Authority and Initiative, VI

It seems that Friday’s post has sparked another great set of conversations, both here and on the Google+ thread I started about it.  And several comments in both places have to do with the ways that schools use punishment for things like turning work in late or “being tardy” or “being defiant”  – and the surprised responses from us school people when the punishments don’t work as intended.  I’ve been thinking about why punishments work – and why they often don’t work – but I want to keep working on my thoughts and write about them another day.

Punishment generally involves pain – pain that’s inflicted (“as a deterrent” or “as a consequence” or “as revenge” or whatever) by the punisher, but also pain that punishers themselves feel.  And there’s a lot of pain in factory-model schools these days, especially for teachers, administrators, and parents who feel caught between old ways and new.

For my special blog for the EdStartup 101 MOOC, I’ve been working on a post about “the pain” – specifically, the pain that alternative learning resources like the Tres Columnae Project can address.  I’ve been realizing that “the pain” has a lot to do with authority, initiative, and time too.

  • For teachers and administrators,  the old, comfortable forms of Industrial Age authority have stopped working.  That’s painful enough. Industrial Age forms of teaching are losing their power, and Industrial Age paradigms of scarce knowledge transmitted from Expert to Novice are falling apart.  That’s even more painful.  Worst of all,  we’re not sure how to take initiative or where to look for new forms of authority, and we can’t tell whether it’s time to take action or to wait a bit longer.
  • For students, “the pain” flows from the vast disconnect between the school world and their real worlds.  The paradigms are different, and students are well aware that schools are an artificial environment.  But since schools still have a lot of positional authority, students’ choices are constrained: they can express initiative by rebelling, and be punished accordingly, or they can hide their initiative under surface compliance, be superficially praised, and die a little inside each day.  In either case, time can slow to a crawl, and that’s painful when you’re young.
  • For parents, “the pain” is even more complex.  We  know – or believe, or want to believe – that school used to prepare students well for life in “the real world,” so we want to think the time our children spend is a good investment.  We think – or at least want to think – that schools still use their authority, as they once did in the vanished Golden Age, to encourage students to take initiative and responsibility.  But we have a sneaking, horrible suspicion that the Golden Age is gone, and some of us remember that it wasn’t all that Golden, even then.

No wonder we reach for the punishment tools – at least those still seem familiar in a time when everything else is changing.  But the same educators who model punishment as solution are often surprised and dismayed when punishment (high stakes for test scores, anyone?) are arrayed against “us” by “them!”

So what is a parent, teacher, student, or administrator to do?  How do we address our own pain and acknowledge others’ pain?  What should we say to each other – and what should we not say?  How do we find new forms, new structures for authority and initiative – and how do we let go of the old ones?  What do we do about spending and wasting time?  And what are we to do about punishment?

quid respondētis, amīcī?

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Published in: on September 22, 2012 at 2:27 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I have essentially replaced “punishment” with a “growth mindset” activity–what happened, why, how can we work together to make positive change? With regard to authority, in my own small classroom sphere I’ve moved from “authority” to “learning community.” I use the staircase model of learning, and remind all we’re all climbing those “learning stairs” and we’re here to help, inspire and support each other. Simplified perhaps, but a positive direction.

    • Maureen, I’ve been moving in that direction myself – and I agree, “learning community” is a superior organizing metaphor. I love the idea of climbing the “learning stairs” together, too!


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