Just Because: A Very Short History of School Compliance

Our choice is between controlling and teaching, between creating an atmosphere of distrust and one of trust, between setting an example of power and helping children to learn responsibility. – Alfie Kohn.

I completed my student teaching practice in a remote town in County Clare, in the West of Ireland. I recall a place where a deep Atlantic fog descended and nothing much else happened. I still have in my memory an image of a lone car parked on the main street during the time I spent there. It never moved.

The students at the local school were honest, eager, and full of potential. I suspect I learned more from them than they did from me and we got along well enough. I knew they appreciated at least two things about me: I was young and I was not a nun. Saturday nights in the heart of the community were lively with traditional music and friendly revelry. School nights, however, were desperately uneventful. Strolling through the thickening fog one evening, I was pleasantly surprised to see the shimmering lights above the door of a bar that appeared to be open in this otherwise sleepy place. During the nights that followed, this became my sanctuary. A smoky portrait in formica, plywood, and faux leather, it was a simple pub that had seen better days, yet it was a cosy and welcoming alternative to the prevailing solitude. I recall a handful of locals watching the TV news in silence and the kindly, elderly barman handing me darts so I could while away the evening over a Guinness.

This became my routine. I’d usually work on some lesson plans (a visit from a teaching inspector was, after all, imminent). Some nights I’d attend the local football practice. On occasion, I’d go for a walk, sometimes as far as the distant shore. Most nights, I’d drop into the eternally empty bar, order a pint, and collect the darts for a solo game to fill the hour until closing time. One evening, the following conversation took place.

“Can I have the darts, please?
“Sorry, not tonight.”
“Why is that?”
“No darts on Tuesdays.”

The next morning my class was giddy with news of my wild nightlife. I’d been barred from the pub for questioning a long-established rule. I laughed along with them, at the ridiculousness of the “no darts on Tuesdays” dictum. It turned out to be a breakthrough moment, an epiphany of sorts. One by one,  students cited school expectations they were required to follow that, to them, made no sense. Most of these, they pointed out, typified the logic of the “no darts on Tuesdays” mandate. Anyone who has ever attended school gets the picture.

Once upon a time, a rural town held a market each Tuesday. In its immediate aftermath, the thriving pubs teemed and heaved with thirsty farmers, whereupon a youthful bar owner decreed that playing darts was not viable on such evenings. Decades after the market and the crowds had become a distant memory, the rule remained. It was not to be questioned.

How many things do we do in schools, I wonder, because we have done them that way for so long that we have forgotten why?

Kohn, Alfie. Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason. Atria Books, 2005.