The obedience paradox


The Headmaster is a marvellous man, and this is the best school I’ve ever been to.

(Gillian Cross, The Demon Headmaster.  I don’t think this line has ever appeared in an Ofsted report.)

I was born in the 1970’s, and most of my school years were in the 1980’s.  Whilst I didn’t go to my home town’s Trendy School, where teachers were known by first names, I don’t think obedience was seen as something to be cultivated; responsibility and consideration were the watchwords.  The Demon Headmaster was clearly a wrong’un from the first pages; the children in his school are strangely neat and well-behaved and they even work during break.  Long before we discover that he wanted to take over the country by mass hypnosis, it’s clear that he was up to no good.

The thing is, however you dress and decorate it, some parts of school life really are about obedience.  If I’m teaching a class about electric circuits, I might well want them to make decisions about what circuits to build and test.  However, I also don’t want them to connect the meters in ways which will cause things to get broken (unless they are cheap and safe to break, and the breaking is interesting).  Whilst it’s right to give reasons for instructions (“if you plug in the voltmeter that way, you won’t get any current anywhere, because it has a huge resistance”), there is still a bottom line.  During a lesson, I need pupils in the class to do certain things in a certain way, because that is best, overall, for the learning that needs to be happening.

That’s before we get to exam courses.  I don’t think that there can be any doubt that GCSEs and A levels are currently largely about obedience; obedience to a set of assessment objectives, expressed in a predictable mark scheme.  As teachers, we may not call it obedience, but when we say “to write a top band answer, you need to include these points and express them in this way”, we are essentially asking for obedience.

In many important ways, the pupil experience in English schools now is a lot more constrained and regimented than I suspect it was in the recent past.  The system is more target-driven, and it’s sometimes a struggle to mould those targets to an individual’s plans, rather than what a computer database says that they ought to get.  Lesson notes have to be done in a school-approved format, which teachers and managers monitor.  Come to think of it, I don’t think any of my teachers would have had a teacher-directed seating plan.  All of these might be good things, but they are constraints which have been introduced.

I don’t think that I am describing a super-strict no-excuses school here.  Even if one wishes to be flexible, and agree some aspects of classroom routines with classes, there is still- somewhere- a bottom line scenario which says “we have to do this thing, at this time, in this way“.

And that’s the difficult bit.

This great blogpost by Georges Simplon clarified the problem of what happens next.  One paragraph really stood out:

I get them to like me, I crack jokes, I confuse them, I act the alpha male, I use the occasional put-down, I shout loudly for no more than a second, and then bring my voice down to just above a whisper.  I make eye-contact, and I try to make sure every kid in there knows that I like them and want the best for them.

I don’t think that Georges’s experience is unique.  Certainly, the schools I have trained in, and worked in, have had written behaviour policies which are there not to be used.  The heavy lifting of getting pupils to do what you want is by relationship-building and Jedi-mind-games.  Those tools are useful, up to a point.

But the thing about a lot of these techniques is that they work at a subconscious level, and need an element of surprise to be useful.  Once both parties are aware of the game being played, they become a lot less effective.

Worse than that, some of the worst-behaved pupils I’ve had in my classes have been brilliant at these strategies themselves.  They act alpha, they crack jokes, they try to confuse those around them.  Even if they haven’t learned those strategies in school, they have certainly had their use legitimised by what they have seen teachers do.

In any case, there’s a paradox here.  Explicit demands for obedience are seen as bad, and it’s right that anyone in a position of authority should find that status at least a little bit uncomfortable.  But behaviour management as practiced in schools often seeks the same ends, just by less direct means.  Leaving aside the question of efficacy, it seems to me that there is a question of honesty here.  If, as teachers, we aim to manage pupil behaviour implicitly, is that really any more liberal or liberating than being explicit about expectations and consequences?