How Technology Challenges Discipline

My job is not to set discipline policy.

If you're new to this blog, I am a history and government teacher in Kansas City, MO. I am at a district that would be described definitively as urban. Despite what statistics show is common in urban districts, we have achieved incredible results in our community and in our academics. Our students are utterly awesome as is the community that has built up in our district. I wrote a while back about how to get over the #EdTech hump - you can read it here. In that post, I talked about shifting our mindsets away from being afraid of looking silly and towards accepting the time that we have in class as an opportunity to collaborate with students and try new things. Who knows what we will find, but it sure as hell won't be boring.

Or clean. Or neat.

Technology is scary in large part because it so unpredictable. Where will a student go? What will they do when they get there? Who will they hurt when they go where they go and do what they do?

This is where I wonder about discipline and how it changes (or doesn't) when technology is integrated into a classroom. At our school, we are figuring this out step by step. And I want to be really clear right here at the start that I think we are doing really well. I will argue until I'm blue in the face that we have good, caring people who care about what is best for children. I have to remind myself though of the same thing I remind my students of often - just because it's good doesn't mean it can't be better.

So where should a school fall when it comes to discipline with technology? We are very successful as a school in part because we are very disciplined as a school. Until this year, for example, cell phones were not allowed in the classroom and there wasn't a real big issue with students breaking this rule. Others teachers at other districts would ask how in the world we pulled this victory off. The answer was simple - we enforced the rule consistently and fairly. Students learned and adjusted.

We are also successful because we push our kids to create real products and share them with outsiders. I think the SAMR model has it right on this - technology helps create real products and a real audience that were not possible before technology.

I don't advocate for less discipline. I advocate for purposeful and intentional discipline. This is a part of a larger discussion* that I think we need to have in education, but it's an important part. If students mess up and make a silly decision with technology, we have to teach students what is correct and why it is correct. Simply suspending students is, I think, no longer smart discipline. I'm afraid it may just be what we're all used to.

*A great example is ISS (In-School Suspension) where students silently sit for an entire day. If I'm behind in my work, I'm dying to get a day of ISS where I can catch up. I've actually had students ask me to write them up so that they can go to ISS and get caught up. OSS (Out-of-School Suspension) just seems like a break and is only a negative if a student cares about a grade. If the student is in trouble academically (which is correlated to getting suspended) then sitting at home with nothing to do is the last thing we should want.

In order to teach these really difficult lessons, we need to interact with students. We also need students to be caught up enough with the work that we can push them to the higher-level stuff.* A complete discipline strategy should always look to the next step of results from the actions of the student and in-turn the school. Can we find a new type of suspension or a different type of punishment that still provides discipline but also teaches?

We cannot work on the big stuff with students until the basics are covered.
In this case, I argue that being caught up in class comes before getting
kids to critically think or change habits.

*If you are unfamiliar with Maslow's Hierarchy of needs, read this. I've been trying to find a part of life where it doesn't apply recently and I can't do it. 

Unless the student is at a point where their presence in school hurts the ability of others to learn, discipline should attempt to address the basic educational needs of the student. A day in ISS for a student who is academically or emotionally in trouble is a quiet day to do nothing. The next day they go back into the regular classroom one more day behind where they need to be. Would this student ideally catch up in ISS? Sure. Does it actually happen that way? Often, no.

 The Shift...

For a second straight post, I want to talk about a shift in the way that we think. The model of discipline is education* is trying to change - I know this because of the people I work with and the programs that are being developed and tried. I'll write a post one day about Neil Corriston and the Student Services Team he has put together. Discipline has to move beyond simply punishing a student for an action. The action-consequence model of discipline loses a lot of its power when it is applied broadly to a large group of very different individuals.

*At least at our school

We see this in the ISS example. For some students, a quiet day in ISS is torture and should be avoided at all costs. This can help to positively change behavior. For other students, ISS is a quiet day that they rarely get because of a chaotic home life. This can lead to students actually asking to be punished with ISS.

Either way, however, both of these results are dealing simply with behavior modification, not with the function of the behavior. When a student misbehaves, we have to identify why they are misbehaving and address whatever that function is. A student won't sit still in class. Does she have ADHD? Does she have some infection that causes her to have to go to the bathroom often? Does she struggle to read and this is her way of not reading? Is she anxious about the divorce that her parents are planning on getting?

Our school punishes misuse of technology with severity. Getting around the network filter, looking up pornography or sending a bullying e-mail would be punished with varying amounts of ISS and/or OSS. These punishments aim to modify the behavior with little to no conversation about the function. Maybe a counselor, teacher or principal will have a conversation and find the function, but there isn't much a system to discover the function of behaviors.

Getting around the network filter - Are they really intelligent and bored with what's going on with school? Did they have malicious intent (i.e. loading a virus into the school's system)? Do they understand the consequences of doing this in the professional world?

Looking up pornography - Does the student have appropriate sex-ed? Are they just curious? Do they have impulse control and need to learn how to control these impulses? Are they sexually abused at home? Are they just curious and made a bad choice?

Bullying e-mail - Does the student have a history of bullying in-person? Has the student been bullied himself? Does the student struggle with depression? Are there personal things going on that cause stress or anxiety? Is there a history between the two students?

None of this is easy. My hope is that we begin to shift our discipline to reflect the multi-layered facets of what results in any given action and challenge ourselves to address those layers. We currently discipline with a hammer. While we may modify a behavior, we may also ruin motivation and kill creativity. Can we shift our approach so that we discipline with a micro-camera and a scalpel? Can we find the underlying factors that lead to behaviors and attack those? This may lead to a diverse application of discipline, at which point we'll have to answer questions of why each kid is potentially treated differently.

My wonderful wife Angela (@autismteacher13) showed
me this picture. I couldn't explain the concept any better. She'll
be blogging about this soon!
On that note, I think back to John Wooden, the fantastic UCLA basketball coach. He had a quote, that I cannot for the life of me find, about how he treated each of his players. In this quote, he essentially said that if he treated all of his players exactly the same then he would doing a disservice to his players. They were each different - he would therefore treat, talk with, listen to and discipline differently. Doing anything else, while it might be perceived as equal, would not be the best for each individual. It's the difference between equality (which may technically be fair but might not give each individually their best chance for success) and equity (which is often unequal, but provides different people with equality of opportunity).

I tell my students something similar when I'm asked early on about my late-work policy. I tell them that it depends on the kid. If a hard-working student who always turns work in on time asks for an extra day, they're probably going to get a break with no penalty. If a student struggles getting work in on time, then I'll set up a penalty system that deducts points. The second student needs outside incentive (or in this case disincentive) to get the work in on time. The first student doesn't need that disincentive and will probably learn his/her lesson from the embarrassment they feel having to ask me for extra time in the first place. The goal has the be the lesson rather than equality of punishment or reward.

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