Thursday, July 16, 2015

Discipline Systems

The last make about systems has had me a bit puzzled. Having had a multi-year immersion in one of the most system-analysis driven fields of social "science," studying sociology and anthropology at Reed College in the 1960's, I was both fascinated and repelled by the ways that perception is filtered by system model that one is using to examine a topic. A few #CLMOOCers have expressed skepticism about the distortions that can result from a system model being imposed on a situation, our tendency to make the information fit into what the system frame says should be there.

Then I realized that a lot of my hesitation about the whole topic is rooted in my ambivalence about the elephant in the room: by far the most common way that teachers use or encounter the word "system" is as part of the compound, discipline system.

I work mostly as a substitute teacher these days, and whenever I go into a classroom, the kids almost always want to point out to me the system that their teacher uses: points, charts, clothespins with names on them, red/yellow/green stripes where those clips get stuck and then moved around, hangman games in progress on the whiteboard with POPCORN PARTY! written underneath... The variations are multifarious, but the bottom line is almost always that there are rewards and punishments built in, there are labels attached to kids, and the whole thing seems so complicated and beside the point... Usually I just explain to the kids that I know I won't be able to understand their teacher's system very well, so instead, let's just agree that we're going to be kind to each other today. It almost always works, because I can also offer a meaningful reward: if we can all get along and get the work that the teacher has left for them done a little early, then we'll have time for some string games, and they will each get a string of their own that they can take home with them.

This is not to say that I am opposed to any and all discipline systems. Especially when there is leadership at the school which lays out clear expectations and has set up workable procedures for dealing with challenging behavior, a system can be a great thing. But I am a strong believer in Alfie Kohn's basic approach, laid out in Punished by Rewards: the more externalized the system and the more demanding it is of compliance, the less likely kids are to be interested in learning for its own sake.

The need of the school to fulfill its "in loco parentis" obligation and keep everyone safe is one thing, but using a military and hierarchical model for decision making and the distribution of power within the system of the school never seems to work very well. I've been looking for resources about the Brazilian businessman who has a TED talk about abolishing hierarchies in his multinational company, and Google has failed me so far (I have the reference somewhere on my dead computer, and haven't been able to retrieve that particular bit!). I recall him talking about how the military abolished hierarchies in the buildup to WW Two, because they knew they had to gear up a lot of people to a lot of stuff quickly, and collaboration would be a much more efficient approach that command and control.

There are systems approaches to collaboration, of course, but there's something in my anarcho-communist roots which rebels whenever I see the word "system."  Nevertheless, here's a pretty diagram of a system promoted by the US Department of Education, just because I feel like I need a graphic of some kind in here...

Also, here are my notes on the etymologies of the relevant words:


discipline (n.) 
early 13c., "penitential chastisement; punishment," from Old French descepline (11c.) "discipline, physical punishment; teaching; suffering; martyrdom," and directly from Latin disciplina "instruction given, teaching, learning, knowledge," also "object of instruction, knowledge, science, military discipline," from discipulus (see disciple (n.)). 


disciple (n.) 
Old English discipul (fem. discipula), Biblical borrowing from Latin discipulus "pupil, student, follower," said to be from discere "to learn" [OED, Watkins], from a reduplicated form of PIE root *dek- "to take, accept" (see decent). But according to Barnhart and Klein, from a lost compound *discipere "to grasp intellectually, analyze thoroughly," from dis- "apart" (see dis-) + capere "to take, take hold of" (see capable). Compare Latin capulus "handle" from capere. Sometimes glossed in Old English by ├żegn (see thane).


system (n.) 
1610s, "the whole creation, the universe," from Late Latin systema "an arrangement, system," from Greek systema "organized whole, a whole compounded of parts," from stem of synistanai "to place together, organize, form in order," from syn- "together" (see syn-) + root of histanai "cause to stand" from PIE root *sta- "to stand" (see stet). 

Meaning "set of correlated principles, facts, ideas, etc." first recorded 1630s. Meaning "animal body as an organized whole, sum of the vital processes in an organism" is recorded from 1680s; hence figurative phrase to get (something) out of one's system (1900). Computer sense of "group of related programs" is recorded from 1963. All systems go (1962) is from U.S. space program. The system "prevailing social order" is from 1806.