John Williams | Author, Speaker, Founder&President | Life that Counts | Instagram @therealjohnwilliams

 Part 1

Let’s pretend for a moment, that it’s not.

Let’s pretend that it actually works just fine. The only difference in the impact of education today versus that of, say, 50-60 years ago is the type of students entering our schools and going to our classes.

By and large, the systems, methods, and processes have not changed that much. Sure, we’ve introduced iPads and PCs to take the place of textbooks and blackboards, but other than that, everything is fairly the same. We still tell students to come to our classrooms, sit in our desks, listen to our lectures, take our tests, and regurgitate our information back to us for a bottom line score. 

So, what’s different between now and then? Then, it seemed to work. Then, America seemed a solid front-runner for the best way of life on the planet. Then, we put men on the moon, and led the world in the production of….almost everything. (Fn 1,2)  Why are we not turning out world-changing entrepreneurs like clockwork, or, worse yet, why do we see heartbreaking and devastating statistics like those out of Utah at the end of November (Fn 3) show up in the headlines? If education isn’t broken, then why have we yet to answer the American Economics Review Journal by decreasing male dropout rates 1% to lower our annual crime bill (Fn 4) by $1.4billion or answer The Alliance for Excellent Education with a 5% increase in graduation for a $7.7billion (Fn 5) boost to our economy? Think about those added tax dollars, US Dept of Education. We all know there’s an issue. But what is the solution?

I’ve spent my whole life looking for solutions. By all accounts, I should have been a kid in the system, criminal system that is. I have never met my father.  I grew up in abuse of all sorts, including alcohol, substance, mental, and physical. I have personally witnessed and endured violence.  Yet, here I am, making an appeal to you through a carefully thought out article.

You might ask, “What’s the difference with you?” I’m not sure, actually. I knew at an early age that I wanted things different. My “different” wasn’t the big house on the hill with a 7 car garage and a pool out back. My “different” was fairly simple. My wife was going to know her husband, unlike my mom, who did not know the love and ongoing support of my father. Likewise, my kids were going to know their dad. Again, unlike me and my kid brother, who had no clue what fatherly affection truly felt like.

After high school, I went to work as a volunteer youth worker in our community. Then, I found a role doing the same thing for full time pay in North Carolina. My wife, our brand new two month old son, and I moved to North Carolina, and I’ve been up to it ever since.

Along the way, I went to work with a nonprofit. Here, I managed federal funds from the Office for Justice and Juvenile Delinquency Prevention, leading peer to peer mentoring programs in schools. From my first day on the job, I knew I’d stumbled into something big. It was one of those moments where all of my experience, dreams, and ideas of the way things could be collided.


What’s broken? 

Rewind a bit. Let’s go back to education not being broken. The difference is the students in our halls. Ask yourself what you know about youth culture and statistics on a national level. Do you believe that students are going to school with healthy support systems in place? Now, the fed has attempted to adapt. We have and continue to address the fact that students are going to school hungry with the solution of the child nutrition program. We’ve even upped the ante by sending home meals after school and on the weekends, now. But, there’s still something missing.

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

That something that we forget, is that we are dealing with humans. Humans possess not only the need for food, water, warmth, and shelter, as we provide with our school buildings and lunches.  Nor, do humans only require the actualization of the best that they can be through creative learning and intellectual achievements, through the appeal of the time in the classroom. What we are not providing a solution for, at least to any amount of scale is for the social, emotional, and relational needs of every boy and girl, every human, who steps through our doors. This may have something to do with the decline of the traditional family household by over 40% in the last 60 years, or it may not. But, what we are sure of, is that something is out of whack, and it’s out of whack, bad. I believe it was Carl Jung who said that “hurt people hurt people.” But what if we added that healed people could help heal people?

For close to 20 years, I have been a practitioner of Positive Youth Development. Some of it, I may have even helped write. These are the ideas that lend to the notion (which I wholeheartedly believe in) that students are not the issue. Rather, they are and can be the solution.

I first began experimenting with the elements of PYD in a nonprofit role to the local community with groups of students. We would do things like identity individuals from the peer group who tend to have more influence than others. We would then encourage and empower them to help their peers brainstorm ways to give back and serve in their local communities. After we saw that this worked, I went to work on the OJJDP grant funded project, where it started to all come together.


Incubating Unhealthy Humans

What makes the current education paradigm irrelevant is that it meets the needs of a type of student which is almost extinct.  As already mentioned, education continues to model a practice where the majority of a student’s day is spent at a desk in rows, one behind the other, with a teacher lecturing on a board from the front of the room.  


There are too many assumptions in this setting.  One assumption is that the student is prepared to learn.  Assumptions are made that the student received an adequate amount of rest the night before, in a safe environment, with proper nourishment.  Another assumption is that the student feels a connection with those around them, and furthermore, has the capacity to conduct himself or herself around other students in a non-disruptive way that, additionally, adds value to one’s peers and environment.  The 5 C’s of Youth Development (Fn 6, 7)  teaches us that connection can only take place after a student feels competent in their social interactions.  Does the student know how to act in the classroom and in social situations, which lend directly to the work they perform?  The competence of the student is assumed, hence we see all the signs and statistics of a youth culture which appears to be unraveling at the seams. (Fn 8)

Upperclassmen students being trained to serve as Peer Mentors


Historically, the competence for healthy interaction and conflict resolution with peers was introduced in the home through a child’s parents.  The majority of today’s students do not have both biological parents in the home to teach competence.  According to the 2014 American Community Survey, only 46% of children under the age of 18 live in a home where two opposite-sex parents are still within their first marriage.  This is down from 61% in 1980 and 73% in 1960. (Fn 9)   This leads us to realize that the average class of 24 students (Fn 10), where only one adult educator is present in the room, has 13 students (the mass majority) who come from a nontraditional home environment.   


Then, consider the dynamics of each student’s personality.  What are the odds that the group’s alpha dominant personality comes from an environment where competencies, expectations in relationship, and the ability to be effectively social are introduced and maintained?  One can see how the deck is stacked in favor of a student which lacks a standard for any ethics in relationships to actually be the dominant influence of the group.  Even for students in homes where a parent has been divorced and remarried, exists a fundamental difference in the mindset of that child than the one coming from the traditional nuclear family.  People divorce for many reasons.  The underlying cause of divorce is, for whatever reason, is always that one or both of the people who were married desire to be out of the marriage.  This models a pattern for deconstructing relationships where relational and emotional capital have been invested.  Consider this statement: It takes more work in relational harmony and cohesion to stay married through learning conflict resolution than to not stay married.  Things like conflict resolution, forgiveness, and accountability can only be passed down from practitioners of the same.  


This is where the problem lies in the current framework of education.  The current model still relies on something that is no longer there: healthy adult relationships, or at least adults working toward healthy relationships, modeling what it takes to get along with one another and work together to problem solve and celebrate life in loving, trusting relationships. Today, the child under 18 years old that comes from a home where both biological parents are still within their first marriage is not even close to the majority of the classroom.


The Power Struggle for Decisions

The Age of Indecision and Independence

Every parent and parental figure knows that there comes a pivotal moment in a child’s life where the child disagrees with the parent’s decision for him or her, and the child wants to launch out to make his or her own choice. Some parents are caught off guard by this, some know that it’s coming, but all have to face it.

Children are born without the ability to make any type of decisions for themselves, not even the basic ability to decide when to relieve themselves or how to feed themselves. In the early years, the parents, if they are there, are there for everything. As the child grows and the learning process begins with the development of gross and fine motor skills, the child begins to make micro-adjustments in the way they live, which eventually leads to complete independence. The effective parent will teach their child everything from when to exercise discipline and demonstrate a healthy routine for everything from eating habits, how to handle delicate relationship issues, to when is the time to put the electronics away so that homework and study can be accomplished. However, this new found independence also has another effect, in that it creates tension between what the parent wants for the child and what the child wants for themselves.

Something very tricky also begins to take place around the same time, children begin to peak in the developmental decision processes that they learned from their parents. That something tricky is called pubescence and adolescence. This is when the body begins the transformation from child to adult. We know that this change is for the survival of species through procreation, stronger bodies, more resilient to withstand the demands of labor-intensive work, and, finally, the maturation (Fn 11) of the prefrontal cortex of the brain giving the person a stronger sense of discretion in the risk and rewards associated with different activities. (Fn 12)

One of the first places that safety is found in acceptance is in the person’s peer group. (Fn 13)

“Children entering this period in life become aware for the first time of the other people around them and realize the importance of perception in their interactions. Peer conformity in young people is most pronounced with respect to style, taste, appearance, ideology, and values.” (Fn 14)

Spotlight effect (Fn 15) plays a very interesting role in whether or not a young man or woman will evolve intellectually beyond their norm social group. The need to “fit in,” and “be accepted” plays paramount in our lives, all of our lives, because, as social mammals, we find safety in the herd, i.e., safety in acceptance. Hence the ideas and persuasions of peer pressure.

But, what do we do when the incubator for humans is no longer in place to hold any type of real relevance and influence in the early development of a child? The brain matures faster, sending the body into a more rapid defense mechanism for fight or flight. (Fn 16)  This is characterized in children who lash out for any attention they can receive, albeit even negative attention from upsetting the accepted behavior for a social group in a controlled environment to receive individual and specialized help. One can argue that children demand a healthy support system, regardless of whether or not one is in place in the home life.

As students reach adolescence and acquiesce to the desire for safety, conformity manifests.  The young adults will pattern their lives around the socially accepted behaviors of the herd, as to not stand out too much in any extreme. As a result, the few lead the masses in a tipping point which creates the culture for each localized youth population. However, it is also here that the appointed adult leadership with a laser focus on macroethics (Fn 17), ethical, moral, and achievement-oriented drive, can be intentional about identifying those youth with influence.  They can then intervene through recruiting and training to be peer influencers via those youths who exhibit behaviors which lend toward the positive development and advancement of the localized youth culture. While the idea of absolute truth being relevant to the individual is up the air, what is commonly accepted is our practice of societal ethics to protect individual rights so that civilization does not collapse upon itself.

This is why I am a strong advocate for the peer to peer method of Positive Youth Development for course correcting misplaced and misguided energy in the development of adolescents acting in concert with the accepted patterns of life-threatening and potentially debilitating behaviors, which, at the least, lead to poor long term outcomes for the whole life of the individual. To put it another way, we have a window between the prepubescent years and full adult maturation whereby an outside, non-parental influence can effectively raise the bar for a higher sense of cultural expectation, funneling to the individual expectation for desired long-term, healthier outcomes.


Up next

In the upcoming posts, we’ll get into what Positive Youth Development is, how to make massive shifts in the macroethics of youth culture, and how to implement effective strategies for transforming student culture on campus.

You may leave feedback, offer a peer review, or make an inquiry about having John out at your event, by clicking here to contact us.


About the Author

John is a veteran youth worker who loves students and is passionate about helping transform youth cultural.  He is married to his high school girlfriend and together, they have two teenage boys.  Click here for more on John.



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8 – Google the words “high school” and then hit the News tab.  I’ve done this weekly for the past 10 years.  The headlines are almost always this way.

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13 – B. Brown, “Adolescents’ relationships with peers,” In: R. M. Lerner & L. Steinburg (Eds.), Handbook of Adolescent Psychology, 2nd ed, New York: Wiley, 2004, p 363-394.

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17 – Macroethics is the ideas, focus, traditions, and accepted persuasions of a community’s unique culture. Wikipedia has a working definition:;