Understanding then Compliance, or Compliance then Understanding…?

Compliance then Understanding

A key phrase struck me when reading Cassie Cheng’s most recent blog post, concerning the way in which lesson observations are handled at Michaela (a very positive post I thought overall).

It was this phrase included in an example of the kind of email feedback which she gets…

…You don’t always need to seek understanding from the kids, but if they have any kind of negative reaction, give them a second DM.  They’ll get the message! ..”

Now, as Cassie has clarified in the comments section to this post, there is a carefully calculated procedure going on with this, and this post isn’t an analysis of what is actually done at Michaela. However, when I initially read it, I paused for thought, and contemplated the notion of simply driving-home the punishments irrespective of whether or not a child understands why they are getting them. I have to be clear, in the same feedback on Cassie’s post it is made plain that the reason for a demerit should be openly stated, so I’m not for a moment suggesting that what is going-on here is obscure or hidden. Rather, I think that the point being made is that teachers shouldn’t have to justify the RULE, even if they do justify (in positive terms) why the CONSEQUENCE is being given with reference to the rule. Indeed, as Cassie points out below, the key thing here is signalling the DM without the lesson being de-railed.

However, pondering the thoughts opened-up by this reminds me of two forms of Catholic schooling experience which I had as a Primary School child. One of these was in Blackburn, at a (now demolished) prep school. I recall the Head Mistress there – a nun called Sister Gabriel (an extraordinary lady in all the best senses) explain that the reason why it was appropriate to smack children was because they didn’t know what they were doing. In other words, since children couldn’t be reasoned into good behaviour, they needed to be trained behaviourally.

I then moved down to a state Primary School in Devon – again led by a nun – Sister Canice (an extraordinary lady in all the best senses) – who I recall explaining that because children didn’t know what they were doing,  it was unfair to smack them. In other words, they didn’t deserve punishment.

I’ve always looked-back with fascination on such an opposing conclusion being drawn from the same apparent starting point – not least because I understood both their perspectives. Sister Gabriel’s position was from a forward-thinking formative perspective: you need to get children to a particular position behaviourally, irrespective of whether or not they are able to reason themselves to that position, or are even old enough to understand why once it is pointed-out to them.

Sister Canice’s position on the other hand was from a retrospective restorative justice perspective: It was unfair to treat these kids as if they knew what they were doing, and punish them accordingly; they simply didn’t deserve it.

Now, of course it is also possible to see Sister Canice’s position as being a kind of forward-thinking one; She wanted to create humans who valued fairness and reasonableness as they moved-forward in life. However, the question which I find myself pondering is: at what level might conformity serve us better than fairness…?

It is clear that there are some areas where we really need to train children to comply without waiting for them to discover for themselves why, or without even needing to give them a reason why. For young children, sticking fingers into plug sockets and running towards roads are two examples. It is also clear that – if they’re being brought-up as humans rather than dogs – we should seek understanding from them if we expect them to toe the line. Perhaps allegiance to a particular political party, or adult participation in a religious tradition would be examples of this.

Where do we stand on this with school rules? How much does the social cohesion of a pattern of respected school norms – with the knock-on in productiveness in other goal-seeking areas (i.e. a minimisation of distractions in lessons) – prove itself to be more important for the creation of an 18 year old mature human, than the pursuit of understanding and full-hearted consent? To what degree does this follow the tension between micro and macro justice which I wrote about here?

I know full well that this isn’t a fully clear binary issue, and the truth of the question may rely entirely on the exact circumstances of the situation we find ourselves in. I’m more raising it as a question rather than proposing a definitive answer. However, I can clearly see situations where in the past, my own formation through areas I neither understood nor had choice over, gave me a strength and an understanding which, with hindsight, I’m not sure I would have had otherwise.

To quote from the most recent Doctor Who episode…”Your consent must be pure…” Must it really be in education? As a society, can’t we actually justify NOT requiring consent of children for school rules based on our own experience of seeing the usefulness in our lives retrospectively? Isn’t there a case that – imperfect though they are – human adults are a little less imperfect than human children when it comes to judging what will be in the interests of said children, and the classrooms which they inhabit? I spent some years in charge of a boarding-house for 7-14 year olds, and a proclamation I occasionally heard when laying-down the law (and despite my best efforts at having justified it) was “But I don’t see why we can’t…..!”. “Yes,” I would respond, “and that is why we don’t have 13 year olds running the boarding house…”

A final reflection: Both my parents were piano teachers. We had two pianos in the house when I was young, and for me they were like TV’s. Every house has a piano I thought. My mum kept trying to teach me piano, but kept giving-up if I lost interest (which I tended to do after 3 weeks). She never wanted to force me to learn, and so I never did. If I resent my mother for anything which she has ever done, it is that she never forced me to learn piano when I had such an opportunity! (It’s ok Mum – I don’t really resent you for anything, but………….)

I would really welcome responses to this….

7 thoughts on “Understanding then Compliance, or Compliance then Understanding…?

  1. Thanks for your comments on my blog post. Just some background to the feedback on it. I used to give the DM with a reason (e.g. that’s a DM Toby, we track the teacher to listen so we can learn). Then I would ask the pupil if they understood why – waiting for a “yes Miss response”. This made the pace of the lesson slower and gave an opportunity for pupils possibly to argue back. Instead the reason why was narrated openly for the rest of the class (not just for the individual pupil) and we would move on.

    Please come a visit to see this all in action!


  2. Interesting thoughts. At my school we operate a restorative justice based system – students who misbehave get a minichat from the teacher the goal of which to get them to see the effect of their behaviour on others. Nice in principle but it often results in endless bush-lawyering from students as they argue the point. Such a huge waste of teacher time – I like the analogy I read in the Michaela book where teachers were likened to a referee at a sport game – they call the shots and may not always be right but get over it – and we all get on with the job of learning without a fuss. The school culture is, disappointingly, also one where ‘weaker’ (read newly qualified or relief) teachers are sometimes picked on by classes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think that your thoughts here are definitely on the right tracks. Essentially, life is too short to debate the finer points with everyone who is under the age to vote. The bottom line is that – as adults – we have picked-up wisdom which is both worthy of being passed-on, and is probably incapable of being appreciated by the young mind. In that sense it needs to be imposed in a way which is accepted. The trick is making sure that they don’t become disillusioned and ‘reactionary’ in the process. The act of instilling compliance from the next generation will always run the risk of codifying flaws in the current thinking – and we really do need creative innovators to help us iterate our best thinking – hence, part of the DNA which we need to pass-on, is that – in time – they will be able to re-write what is considered the ‘truth’ and what is passed-on to others… I feel a blog post coming up to flesh this thought out fully…. 😀


      • …Essentially, we need a system which RESPECTFULLY takes on board the wisdom of the past, then allows HONEST reflection about the present, so that it can create a new narrative for the next generation. Or Trivium 21C in other words….


  3. I think that it is an abdication of responsibility on the part of adults for the next generation when they don’t set or enforce rules. Rules are the boundaries we put in place for children and we know they need these in order to feel safe – the myth is that they have to always like them. I don’t think they do. What matters most is adults who are themselves emotionally stable and mature enough to set the right rules for children.

    Liked by 1 person

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