wins Perspective

by Sharon L. Nichols and Thomas L. Good

Adults widely misunderstand youth. Although this is not a new phenomenon—adults have been baffled by teen-agers for centuries—a rapidly changing media environment coupled with the increasing demands placed on our youth have fueled the growing generation divide in unprecedented ways.

Indeed our modern, fast-paced, multi-tasked, highly mobile, caffeine-fueled existence has made it more difficult for adults to understand what it is like to be young today . It is a problem that bears costs for the nation’s schools, yet school administrators can help bridge the generation gap for educators and for the broader community .

The mass media has played a central role in contributing to adults’ misunderstanding of youth in three ways .

First, adults have fewer face-to-face contacts with youth than even 25 years ago and this lack of up-close knowledge of youth makes them more vulnerable to the media’s view of youth .

Second, the “if it bleeds it leads” culture of mass media infects adults’ consciousness with the erroneous perspective that youth are prone to bad behavior . Not surprisingly, the press is notorious for emphasizing the bad over the good, especially on the front pages . But this is especially true for how it covers youth, notably youth violence . Studies show that in many locales across the country, in spite of record low numbers of violent acts involving youth, the press has increased its coverage of youth violence upwards of 600 percent—effectively misleading the public into believing youth violence is much more pervasive than it is .

Third, the media environment (e.g., computer video games, world-wide news coverage 24 hours a day, satellite TV with hundreds of channels) has advanced so rapidly that it is more and more common that youth know more about how to operate and navigate media than adults . This contributes to a significant shift in the traditional power relationship of adults as experts . Adults feel threatened because they don’t know how to handle situations where youth don’t need them and youth find adults less credible when they argue that learning is important yet adults themselves are unwilling to learn new skills.

Kaiser Family Foundation research shows that youth and even toddlers are immersed in media in unprecedented ways (www .kff .org) and a report from the Carnegie Foundation (www .carnegie .org) illustrates that how youth obtain their news is radically different than even a decade ago . Although we do not yet know the effects of the technological environment on youth’s behavioral and dispositional development, at the very least, it seems critical that adults become more sensitive to the generational changes influenced by technology.

The biggest cost associated with adults’ mostly negative views of youth is that it affects what adults are willing to do for youth . Indeed, when bad behavior is expected, it is easier to blame and punish youth and harder to embrace and provide guidance for them when they do something wrong. In schools, one emerging sign of this impulse is to encourage youth to snitch on others through tangible rewards instead of trying to build a school culture that supports and validates youth .

More perniciously, an anti-youth orientation makes it less likely that decision makers value decisions to invest in youth . In Arizona, policymakers were unwilling to even partially support all-day kindergarten in spite of supporting data until the governor agreed to voucher and tax credit programs for private schools . This political wrangling at the expense of youth is tragic.

Active Agents
It is because of these exaggerated and mostly negative perceptions of youth that Americans are resistant to the notion of investing in youth . After all, if youth are viewed as mostly troublesome, isn’t it easier to put them away when they are struggling or commit inappropriate acts rather than identify ways to help them grow into productive citizens? We draw upon the notion of “small wins” to articulate a strategy for changing adults’ misconceptions about youth—a necessary precondition to affect what adults are willing to do for youth.

The notion of small wins comes from a 1986 article in the American Psychologist by Karl Weick . He defined a small win as the acceptance of small successes in pursuit of larger, more complicated ones . This orientation is especially useful when attempting to address large-scale and complex social problems, such as pollution or poverty . The merits of adopting a small-wins approach for bridging the generation gap makes an abstract and complex goal more manageable .

A necessary first step is to recognize that youth behavior and dispositions are much better than what many believe . And perhaps more importantly, they are doing well in spite of an unprecedented set of academic, social and community expectations and demands placed on them . Few recognize that American youth lead the world in the number of students who go to school and hold paying jobs . In other countries teen-agers are either students or workers but not both . While bullying is becoming a more prominent issue, public schools remain the safest environments in any community.

It is important that school leaders be knowledgeable about youth in general and their students in particular in order to become active agents for youth, ensuring that teachers, principals and the broader community have this knowledge as well .

Armed with growing awareness of and value for youth’s positive contributions, school leaders can actively work to promote this message and bridge the generation gap that continues to fuel adults’ misconceptions . One idea is to foster an environment that brings together perspectives from all generations . And there are many small-wins strategies to do this . For example, leaders could engage the media to develop a pro-youth view by demanding more positive coverage and by forcefully correcting the media when youth are unfairly presented.

Leaders also could help the broader community to see youth in action by helping to foster school-work relationships where youth’s talents can be applied and celebrated. And leaders can model adults’ continuing needs to learn and grow by providing opportunities for citizens to use schools as a source for their own learning.

Leaders can encourage older Americans to have contact with students . The more familiar voters are about the needs and motivation of youth, the more likely they are to support educational programs and pro-youth initiatives . Reciprocally, the more youth understand older Americans, the more likely youth will value normative traditions and develop stronger pro-social values .

Although the type of activities that might be created depend on a range of issues ( student age, community resources, etc.), the possibilities for interaction are significant . Middle-school students can hold e-mail classes for adults; cross-generational groups can discuss topics, such as what sources of news are most reliable and why or the challenge of handling part-time jobs and a full academic sch edule . These exchanges can be mutually beneficial; adults gain new skills and youth benefit from adults’ knowledge of history .

Lifelong Learning
Of course, one great benefit of organizing opportunities for youth and their elders is for school administrators to become more sensitive to the generational gap and more skillful themselves at bridging it . As the student population begins to shrink over the next two decades it makes good sense morally, politically and economically to help find ways to bring adults, other than parents, into the schools and to learn to see schools as a place where they can enjoy themselves as well as fulfilling generative needs .

Although policymakers and elected officials often pit programs for older and younger Americans against one another for funding purposes, there are many places where cross-generational needs can meet . Finding support to renovate a school auditorium or to add air conditioning to a school facility is likely to be an easier proposition to sell when the facility can meet the needs of 2,000 adults as well as the 400 students served by the school during the day.

In the absence of adult needs, the priority of improving school facilities is lessened because youth are not viewed as a worthy investment in and of themselves. Youth, in contrast to voting adults, have no political power to demand and receive such improvements. In short, if schools as an institution are designed to instill a commitment to lifelong learning, isn’t it reasonable to see schools as a site where this learning can continue?

Opportunity for bridging the generational gap can be a shared task as central-office administrators, principals and teachers might form committees to discuss small-wins strategies . These strategies could be school specific or districtwide . Further, within schools individual teachers or small teams could become knowledgeable about specific youth issues and needs (teens’ music, TV interests, books, magazines and so forth) . A few sincere questions about why youth like the music of Eminem and the Dixie Chicks, even though the styles are notably different, can go a long way in convincing young people they are seen and in a sense known . Literature that youth love and help select for use in the curriculum goes a long way to say that youth’s interests are noticed.

Certainly some obstacles will need to be addressed . Some adults bristle at the thought of a book in the school’s curriculum written by an author they consider undesirable. In these instances, adults (sometimes blatantly, other times surreptitiously) remove books from the curricula on grounds they know what is best for youth. However, rather than disenfranchise youth from the book selection process—which without their input fails to consider youth needs, interests and aspirations—why not have students, teachers and parents (if relevant) work together at the outset to generate a substantial list of recommended literary works and periodicals that might influence future library acquisitions (or computer software)?

We know from firsthand experience that school libraries can be out of sync with students’ interests and needs . The director of the health and wellness program at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah, Alesha Kientzler, found a paucity of books that teens could read about nutrition, health and exercise as she was implementing a wellness program in an Arizona high school . Given the problem of youth obesity (although exaggerated in some accounts) and adolescents' concerns with their physical selves, it seems unfathomable that such books would not be available . Making such acquisitions is one example of a small-wins solution .

Expert Understanding
On a micro level (day-to-day, one-on-one interactions), educators work hard to understand youth and help them become successful . But on a more global basis, when school policies and practices are derived and implemented, we wonder whether even the most committed adults fall prey to myths about youth that define the generation gap .

School administrators clearly operate under a great deal of pressure from parents, teachers, school boards and now, in an unprecedented fashion, from federal and state oversight to increase student achievement . We believe better understanding of the generational differences between them and their students would be helpful when designing educational policy .

At a time when product marketers are making unprecedented efforts to understand and pander to youth needs, educational leaders also should become more expert in understanding their students as social beings . We believe a small-wins approach can be helpful for closing the generation divide and acknowledging the contributions of a diverse, talented and capable youth culture .

Sharon Nichols is an assistant professor of educational psychology at University of Texas at San Antonio, 501 West Durango Blvd ., San Antonio, TX 78207-4415 . E-mail: sharon.nichols@utsa.edu. Thomas Good is a professor of educational psychology at the University of Arizona. They are co-authors of America’s Teenagers—Myths and Realities: Media Images, Schooling, and the Social Costs of Careless Indifference (Erlbaum Publishers).