‘At best, he learns how to avoid punishment.’

While reading about Octopus behaviour, I was reminded of my daughter. Peter Godfrey-Smith relates ‘famous octopus anecdotes…of escape and thievery’ (Other Minds, 2016, p. 55). For instance, a certain octopus, when fed with thawed-out squid (‘second-rate food’), waited for the scientist who had fed it to walk back past the tank: “It had not eaten it’s squid, but instead was holding it conspicuously…the octopus made its way slowly across the tank toward the outflow pipe, watching [the scientist] all the way. When it reached the outflow pipe, still watching her, it dumped the scrap of squid down the drain.” (Other Minds, p. 57). I recognised, in that octopus, rebellion against rules imposed by an alien being who has no empathy at all for its dislike of thawed-out squid.

My daughter rebels against rules she does not like. While being made to eat vegetables, she is much more likely to pick her nose, interrupt and wander away from the table. She responds better if rules make sense to her – talking about scurvy helps with vegetables. (If an octopus did understand why they were being kept in a tank and fed tasteless squid, I doubt they would agree to it.) We should only impose rules on children if we have a clear reason; rules always work better when the child understands the reason and agrees on the rules they have to follow.

The recent Ofsted reforms to school inspection include an increased focus on behaviour: “The other major change involves looking at behaviour and pupil attitudes in a single category, signalling a more critical view to how schools deal with classroom behaviour.” (Guardian, 2018.) Amanda Spielman, Chief Inspector, said in June at the Wellington College Festival of Education that she believes in a “tough stance on behaviour”. She added, “I think it’s entirely appropriate to use sanctions, such as writing lines, ‘community service’ in the school grounds – such as picking up litter – and school detentions…where they are part of a school’s behaviour policy, they’ll have our full support.” (TES, 2018.) Spielman’s view of discipline is hierarchical. She comes from the world of business; she has never taught real children.

Surely we should be looking at why many children don’t co-operate at school rather than ramping up the punishment. As a teacher I was aware that there was always a reason why a child did not co-operate. Non-cooperation was common among those who felt that the system had nothing to offer them. Teaching bottom set GCSE, for example, to students predicted E’s, forcing them to read Dickens when they had no idea what quarter of the words meant, punishing them for not co-operating, felt worse than futile. Punishing those students only proved to them that school was against them, that the GCSE was an impossible struggle and (possibly) that they themselves were deficient. It would have been more useful to find a way to study with which the students wanted to cooperate: to read something they could understand; to sort out their basic grammar; to talk about the relevance of English to application forms or constructing arguments in real life. Instead I had to slog through termly assessments toward the GCSE and to enforce the school’s discipline policy when students did not behave. I watched two or three individuals become increasingly cynical. I don’t think a “tough stance” would have helped them.

Being “tough” on those who won’t fall into line doesn’t work. Good behaviour should flow naturally from the work of pupils and teachers, who agree on the value of the work. This is particularly the case in primary school. Younger children’s natural curiosity is strong, easier to harness; it is tragic to imagine children at primary school becoming cynical because of tough discipline.

John Dewey saw good behaviour as a natural aspect of cooperation between pupils and their teacher. Dewey was adamant that pupils and teachers should agree on the purpose of activities: “there is no defect in traditional education greater than its failure to secure the active cooperation of the pupil in construction of the purposes involved in his studying.” (Experience and Education, Dewey, 1938, p.67.) He argued that when pupils and teachers are in agreement, pupils regulate their own behaviour: “control of individual actions is effected by the whole situation in which individuals are involved, in which they share and of which they are co-operative or interacting parts.” (Experience and Education, p. 53.)

Dewey thought cooperation with the teacher was especially effective with younger children. It did not need explanation: it worked because the children know they are not being controlled. Children, he said, are more sensitive to “the signs and symptoms” of dictation and control than adults, They “learn the difference when playing with one another.” (Experience and Education, p. 55.) There must be rules in a school, but – as in children’s own games – rules work when children want to follow them.

The danger of this new Ofsted ‘behaviour and pupil attitudes’ category is that it implicitly encourages harsher punishment, obedience of the ‘Taming of the Shrew’ variety. Students who are not co-operating in school might be made more passive by punishment; they might be made more resentful. Neither is useful for their education, or the education of their classmates – excessive discipline could create a cynical culture. Pupils must be enthusiastic about what they are learning; even if they don’t love the subject, they need to see the purpose.

Bertrand Russell, like Dewey, saw very little use for punishment in education. (He includes “speaking harshly” as punishment.) Russell argues that a child’s natural curiosity and desire to fit in with a group should be used to encourage good behaviour. He saw Victorian methods of discipline as damaging:

“To win the genuine affection of children is a joy as great as any that life has to offer. Our grandfathers did not know of this joy…They taught children that it was their ‘duty’ to love parents, and proceeded to make this duty almost impossible of performance…Consequently human relations remained stark and harsh and cruel. Punishment was part of this whole conception.” (On Education, 1926, p. 117.)

Russell’s idea could be applied to a school in which students are told to value their education, then made to write lines, sit detention and pick up rubbish, if they do not sufficiently value (what the school calls) education: thus making the ‘duty almost impossible of performance’.

As a teacher I found harsh punishment usually unhelpful. I avoided it where possible, though I was bound by my contract to follow the school’s discipline policy. As a parent, I am more emotionally involved and more prone to shouting – then regretting it. Both in school, and at home, it is better to explain rules; to rely on voluntary co-operation; to be flexible. If punishment is ever needed, the milder the better.

One thought on “‘At best, he learns how to avoid punishment.’

  1. I believe the relationship between the adult, parent or teacher, and the child is the key to discipline. The respect given by the teacher to the child and an understanding of the child as a person is the first step to a relationship that can last long after school. With all the extra responsibilities teachers face in delivering the curriculum I wonder if there is time to develop that relationship where the teacher is also respected by the child and will even listen when the teacher says ”we have to do this to pass a test, however ridiculous it seems”. Children quickly weigh up the teacher and can easily see through any attempts which are not honest.

    Liked by 1 person

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