SMARTTalking

by Todd Avery

The Los Angeles riots of 1992, Waco, Oklahoma City, a pipe bomb at the Olympic games in Atlanta. The United States continues to be rent by violence. Nowhere is this more apparent than among the youth. The American Medical Association reports that three-fourths of the adolescent deaths in the United States each year are the result of violence or injury. According to reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), homicide is the second-leading cause of death for young Americans ages 15-24, and the third for children ages 5-14. Speculating on the causes of such rampant violence among American youth, Senator Tom Harkin (D Iowa) has suggested that a "stunning simultaneous breakdown of community, family, and work has created a vacuum that has been filled by violence, drugs, and gangs." Harkin is quick to add, though, that "violence is very much like a disease--it can be studied, understood, and prevented." In fact, he says, "prevention is the key."

Kris Bosworth agrees. Bosworth, an associate professor of education and Director of the Center for Adolescent Studies at Indiana University Bloomington, believes "every child is at risk." Citing such risk factors as drugs and alcohol, AIDS, the increasing availability of guns, and escalating violence among adolescents both inside and outside school, she says, "There are a lot of snakes out there for teens." Moreover, in "Using Multimedia to Teach Conflict Resolution Skills to Young Adolescents," a paper she co-authored last year with colleagues from the IUB School of Education and the CDC, she writes: "Violence in the adolescent population is a serious health concern. All adolescents are at an increasing risk for exposure either as a victim, witness, or perpetrator."

Despite the stark and frightening facts and the oft-recited litany of potential hazards, there is encouraging news. Schools across the nation, the paper continues, "have begun implementing various programs aimed at the prevention of violence in adolescents. Until recently, most efforts to reduce violence in schools and among students involved . . . disciplinary actions and traditional didactic approaches such as curricula, assemblies, or videos." Now, however, many educators have begun developing other approaches focusing on prevention strategies such as teaching interpersonal skills.

Bosworth, a leader in the effort to move beyond traditional approaches, believes that "we need not only to prevent violence, we must also practice peace." She has devoted the past three years to developing and implementing a strategy that promotes this concept. SMARTTalk (Students Managing Anger Resolution Together) is an interactive multimedia computer program she designed to foster conflict-resolution skills among adolescents. Based on an approach to violence prevention that emphasizes schools' positive, educative functions rather than their negative, repressive capacities, SMARTTalk is an outgrowth of Bosworth's sensitivity to the complexities of violence among adolescents and an extension of her interest and expertise in the educational potential of computers.

SMARTTalk guides students, singly or in pairs, through a series of listening, thinking, and problem-solving exercises that help them resolve an actual conflict. The program combines aesthetic appeal with timeliness and, Bosworth says, "considerable personalization and flexibility." It is also a discreet and "tireless teacher," she notes. Users can repeat simulations or interviews as many times as they wish without risk of embarrassment or judgment by others. They can also access information when it is most useful to them, not just when the teacher or the curriculum determines the need for conflict management lessons or when peer mediators are available. Another advantage of SMARTTalk is that it can be used to augment traditional approaches, all of which make exhausting demands of the people--administrators, teachers, peer mediators--who implement them. Most important, perhaps, SMARTTalk facilitates students' achievement of a sense of confidence in themselves and control over their environment--a key element in the attainment of nonviolent interpersonal skills. As Bosworth succinctly puts it, "Students' control over the choice of information and the sequencing of materials empowers them." Students' reactions to SMARTTalk have been overwhelmingly positive. One student says she wants SMARTTalk to be available "for MY children." Another is emphatic about SMARTTalk's potential to curb violence: "Everybody, everywhere, in every school should have SMARTTalk. Then there would be fewer fights."

SMARTTalk is a complement to the Body Awareness Resource Network (BARN), a computer program Bosworth developed with colleagues while working as a research scientist at the Center for Health Services Research and Analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison during the 1980s. That program has taught more than two million adolescents about AIDS, drugs, sex, smoking, alcohol, diet and exercise, and stress management.

After developing BARN, Bosworth's focus shifted from behaviors that endanger the health of adolescents to development of social skills and other mental health issues. With funding from the Lilly Endowment, she and colleague Jerry Smith, a professor emeritus of education at IUB, spent a year in two urban middle schools studying how caring manifests itself in students and teachers. Findings from this study laid the foundation for the approach to violence prevention used in SMARTTalk. While perfecting SMARTTalk, Bosworth also began to study bullying. In a conference paper on bullying she wrote with colleagues at the Center for Adolescent Studies, she proffered the results of a semester-long study conducted in an Indianapolis-area middle school. Emphasizing the importance of sustained, high-level research activity aimed at understanding and developing interventions for bullying behavior, "The Impact of Bullying on Middle School Structure" reports that, in contrast to many European schools, "very few schools in the United States have attempted to implement schoolwide interventions or programs for reporting and handling bullying behavior. This is largely due to the lack of research on those behaviors and individual characteristics of bullies that contribute to aversive environments in our schools." Bosworth came to the conclusions that bullying is a "serious behavior problem" and that it results from bullies' "lack of skills in managing anger and conflict." It is the latter conclusion that motivated development of SMARTTalk and that most deeply informs schools' changing approaches to violence prevention.

Speaking of the origins of SMARTTalk, Bosworth recalls one day in late April 1992. "I was in a school," she says, "when the Rodney King verdict was issued, and I saw that teachers were unable to deal with the emotions students were feeling about the verdict and the riots that followed." Immediately, she began to explore what tools existed to help schools deal with violence. Bosworth had been "looking at the literature, reading curricula, and visiting schools with good programs," when the CDC announced the availability of a $350,000 grant for the creation of violence intervention technology. "It seemed like a natural match to see how I could use this medium that is so attractive to teens to deal with the issue of violence," she says.

Of course, however appealing to the eye or effective a teacher of either academic or interpersonal skills, no computer program should, or probably ever will, replace student-teacher and peer relationships. Bosworth says, "Even if SMARTTalk is not the perfect or only program that a school should have in this area, it makes an important contribution and reaches teens in a way traditional approaches do not." Contemporary American teens live in a society in which "programs or strategies that enhance caring values, attitudes, and behaviors by providing students with opportunities to discuss caring, to demonstrate caring to others, and to participate thoughtfully in caring relationships with peers and adults are scarce," Bosworth says. The ultimate purpose of SMARTTalk is to instill in youth a sense of caring toward peers, adults, and themselves. This driving force is also behind the range of Bosworth's research into violence and caring, and creative activities like BARN and Youthfulooza, a festival she created and organized last year to celebrate the positive accomplishments of Bloomington teens.

Bosworth is spending the 1996-97 academic year in Atlanta at the CDC working with the Youth Violence Prevention Team on projects related to implementation of violence prevention programs in schools and communities. No matter where she is geographically, Bosworth says that her purpose is "to create media that is attractive to teens and theoretically sound for behavior change, and to give teens the tools they need" both to cope with an increasingly violent world and to change it into a more peaceful place for all to live.

Bosworth's creed resonates strongly alongside that of another influential American educator. A century ago, in 1897, the philosopher John Dewey set down his thoughts on the nature and purpose of education in a manifesto entitled "My Pedagogic Creed." In it, Dewey remarks upon the interconnectedness of education and social and moral reform and argues that "it is the business of every one interested in education to insist upon the school as the primary and most effective interest of social progress and reform in order that society may be . . . aroused to the necessity of endowing the educator with sufficient equipment to properly perform his task." For Dewey, social reform was a corollary to moral reform, and the latter depends upon the availability of "sufficient equipment."

Times have changed since 1897; "sufficient equipment" now includes technology that Dewey probably never imagined. Yet educators today continue to face many of the same urgent and fundamental problems that their counterparts did a century ago. Kris Bosworth has contributed significantly to the development of equipment that allows educators to perform their tasks and pursue their ideals most effectively. Her own brand of idealism is deeply rooted both in the world of scholarship and in the real, everyday world of American youth. In these worlds, she says, "Everything we do has moral implications."

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