Friday, November 2, 2012

How “Discipline” Works at the Open School
Scott Bain

In recent discussions about school culture at the Open School, several questions were raised about what happens if a discipline issue arises for a student.

Three years into my role as principal of the Open School, this conversation has caused me to reflect on the topic.  One of my favorite writers on progressive education, Alfie Kohn, has written a lot about the subject, in fact his book “Beyond Discipline” is a top seller on the subject.  Kohn says it is critical that a school community be clear about which fundamental question drives educational practices, including practices related to discipline.  He suggests we have a choice between two driving questions: How can we get students to obey? or What do our students need and how can we meet those needs? As a model of progressive education, the Open School aspires to be driven by the latter.

Kohn goes on to explore the importance of respect and responsibility.  On this topic Kohn emphasises that, “it is widely understood that people learn from example.” Most students know how to be respectful, yet sometimes they fail to do so.  In a community that desires to meet students needs, disrespect is not the same as disobedience.  Receiving respect from students therefore, requires that the community ensure that students are respected.  On the matter of responsibility, students learn responsibility by being given responsibilities, not by being told what to do.

“Working with students to build a safe, caring, community takes time, patience, and skill. . . Threats and bribes buy short-term change in behaviour, but they can never help kids develop a commitment to positive values. . . Children learn to make good choices by having the chance to choose, not by following direction.”   

Open School philosophy is grounded in several core principles that drive Open School practice.  One of these principles is that no student will be anonymous.  Advising is a practice derived from this principle and therefore, it is critical a student’s Advisor is involved whenever problems involving behavior arise.  Who better to model respect than an Advisor who has a trusting and respectful relationship with the student?   

Another core principle is based on the belief in the inherent goodness of children.  Open School philosophy is therefore grounded in the same principles to which Kohn refers when he writes: “Most students know how to be respectful, yet sometimes they fail to do so.”  From this principle comes the practice of providing students with the freedom to make meaningful choices.  As a community, we accept that sometimes students will make mistakes.  When we approach problem solving around these mistakes we are guided by the understanding that mistakes are truly authentic learning opportunities.  In fact, there is a recognition that sometimes students learn more from their mistakes than from their successes.  Rather than being a top-down, punitive model, our approach to discipline is in alignment with the holistic, student centered approach that defines Open School philosophy.

With this philosophical foundation in mind, here is how the discipline process at the Open School typically works.

  • In order to foster a culture in which students are able to see themselves as respected members of the community they must be included in a process of developing community norms. So to begin with, norms are established in Advising groups, in classes, or as a school wide community.  In a democratic and respectful environment, children and adults alike must have their voices heard and valued.

  • Once norms are established, the vast majority of behavior problems can be addressed with a quick and respectful conversation regarding the behavior, which refers back to norms previously agreed upon.  I use the word “conversation” because, if respect is to be received, it must also be given, which again assumes the student’s voice is heard and valued.  
  • If resolution is not achieved through respectful conversation, it becomes critical to involve the student’s Advisor.  Having established a caring relationship with the student, Advisors work with the student, either one-on-one or in conjunction with a parent, to problem solve situations and look for win-win solutions, which will maximize student learning.

  • As students learn and grow into the people they want to be, Advisors continue to work with them in a continuous problem solving process.  In support of the student, Advisors may consult with parents, colleagues, mental health professionals, administrators, etc. seeking out creative approaches to help students learn and grow from their behavior.  

  • It is important to note that there are cases in which Advisors, administrators, parents and students must refer to a more “rule governed” response to behaviors by deferring to the Jefferson County Code of Conduct.  This document reflects state law and district policy and will always be consulted in cases involving drugs, weapons, threats of violence, etc.  Code of Conduct based discipline typically involves suspensions and sometimes expulsions.  However, even in the event of a suspension,  Advisors and administration look for learning opportunities and double back with creative ways to solidify the learning.

As Alfie Kohn writes, “Working with students to build a safe, caring community takes time, patience, and skill.”  We know most students want to be respectful and we accept that sometimes they might choose not to be.  At the Open School, we are patient with this process, as we desire to respond to student needs by helping them become ethical people rather than people who do what they are told.  Indeed, for more than 40 years we have experienced the magic of the Open School and shared in the joy as over and over again, we have witnessed students growing into self-confident, caring, and contributing members of society.