William’s pseudochoice: Obey or suffer

Beyond discipline

A teacher wrote to a parent:

William had several hours to complete an assignment but chose not to. He will be sent to the room of opportunity for 90 minutes tomorrow to complete it. If he chooses not to finish it, it will be a zero. Not the best way to start the semester…

Messages like this occur every day in schools: You chose to get a bad grade. You chose to be punished. You chose to be separated from your peers. Alfie Kohn reminds us that this is a ‘fundamentally dishonest, not to mention manipulative, attribution [whereby] … children are told, in effect, that they wanted to have something bad happen to them.’

There is no way that we can justify these ‘obey or suffer’ messages under the guise of ‘student choice.’ The only choice that William has here is to 1) do what the teacher wants, or 2) be punished. Neither is something he would freely choose on his own. The teacher’s language is a threat that hides under the cover of student free will and it is disingenuous (Kohn calls it a ‘pseudochoice’). If we are going to exercise our power and authority over students and force them to do our will, we should at least be honest about it.

Here’s how I might rephrase this teacher’s message:

William didn’t want to do something that I asked him to do, likely because he found it meaningless and boring. Rather than working with William to find a learning project that better aligns with his talents and interests, I am instead going to try and force William to do the perceived-as-worthless task by isolating him from his friends and peers. If social isolation doesn’t work, I am going to punish him further and will continue to do so until he modifies his behavior and is compliant with my wishes. I am letting you know so that you hopefully will help me vanquish his resistance.

Of course this message is much more difficult to send to a parent. Thus the masking language…

What are your thoughts on William’s ‘choice’ and the ‘room of opportunity?’

13 Responses to “William’s pseudochoice: Obey or suffer”

  1. I think that this ‘translation’ is cute and might even last through the first period of the first day. Having worked with students diagnosed with ADHD and major behavioral issues, I would encourage you to consider that those things which a student might consider boring can be critical. While I love the idea of writing an individualized lesson plan for each and every student to meet them exactly where they are for abilities and interests, this is not a realistic model for the classroom and unfortunately sets a very unrealistic standards to which newer teachers (like myself) might try to hold themselves.

    If a curriculum were to be subject to the red-pen of 16-year-olds judging whether an item is perceived as “worthless”, I doubt Shakespeare’s works would ever feel a crack in their spine. Latin, my very own subject, would face another crippling death. However, as educators, we are entrusted with knowing that which is significant and guiding through that which is difficult.

    I know discipline isn’t exciting or cool, by any means. But I also know that I am sending these students into a boring, confusing, oftentimes unforgiving world in which a boss will not will accept insubordination as a sign that he or she need to give more interesting assignments.

    As a teacher, I, too, have pseudochoices. I can choose not to grade, to review homework, to lesson plan. And by making that choice, I am accepting implicitly whatever those consequences are. Every choice has a consequence, and either though some of those consequences are clearly negative, bad, awful, terrible, must-be-avoided-at-all-costs, they are still the result of choices. As educators, it is imperative upon us to demonstrate to our students how serious their own choices are, and how damaging they may be to their lives. Anything short of that is disingenuous.

    • Brian, thanks for the thoughtful comment. I don’t think the translated version would go over very well either. That’s why we use masking language, right?

      I don’t think that we can equate adults’ choices of where to work with minor children’s school attendance. As adults, if we don’t like our work place, we can always quit and find another job. And at a Catholic school like yours, students arguably chose to be there which makes it a little better (although, of course, more often it’s the parents that are choosing, not the student). But in public schools children are forced to attend due to compulsory attendance laws, which means they may or may not wish to be there if they had a real choice.

      There’s a difference between being persuaded to do something (hey, kid, this is critical to your future; let me try to explain in ways that will resonate with you) and being forced to do something. One preserves much greater agency and autonomy and control than the other. When a minor child is told by an adult authority figure in a setting they were forced to attend to do something they don’t want to do or be punished, how can we frame that as authentic choice rather than duress?

      There are many reasons why students might not want to do an assignment. Because it’s stupid. Because they don’t see the value. Because it’s boring. Because they already know it. Because it’s not challenging. Because it in no way resembles any type of authentic real-world application. And so on… Now, we may still need students to do things they don’t want to do. But let’s don’t pretend it’s their ‘choice.’ As Kohn notes, that’s just dishonest and psychologically manipulative. And let’s don’t ignore the fact that we too often blame students for balking at tasks that aren’t worth doing, and then we punish them for being ‘irresponsible.’

      Can we create learning environments in which students can learn self-control and discipline and responsibility through work of their choosing? Sure, we have many examples of those (e.g., Montessori, Waldorf, Big Picture, Sudbury).

      If you haven’t read Kohn’s book, Beyond Discipline, I recommend it highly. Even if you disagree, it’s guaranteed to get you thinking…

  2. I haven’t used “He chose to…” since 2006. It’s an outdated and inaccurate way of describing a child’s behavior.

    That said, I’m not sure it’s fair to expect a teacher to work with someone to find a learning project that better aligns with their talents and interests – who has time to do that for 80 students?

    Everyone has to do things that they don’t want to do – from assignments they have no interest in doing, to other unpleasant but necessary tasks. It’s part of growing up and learning to manage your life. I don’t like the implication that doing homework or a given assignment is akin to getting a student to submit to a teacher’s will.

    • Hi Allan,

      Thanks for chiming in here. Much appreciated!

      There are numerous schools that have figured out how to minimize what they force kids to do and instead give students greater agency over their learning. That’s a pretty different educational paradigm, of course, and should never rest on the shoulders of an individual teacher alone. But school systems have done this and thus can do this if they so desire.

      If a student doesn’t want to do the homework you assign so you decide to punish him, isn’t that by default trying to get them to submit to your will? He doesn’t want to do it. He doesn’t want the punishment either. You are making him choose one or the other rather than some third option that would be more palatable to him. What would you call it other than ‘obey or suffer?’ (which is what Kohn calls it). It may be necessary given the situation (e.g., standards, school rules, or whatever), but let’s don’t falsely label it ‘student choice.’ Let’s just own up to what it really is…

  3. “Room of opportunity” is delightfully 1984!

    I’m somewhere in between I think. I don’t FEEL like “You brought this on yourself” is not entirely the same as “there are consequences for your actions” but it’s hard to put a clear dividing line on it.

    And yes, in the real world you often do have to do the bits of the job you don’t like – and you suck it up because you do like most of the job most of the time.

    I’m in the position of having students of an age I can and do outright tell them that explicitly. Whether it helps or not I don’t know. I don’t observe any marked difference in behaviour between sanctioning them and reasoning with them to be perfectly honest.

  4. “Idleness, indifference and irresponsibility are healthy responses to absurd work.”
    –Frederick Herzberg

    I kept Herzberg’s words in mind when designing and planning for my classroom and laboratory.

    His 1968 publication “One More Time, How Do You Motivate Employees?” was the most requested article from the Harvard Business Review.

  5. In other words, don’t put yourself in a position to be writing either of those inane letters.

  6. The original note home by the teacher was fairly snarky, for sure. I disagree with an attitude that isn’t helpful to a child’s learning and self-esteem. But if the teacher has a “helpful” attitude and the student still choses (and they do!) not to do the work (for whatever reason), then the teacher is obligated to credit the child with whatever grade they have earned. I do not agree with appeasing children to get them to be responsible, but I am for taking their needs and desires into consideration when deciding what the class/individual assignments are. You hope they will enjoy most of their education, as you hope they will enjoy most of their career life, as well. But all kids (and some adults) need to learn to be responsible, even for the things they don’t want to be responsible for.

    • Debbie, thanks for the comment. You say that “all kids (and some adults) need to learn to be responsible, even for the things they don’t want to be responsible for.”

      Even if it’s stupid? Even if they don’t see the value? Even if it’s boring? Even if they already know it? Even if it’s not challenging? Even if it in no way resembles any type of authentic real-world application? Even if…? Too often we blame and punish children for non-compliance when instead we should be looking at the learning task requested of them…

  7. This speaks to the idea of “expected compliance” in school. Children are expected to do what they are told even if they see no merit in it, as you stated. We try to mask this by “making projects fun” so students will “want to learn” rather than just making the learning relevant. I have two questions here:

    – Students may not see all content as relevant at the time. As teachers, we may understand that this learning is going to allow further learning in the future, but that doesn’t mean it translates to the student. To help to establish relevancy, can we focus on the process of learning? How we come to learn something over the specific content?

    – Secondly, In order for our students to be true agents in the educational process, we must offer opportunities for our students to practice having choice. That is not to say they choose from a list of projects, or choose rather to use power point or keynote. They need practice in choosing how to learn. In an institution as structured as school, agency is not something every student is comfortable with, or even knows how to do. We need to allow practice so students become more comfortable with the fact and process of directing their learning. This creates a partnership between student and teacher that will allow for the most powerful learning to happen.

    Great thoughts, Scott. Well done.

  8. It’s not dishonest. Asking the student to participate in a class assignment is part of school. If the student refuses to do the work, then he is making a choice to not do something. What kind of lesson are we teaching our children if every time they don’t want to do something we in essence say it is OK by finding alternatives for them or worse let them decide what they want to do? Imagine being at work and your boss asks you to do something that is part of your job. You tell him no and request an alternative assignment. How long do you think you would have your job?

    Do you really want to live in a world filled with selfish and entitled kids capable of only doing what they want when they want? This kind of twisted thinking starts at home with entitled parents. The parents that think their child does no wrong. Their child is failing because the teacher is bad, the school is bad, the system failed them, but they refuse to actually be real parents.

    Treating children like they know what is best for them is a breeding ground for future spoiled dysfunctional adults.

    And, how can a teacher custom design and differentiate curriculum for entire classrooms full of students?

    If parents would start being parents and not their kids best friends, then maybe teachers would be free to actually do what they were hired to do and not have to be high stakes negotiators or face ridicule and defamation for trying to do their job right!

    • “Treating children like they know what is best for them is a breeding ground for future spoiled dysfunctional adults.”

      One of our fundamental human needs is some autonomy and control over our lives. That is true for children too, not just adults. We can build students’ self-efficacy and ownership without them becoming ‘selfish and entitled.’

      Many of us choose to honor children as human beings worthy of their own decision-making and respect, not just passive vessels for whatever adults choose to inflict on them.

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