with Spencer Greenberg
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Episode 186: What tools do students really need in order to become successful humans? (with AJ Crabill)

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November 30, 2023

Why did students struggle so much to learn through video meetings during the locked-down days of the pandemic? What are "student-led restorative practices"? What is "self-connection practice"? What tools are students lacking? When is violence the optimal solution to a problem? What are the biggest problems in education right now? What do students need in order to be successful humans? How can schools give students more agency and autonomy? What happens if students refuse to participate in restorative processes? How do our societal goals shape our educational goals?

AJ Crabill's focus is improving student outcomes. He serves as Conservator at DeSoto, Texas ISD; and during his guidance, DeSoto improved from F ratings in academics, finance, and governance to B ratings. He's also Faculty at the Leadership Institute of Nevada and Director of Governance at the Council of the Great City Schools. He served as Deputy Commissioner at the Texas Education Agency and spearheaded reforms as board chair of Kansas City Public Schools that doubled the percentage of students who are literate and numerate. Crabill is the author of Great On Their Behalf: Why School Boards Fail, How Yours Can Become Effective, and is a recipient of the Education Commission of the State's James Bryant Conant Award. Learn more about him at his website,, or follow him on LinkedIn, YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter / X.

Further reading:

SPENCER: AJ, welcome.

AJ: Thank you so much for having me, Spencer.

SPENCER: Today we're going to talk about: how to improve education, what's wrong with education, why education matters. Let's jump right in with a specific example. Can you tell us about what you're doing right now with your students and why you're doing it?

AJ: Yeah. This is actually a great week of being joined by a group of my students from Houston, Texas while I'll be traveling to Chicago to speak at a national conference of school system leaders. The topic that we'll be speaking on is student-led restorative practices. And this is really important to me for a variety of reasons. Probably the reason that it's easiest for people to grasp is: coming out of the pandemic, a lot of educators noticed that students seem to really be struggling with human interaction, that's something about being on Zoom for two years managed not to convey the human interaction skills that being in school might have conveyed, and so looking for ways to help students gain the type of tool set that they need to just really be effective members of society. That's probably one of the more compelling rationales behind a student-led approach to shorter practices, when there are challenges in a school, then we really train students to lead them. It gives students the tools to really create the culture and environment of their schools.

SPENCER: So what's an example where you use student-led restorative practices?

AJ: So they joined and trained during their middle school; they are in high school now. I don't know how much of your middle school experience you recall, but it can be a drama-filled time. And so, there's this constant space of conflict. So the training that we provide students with allows them to be the ones who are mediating through conflict — instead of having adults step in and try to help students work through their circumstances — that students would step in and be the folks who mediated that. Again, there are several benefits here. One of those is that the student who is leading the mediation is learning a set of skills that are going to serve them very well throughout the rest of life. But also, the students who are experiencing conflict often are going to hear that conversation very differently coming from a period than they would coming from a guy like me with a bunch of gray hair. And so, using this as an opportunity to help our schools be really the instructional environments that we all want them to be is a critical part of this work.

SPENCER: So can you give us a specific example where there was some kind of drama in a middle school and how these practices worked in that case?

AJ: Yeah. I'm thinking of a student. I'll call her Jasmine. It's not a real name. She was incredibly, incredibly violent and proficient at it. And she's been suspended multiple times throughout her career, and her principal contacted me and said, "Hey, could you work with her? Can we get her into this work that you do, and see if that'll make a difference because we're kind of at our wits end with it." And I said, "Yeah, no problem." So she shows up. She goes through the work that we do together over the course of a summer. And then she heads back and the school is about to start. The end of the first day of school, my phone rings. And it's Jasmine's principal. And she says, "Do you have time? I need to talk to you?" And I asked, "What happened?" And she says, "Well, I've got my whole leadership team here, let me put you on speakerphone." Now I'm getting really nervous [laughs]. And so she proceeded to let me know that they had a Jasmine-intervention plan. And she laid it out for me, "We know how this is going to work because last year Jasmine beat up two girls at the exact same time at the end of the school year. We have to prevent that type of violence from happening. So when we see a big crowd of students forming, and if we see Jasmine moving toward the middle of the crowd, then you rush in, and you grab her from that side. You grab that side, and we'll be able to prevent her from hurting anybody else." And so the principal, she made me realize, "Okay." Sure enough, it's the end of the first day of school and there's this little drama that's happening between these two girls in the space and there's this huge crowd of students gathered around them. And we look up, and we see Jasmine with a head full of steam headed right toward the middle of that group of students and we're like, "Alright, everybody. Get in there. Hurry up, stop them before she can hurt anybody." But they can't get to the crowd; it's just too thick. And by the time they get to the middle of the crowd of students, Jasmine has both of the girls doing breathing exercises, de-escalate the entire situation, and then has students going about their way.

SPENCER: Wow. Surprising story ending.

AJ: So the principal says, "Exactly what did you do this summer?" We go on, Jasmine leads the student mediation team for her school as the founding president for the student mediation team for a school. She never gets suspended for fighting again. She graduated high school. I went to her high school graduation because she told me to. She's bigger than I am, so I still don't want to piss her off. And after the graduation, her mom comes up to me and gives me a letter. And when I'm by myself, I open the letter and read it. And what she says, paraphrasing, "I had just reached a place of acceptance that my daughter was going to die in some act of violence because that is the life that she's always been living. And as a result of her work with you, and the things that you all have taught her, and the difference that she's making in her life, for the first time, I have a real belief that I'm going to see my daughter live past 21." I share that she always had it within her as a young person to be great. She always had a dream for herself. But the challenge that I think she faces, that a lot of us face, is that she doesn't have the tools necessary to access the drain that she has for herself. And I see it as a tool issue. The belief that I have in this work is that whatever situations students encounter, they reach into their toolbox, and they grab the most appropriate tool available to address the circumstance that they're currently facing. The problem is, if there is a screw in front of them that needs to be put into a piece of wood, and they open up a toolbox, and all they see is hammers, well then Jasmine's just gonna start hammering on stuff. And from the outside looking in, we're like, "Why on earth is she beating all that screw with the hammer? This is just horrible behavior. Is she a bad kid? Maybe she just doesn't care about education." But I know the truth of this; none of those are accurate. What's accurate is that she's using the most effective tool in our toolbox. And so, to me, the mission becomes how do we add more tools to the toolbox? What are the tools that she had the presence of which would allow her to make a different choice. Because she doesn't actually want to fight. She doesn't actually want to be violent. What she wants is to solve problems in her life as they emerge, just like you and I do.

SPENCER: So violence for her sounds like a solution to a problem. Obviously, a very dysfunctional solution that was ultimately making things worse. But from her point of view, it was the only strategy she knew. Is that right?

AJ: I'd say it's a tool that she was proficient with. And I think that's on us. And that is part of our job as society, and public education in particular, is how do we provide people with the tools they need in order to have the success they want for themselves? And when we see behavior, that isn't the behavior that you or I would choose for ourselves, all I'm suggesting is that I want our first instinct, that first piece of curiosity to be, "What are the tools that she is lacking that the presence of which will make a difference? And what is my role in getting her access to those tools?" My experience — and I've worked with a lot of very, very violent young people — my experience is very clear that I can rely on students, when confronted with challenges in life, to pick the most optimal tool in their toolbox to address that situation. I can rely on students to do that. Now, it's just a matter with that insight of identifying: what tool they are missing, and what I need to do, who I need to become, such that I gain access to that tool?

SPENCER: What are some of the tools that you're teaching through the restorative practices?

AJ: One of the things that I leaned very heavily on is the practice of being present in the moment. The the way that I often describe it with students is that, in moments when I'm feeling triggered, where my emotional state is really overwhelming, my rational state that I'm experiencing is being triggered, that in those moments, I am most likely to reach for whatever tool I am most proficient with; that I'm not going to reach for the tool that most aligns with my beliefs, values, and commitment; that I'm going to reach for the tool I am most proficient with. So it really comes down to: do I have a diverse skill set or a diverse toolset? And have I developed enough proficiency with them, so that in moments of being triggered, I'm more likely to reach for one that gets me the results I want rather than the one that doesn't give me the results I want. Probably the tool that I most want them to be proficient with, as we call it SCP or Self Connection Practice. And that's where they do these three steps that are described most ably by Marshall Rosenberg in his book about nonviolent communication. My first step is to take a deep breath and just really observe my breathing. And my next step is to identify what feeling am I experiencing? What physical or emotional experience am I having at the moment? What does that feel like? (Frustrated, or angry emotion, or joyful emotion, or happy, or sad? And then once you identify that feeling, what is the need that feelings is pointing to? Well, I'm feeling thirsty. I need a drink. I'm feeling sad, I need a hug. I'm feeling joyful, my need for laughter has been met. But this is the practice. This is the tool that I most want my students to have access to, that in any moment of feeling triggered, that I can automatically get connected back to myself rather than being disconnected from my rational intentions. That I can engage in self-connection and bring my rational intentions back to the fore. And what I find is that, as I train students with this particular tool, and when they go back to school, I don't actually tell them, "I think fighting is a bad thing." I don't actually tell them that. I've trained my staff not to tell them that. What I tell them is, "Fighting is a tool and, unfortunately, some of you live in communities where that tool may, in fact, be the appropriate tool for a given situation to be a protective factor for you." And so my coaching is not, "Fighting is bad." My coaching is, "Fighting is a tool. And my only request is that now that we've given you the self-connection practice, this additional tool, is that when you encounter whatever adversity you encounter and you're feeling triggered, my request is reach for whichever tool you think is most appropriate for the circumstance. And if you think the most appropriate tool is your fist, reach for that, recognizing there will be consequences. But if that's what your judgment tells you, then do that. But if your judgment tells you that the most effective tool is to take a moment and really self-connect, and then in the space of rational thought to decide what to do, then reach for that tool." And with that coaching, so many of our students would simply go back to school, and after an extended career of fighting and violence, they would just simply never fight again, not because they lost the tool, but because they found other tools that were more optimal for getting the results they wanted in life. That just like Jasmine wanted greatness for herself, all of our kids do. Now the question is: do they have the tools? And we help them gain proficiency with those tools to the point of automaticity, where they can reach for them in moments of trigger.

SPENCER: That points to two different things. One: understanding and knowing how to use these other tools. But two: having the presence of mind when in a challenging situation, kind of step back and use the right tool. And it sounds like you're focused on both of them. I am curious, though, to ask when do you think that fighting is the right tool?

AJ: If your physical well-being is at risk, Spencer, you are going to do whatever you need to protect yourself. You believe in survival, just like everybody else does.

SPENCER: So basically, as a form of self-defense, if you're physically threatened.

AJ: That is an option.

SPENCER: This SCP method sounds very helpful. What are some of the other things you want them doing in those moments when they realize, "Okay, maybe I shouldn't be fighting?" What are the kinds of tools that you're teaching them that they can then bring into the situation?

AJ: Yeah, but the critical factor there is, the thought process I'm wanting them to engage in isn't, "Oh, I shouldn't be fighting," because I'm not problematizing fighting. If that is the tool that they believe makes the most sense, then that is a tool that I expect that they will probably use. What I want is for them to actually have that rational reflection about: what is the tool that is most going to get me the result I want? And I want the self-connection practice to be automatic, because that will give them more access to being able to, in a thoughtful way, sift through their toolbox full of tools to try to decide which one is going to make the most sense moving forward. What I want for them is I want them to maximize their opportunity to practice their own sapience and not follow some predefined construct of behavior that I think works best for them.

SPENCER: I see. So does that mean you're not actually teaching them other tools to use?

AJ: Certainly, I'm teaching them other tools. I'm just not telling them which tool to use at which moment. That is the wisdom that I want them to get.

SPENCER: I see. So what are some of the other tools that you're teaching them?

AJ: So the first step after you've reconnected to yourself is: now what you'd have in the hand is, "What is the need that I'm missing? There is an unmet need that I'm experiencing." And think through, "What could I be doing to meet that need? Maybe my need is respect. Is there something else I could do other than fighting in this moment to meet my need for respect? Do I need safety? Is there something else I could be doing other than fighting in order to meet my need for safety?" Whatever the need is, to just be thoughtful about, "Okay, now that I'm clear about what I need, what are the different options?" At that point, the next one I wanted to use is to do a cost-benefit analysis. And the way we do this is really commonly we do this with students as well as adults is, "What is the behavior? What is the benefit of the behavior? What is the cost of behavior?" Just the basic cost-benefits analysis and be thoughtful about it. And then, "Okay, so the benefits would be, I can knock this person out, and that's one way of getting respect. I'd probably be sent home. My interest in being an engineer gets one step further away. So there's a benefit there, there's a cost there. I could walk away from it. The benefit is my interest in being an engineer goes one step closer, perhaps. But my sense of feeling respected by my classmates may diminish. There's a benefit there. There's a cost there." And so, inspiring students to be constantly reflective of: What is the behavior that I could exhibit next? What's the potential benefits? What are the potential costs? Just being thoughtful of that, having the presence of mind to engage in that, is another critical tool that we're constantly teaching. Which behavior, behavior benefit, behavior cost.

SPENCER: Yeah, that sounds very useful, just as a kind of simple guiding framework. Let's go back to the topic of restorative practices. So what are you actually doing with the students so that they can help resolve these issues in their own schools? How does that work in practice?

AJ: So there's an understanding that you have to grasp first for this to make sense. One of the things that I preach to my students when we're training them on how to lead restorative practices as students is that: we don't solve people's problems. That as folks, we're facilitating the conversation when students are in conflict, or when they're challenged in the classroom, or when students have violated the rules in some way. That our job in leading the restorative process is not to solve the problem. The belief in the work is that whenever these types of conflicts emerge, or where violation of the rules emerge, the belief there is that there is a disconnection between the two people who are in conflict. And that in the space of that disconnection, something that is probably a relatively small problem in the big scheme of things becomes really, really difficult to solve. But also, the insight is that in the space of connection, whatever that problem is, they will be able to figure it out on their own. So our job isn't to solve their problem. Our job is to create a space where they experience connection with each other, with the belief that when they experience connection, they'll solve their own problem. This is absolutely important. Because if that happens, now, they have practiced tools that they will be able to use in the future. They don't have to constantly come to me for problems. Then now we're just creating this nanny state where they have to constantly find the adult to sort things out. I need them to sort things out for themselves. The problem is humans just tend not to sort things out among ourselves, whether it's at an individual level of middle school, or at the geopolitical level between two nations. We tend not to sort things out with each other in moments when we feel a strong sense of disconnection with the person on the other side of the conflict. But if we can create a restored sense of connection between the two conflictants, it is most often the case that they will live in the space of connection, come up with a solution for themselves. And that's the work of restorative practices.

SPENCER: Can you give a specific example where there is a problem at a school and what actually happened?

AJ: A group of my students who are doing this work just recorded — I'll just share with you, it's really remarkable — It's actually a mediation that a student is leading. But what's really special about this one is it's between a student and a teacher. So the teacher opted in to participating in this conversation, because they have a conflict with students. This is a real scenario, it's not contrived. You can see the video for yourself. But essentially, in a video, you hear the facilitator, the student, really just kind of creating a space of listening for the student and a space of listening for the teacher, and just kind of going back and forth between the two of them, giving both of them an opportunity to share. It's a practice that is designed to help de-escalate and slowly get them to a point where they're actually hearing each other in a way that they haven't been listening to each other before. And that's what the process of creating connection looks like. As the teacher was speaking, you could see her warming up to what were some of the things that were going off with students. As a student is speaking, you could hear him warming up to some of the things that his behavior really caused for the teacher to see as problematic. And you see over the course of the conversation how these two people go from this place of mild hostility in the beginning to a place of reasonable connection. And then in the context of that, they can come up with solutions: what are the requests that they can then make of each other for what they will do next to avoid finding themselves in a place of conflict again. And then a critical part of the process is a week later — and they actually showed in the video, they showed a time jump — that the facilitator has to reconvene the conflictants and check in with them, "Have you honored the things that you committed to do seven days ago?" And if they have, then we're largely done here. If they haven't, then there's more process around that. But I have to show it to you. It's one of those things that once you see students lead this type of work, you can't unsee it. I think we missed the wisdom of capacity of our students, because we assumed that these are only things that adults can do. But these are absolutely things that students can do.

SPENCER: Yes, send that over and we'll put in the show notes so people can watch that.


SPENCER: Can you give us some examples like, you have two students in the room who have been having these really bad disagreements with each other or causing conflict in school, and then you have a facilitator there, who's also a student. Can you give us some idea of what specifically is the facilitator doing that's helping the situation.

AJ: I actually already described it, but it's so simple that it's easy to miss. And so what the facilitator is doing is creating a space for each conflictant to experience feeling heard. And so they're listening to one party, and letting them share and really helping them understand what was going on for them from the moment. And then they switch to the other party and they do the same thing. They switch back and forth. And the magic of what's happening here is that the two people who are probably not interested in talking directly to each other still wind up hearing each other and getting a sense of what's going on for the other person. This is the practice I refer to as 'they begin to gain a sense of empathy for each other, even without them trying'. What's happening is the facilitator is just creating a space of connection between each of them individually, until they start to form a sense of connection again between each other. And then in the space of connection, they're ready to solve their own problems.

SPENCER: Got it. It's interesting that with such a simple technique, it can be so powerful. We ran some events where we brought people together and had them have structured disagreements on controversial topics — topics normally people wouldn't talk about, or it might be contentious — to have a discussion about them. But we used a method that was somewhat similar, where basically: step one was that the first person would explain to the other person why they have their point of view. And the second person is only allowed to listen and ask clarifying questions. And then they switch roles. And the second person explains the first why they have their point of view. And then the third step is that they would work together to try to see if they could, as a team, figure out why they disagree. So it became a collaborative exercise. But I definitely see elements in common with the approach you're describing. We found this worked really, really well for getting people to discuss controversial topics.

AJ: Well, if you remember what I mentioned earlier about the self-connection practice of taking the moment to really observe my own breathing, and then identify what I'm feeling, and then identify what that feeling is pointing to, that's actually a common technique that the facilitator is using. So, somebody shares their perspective. And then they'll reflect back what they heard them say. And then they'll try to guess, "Where at that moment, were you feeling angry?" "Yeah, I was feeling angry." At that moment did you need kindness?" "Yeah, that's exactly what I needed." "Alright, do you mind if I check in with the other person?" Then they're gonna do the same thing. They'll listen to that person. And they'll reflect back what they said. And then they'll guess what they might be feeling. And guess what that unmet need feeling might be pointing to. And so, in this regard, they're modeling this tool that I want all my students to have: the self-connection practice. But you all don't know it yet. But as a facilitator, I know it. So I'm leading you through it, without even realizing that that's what I'm doing. But it's also having the effect of you perhaps being more willing to hear and listen, and to experience a greater connection with the person on the other side of the conversation.

SPENCER: So changing topics slightly. Can you tell us a little bit about what you see as some of the biggest problems right now in education?

AJ: One thing to avoid pivot entirely is the things that we're talking about: what are tools that are necessary parts of being human? These are tools that I would want for every single student across the globe, that I would want every person to be intentionally developed and grown in the area of: How do I be present to who I'm being at the moment and make choices grounded in my beliefs, values, and commitments rather than the automaticity of my triggers? And how do I generate for myself these moments of self-connection? That is a skill set that I would want every single child across the planet to have. That just frees us up to be the people we intend to be. But I think if these are basic tool sets of humanity, that we often aren't intentionally teaching until our students have this, they normally get it from the community or from their home or from congregation or neighborhood or something like that. But I don't understand why this isn't just baked into the standard affair? This sense of character development and how do I demonstrate the character that I obtained? How do I demonstrate the behavior I intend at any moment? I would want that baked into the curriculum for everyone who's going to be having a human experience during this lifetime. So that's one thing that I would shift. Another thing that I would shift is what this whole idea of student-led restorative practices points to. I would constantly be looking for ways to increase the sense of agency and autonomy that students experience as part of their learning journey. There are extremes of this that don't make sense to me. But there are reasonable areas where the more that students experience a sense of purposefulness and a sense of autonomy in their schooling, the greater likelihood that they will really pursue it with gusto. The challenge is learning is always going to cause struggle. Even if you love the topic, there are going to be moments when you struggle as you're learning things. And so the real question is: do people have the tenacity to persevere in the face of struggle or not? And my sense is the more of a sense of agency that students experience around their work, and the more sense of belonging they experience in their learning community (which is why the connection part matters), the more that those two things are true — that I experience a sense of connection and belonging in my learning environment, and that I experience a sense of agency and autonomy in my learning environment — the more I'm likely to persevere in those moments when the learning process itself seemed just really, really a struggle.

SPENCER: What do you see as some low hanging fruit with regard to agency and autonomy, where schools are not giving students these, but they could easily do so and produce better results?

AJ: So certainly, in the areas of restorative practices, we're inviting students to take an ownership role — in the same way that Jasmine did in her school and take the leadership role — and when there are conflicts, instead of those going to the adults, they can go to students. It creates a laboratory for the students, on both sides of the conflict as well as who are facilitating, to grow their skill set to gain proficiency with the tools that they need to really be great in their own lives. So that's one obvious area. Another area that I think there's some really compelling evidence around is when students create their own goals for themselves around their learning. What are my current learning gaps? Where do I want my learning to be at the end of the school year? And what are some of the strategies I'm going to need to enact to get there. There's a lot of evidence that when students engage at that level, their own goal-setting around their own learning, that they're more likely to be effective at achieving the goals that they set for themselves. But again, this is, I think, a fundamental nature of autonomy. I don't know many people — children or adults — who love implementing somebody else's plan. We love implementing our own plan. And if that's true for us as adults, why wouldn't we suspect that that's true for students as well. And so I think those two areas are places that I'm constantly wanting to lean into. How can we create a context where students have a sense of ownership and autonomy as it relates to behavior and norms they are building? And how do students have a sense of ownership and autonomy as it relates to their own academic trajectory and the goals that they set for themselves?

SPENCER: So that sounds like a really nice idea, having students be more involved in creating their own learning goals. But I wonder if a skeptic might say, "Well, but how is that gonna fit into a school curriculum? Doesn't the school curriculum dictate a set of learning goals?" So, how do those things mesh?

AJ: The reality is there's a challenge and there's an amount of coaching that takes place. But part of that is students really want to be effective. They really want to achieve and they really want to have success. So a large part of the coaching work is to try to identify: what are the things that we need to do to contextualise the relationship between the learning the student needs to get done this year and the success that they want to see for themselves? But that's on us. If we can't figure out how to contextualize that as adults, then I think there's a larger challenge that we need to sort through. And so, when I see this happen most, when I do see schools doing this, what it looks like is students actually sitting down and being essentially proctored by their teacher to think through, "Where are you at? Where are your peers at? Where do you need to be in order to have the success you want? And how do we connect those dots?" And what I find both with student-led restorative practices and with student-directed goal-setting is that, as long as there's a meaningful relationship between the teacher and the learner, the students will often set much loftier goals for themselves than we might have set for them. So I don't find that the biggest problem is students who have low expectations of themselves. I often find the opposite, that we have to help them, "Yes, I definitely get that you are two grade levels behind, and you would like to be ahead of your class in the next three months. We can talk about how realistic that is. But we might want to pitch a slightly more realistic goal." But again, that's the challenge that I see more often. Because students really, really, really want to succeed. And then when we give them a sense of agency, they often want to push for goals that are higher than the ones that we wouldn't even recommend or coach. And then, because it's their goal, they're more likely, in my experience, to put in the time to actually pursue that goal. But yes, it is absolutely possible that students could lowball them. The part of the job of the adult involved is to talk through what are the pros and cons of that, and try to identify if this is a choice that is going to position our students to have the things that they want?

SPENCER: Traditionally, a lot of schools use discipline as a way to kind of get the students to behave and do the things that they wanted. How do you see discipline as interacting with this idea of agency and autonomy?

AJ: I believe that actions have consequences. And that is a fundamental belief of restorative practices. That when there are actions that are inconsistent with the norms that we've committed to, it's reasonable for there to be consequences. Or, when I've acted in a way that I've created harm for myself, for others, or for my learning community, that it's appropriate that there are consequences. There is a matter of character development that's at play here, where we have an obligation to help students understand that there are cause and effect and that we, as participants in society, have to accept that when we create a certain cause, we also have to take accountability for that effect. That, I believe, is consistent with the expectations that most people have everywhere. What you said is slightly different from that, in that the way you described it to me implies a desire for retribution. Restorative work and retributive work are largely not compatible. And so if the desire of your heart is, "I want this person to experience punishment because I experienced hurt, so I want them to experience hurt." This is a desire for retribution. And that is largely not compatible with the desire for restoration. The intention of punishment is: who did something wrong and how do we mete out the amount of hurtfulness that matches the hurt that they caused? The intention behind restorative practice is: who created what harm and how do they take full accountability for the harm they created and for repairing the harm, and what consequences are associated with the harm being repaired? But these are two entirely different and incompatible ideas about how to respond when there is behavior that is outside of the expected norm. I should say inside of that. I am not a purist about this. I have been responsible for expelling children from school. And I would make those same decisions again. If you bring a fully loaded weapon into my school, I will, in fact, choose the well-being of all the other students over your well-being. And so I'm not a purist about it. What I'm suggesting is there are times when a retributive approach to behavior makes sense (in the case of bringing a loaded weapon). And there are times when a restorative approach to behavior makes sense. And I'm just arguing that we should be calibrating in the restorative direction, recognizing that there will be retributive moments that are necessary rather than calibrating in the retributive direction, and every now and then finding a restorative opportunity.

SPENCER: For the restorative approach that you use, are the students involved in that (the kind of third party students), are they actually coming up with punishments?

AJ: No. But again, you're talking about punishment. Punishment is not a part of what I'm describing.

SPENCER: It's not a part of it at all. So how does this gel though with the idea that action should have consequences? To me, that suggests there's some kind of punishment.

AJ: Yes, so we're on the same page: action should have consequences. But consequences and punishment are not the same thing. Consequence means that there is an action and there is a resulting action that comes out of that action. Punishment is: you have created this much hurt, we are going to cause you to hurt in equal measure to the hurt that you've created. These are two different phenomena.

SPENCER: What do you think about incentives? Because the classic argument in favor of punishment is that it shifts incentives so that if someone knows that they take an action that's harmful to the group or to other people, there's a punishment. And so, now they're less incentivized to take that action. I'm wondering, do you feel that that incentive approach just doesn't actually work as well in practice and that by using a restorative approach, even though it's not shifting the incentives the same way, it's actually just more effective?

AJ: But it is shifting incentives. There are still consequences for the behavior. That's my point.

SPENCER: Can you unpack or maybe give an example of what kind of the consequences are not a punishment? What kind of consequences are we talking about that still would shift the incentives?

AJ: It's whatever they co-create. And so the intention is this is a choice-filled conversation where the person who created harm, say little AJ pushes little Spencer. First, the student who's facilitating the conversation is going to try to create a conversation where we get what was going on for little AJ at the moment that he made the choice to push little Spencer. And we're going to have a conversation with little Spencer, "What was going on for you at that moment? What was this like for you?" And the intention of this is we're really unpacking what harm was created and what was some of the behavior benefit-cost dynamic that was at play when the harm was created. But we really want to get as deep into understanding the nature of harm as possible. But not only the harm for little Spencer, but little AJ also harmed himself in the moment that he chose to harm Spencer. And we need to unpack that. It's usually reputational harm (something in that nature). And there is also harm to the learning environment. There's another little kid over in the corner who wasn't even involved in this, but that was wondering, "Am I going to be the next kid who gets pushed?" And so now, instead of thinking about algebra 100%, it'll be about algebra 90% and 10% how do I avoid being the next Spencer? And so there's harm that I've created for myself, harm that I've created for you, harm that I've created for the learning environment. And this process isn't complete until I've identified own responsibility for the harm and then come up with a plan that everyone in the group agrees with, including Spencer and including the other kid across the room, that these actions by this timeline, these smart goals that we come up with will actually take meaningful steps to repair the harm. And that is the purpose of restorative practice: How do we identify the harm and then hold the author of the harm accountable for repairing the harm? Those are the consequences that are associated with it. I can give you a specific example of this in my own household. So one of my kids was playing around with a ball out front, and the ball went into Ms. Fales' flat. Ms. Fales is a 99-year old lady next door. I don't know how old she was in reality, but she was old. She'd been around for a long, long time. And everybody knows, you don't mess with Ms. Fales' flowers. Well, his ball knocked over Ms.Fales' flowers, and my immediate thought was retribution. What are all the ways I need to beat this child so that they don't ever let the ball go up at Ms. Fale's flat, because I don't want to hear from Ms. Fales either, because she's got to come and cuss me out next. But I don't do that because I've been learning about this restorative practice work. And so, instead, I have a conversation with him about what was the harm that he created for Ms. Fales with his ball? Damaged her flowers. But then even beyond that, what was the harm you created for yourself when you did that? And he recognized that one repercussion is some reputational harm that now the other old folks on the block might assume that he is a disrespectful child and don't want to deal with him. And so, his little lawn mowing business thing, they won't hire him because they don't want to deal with a disrespectful child. There's little harm that he may have created for himself because Ms. Fales won't go over and tell everybody what he'd do. So I asked, "What harm did you create for the other old folks on the block?" Well, maybe now they're fearful of these really disrespectful kids on the block, and now they're gonna be worried if their yard is going to be trampled next. And so once we surfaced all the harm that was actually created, then I was like, "Okay, so what are you gonna do to repair the harm?" And so he thinks through, "Okay. Well, what can I do to repair the harm that Ms. Fales is experiencing? Well, she's experiencing her hard work to get her flowers in order has been hampered. Well, then there's something about dealing with that." If the harm is that she's just frustrated, "What can you do to address the fact that you created frustration and anger for her?" We also talked about what's the harm that you've done to the other folks on the block? And what's the harm that they've experienced? And how can you reverse that? But also, what's the harm to yourself, and how can you address that?" He thought about this for a while. And the solution he came up with — I was super proud of— he said, "Well, they probably think I'm a bad kid now. And they think that I will be a danger to them. And the way I can repair the harm is I can go to each one of them — And by the way, my kid, he loves money. And so this was a huge sacrifice. — and just let them know what I did and let them know that I apologize to Ms. Fales. And then as a sign of respect, I can offer to mow each of their lawn one time for free. And that will be my way of trying to repair the harm for the fearfulness that they have, and reputational harm I did myself." And so he did. He goes out to the block. He got all the older folks on the block. And he shared, "Here's what I did. And here's what I tried to do to make it right with Ms. Fales. But I don't want you to think that I am that kind of kid and that you have to worry about me being on the block. And so I want to offer to mow your lawn one time for free just as a sign of respect." Not a single one of those folks took him up on it. But his relationship with every single one of them, as well as Miss Fales', shifted meaningfully on that day. And that is part of what I mean by there are absolutely consequences. But the consequences have to be around, "How do we repair the harm?" The consequences can't be around, "What exactly are we going to do to try to punish them?" Because I could have grounded him. That's what I could have done. And that's what I would normally think, I normally gravitate to. But that would not have actually created anything like the result that we wound up getting. That is the difference: that if the job is to repair the harm, that leads us in a very different direction than if the job is to punish. Because punishing them in that moment simply would not have created the result that we ultimately got.

SPENCER: Yeah, it seems like a really nice process. I like that a lot.


SPENCER: One thing that comes to mind for me is what happens if a student refuses to engage with the process?

AJ: Then they go through the retributive process. This is a choice. There's always a choice. We don't create student agency by robbing them of student agency. And so, this is a choice. And if the moment comes, it's going to say, "Yes, I'm open to participating in a restorative process or no, I don't want to talk to these people." Then, they just send you to the system's principal's office and can go through the normal retributive process. But then that is the choice of the student.

SPENCER: I see. That makes a lot of sense. So imagine that, in your experience, this system works a lot better than just a pure retributive system. What's the path forward to getting more schools to use this? And why might schools be resistant to this?

AJ: So the resistance is an easier question. I've never yet seen a student-led restorative practices initiative or efforts to bring more agency to students. I've not seen them destroyed by students using them inappropriately. I've seen them destroyed quietly by adults who are very uncomfortable with it. And so in fact, I'm working with a group of high schools right now to deploy this. It's a two-year pilot. And in the first nine months of those two years, all I did was train adults. Remember, I'm training about student-led restorative practices. And the first nine of 24 months, the only thing I did was train adults. And that is because this is very different. Even the very questions you ask are the reasonable questions that most people ask, because this is so different from what we've always done. You have to think through the time, you have to read the room. If you send little AJ home for punching little Spencer for 10 days, is your theory that little AJ is going to spend those 10 days at home reflecting on what he did and the harm he created, and committing to himself to come back and be the person who better honors the rules? If that is your belief, if you honestly believe that the majority of those 10 days won't be spent leveling up their Fortnite character and spending time playing whatever the latest games are, I just think you aren't paying attention to the reality of what is happening with young people today. I think they have plenty of options for being entertained. This idea that they will go home and sit by themselves and contemplate in private meditation, I just don't understand where that belief comes from. And so I understand that there is a reluctance to consider new things, and that it can be kind of scary. But what I don't understand is, what is the theory that we have behind what we're doing now? And the question, the issue that you brought up earlier as well, it's about incentives. Okay, got it. I'm just asking, what are we incentivizing? Do we honestly believe that children being sent home for 10 days is this scary incentive above and beyond for our little AJ to be a repeat offender? Do we honestly believe that this is a consequence that is going to inspire behavior change? What some of the evidence around punishment does suggest is that punishment can be most effective when it is most close in temporal proximity to the behavior. So if little AJ pushes little Spencer, and then we get around to some type of punishment two or three days later, then that's much less likely to have an impact than if we got around to it 15 minutes later. And so if we could connect behavior and punishment in this really, really tight feedback loop, then it might actually have some of the impact to suggest. But the reality is that just doesn't happen, largely because we just don't have the staff capacity to pull that off. And so instead, these things tend to linger in the time window, in which they might have been most effective, eclipses by the time we actually get around to it. So I get the challenges. The challenges are that this can be awkward and different and uncomfortable, and that folks are really comfortable with the idea of punishment. But I think we just need to question what is our theory of action around why this would or wouldn't work. I agree with you. To me, this is all about incentives. But what are the incentives we are aligning with? And what do we think that they're actually incentivizing? The other part of that is there is a leadership dynamic that school system leaders (school board members and superintendents) have to be willing to go and explain this conversation back to their constituencies. And for many school board members, this can be a frightening thing. To have to confront an angry parent who said, "Hey, my little Spencer got pushed, how come this child hasn't been suspended for 20 days?" That's a real conversation that a lot of school board members and superintendents don't want to hear about. It's easier to stick with the status quo, even if it's not working, than to transition to something that leaves people curious about, "Is this giving us the same benefit of the system that I grew up with as a child?" And so, there is an obligation on the part of education leaders that before rolling something like this out, they really need to communicate it aggressively. Which, again, is why in a 24-month pilot, I spent the first nine months just working with adults and training the adults around: is this a process that you are all comfortable with? In addition, the four high schools that I'm working with, they all opted in, they applied to get in, and of all the high schools that applied, I only accepted just those ones. And so all the other ones who applied didn't get in. And so I'm working with a coalition who are willing. These are the other challenges. In the same way you can't effectively force students to participate in this shift, you can't effectively force adults to participate in the shift either. You really need to find a coalition of the willing and then organically grow it from there, as people see the benefits, and choose that as something they want for themselves.

SPENCER: Let's go meta on this for a moment. Can you tell us why is this topic so important to you? And what is your kind of broader vision?

AJ: The challenge that I work with is: what are we out to accomplish as a society and what is the most we can accomplish as a society? And so, we think about society as this ultra localized, we think about just our neighborhood and the city that I live in, and what can we accomplish. And it's impossible for me not to notice that what we can collectively achieve within my neighborhood and my city, inextricably intertwined with what is the maximum capacity that the people in my neighborhood can bring to bear. And so the more capacity that folks in my neighborhood can bring forward, the more we can get done at the Neighborhood Association, and the less they can bring forward, the less we can get done. And so creating a context where people can really have this maximal expression of their capacity, of their sapience, the more we can get done together as a community. Take that to a slightly more macro sense, you think of it at the state level, or the national level. I find the same thing to be true is that our collective aspirations are largely guided by what our collective capacities are. And the more of our population across the nation who have some access to really maximize their own potential and their own greatness, the more we can do as a nation. And this is particularly important, because there are other nations who will have more honor students than we will have students. And so if we aren't creating a space where all of our students are maximizing their capacity, maximizing their potential, we just won't be in a position as a nation to compete. But then when you take it even to a larger extent than that, when you think of it on a global scale, we are one big global society. And the things that we've accomplished so far are pretty remarkable. But they're also pretty miniscule in the larger scope of things. And so when I think about the things that we can accomplish as a global species, because there's so much more that we have in common as an earthbound species than there are things that divide us. But if we don't live into that collective capacity, it'll be because we created conditions where all of us didn't have the opportunity to really maximize our own potential and demonstrate the highest degree of sapience and sentience that each of us have within us. I think we're all better off when all of us are given that opportunity to experience the maximum version of ourselves. And I think for me, that starts with, "How do we create schools that are reaching for that in every single student, every single child that we serve?" But I think the echo of that lives in our cities, in our states, in our nation, and ultimately across our globe.

SPENCER: So obviously, that's a very ambitious vision, thinking about this as sort of we're trying to create these more sentient people that are more capable broadly of making a better world. What are some other elements of that? We talked about restorative justice as an approach to use in schools. We've talked about the kind of SCP framework for choosing what to do and using a pro-con approach. But what are some other things you think about in terms of maximizing the capability of students?

AJ: Yeah. This idea of how we help people reach their maximum expression of themselves. I think it will cross two different dimensions. There's maximum expression of their sapience. There's maximum expression of their sentience. The sapient side is really around intelligence, and how do I live into my highest expression of the ideation I can bring forward, the ideas that I can express, and how that can further things, not only for me, but for my family, my community, my nation, our entire global society. But then also, there's this question of sentience. How do I have this maximal expression of just me as a self-aware creature that I'm not just the product of the things that my intellect can create, but just my own journey, as a sentient being and really living the version of my experience that I'm most drawn to. And so this idea of how do we create the maximum expression of sapience and sentience for all of our students, not only in my school district, but certainly across the state, across the nation, across the globe. I think the more that we do that, the easier it is to live up to the promise that is available to us. And I certainly mean that both micro and macro expressions. I've just given examples of what that looks like in a conflict between two students, between a student and a next door neighbor, a student and a teacher. But that also lives with conflicts between nations. And my sense is that the more there is a maximizing of the individual sapience and sentience of our citizenry, the greater the likelihood that we're going to engage in connective activities with our global neighbors, rather than disconnected activities with our global neighbors. And the more that we do that, the more we have access to what it is that we could co-create. There is always going to be competitive energy. And I think that's actually quite healthy. But that competitive energy doesn't have to become dangerous. I think that eventually becomes dangerous in the absence of connection. I think in the space of connection, you and I could play a game of course on the basketball court, and we are definitely competing. But in the space of connection, one of us will win the game, one of us will lose the game, but we will still have a sense of connection to each other. Our friendship won't have suffered for it. In the space of disconnection, of that exact same route of competition, it will be absolutely disruptive. In the space of disconnection, now I'm harboring something and looking to exact retribution for that. And this is where cultivating a retributive mindset rather than a restorative mindset starts to get us in trouble when this is lived out at the geopolitical level. And so these same notions, the same ideas of intellect of being, of sapience and of sentience, that I think matters deeply for how we educate individual children in our schools today live their lives, express themselves, and how we live in society at the global level. What I want is I would love for us as a species, not to snuff ourselves out. But we have certainly reached a place where the likelihood of the non-existence of our species by our own hands significantly outperforms the likelihood of our non-existence by natural causes. And that is controllable. That is something that we can have some authority and some say in. But I think the beginning of that lives in what are the things we prioritize in our educational systems. Are we actually creating education systems for all of our students? I don't think creating opportunities for maximization for just a few of our students works. We need to figure out how we are serving every corner of our society, both as a nation, and then ultimately, globally. Imagine all of the Einstein level intellect that we have callously ignored or thrown away because we haven't attended to how we create education systems that work globally, not just in the most affluent places. But then that same thing is true in our cities in the US. How much capacity have we callously thrown away by not attending to ensuring that there is equal access to opportunity in our lowest income communities in the same way it is in our more affluent communities? And so, again, this comes back to this idea of: what we want for ourselves as a global species is bound up in how we educate our children at the local society level. And that if we do that in a different way. I think not only do we create something greater for our own children, I think we create something greater for our entire species.

SPENCER: Before we wrap up, I have one more big question for you, which is, I would imagine if you got 50 educators in your room, and each of them individually, without influence from the other, had to say what they think the big changes that need to happen in education are, that you might get a ton of different opinions on that. I'm wondering, how did you come to this particular view, that these are sort of the core problems that need to be corrected to get good outcomes?

AJ: Oh, probably like most people, it's no doubt some amount of narcissistic fascination with my own experience. But then certainly, some amount of what I have read and learned. But my experience is that, even the students we've most been willing to throw away — the Jasmine's of our school systems — have something tremendous to offer, if we create the context in which they're allowed to maximize their expression of intellect and being, if they're allowed to maximize what they have to offer themselves in their community. And it's us who suffer the loss of that. Jasmine's school experienced something remarkable. And those students today that live with the echoes of the benefit that they got from her leadership, that had that principal never created a space for her to gain that leadership training, that those students would have never gotten, that we would have robbed them of that opportunity. I think we commit a small measure of theft every day that we aren't actively looking for things that will help maximize the potential of every single individual in our local and global society. And so, as I look at that question of, "What will allow that maximal," is that folks need to see for themselves, "Who is it that I could be, and what is it that I could create? What is my expression of sentience? What is my expression of sapience?" That would really be inspiring to me. And then when we create an opportunity for students to delve into that, what they create with it, my experience is that it has been phenomenal. That, for me, comes from how we are actively redesigning, and how we deploy public education so that it pulls for those things as a natural course of habit, rather than it's been fringe work that is happening in just a few places.

SPENCER: AJ, thanks for coming on.

AJ: I appreciate your nudge. I appreciate our podcasts and just the quality of conversations that you inspire. And so, I'm incredibly honored to join you today.

SPENCER: Thanks so much.


JOSH: A listener asks: "Do you still run your social experiments meetup?"

SPENCER: I do indeed run my social experiments meetup. It's called Ergo. If you live in the New York area, you can apply to join it, although we don't accept new people very often because we're pretty full up. This weekend actually we're running our next social experiment which is a novelty party — that's what we're calling it — and the idea is that everyone who comes has to bring something that they think the other people will never have experienced. It could be food, it could be a drink, it could be a dance move, or something to do with people, or something to see or hear. But yeah, that's the next one. And then the format of the events is never repeated. That's the group rule: that we're never allowed to do the same event format twice. So it will always be different.




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