Imagine an infant whose parents determine that to make her maximally fit for the future, they will regulate her every experience. The baby, not having been consulted on this regime, does what babies naturally do. She cries off schedule, refuses food, and wakes up too early. Her caretakers, considering her future, pay no attention, and eventually she conforms to their routines. They are encouraged, though oblivious to her loss of spiritedness.
Once she can sit, they give her the right toys: alphabet blocks to make her an early reader; the right music to make her appreciate the classical repertoire; the right books and the names of common objects and animals, to give her a rich vocabulary. Unfortunately, she has no appetite for these offerings. Instead, she plays with her bottle—tips, throws, and chews it. They remove it. When put on the floor with the right toys, she ignores them, preferring to bang the pots and pans. Exasperated, the parents place her in a pen with the right materials. She gets angry, hurls everything in reach while banging her head in frustration and exasperation.
We should institutionalize, right along with the three R’s, a graded curriculum of ever-increasing student agency."
These techniques will fail:
• On pragmatic grounds. Children have to be lured, not forced, into conformity with parental and societal constraints. Though pliable, they are not infinitely plastic. We should not confuse their adaptability with a license to dominate.
• On psychological grounds. The parents’ methods are insensitive to the child’s developmental status. She has expressed her needs and preferences; they overruled her. By disregarding her will and substituting their own, they’ve depleted the child’s native impulses to explore her surroundings. By not engaging with the child more reciprocally, they also put at risk the natural affinity between parent and child. And without connectivity formed through reciprocity, opportunities for parental instruction are diminished.
• On moral grounds. Even if the child submitted to parental controls, the domination is wrong. To raise a docile automaton, a clone of parental desires, even when beneficently intended, ignores her self-determination rights.
How big a leap is it from these well-intentioned despotic parents to the regimented schools we are creating, especially for our high-poverty children in urban areas? Increasingly, these schools police every aspect of students’ lives, including where and how they sit, what they wear, when and how they talk, when and how they walk, when and how they go to the bathroom or get a drink, and what and how they learn. As for play, it’s abolished as a time-waster. Sometimes children submit to the commands, though often the submission resembles lethargy rather than cooperation. (How many fall asleep at their desks?) If children resist, they are put in the pen (principal’s office, detention room). Their will to learn is snuffed, their resistance increases.
Faced with unruly students, teachers and administrators ratchet up the controls, and the downward spiral continues: We search for better devices. We test more frequently, increase scripted lessons, add security, fire teachers, detail longer codes of conduct. All in the name of keeping students on task.
Whether or not adults in charge believe that the overwhelming control systems are effective, it is wrong to suffocate the bodies, minds, and interests of students. Students have a right to express themselves (and adults have an obligation to listen); they have the right to form judgments, share them, and make choices. As the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) held, children “shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers.” How will young people develop ideas and learn to express them under such regimentation?
The Philadelphia Inquirer recently reported that 30 Philadelphia high school students had mounted a protest because their school is to be “restructured,” a move that will require replacing 50 percent of the faculty. The students want their teachers to stay, and their suspensions for minor infractions (such as not observing dress codes) to stop. Other student walkouts have followed. The district has dismissed the demands, reminding students that remaining on the school premises is crucial to educational progress despite their frustrations, and threatened discipline. The irony of emphasizing the importance of education while prohibiting peaceful dissent is lost on the administrators. Children are returned to the “pen” to focus on the right materials and abide by policies that, presumably, they will continue to ignore. Some of these students are of voting age. They all are of thinking age. How can they be so disregarded?
From some the answer is: Students are accustomed to authoritarianism and will not respond to other approaches. They cannot learn without moment-by-moment supervision. They need firmness. Without tight controls, they will become violent, at best goof-offs. But those who subscribe to these arguments and care about schools should be ashamed, for we have succumbed to a system of coercion rather than one of education. This answer cannot be entirely true, however, for we all know of many teachers, even in poor urban schools, who have cooperative, mutually trusting relationships with students, and classrooms free of coercion, beyond the mild coerciveness of grades.
What can be done to give children the room to develop a healthy code of behavior?
First, listen. As an infant frequently knows what she needs to grow, so often do students. That’s not to say all children’s wishes should become adult commands. Children are often shortsighted and too gratification-hungry. But they deserve to be consulted and sometimes gratified. We should institutionalize, right along with the three R’s, a graded curriculum of ever-increasing student agency. In the early grades, it may be small: Allow children to choose the books they want to look at, the places they want to sit, the ideas they have for their moments of relaxation. Along with allowing them a degree of self-determination, give them a few but increasing number of responsibilities. Let them carry the notes to the office, answer the phone, take attendance, pass out and collect materials.
Continue with both the freedom and responsibility dimensions in middle school. Give them opportunities to select and report on projects of their own choosing and to gauge the length appropriate to their capacities; have them develop and participate in service projects; let them assist one another and help run events. If graded opportunities for freedom and responsibility are handled carefully, students, by high school, will be equipped to run a school newspaper, organize a meaningful student government, participate in formulating regulations, and be held accountable for following them.
Students deserve opportunities to express their interests, and some of these interests should be honored. This process evolves naturally when a school system grooms the development of student agency, perceiving it as a central obligation equal to any other objective the school may have, and when the educational goal of responsible autonomy is understood as the provision of autonomous opportunities. There is no script to follow, but there is a commitment to be made, a commitment to keep searching for an elusive middle ground that acknowledges and shapes, but doesn’t ignore, the voices of students.
A version of this article appeared in the May 25, 2011 edition of Education Week as When Students Are Silenced