Paradigm Shift

In the past year, I've had a pretty significant paradigm shift in terms of my understanding of creating positive school culture.

In the first three years of my teaching career I believed a positive school culture was built primarily through a well-organized system of incentives and consequences for behaviors school staff understood to be appropriate. I remember being particularly impressed with a presentation my staff received when I worked at Renton High School by a guy who showed us his system for discipline. It included of a series of increasingly severe consequences for student misbehavior, opportunities for students to reflect on why they might have been a disruption to class, and rewards and praise for behaviors staff appreciated.

Although I'd always heard about natural consequences and inviting students to participate in creating their consequences (and always sort of thought that made sense), I don't think I really understood the guiding philosophy behind those strategies until recently.

Last March, when I was in the process of this paradigm shift, I wrote a little about my emerging understanding of this philosophy here.

Through working with administrators at my small school in New York, a group of committed agents of democracy at Teachers Unite, and my new staff members who started a new small school in conjunction with the Coalition of Essential Schools five years ago, I've learned that creating positive school culture is about creating and cultivating a healthy democracy in your school and community.

Too often schools that purport to take disadvantaged youth and turn them into college-ready scholars rely on military-like discipline regimes in which students are sent home for failing to tuck their shirts in, putting their heads on their desks, or walking on the wrong side of the hallway. Rather than engage in meaningful conversations with students about why these behaviors are frowned upon, students are simply removed when they're out of compliance.

Boot camp-minded school administrators create cookie-cutter college-ready students who know how to bubble test answers correctly OR rebellious hellions who want nothing to do with school. There is little room for students to stretch their capacity for thinking in regard to their school community and the rules that govern their lives.

Enter democracy.

The crux on which healthy democracies depend is the belief that a given community has the capacity to collectively make wise decisions about the way they should function and the rules they should obey. And this ability, like any other, must be taught to those who have not yet grown into adulthood. Students must often be provided scaffolds in order to make healthy group decisions. I've come to believe that by and large even some of the most unhealthy communities can come to make extraordinarily positive use of democracy given the necessary time, commitment, and supports.

I remember being told in graduate school that I should develop my classroom norms with my students. It seemed like a cool enough idea, but the philosophy behind doing it was never well-articulated, nor was the importance of continually revisiting those classroom norms with students to provide them with areas for improvement and learning.

And so, in my first few years, I'd pretend to have my students develop my classroom rules. I'd ask them what the rules should be, and if they gave me something I thought inappropriate, I'd ask leading questions until they eventually relented and gave me something I was hoping for. And in any case, most students merely parroted rules they'd memorized from previous years with previous teachers.

This year is the first year that I've had the opportunity to be deliberately democratic with my classroom rules and structures. I'm providing students with safe opportunities to fail, and making it clear to them that I value their voice. The effects have been positive.

One example:

One of my freshman language arts classes decided three weeks ago that it would be appropriate for them to have five minutes of free time at the beginning of each class to talk freely. They argued that the time would allow them to get out all of the necessary socializing they'd probably try to get out during class if I didn't give them their five minutes. They argued that class would flow more smoothly. If only they could have their five minutes at the beginning, they'd be much less likely to disrupt my instruction later.

Now I have never been the type of teacher to give my students unstructured time. The idea makes me cringe. I'm very particular about my instruction and have had the notion of bell-to-bell instruction drilled into my brain on so many occasions that it's the only thing I'd ever otherwise consider. So I let my students say their piece and I argued back. I told them why I thought they were wrong, but I insisted that if this was something that they felt strongly about, they could try it. But I made it clear that I was trusting that they were making this argument on the basis of improving their learning and not on the basis of trying to trick their teacher into teaching them less.

We documented the effects of the five minutes of talk over a week and came back to the table. They agreed it was not having what they thought would be the intended effect after one week but suggested that it was perhaps because it could be slightly more structured. We added structure and tried it for one more week. When we came back to the table, I again explained why I felt it was a foolish thing for us to be doing and provided my evidence that none of them could argue with since they'd all seen the things I was referencing. This time I had a sizable majority of students agreeing with me. I was somewhat surprised. I honestly wasn't sure that this experiment would work out, but it did, and its results were extremely positive.

It was obvious that there were a small number of students who would have argued for time to talk regardless of any evidence I provided them because they were being disingenuous in their discussion. Their purpose was to have as little work time as possible and they'd use any method to achieve that. But I really believe the majority of students were arguing their side genuinely, and given the opportunity to not only hear my side of the argument, but see it play out in the classroom, shifted their understanding of the topic. My hope is that when they're confronted with a similar argument, they'll remember their experience in my class and tell their peers that using time in class to talk is generally a waste of time. And an even further hope might be that when they find themselves socializing rather than working, they may be reminded of why they're in school because of the experiment we had and the conversations around it.

This seems like such a little thing on the surface, but I've come to realize that these kinds of experiences are enormously important. They help students gain valuable experiences with democracy, whether they're cognizant of it or not. They help build trust and community in a classroom because students recognize that their opinion will be valued, that they'll be trusted to make the decisions that are best for them. (And the vast majority of them will make the right decisions for themselves given the right support.) Lastly, it allows Mr. Boutin to avoid an awful position I found myself in so many times in my first few years of teaching, the one where a student would complain about a particular policy and ask why I couldn't change it only to hear a response along the lines of "Because I said so," or "Just trust me; this is best," or "I'm the teacher and I know this is what's right." Those conversations did not empower students and generally made me feel incompetent.

Cultivating democracy isn't just good for classroom management. It is ultimately about empowering students to make positive decisions on their own and in their groups/communities. Decisions that rational, emotionally-stable, mature adults make as a result of years of experience with themselves and others.

There's a big part of me that thinks that engaging in this kind of work is what makes teaching so much more powerful in schools with large numbers of students and families who have larger degrees of distrust for authority than you might find in more affluent communities. I often wonder if one of the advantages of teaching in these schools is the opportunity to more easily develop critical thinking skills in students, the likes of which empower students to develop both positive relationships with systems as large and abstract as "society" AND the ability to question its fundamental nature and origins; which, in turn, should allow them to criticize it when it fails to meet its supposed purpose.

I wonder if my upbringing in a middle-class community that put a large emphasis on developing a trust in authority is one of the reasons I'm only now (nearly thirty years old) beginning to understand the intensely powerful effects of democracy.


  1. I shared this with my network. I've been going through a similar paradigm shift in my second year of teaching (thanks in large part to reflections from bloggers like you and authors of books like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) and you've so wonderfully articulated that shift! Thank you.

  2. So would you have continued the free time if the students had concluded the experiment had worked, even if you didn't agree with them?

  3. allie701: Because I believe my students were attempting to engage in a real discussion with me - yes, I think I would have. I would have continued to document fallacies in their argument and given them more and more proof that the five minutes of talk was a waste of time until it was too much for anyone to argue with.

    If the majority of my students were acting like the handful who would have argued in favor of time to talk no matter what evidence was given against their position, I may have used a different strategy.

    But I honestly don't think I've ever taught a classroom of students in which a majority did not care about their learning. I think that if you can find ways to bring out the voices of all students and provide an environment in which they feel they can be successful, it's unlikely you'd run into that problem.

    There's a great quote from a phenomenal documentary called Precious Knowledge in which a community member says something like, "I've never met a student who had a dysfunctional relationship with learning. Our students have dysfunctional relationships with school."

    I think this is about helping students develop functional relationships with school so that they can learn the academic curriculum.

  4. I like.

    You know about the Sudbury Valley School model, I suppose.

    So, the question that comes to mind is how to work with the students who don't want to learn what you're asking them to learn. Do you think that your instruction becomes coercion on your part? Do you think it's simply a matter of majority rule? Just curious about your thoughts.

  5. James, I have found that when my students have the opportunity to have a voice in determining or amending class policies, they usually make good decisions. Have you ever held regular class meetings? I've found them to be a great way to have focused discussions on class issues. If something isn't working for me or for them, it goes on the next meeting agenda.


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