What's Happening in Character?

Lessons from a Sidewalk—the Power of Social Norming

Posted by Rebecca Sipos on Wed, Jan 7, 2015 @ 16:01 PM

Driving home from work last week, I heard a snippet of a conversation on NPR between author Daniel Pink and Kojo Nnamdi. They were discussing the recent National Geographic show “Crowd Control” that debuted on Nov. 24. While I haven’t seen the show, it sounded interesting.  The show explored some experiments with crowd control, focusing on pedestrian safety.

In one experiment in Washington, DC, researchers marked a section of sidewalk into two lanes—one for pedestrians with cellphones and one for people without cell phones (all with the permission of the DC government, of course). They added authority figures—people in orange vests holding clipboards, who asked people using cell phones to walk in the cellphone lane and directed those without to the other “fast” lane.

What they discovered is that people did not like being told what to do by these authority figures; they complained about the over reach of government. Although they complied for a while, they stepped out of the assigned lane when they were free of the “authorities.”

So the experimenters tried a different approach.  The crew took off their orange vests, put away their clip boards and acted as role models. Carrying their cell phones, they immediately got in the cell phone lane. This “modeling” was much more successful. Pink said they were struck by the power of social norming. People would comply, perhaps thinking, “I guess that’s the way they do things here.”

‘Norming’ the Way

The radio show got me thinking about education. Some schools try to instill order with rigid enforcement of rules, but in other schools, the culture establishes a pattern of behavior that leads to a caring school climate without the constant need for more and more rules. Students self-monitor behavior and tell others that certain behaviors are not tolerated at their school. They correct the perception that all kids are allowed to misbehave in certain ways because that’s not their school’s way.

For example, authors Tom Lickona and Matt Davidson in their book, “Smart and Good High Schools,” tell of their visit to one large high school that used a touchstone to foster a culture of excellence and ethics. Their touchstone, “The Roosevelt Way: Doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do” really helped students learn how they are expected to act.  One teacher explained, “In class students will sometimes police each other. I had a boy this week who spoke disrespectfully to me. Before I had a chance to respond, another boy in the next row leaned over said quietly, ‘That’s not the Roosevelt Way.’ It immediately defused the situation.”

In another example, at Greenfield Elementary, students follow their touchstone to go beyond rules.  Their character coordinator, Claudia St. Amour said their touchstone has given their students “a meaning and purpose for their good behavior, and their actions are telling us that they are ‘getting it.’” She said the students are more self-aware and more aware of the needs and feeling of others. Their self-control is sharply improved as is their self-confidence. “Our students have become better collaborators, leaders, team members and servants,” St. Amour said. “Best of all, they can tell you why…because ‘that’s the Greenfield Way!’” Greenfield students learn from their peers that pro-social actions are preferred by the group so they take on positive habits of behavior with the ethical background to back it up. It creates an environment where they don’t need an authority to wag a finger—that’s just the way they do things there.

Another powerful example comes from Muskogee High School where students and staff put together a “touchstone,” which is an acronym that describes their core values.  Through their efforts, their touchtone became the “ROAD” standing for their core values of Respect, Opportunity, Achievement, and Determination. But creating a touchstone isn’t enough unless the student body makes it their own. 

Shortly after the touchstone was created, the character education team saw evidence that it was taking hold. A rare, deep snow fell on Oklahoma one day and an elderly lady’s car was stuck in the snow. Two wrestlers saw this and immediately went over to dig her out. So pleased by the kindness of these two high schoolers, the woman wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper who then published an article about the character of these young men. Hearing about the article, the principal of Muskogee called the young men in to commend them. Their response: “Of course. That’s what Roughers do. We’re on the ROAD.”

I always liked doing site visits at schools with touchstones. The students had so much pride in their culture and reciting their touchstone helped them remember it.

Like the pedestrians on the sidewalk, none of us like to be bossed around. How much nicer it could be if we all established a caring culture through the power of social norming. Many Schools of Character are using touchstones or other methods to create a culture of positive behavior and your school could be next.

Has your school created a touchstone that has made a difference? We’d love to hear your stories on how a touchstone has affected your school culture. Please share your stories with us.

Want to learn more about touchstones, check out Gary Smit’s new book “Instilling Touchstones of Character.” The aforementioned “Smart & Good High Schools” also has good information about effective touchstones (pp35-36).

Or consider taking our archived webinar: Shaping Your School’s Character Culture. Presenter: Phil Catania, Former NSOC Principal and National Trainer Schools everywhere are looking for what works in getting all students to DO their best work and to BE their best self. Through the use of a School “Touchstone” participants will begin the process of creating common language and shared purpose embraced by all school community members.   Watch Webinar >>