You have twenty seconds to agree: Why compliance isn't a dirty word in the classroom

23rd March 2014 at 16:37


In the 2013 sci-fi/ thriller film The Purge, the US government has enacted an odd annual protocol: for twelve hours once a year, everything is legal. The wobbly rationale behind this is that it provides a release for everyday anxieties and anti-social urges (the ‘purge’), but in reality it means a mass fox hunt, only with the underclass as its object. 


It’s an interesting question in moral philosophy: what would people be like if there were no rules? If The Purge is anything to go by, the answer wouldn’t flatter us: we'd be like animals, disintegrating in egoism, aggression and hedonism. But it’s more than an abstract ethical sudoku; it’s something that we have to consider whenever we examine our roles as teachers and educators. Why do we have rules? And which ones should we have, if have them we must? I saw one such discussion today, with some commentators uncomfortable with whether children should comply in their classrooms. It was the 'C' word that worried them, but it needn't have.


Nasty, Brutish, Short


Thomas Hobbes had no doubt: humanity in an extra-legal state was a savage dystopia, a "war of all, against all" where life was nothing but "nasty, brutish and short". Having lived through the English Civil War, he had seen a once-civilised society degenerate into lawless omni-aggression. Anything, he believed was better than that, even a bad government, because in this State of Nature, as he called it, nothing civilised was possible: no one could plan, plant or prepare for the future, and the very axioms of trade were impossible. Even a tyrant was preferable.


Does this mean that human beings are naturally savage, or universally so? Not necessarily. Hobbes famously observed that it only took a few thieves for "all men to bar their windows". All that is required for law to be required is the absence of universal altruism. 


And that brings us, finally to the classroom, and the school corridor. Do we need rules for school? It’s a question that bubbles up from the bottom of the ocean bed from time to time, like the rusty ruin of a buried sea wreck, suddenly released. It’s a question so surprising that it takes a second to wonder how to begin to answer it. 


But the answer is surprisingly simple: of course we need to have rules. And because rules without sanctions are no rules at all, merely serving suggestions, they need to be patrolled with sanctions. Which isn't to say that I believe children to be intrinsically horrid, but I do believe that people (which I believe includes the subset of students) are intrinsically egoistic – that is to say, they pursue their own desires. And they're more than that: they can be compassionate, generous, surprising, cruel, forgetful, imperfect, angelic… just like everyone else. But they do seek their own ends – who wouldn’t?


An axiom of teaching is that you are making children do things that they are not immediately disposed to do, unless you actually believe every child would troop into your room by choice and beg you for worksheets and maths questions, rather than sitting at home plugged into the Matrix and 'liking’ pictures of cats stabbing each other. I don't care how groovy your lessons are – unless your classroom is like Mary Poppins' nursery, your students will be directed towards work that they would not otherwise choose to do. And some will really, really not wish to do it. That's particularly true for underachieving children, lazy children or children who have given up hope for themselves – precisely the ones who need us most


Part of our job is to push them further than even they think is possible. It is entirely feasible to have no problems whatsoever with behaviour if you are prepared to let children do whatever they wanted to do anyway. But I guarantee you that they'll learn a fraction of what they could have done. You see this in some schools – one solitary teacher finds a pupil difficult, only to find that every other teacher can't be bothered to challenge them on their laziness, so the pupil is not reported on. 


Now, it’s an entirely admirable ambition to want your pupils to want to work and behave, and to try to align their desires with the behaviours that will achieve this, but it won't happen. The very best students are usually those who have learned – early – to defer their own instant gratification for future gain, and to balance their own needs with the needs of the many. The most difficult students are often those who have not. 


Be reasonable


So why should they behave? One answer I frequently hear is that students should be persuaded to behave, to realise that good behaviour should be given voluntarily. Such people claim that this avoids the need for most sanctions, because students will willingly participate in their own long term, enlightened interest, which will coincide with the good of the room. 


Sadly, this is a dream. If all people, all children, were calculators of their own best interests, if they were economists of the long term, then this might be possible. But children – not to mention adults – often don't think like that. We pursue the goals of now, because they are sharper and more seductive than the goals of later. A week is a lifetime to some students; next year's exams are in an alternate universe. Furthermore, the role of emotions and instincts in our cognitive discourse is frequently ignored by armchair theorists, but never by children. Try to reason with a cigarette smoker, a junkie, a man crashing out of a diet, a drunk with a chip on his shoulder, an angry man on the edge. Good luck. 


So: rules. And because rules, so: consequences. In any community, there will be shared values, codified by law and reinforced when necessary by sanction. Not only is this seen in every society ever, it has never not been seen. Because any attempt to create such a society has ended in its dissolution, every anarchist commune and Aquarian experiment. Because it only takes one thief. 


You have 15 seconds to comply


I'll happily call this compliance, because to comply means to adhere to an externally created set of principles. We can't all make up our own rules in society – what happens when one person’s rules conflicts with another? I once asked a class to help me create the rules and realised I'd shot myself in the Charlies when they said they wanted fag breaks. When I said "no" to this they said, "Oh, so we can't make the rules up then?" and I realised that they were right: I have to make the rules up. We need rules, and they have to be for the benefit of the many, not the few. And if a teacher can't come up with 10 rules everyone needs to comply with, then they should have a think about their career ambitions. 


Oddly, I find that once children get used to your rules, they tend to adopt them as a habit and the need for sanctions dwindles away. Your students have internalised the mores of the group and added them to their repertoire of behaviour. And if the rules are good, that means you just gave them something that can't be bought, but is priceless anyway: self-discipline.