Monday, October 20, 2008

Why Must School be so Punitive?

I'm going to get back to my last post on my contentions at some point this week, but right now I have a slightly related question: why must school be so punitive?

I'm talking about all levels of school: from kindergarten through grad school.

No matter where you go, there always seems to be some sort of implicit threat made to students. There is always pressure and judgment from above. "Do this . . . or else"

Exceptions, obviously, exist. But in general, expectations of students seem to be framed in an accusatory way. Students are expected to do their homework, pass the test, turn in assignments, etc. And there's always some sort of punishment if they don't: bad grade, no gym, no recess, their parents are notified, they'll be kicked out of school, they'll have to repeat the class/grade, etc.

That's not to say that these repercussions are necessarily inappropriate but, rather, that education seems to frequently to mean living up to the expectations set by another person rather than working with that person.

Compare the way that a sports team functions to the way a class functions. Both (presumably) have an expert teaching and training a group. Coaches get angry at players, just as do teachers. Players are punished, just as are students. But, in the end, the players and their coach have no doubt that they share the same goal. The coach is there to make each player better and help the team win. In the end, what's good for the players is also good for the coach. Ostensibly, teachers are there for essentially the same reasons. But perception is reality, and plenty of reasons exist for students to think that their teacher is, at least in some ways, their enemy.

In other words, it seems quite sensible for a student to think that a teacher is there not to help them reach a common goal but, rather, to make them do something they don't want to do. And I don't mean to pick on teachers, since it's the institutional structure of schools that both establishes and reinforces this.

Now, of course, if a student doesn't want to learn how to read it's sensible that somebody be tasked with getting them to do it. If teachers only did what students wanted to do, I have a hard time believing that every teacher would be teaching long division, algebra, the past-perfect tense, etc. But I'm not sure that necessitates the level of heavy-handedness currently present at all levels of schooling.

Right now students are essentially workers and teachers/administrators are their bosses. And the workers have to do what the bosses say . . . or else. And I'm not convinced that's the most effective way to educate somebody.


Nancy Flanagan said...

First of all, I never met a kid who didn't want to learn to read. Or do math. Or be moderately successful on any number of school-related things. Kids come to school, even from the most dysfunctional homes, wanting to learn.

I think teachers are punitive because their teachers were punitive, and their experienced colleagues are punitive. I have taught in a dozen schools, and in every one of them, the teachers know who cracks the whip hardest--which teacher allows one bathroom pass per year, or gives detentions for the kid who comes to class without a pencil. The culture of teaching encourages tacit imitation of long-standing practice, rather than thoughtful examination of what works.

Because that's the thing--punishment works only for kids who were already motivated or have strong home supports. It's the same kids, week after week, in the detention room.

I used to punish kids who didn't attend music performances--lower their grade, take away points, etc. I did this because my music teacher colleagues told me that you had to punish kids who didn't show up, to be fair to the kids who did attend. I got really tired of it--threatening kids before the concert with dire consequences, cornering them afterwards to lay on a little guilt.

So I changed the system. I told the kids that they would get credit for attending. And if they couldn't attend, they should let us know in advance, because we were all working on this together. Immediately, we stopped having no-shows. Literally, none. There was nothing to fight back against, and good reason to want to be present. It was amazing.

Rachel said...

punishment works only for kids who were already motivated or have strong home supports

That's an interesting point. Perhaps its because those kids do have the "coach-like" presence at home -- the person who when something goes wrong, or the teacher seems unfair, says, "okay, what do we need to do to solve the problem."

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Nancy: I agree. It's like they say, you teach the way you were taught -- not the way you were taught to teach.

I'm struck by the same quote that Rachel is. Let me mull that over more.