Tuesday, June 4, 2013

School Discipline - Solved

I sent today's Dilbert cartoon to a couple of fellow Technical Writers together with this question: Who wants to be the first to try this?

Dilbert cartoon of 4 June 2013
One response was "Who said we haven't?"

A second colleague rejoined:
I have actually heard of a student who tried something like this at university:
She submitted an essay to Professor X with the first page looking very professional and proper, but the following pages covered repeatedly with the sentence “Professor X is an idiot. Professor X is an idiot. Professor X is an idiot….”
She got an “A”.
(I’m assuming that she also must have won a bet.)
My reply:
At school, if you talked during Mincha [afternoon prayers], the standard punishment was to write out the entire “Ashrei” prayer (could be multiple times, depending on the severity of the transgression).
I once had to write “Ashrei” seven times. I wrote it out the first time, then I got bored so I just wrote Hebrew gobbledygook for the next six pages. I didn't get away with it.
Then this retort:
One feller in junior high was given a punishment to “copy” out the chapter in Tanach [Old Testament] we happened to be studying. When he submitted a photocopy the next day the teacher was unimpressed.

I will say that punishments of this nature were uncommon at that school due to an urban legend that might have actually been true.
It was said that an enterprising student who was too young to get a summer job decided to spend the summer writing out commonly given punishments with the intent of selling them to classmates throughout the following year.

Well… his advertising campaign was so successful that when the faculty got wind of it, they waited till the first day of school to announce that the standard punishment would from then on be changed from writer’s cramp to grade deduction.

I’m sure that the student learned a very valuable lesson…
This got me thinking about how school punishments have evolved over time. According to this website, the following punishments were common in US country schools in the early 19th Century:
Image: socipoll.com
Corporal punishment was not unheard of nor were other extreme penalties such as detention, suspension and even expulsion. Lesser punishments, more common at that time than now, included such things as a rap on the hands or knuckles with a steel edged ruler; standing in a corner with face to the wall; wearing a dunce cap, facing the room, and sitting upon a high stool beside the teacher's desk; standing for long periods with arms held straight out in front; standing with an arm outstretched, palm up, while holding a heavy book on that hand for a long period; or being banished to the girls' cloakroom (if the culprit were a boy).
This list of legalized physical and mental abuse almost certainly contributed to forming the character of the next generation.

In the later 1800s, punishments were tamer and less physical:
When a child could not conduct himself in routine affairs without disturbing the school, or wasted his own time, his liberties must be restricted until the rules were learned. Punishment should always be in proportion to the transgression. The certainty of punishment rather than the severity would deter evil doers. Corporal punishment and suspension should be used only as a last resort.
Do not think that this softening of school discipline had any great impact on the braveness of men. To prove that graduates of late 19th Century schools were no less full of character than their parents, they engaged in a few minor skirmishes that we now call World War I and World War II.

Clearly, the shift from corporal punishments to softer punishments was a trend that eventually lead to a 2009, CfBT Education Trust document  entitled "Beyond Punishment: Re-framing Behaviour in Schools" (PDF). The authors of this paper refer to "discipline" as "restorative practice". The upshot is:
"...[that there exists a] need for a radical re-think of  how we view childhood and adolescence and a shift away from the demonisation and criminalisation of our young people...[and that] there is a need for reflection on the nature of the relationship between school and community and a search for a meaningful construct for this relationship."
No more whacking students with a cane, humiliating them with the Dunce cap, or banishing boys to the girls' cloakroom. No more detentions, writing lines, suspensions, expulsions, or verbal abuse. All of these tried and true methods have been duly replaced with touchy-feely policies of "reflection" and "relationship building". How very new-age - but is this progress?

As mentioned in this post's opening paragraphs, writing lines was indeed a common form of punishment. I once had a teacher who delivered a punishment so diabolical, it brought, and then mercilessly destroyed, all hope. A few of us came late to class. The teacher punished us with writing 20 lines. We had gotten off easy, so we thought. Here is what we had to write (only) 20 times:
Image: bartsblackboard.com
It is beneficial for both myself and my classmates that I arrive at class on time. If I do not arrive at class on time I will inevitably disturb the students and the teacher. Because I do not wish to be responsible for harming my classmates' education, or for disturbing my teacher in the middle of class, I have resolved to make every possible effort to come to class on time. I am deeply sorry for my initial transgression for which I apologize to my classmates and to my teacher.
Some brand writing lines a waste of time. Stuart Jeffries argues in The Guardian that writing lines is "cruel and unusual punishment". Accacia Jane disagrees. She says that:
Writing as a punishment gives "sentencing" a whole new meaning, but it's a method that has plenty of excellent possibilities...If nothing else, simple writing assignments keep a child out of trouble for as long as it takes to finish the job. They also are a decent way of practicing penmanship...
However, some schools have managed to lift the yolk of disciplining students from the shoulders of teachers - they have handed that burden to the kids. According to their website, Modern School in New Delhi employs a unique policy:
...discipline is not imposed, but understood. Of course, some students happen to misuse this freedom, but most of them come to realize the benefits of being disciplined.
All well and good, but those who are not in the "most of them" category (either those for whom it is not understood, or those for whom it is understood all too well) could easily end up as undisciplined, out-of-control young adults with violent criminal tendencies. Well, perhaps not quite, but the school does admit that this "free-range" policy isn't effective for every student.

But the possibility of wayward Modern School in New Delhi students is of lesser consequence when you take into account that a liberal discipline policy is clearly beneficial for teachers. Quincy Adams Kuehner writes in his 1913 book "The Evolution of the Modern Concept of School Discipline" that:
Probably more teachers leave the profession because of failure in discipline than for any other single reason.
Senthil Kumar, whose credentials are not apparent, says that discipline problems in the classroom are, in fact, the teacher's fault:
Often-times, disciplinary problems grow out of poor class-room [sic] procedures and the teacher's weak personality.
It took us from 1913 till now to come up with a solution, but thanks to the Modern School, what a relief! Having the kids become responsible for their own discipline takes the heat off the teachers (who are no good at it anyway) and so tremendously increases their job satisfaction. Remove the teacher from the discipline problem and all is solved!

Little Johnny setting his own punishment is the ultimate in experiential learning. In fact, it has benefits on both education and efficiency. Kids won't have to find excuses (lie) because they already know they transgressed and so will automatically self-impose a punishment. If that punishment happens to be an after-school detention, and they leave early, fail to show up, or misbehave during it, they will need to self-impose another punishment. Before you know it, kids will be calling their parents to the school to talk to them about their own misbehavior. Twelve-year-olds will be left no choice but to suspend and expel themselves from schools. They will teach themselves valuable lessons. All the while, teachers and admin staff will be blissfully ignorant of any disciplinary action, thus instantly solving Kuehner's number-one teacher job-satisfaction problem.

It is simply brilliant! Let the kids assume control of their own disciplinary policies - it's better for everyone, all round.

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