Beyond Pain and Punishment, III

In comments on yesterday’s postanarbitraryauthor and Laura raised a pair of critical issues related to our search for alternatives to pain and punishment.  When students “misbehave,” is it because they’re “bad and lazy” (as we educators often  assume) or because they don’t understand how their behaviors affect others?  Anarbitraryauthor suggests it’s often a lack of empathy:

Although the majority of teenagers are usually self-centered, if they know how much something they do bothers someone else, they usually change their behavior (as is true for most of the human population). It’s more of an awareness issue, I think, than actual lack of empathy: It’s not that they don’t care about others, they just don’t know what they are doing affects others (and if they did, they would “feel” for that person). Even if they are told it, until they experience it for themselves, I don’t think they can truly be aware of it.

And Laura reminded me that it’s hard – and frustrating – to be asked to manage yourself when you believe that management isn’t your job:

I know that among my students, many of them resent my efforts to shift the management from me to them, simply because they have concluded from years of schooling that it is NOT their job to pay attention to what they are doing and monitor it (and that includes time, content, all aspects of their schoolwork) but instead MY job… and their resistance to taking on the responsibility can be considerable.

Some of the resistance to self-management I saw on Monday was related to the lack of empathy, and some did flow from resentment.  If you’ve spent years doing things one way (“Behave for Ms. X or she’ll get mad and punish you”), it’s terribly hard to start doing things another way (“Think about the needs of others in our learning community”) – especially when the rest of your day fits the old paradigm.  It’s as hard for us teachers to step out of the “make them do it” paradigm as it is for students to abandon the “Ms. X will make me do it” mindset.

I had started to think about both lack of empathy and the resistance or inertia during a faculty meeting Monday afternoon.  I’ve mentioned my face-to-face school’s new “advisory” program in this post; in essence, so far, it’s mainly been a time for students to reflect on their progress in a structured “data notebook.”  Ms. X, in this case, was a younger teacher with an advisory group of seniors.  “They hate it,” she said, “and I make them do it, but I really don’t know how to answer when they ask me why.”

Poor Ms. X!  She’s a good, thoughtful teacher … who became a teacher because she was a good student and “loved school.”  Even the implied threat of pain and punishment in the background is enough to make a “good student” like her do stuff.  Ms. X would love to be able to explain why – most teachers, most of the time, probably would – but in the factory model, the task is more important than the reason.  We “make them do it” because someone will “make us make them do it” and because “their boss will make them do it.”

And of course most students are “good” ones.  They may gripe, but the possibility of pain and punishment will get them to “settle down and focus” even on a disagreeable, unpleasant, or meaningless task.  So why change things?

But what lessons do students learn when teachers “makes them do it”?   Can the task really be more important than the reason? And if not, how can we stop the “making” and “getting made?”  What would that even look like?

It’s hard to contemplate answers, so we often avoid the questions.  And when we do, don’t we usually grab the old, familiar  pain and punishment tools?

quid respondētis, amīcī?

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Published in: on October 3, 2012 at 9:48 am  Comments (4)  

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  1. I wrote a really long reply to the pain and punishment post recently – but then lost it due to tech malfunction. Anyway, school, as Daniel Pink says, is mostly a comply or defy culture for kids. he says if you want to improve school ask the kids for their ideas and feedback. We use strategy – teacher talk and drill/kill worksheets – that keeps our kids in a constant state of potential energy rather than capitalizing on the natural kinetic energy inherent in learning. First, we need to take our foot off the gas pedal – stop idling our kids. Then, we need to create choice opportunities that get them designing, making, creating, building, thinking their work into learning that ignites passion, joy, interest. Bill Glasser’s choice theory provides a process, by the way, of how to create a culture in which kids’ and teacher’s needs are both met – one in which pain and punishment are anathema to learning community. Finally, if we desire to facilitate internal motivation to learn, we have to believe in practices that don’t send messages that reinforce external locus of motivation control. We set kids up to depend on us to be “motivated” then get upset when they won’t own their own learning. Responsibility can be learned and developed over time by kids but we adults have to change our own behaviors if we want kids to learn. As Edward Deming said in his 14 principles of management, “if something isn’t working on the factory floor, then don’t blame the workers, look to the management.” So, if we refuse to stop doing what’s not working, then we own the outcomes. We have lots of examples in schools everywhere of teachers whose kids create quality learning in optimal learning environments. The grand challenge? How do we make those practices go viral?

    • @Pam, I’m still pondering this wonderful comment. I didn’t directly address it in my next post, but I’m sure you can feel it in the background – and I’m planning to feature it prominently soon. I think the disillusionment I refer to is closely, closely related to the internal contradiction you describe, the one between “setting kids up to depend on us to be ‘motivated'” on the one hand, but “getting upset when they won’t own their own learning” on the other.

  2. […] that explains some of the loss of focus I talked about on Tuesday and Wednesday.  Maybe it’s the unsuccessful pattern some of my students have followed for years – the […]

  3. […] positive results from their efforts and goal-setting.  I’m not sure what things were like in other advisory groups, but ours was a joyful way to end the […]


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