I’ve been watching the debate over the not-so-new “get tough” approach to student behaviour in England with a mixture of frustration, boredom, fatigue and just-can’t-help-myself fascination.

The truth is that this isn’t a new debate and these ideas have had their day in previous eras, with occasional bursts in from the cold in various jurisdictions.

Republican states in the US have been the most ardent supporters of zero tolerance approaches to school discipline, prompting extensive research that has provided evidence to show just how dangerous these approaches are. Just do a brief Google Scholar search on zero tolerance, disproportionality, early school leaving, and the school-to-prison-pipeline. You’ll see what I mean…

“No excuses discipline” is ineffective, in addition to being dangerous. Despite being dressed up as a new kind of social justice – one that promises to rescue the hapless chav from their bleak working class existence – the reality is that such an approach will not work with every young person. In fact, it is particularly unsuccessful with a certain type of student.

Sure, there are a lot of kids who will reward these approaches with compliance. They’ll keep quiet in the corridors, they’ll wear the correct uniform, they won’t talk in class, they’ll arrive prepared, and they might even do their homework!

But, and it’s a BIG but, this will not necessarily make them learn.

Ultimately, this is the one trump card that a kid has and it is extremely unwise for adults to forget that. In fact, if I had to point to one common characteristic among the young people I’ve worked with, in what we here in Australia call “behaviour schools” (somewhat like PRUs), it’s that these kids have worked out that there is NOTHING that anyone can do to make them learn.

Just in case some folks don’t get this, let me spell it out.

Eventually, after several years of school experience, some kids master task avoidance. They may do this overtly:

  • by disrupting others, deliberately derailing the lesson, not completing work and so on

…or they may do it covertly:

  • by going through the motions, by junking the information they’ve just heard and not attempting to encode it in their memory, by putting in minimal effort, by doing the littlest amount possible just for it to be seen to be done and to get the adults off their back.

Oh, and this isn’t a uniquely working class thing either. There are plenty of kids underachieving in our schools and I’m happy to speculate that a goodly number of them are of the second type.

When confronted with this reality many adults try to rationalise, saying that “Well, that’s not very sensible… pretty self-defeating… why would a kid do that?”

My answer to that is because sometimes to refuse to learn is the only power they feel they have. Plus, it has the added bonus of payback. A teacher’s job is to get students to learn. Refusing to learn is the ultimate rejection of teacher authority. Maybe that’s why it stings so much…

Rather than recognise any of this and thinking of ways to work with the kids who’ve actually figured this out, we have a simplistic debate about “no excuses discipline”. Ironically, this is the best way to create and/or exacerbate the problem I’ve just described.

What disturbs me about this latest debate is the “my way or the highway” discourse which is code for “if they don’t do what they’re told we have licence to abdicate from our responsibility as educators”. PHEW!!

In other words, we can abandon with impunity now because the student has exercised choice. They’ve chosen not to comply, they’ve chosen not to learn, so they can also choose to leave if they don’t like it. We can give up and live a peaceful existence teaching only the kids who want to be taught. DOUBLE PHEW!!

i see what you did ther

That’s what I read between the lines of the recent “no excuses discipline” debate and it’s wrong. It’s weakness, dressed up as strength. It’s capitulation rearticulated in solid sounding words that seek to make it acceptable to consign some young people to the scrap heap because, well, we’re right, they’re wrong and we always know best. And, besides, they chose this. They could have done what they were told to do!

Jarlath O’Brien referred to this as professional vanity and, I think rightly, pointed to the fear and professional insecurity feeding the “get tough or get out” mindset:

To completely refuse to look beneath the veneer suggests to me professional insecurity and, in some cases, fear. You would have to be professionally secure enough to admit, like the best schools do, that they don’t know it all, that improvements, either academic or in terms of behaviour, take an investment of time, energy and love (yes, I said it) in the child. You have to be professionally secure enough to know that the changes need to come first from the adults and the school, starting from where the child is at, and then celebrate the improvements and achievements that will surely follow.

Jarlath’s post was the catalyst for me to pen what I’ve been thinking, as it is similar but perhaps a little more pointed.

To my mind, the other thing that this “no excuses” discourse masks is the complete and utter refusal to consider that just *maybe* the kid has a point.

In other words, with a “no excuses”, “zero tolerance”, “like it or lump it” approach, systems, schools and teachers – who are that way inclined – can excuse themselves.

Teach badly?  No matter.

Curriculum is mind-numbingly boring and irrelevant?  So what.

Treat young people like they are indentured servants with no opportunity to exercise or extend their developing identity?  S’ok.

It’s okay because our uncompromising standards mean that those young people will have to leave and when they do they will become someone else’s problem. Then we can get on with teaching the kids who like or who can at least endure mind-numbing irrelevant curriculum taught poorly by autocratic teachers who know best.

That’s what I see lurking behind the latest strain of this particular discourse and it ain’t pretty.

It reminds me of something I wrote a long, long time ago. Such a shame that we’re back here again…

It is a discursive tactic that firmly positions the incorrigible child as the site of the educational problem, demarcating between children who “choose” to conform to prevailing norms and those who supposedly choose otherwise. This suggests not only equality of choice but that the “approved” choices are relevant and desirous to all. Ironically, it could be argued that the child who “chooses” otherwise is demonstrating more autonomy than the child who chooses the choice already made for him/her. Such is the chimera of “choice”. (Graham, 2007, p. 209)