I read an interesting aritcle recently written by Alfie Kohn about punishment in school. I was intrigued by the article because I had been asking myself whether I thought the way schools handle discipline is in fact successful. You can read the whole article here.

I like Kohn’s framing of the punishment issue as a “doing-to” continuum. This means that positive and negative reinforcments lie along a continuum from reward to harsh punishment, but that these both carry the same intent. Instead, it is better to develop a system of “working-with.” This means that instead of resorting to an authoritarian answer in which the parent or teacher chooses an appropriate response from the “doing-to” continuum, it is better to work with that child to reach a mutual solution for the behavior. The only way for this to work, however, is by completely abandoning the former response system.

Of course this sounds easier said than done and I know that a lot of what goes on in education is very much theory vs. reality. Nonetheless, I wonder sometimes what a school would look like if the traditional punishments (detention, ISS, OSS) became something more productive and useful for the students. I know that every time I get an email about a student missing my class because of suspension I instantly feel dread for all the extra work that it will involve. I make up all the assignments and work for the student to do while not in class, but of course the students misses the explanations and valueable class practice. This means inevitably he or she will return to class without most of the work completed and my efforts will feel fruitless. Not only this, but that student has now missed all of the other classes and is just behind in general. So then I also have to worry about catching the student up with all of the others, when it was the student’s behavior in the first place that caused all of this headache for me. How can this make sense as a form of punishment? I hear from students that they actually enjoy ISS and probably don’t mind OSS too much either. In the case of detentions, some serve so many it’s like they just plan on staying after every day and then sit for hours not really accomplishing much. This hardly seems corrective or productive, so to what end do we still utilize these punishments?

I know that not all schools are like this, but from my experience as a student until now it makes me think there must be a better option. I think a system that is more rehabilitative in the sense that it helps the student solve the problem and allows the student to stay on track in school would be more beneficial all around. Not even thinking only on the grand scale, I want to take Kohn’s advice and apply it to my classroom to see if I can improve my own way of modifying student behavior. Too often it’s easy to threaten, chastise, belittle, and dole out harsh consequences to students before we as teachers figure out what’s really going on. I know this is something I struggle with and this article has inspired me to do something different and show my students that I’m not just an authoritarian. I would rather instill valuable decision-making skills in my students and put the responsibility back on them than act as the enforcer of the room. In this way, I think that the dynamic of the classroom could become very different.

I wonder what other viable options would be for the whole school to enact that would allow for this? Regardless, times are changing and so should the old-fashioned policies.