The Outrage Cycle in Education

It happened during my third year of teaching.

I taught American History. My students and I were covering the origins of the political theories that influenced the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. Amid a good old 8th-grade smackdown of John Locke vs Thomas Hobbes, we fell into a tangent on the nature of man: Good or Evil. Most of them did not like Hobbes’s view that the life of men was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Throughout an hour debate, my students argued themselves into a corner. They were animated, involved, quoting historians and experience. Everyone wanting to talk about their views. An ethical question emerged from the discussion: “Could there be a situation where it is morally good to walk up to someone and shoot them?”

They said yes.

And I, in a moment of low-filter and flabbergasted at what just happened, said it.

“That’s bullshit.”

The class went quiet for a second. And then disintegrated into laughter.

What Comes Next

Ethics are a challenging subject to any audience and while I certainly didn’t expect my 8th graders to know complicated concepts from various philosophers, I did encourage them to dip their toes into the world of nuance and gray. This is an area fraught with topical dangers. A parent phone call lurked behind many a classroom discussion. But I taught social studies and history: The stories of humanity. We are a social species that, historically, makes controversial decisions as we’ve grown in our understanding of ethics and morality.

That said, the problem wasn’t the topic (Hobbes and Locke were part of the standards). The problem was that I swore in front of my class.

Swore at my class? No.

This happened in the early aughts. Before smartphones, before social media (unless you count blogs!), before SEO and algorithms for writing headlines.

But consider what might have happened.

The Outrage Cycle

If you’re in education long enough, you’ll see people get on the news. Sometimes this is deserved. An educator will do something illegal, extraordinarily stupid, or harmful.

Sometimes the news is questionable. Take my experience above. The headline could write itself. “While talking about gun violence, teacher swears in front of the class.” Such a headline would be technically true, but lacking a good deal of context.

Part of the issue here is the question of incentives. Journalism is very much in a state of flux. Their business model runs on ads. Ads are judged successful based on views and clicks. What drives views and clicks? Carefully crafted headlines and bylines that stir emotions. Throw in the fact that most news websites (and certainly Facebook) know who you are when you visit and you have media companies with exceptional power to shape our actions online.

And what better way to generate engagement than outrage.

In general, the outrage cycle works like so:

  1. Someone does something controversial. This controversy is usually very contextual, often nuanced, and (frequently) very human.
  2. Media – usually social media – pick up the controversy and reduce it to base particles conveniently throwing out all context of the larger picture.
  3. People attach the controversy and outrage to the social issue of their passion. Tied to their passion, outrage builds and inflates.
  4. In the heat of the inflation, words are said, social media inflates, shrapnel explodes across people’s professional and social lives.
  5. Eventually, the outrage dies down. Attention spans are swallowed by the next dopamine fix of the news.
  6. Someone does something controversial. The cycle repeats.

In education, the most frequent example of this is the teacher/student dynamic. Teachers, in an average day, may have interactions with 150 some students, a good number of colleagues, parents, and various other folks who take part in the village of learning. This presents ample opportunity for things to go array. And while this isn’t new to education, ubiquitous devices and social media convolute the possibilities.

We are, as a society, in an adjustment period.

How do we practice discernment in the face of the outrage cycle?

A Place to Start

The intent is key. As is good faith.

When the outrage cycle kicks off, we really should ask:

  1. What is the intent of the individual? Is the intent good even if misguided in the approach or execution?
  2. Are people participating in the cycle acting in good faith? Meaning, do they have a “sincere intention to be fair, open, and honest, regardless of the outcome of the interaction.

Depending on the answers to those questions, educators should decide whether to engage. Quite a few things compete for our attention. Best to focus on areas that might actually be productive.

I realize this can be particularly challenging for leadership (like principals and superintendents), especially given the role local politics play in making decisions. YetI think this is both a function of character and pragmatism. The cycle is self-destructive. Better to do the best to determine the rule of engagement and stick to such a rule.

School. The Antidote

The good news is that great teaching can lead to great thinking. Critical thinking, understanding cognitive biases and logical fallacies, and learning history and sociology can help individuals pause the outrage cycle. In this regard, school really is the antidote.

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