Sunday, April 29, 2012

The wood stove model of teaching

About a week ago I read an article by Margaret Wente in the Globe and Mail talking about how liberals and conservatives operate on two different moral systems.  The article is based on ideas from Jonathan Haidt's book The Righteous Mind (Globe and Mail review), where Mr. Haidt says that liberal thinkers are concerned with care, harm, and fairness but conservative thinkers are concerned with loyalty, authority, and sanctity. 

This struck a chord with me recently.  On Friday I was at a Professional Development day activity looking at restorative practices.  One part of the presentation was comparing restorative practices to traditional school discipline.  The traditional discipline practices were really about authority, and sanctity, with maybe a bit around loyalty.  Roughly speaking, in traditional discipline, if a student does not show respect for authority and those things authority sanctifies, then the student is punished.  A classic example: student swears at a teacher.  The student has shown a lack of respect for authority and the teacher's role, so we suspend the student.  After the suspension the student comes back to class, usually angry about the suspension, while the teacher is still angry at the student for the disrespect shown that has not been addressed.  There is a good chance another incident will occur.

The restorative practices are focused around care, harm, and fairness.  The main thrust is that if a problem occurs then at least one person has been harmed and the fair response is to try to fix the harm as much as possible and restore a working community.  In restorative practices, if a student swears at a teacher then there is recognition that the teacher has been hurt by that.  However, if the student can be helped to understand that he/she has hurt another person and then the student can make honest amends through an apology and/or other actions, then the student can be accepted back into the classroom with no hard feelings and possibly with both student and teacher having a better sense of how to work together in the future.

I feel that I can say fairly that in my experience, discipline that is more restorative around fixing a problem works better than traditional discipline.  If you are treated fairly, cared for, and protected from harm it is quite easy to develop loyalty and respect for authority and sanctity.  But if you are harmed, not cared for, and not treated fairly, it is almost impossible to develop the traits valued by conservatives.

I think an analogy that I heard many years ago fits this situation.  The analogy was the idea of a person telling his/her wood stove "I will give you some wood as soon as you give me some heat".  We all know that a wood stove will not give any heat until we put some wood in.  In the same way, young students will not show respect and loyalty until they have been cared for, treated fairly and protected from harm.

So teachers, the next time you are looking for "heat" from a student think about whether your best choice might be to stoke the stove by offering some caring and fairness first.