Making classroom rules

Who Makes the Rules in a Classroom? asks Nancy Flanagan on Teacher in a Strange Land. According to the latest dogma,  good teachers get students to collectively write their own classroom rules.

It seems democratic and encourages “buy-in,” teachers believe, even if students are just as likely to break their own rules as ones set by teachers.

When Flanagan tried it in her own music classroom, students came up with a list of “don’ts” — as in don’t empty your spit valve on someone else’s chair — but “it never felt as if we were wrestling with the really important issues: Building a functioning community. Safety. Personal dignity. Kindness. Order. Academic integrity. Democracy.”

She offers ideas about creating classroom rules, such as:

 •You’re shooting for influence, not control. Fact is, teachers never have absolute control over kids, even using techniques like fear, punishment, isolation and intimidation. (In edu-speak, “consequences.”) You want kids to behave appropriately because they understand that there are rewards for everyone in a civil classroom.

•No matter what rules you put on paper, your most important job is role-modeling those practices, not enforcing them. Behave the way you want kids to behave: Ignore minor, brainless bids for attention. Make eye contact with speakers. Don’t be an attention hog–your stories aren’t more important than theirs. Don’t be rude to kids. Apologize publicly when you’re wrong. Remember that you’re the adult in the room. It’s your calm presence that institutes order, not rules.

Don’t restate the obvious or load up on “don’ts,” she advises. But do give clear instructions when needed.  “Stress: order facilitates learning, makes the class a pleasant place to be.”

 •Integrity helps build community. The most important directives in democratic classrooms are around ethical practices: A clear definition of cheating, understood by all students, in the digital age. Why trust and personal best are more important than winning. Why substandard work isn’t ever OK. How true leadership–kids want to be leaders, too– is a function of respect.

“Carrots and sticks” can be counter-productive, Flanagan writes. Students’ good behavior is its own reward: They get to attend a “civil, well-managed” school.

Teaching students to argue about politics

Students should learn how to discuss controversial political ideas in class, says Diana Hess, a teacher turned University of Wisconsin education professor, in Discussions That Drive Democracy.

“A lot of parents want schools to reflect their own ideological views,” Hess tells The Cap Times.

“I argue that parents shouldn’t want that. If they do, they need to rethink why they have their kids in school.”

. . . “It’s not to suggest schools should be working against parents’ values,” she continues, “but we want schools to be ideologically diverse places. That’s how we educate citizens.”

“Many teachers I have watched are good at getting kids to listen to viewpoints that are different from theirs, and that’s a good thing,” she says. Young people tend to be open to new ideas.

Will teachers develop students’ minds? Or indoctrinate students in liberal ideology? asks Ann Althouse, a UW law professor.

. . .  it was specifically teachers who were at the core of the Wisconsin protests, vilifying conservatives.

And as for parents needing “to rethink why they have their kids in school.” Let’s be clear: Schooling is compulsory. . . . Teachers should never forget that they have their students trapped in their classroom by the force of law.

We want students to learn how to discuss “controversial issues, support their arguments, and listen to divergent opinions respectfully and critically,” Althouse concedes.

But it takes a certain level of trust — which is in short supply.

‘Kindness pledge’ divides Harvard

Harvard is asking first-year students to sign a pledge to uphold the college’s values:

. . . In the classroom, in extracurricular endeavors, and in the Yard and Houses, students are expected to act with integrity, respect, and industry, and to sustain a community characterized by inclusiveness and civility.

As we begin at Harvard, we commit to upholding the values of the College and to making the entryway and Yard a place where all can thrive and where the exercise of kindness holds a place on a par with intellectual attainment.

Originally, signatures — and blank spaces by the names of non-signers — were to be displayed in entryways, but that idea was dropped.

Pressuring all students to sign the pledge sets a terrible precedent, writes Harry Lewis a computer science professor and former dean of Harvard College.

It is not a pledge to act in a certain way. It is a pledge to think about the world a certain way, to hold precious the exercise of kindness. It is a promise to control one’s thoughts. . . . A student would be breaking the pledge if she woke up one morning and decided it was more important to achieve intellectually than to be kind.

. . .  the right to be annoying is precious, as is the right to think unkind thoughts. Harvard should not condone the sacrifice of rights to speech and thought simply because they can be inconvenient in a residential college.

The kindness pledge — as it’s now known — is “hilariously inappropriate and offensively coercive” adds Charles Fried, who teaches First Amendment law at Harvard.

“Harvard needs bold, courageous, iconoclastic thinkers, but this pledge indicates that the dean would really prefer good little boys and girls who don’t make trouble,” writes Greg Lukianoff of FIRE, which defends free-speech rights.

It seems especially ironic that a fundamentally elitist institution like Harvard would claim that inclusiveness is one of its greatest values. Keep in mind, this is an institution that rejects the overwhelming majority of people who apply, then pits them against each other for grades, kicks out some for failing, heaps glory upon those who succeed with particular distinction, and takes credit for the earth-shattering accomplishments of its hyper-elite graduates.

The pledge is anti-intellectual, Virginia Postrel writes. Kindness seeks to avoid hurt.

 Criticism — even objective, impersonal, well- intended, constructive criticism — isn’t kind. Criticism hurts people’s feelings, and it hurts most when the recipient realizes it’s accurate. Treating “kindness” as the way to civil discourse doesn’t show students how to argue with accuracy and respect. It teaches them instead to neither give criticism nor tolerate it.

Lauding intellectual “attainment” rather than inquiry or excellence, is a “strange, and revealing, choice of words,” Postrel adds.

Last spring, then-freshmen were asked how they believed Harvard ranked various values and how they rated those values themselves. “Success” is Harvard’s highest value and “compassion” rates near the bottom, students said. On their personal lists, they listed compassion fourth after hard work, honesty, respect.

A Harvard Crimson editorial endorsed the kindness pledge, if voluntary, and called for the college to provide “stronger moral education.” “Students receive more reminders to turn in their study cards” for course registration “than they do to be nice,” the editorial lamented.

Something’s missing in these dichotomies — “course registration versus niceness; success versus compassion; ‘attainment’ versus kindness” — Postrel writes.

Where in the list of ranked values are curiosity, discovery, reason, inquiry, skepticism or truth? (Were these values even options?) Where is critical thinking? No wonder the pledge talks about “attainment.” Attainment equals study cards and good grades — a transcript to enable the student to move on to the next stage. Attainment isn’t learning, questioning or criticizing. It’s getting your ticket punched.

Harvard represents success, but also wants to represent “compassion,” Postrel writes. Both “depend on other people, either to validate success or serve as objects of compassion. And neither is intellectual.”

Happy conservatives on liberal campuses

Conservative students can be happy on a liberal campus, concludes a study presented at the American Sociological Association and reported by Inside Higher Ed. UC-San Diego Sociology Professor Amy J. Binder and Kate Wood, a graduate student, interviewed open and closet conservatives at an elite Eastern private college and a large Western public university.  In both cases, conservatives were a small minority on campus.

At the private college, conservatives “viewed the experience of being in the minority as a positive one” in teaching them to examine and defend their beliefs, Wood said. By contrast,  many conservatives at the public university said they were the victims of bias by classmates and professors.

The  private college conservatives “felt that they had very close relationships with faculty members with whom they disagreed on politics.” Conservatives avoided only a few courses, such as “critical gender studies.”

Much of this related to “very small class size” and to a sense that all students and faculty members were part of a common community, and wanted to disagree with one another respectfully. As a result, Wood said, while the conservative students generally said that they didn’t hold back their views, they didn’t describe going to class looking for a fight — and they talked about wanting to disagree with professors in respectful ways, since they felt treated with respect.

At the Western public university, which had larger classes and less faculty-student interaction, students said they didn’t know their professors well.  Conservative students talked about “trying to get in fights” with professors in class, of “trying to catch their professors in the act of liberal indoctrination.”