In comments on yesterday’s post, anarbitraryauthor 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?