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Deeper Discipline Demands Deeper Pedagogy

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This post is by Sarah M. Fine, a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a visiting scholar at the High Tech High Graduate School of Education.

Last spring, as part of my ongoing research on deeper learning in the American K-12 sector, I had the chance to watch a video taken at an urban elementary school. The video, taken on a handheld flip-cam, documents the second half of a "restorative conference" in which five fifth-grade boys work through a conflict that arose in their classroom earlier in the day. The conflict itself isn't spelled out, but one can infer from the footage that it seems to have involved paper airplanes, an exchange of angry words, and one boy pushing several others.

In some respects, the action that unfolds in the video is exactly what one might expect of an involuntary visit to the principal's office. The boys behave like typical eleven-year-olds. They squirm a little as they listen; they alternate between bravado and earnestness as they talk. Eventually, the perpetrator of the pushing takes responsibility for his actions, the others respond, and there are relieved grins all around.

In other respects, the video showcases a highly non-traditional model of school discipline--specifically the restorative approach that a growing number of schools have chosen to adopt as a way to address the fact that youth of color tend to experience disproportionate rates of detention and suspension when compared to their white peers. Formally pioneered in the context of the Canadian criminal justice system, the restorative approach emphasizes the importance of addressing harm done through the building and repairing of relationships, rather than through the systematic exclusion of perpetrators from society or school. At its core lies the imperative for decisions about accountability to be undertaken with those who perpetrate harm, rather than done to them; as such, its core practices include dialogue circles, victim-offender mediation, individualized rehabilitation plans, and proactive prevention strategies which emphasize belongingness.

A number of these elements are evident in the video. It is not just the perpetrator of the airplanes and pushing who has been asked to address what happened, but all who were involved, including those who might be considered victims. The boys sit in a circle and pass around a "talking piece" to minimize interruptions. The dialogue follows a loose script; at the moment where the footage begins, the boys have all had a chance to describe their experiences of the incident and the conversation has shifted from defensiveness to expressions of remorse and gratitude. Toward the end, one of the boys thanks the perpetrator for "telling the truth about his anger and where his anger came from" and says that he's proud of the group for working through the issue together. The others shake half-closed hands--a school-wide gesture indicating that they agree.

There is no doubt that this clip is an excellent illustration of what restorative conferencing can look and sound like at its best. From my perspective as an instructional expert, however, what strikes me most about the footage is actually what it excludes: namely, the voices of the vice principal and principal. For seven full minutes, the two administrators hardly say a word. It is the boys who direct the conversation and move it forward; the routines of restorative conferencing, with which they are deeply familiar, enable them to engage in a conversation that feels structured but not scripted. There is not a single moment where they turn to the adults present in the room to seek input or to ask what to do next--and as a result, the sense of collective pride that they express toward the end of the conference is all their own.

The reason I found these aspects of the video to be so striking is that they mirror much of what I and my colleague Jal Mehta have observed in classrooms where powerful learning is happening. Students are actively engaged in constructing their own meanings. Routines and frameworks provide structure for open-ended inquiry. Dialogue is a key part of the process; there is often a sense that students are participating together in a collective "community of practice." Teachers serve less as controllers-in-chief than as facilitators and expert listeners. When things go well, students develop a deep sense of pride and ownership over their work. (For more, check this site later this month for our forthcoming report on deep learning in thirty secondary schools around the country.)

It wasn't until I interviewed the vice principal who had taken the video that I realized just how deep these parallels run. In describing her journey toward becoming a restorative educator, she talked not only about needing to master new practices but also about needing to unlearn deeply-rooted habits of control. "One of the lessons I've learned in implementing restorative circles is that when I insert myself the focus is no longer on the relationships among the kids or the social-emotional learning," she said. "And it can be so hard to do...you've got to have an open agenda, not a closed one, and you've got to be patient. You've got to get it out of your mind what you want them to say."

Listening to her speak, I had an intense sense of déja-vu. The vice principal's descriptions echoed countless interviews I have conducted in which teachers have described their transition from traditional to more student-centered, constructivist, and/or critical pedagogies. As I reflected further, I realized that the parallels between these pedagogies and alternative discipline models can be explained by a set of shared underlying assumptions: a desire to draw out students' experiences and perspectives, a belief in the capacity of students to take the reins when provided with the right tools and support, an attentiveness to the fact that learning is often social in nature, and an easing of the traditionally top-down relationships between educators and those in their charge.

So: at least when it comes to their essential qualities, progressive discipline and progressive instruction share a great deal in common. But why does this matter?

What I'd like to argue is that it matters because coherence matters--especially in relation to the possibility for creating deep learning consistently for all students.

This argument has deep roots in research. The literatures on "instructional program coherence" and "internal coherence" suggest that schools that organize academic work around a clear, sharp, shared vision are more effective than those that do not. I would like to extend this line of thinking even further, arguing that schools that align their (clear, sharp, shared) approaches to instruction with their (clear, sharp, shared) approaches to culture and discipline are likely to make more headway on both fronts than those that do not.

This argument is also rooted in common sense. Think about the lives of students. Their time might be segmented into periods labelled as "math" or "music" or "lunch," but their experiences are continuous; they move through time and space as whole beings, shaped by what has come before. What does it tell them if their experiences of school culture and school justice reflect a fundamentally different set of operating assumptions than their experiences of academic learning? If, in the context of their advisory period or their time with an administrator, the message is that they are capable sense-makers who can and should function as agents of their own learning--and then if in science or history they are asked to answer closed-ended questions about what someone else has decided they need to remember? At best, it is confusing. At worst, it leads to frustration and disillusionment, contributing to persistent patterns of disengagement.

Flipped on its head, however, this vicious cycle can become a virtuous one. In a school that has brought its disciplinary, cultural, and instructional aspirations into alignment with each other through intentional design, core values reinforce rather than compete with each other. Students get used to the expectation that their role, across the various contexts that together constitute "school," is to actively and authentically engage with each other and with new content. In so doing, they learn to trust that that the adults in the building believe in their ability to self-direct, self-actualize, and contribute.

Another way to think about this is that discipline, culture, and pedagogy are much more deeply entwined than traditional lines of thinking suggest. Several months ago on this blog, Melissa Daniels from High Tech High alluded to this point by demonstrating that restorative justice, when implemented well, can support students in developing of many of the same "21st century skills" that teachers seek to place at the center of classroom tasks. In more academic terms, she was arguing--powerfully, in my opinion--that school discipline and school culture enact pedagogy as well as creating a foundation for it.

I would like to suggest that the inverse is true, too: pedagogy enacts culture. Even if the content is about parallelograms rather than about self-regulation and paper airplanes, when students engage in open-ended tasks that require them to think deeply and to work collaboratively, they are not only mastering new skills and content but also encountering (and likely internalizing) implicit messages about their roles in relation to each other, the adults around them, and the traditions of knowledge with which they are asked to engage. All the more reason, then, to take seriously the need for integration and alignment among discipline, culture, and pedagogy. Doing so will go a long way toward creating the kinds of powerful and vibrant schooling experiences that students deserve. 

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