Published Online: May 6, 2009

My Coercive Classroom

Last fall I found myself involved in one of those brief, but intense internet flame-ups that many of us have experienced from time to time. It began when I made a comment on an education blog and mentioned how important "time-on-task" is in my middle school math classroom. Another reader shot back: "Cossondra, why is time-on-task critical? Are kids working in a sweatshop? Does learning occur best in such a coercive predictive environment?"

Ouch. I was a bit riled, I’ll admit. But, being the reflective teacher that I am, I tried to put aside the loaded word "sweatshop" and consider the merits of this fellow’s pointed question.

Googling coercive, I found this definition: Coercion is the practice of compelling a person to behave in an involuntary way (whether through action or inaction) by use of threats, intimidation, or some other form of pressure or force.

Given that definition (or at least part of it), my classroom is indeed coercive. I compel, or attempt to compel, my students to act in certain ways by forms of pressure. I seldom use threats, but on occasion I may threaten to call home, or to keep a student after class, or make them wash desks if they write on them. I never use force, but there is a certain degree of teacher intimidation present in my classroom—as there is in most middle grades settings I’m familiar with.

Is that necessarily a bad thing?

When we become adults, life itself is coercive by nature. Most everything we do, we do with some amount of coercion present, in one form or another. I obey the speed limit because I am coerced with the threat of a speeding ticket and my car insurance going up. I go to work each day and do what my boss coerces me to do because if I don't, I won't keep my job. I will lose my paycheck and therefore lose all the things that paycheck buys, like food, shelter, clothing, and entertainment. I eat healthier choices and exercise more because my doctor's stern lecture coerces me to think carefully about the alternatives.

The role of school is inherently to prepare students for adulthood by giving them the skills they need to be successful in life. Some of those skills are academic, such as math, science, and written language. Others are more ambiguous, like learning to get along with others by following societal rules like being on time, prepared, and cooperative.

When I made these points to my Internet critic, also noting that the state of Michigan has content expectations for me that make classroom time a very precious commodity, he responded that "at least [your] curriculum is coercive."

He’s right about that. My curriculum is coercive. But while I often complain that the guidelines set forth by the state limit what I can and must teach students, I also know that – in the larger scheme – without those grade-level content expectations, students would be left to the whims of individual teachers as to what they are taught in school. Even now, it is apparent to me which elementary students were taught by teachers who paid close attention to the content expectations for math and which were not. If there were no guidelines to follow, I can only imagine the discrepancy among the skill sets of students who arrive in my classroom.

I understand the school of thought that students should be free to explore and learn what they are interested in. My critic, who teaches at the college and graduate school level, apparently follows this philosophy to its logical extreme. However, I think it’s unreasonable to hope for unfettered freedom in our current K-12 public education system. The age differences and maturity levels are apparent. What’s more, employers (and institutions of higher learning) have expectations that a student who graduates from high school will have a certain base of common knowledge, regardless of where that student attended school.

Some may argue these expectations are out of date given today's easy constant access to information and the rapid changes in technology and their impact on society in general. I’m fine with changing that common base of knowledge to incorporate these new realities and skill sets. But let’s hang onto the general principle that at certain points in their education, all students should be fairly comparable in what they have in their core knowledge and skills repertoire.

It seems only fair to my students that I keep my classroom coercive. I want kids to leave the learning environment we've shared for a year knowing a lot more about math than when they arrived. I want to be satisfied that we have maximized our time together. I want them to learn, to grow, and to leave wanting to learn and grow even more—carrying with them the core math skills they’ll need in the grades and years to come.

If that takes a little arm twisting on my part, then so be it.

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