Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Acceptable does your school achieve it?

Though details regarding what constitutes acceptable behaviour change from school to school, the big picture is pretty much the same wherever one goes.  Integrity, honesty, respect and any number of other "mom and apple pie" type traits would be the expectation.  What interests me is how acceptable behaviour is achieved.  There are two ways of establishing and maintaining acceptable behaviour, through rules or through cultural norms.  Of course the vast majority of people behave in socially acceptable ways the vast majority of the time regardless of rules or expectations.  I'm not talking about egregious transgressions here, we'll leave those to the police.  But in the schools of today, as we question much of what we've done pedagogically in the past, I'm seeing ever increasing confusion, and having many more conversations about what is and isn't acceptable.  This ambiguity affects students, teachers and administrators alike.

For instance, let's look at the "zero as a grade" debate.  Most educators I talk to now understand that a zero for incomplete/late/copied work is not fitting and does not indicate what the student knows, nor does it help in establishing more acceptable behaviour in the future.  When we dig down a little most people understand that the grade of zero is really nothing more than the application of a rule to gain compliance regarding completion of work on time.  When we question the validity and efficacy of this practice it breaks down, and so most educators (rightly so) no longer use it.  So what replaces it?  Well, nothing per se, but the teachers who have the fewest issues with student work are the ones who establish cultural norms in their classroom around the expectation of complete and punctual work.  They also make assessment for learning practices a common theme in their classroom, giving students multiple and/or differentiated opportunities to show their learning.  In other words, they elicit acceptable behaviour around work and assessment by establishing a culture of work, trust (through multiple opportunities) and high expectations.

Another perennial issue around secondary schools in particular is what to do about students who show up late.  Anyone who's worked in secondary schools can tell you that establishing rules around tardiness is one thing, enforcing those rules with consistency is quite another.  And no matter how clearly and comprehensively the "policy" is written, before the ink dries someone will show up with an exception that wasn't considered.  What happens if a student flaunts the rules around tardiness, or simply can't get themselves to class on time?  Should we suspend them?  In other words, have them miss more school for having missed a lot of school?  The most effective policies I've seen around students coming in late involve no hard and fast rules, perhaps a few guidelines around acceptable consequences but most importantly very clear and oft repeated expectations that "around here we do everything we can to get to school (and class) on time."  When students and teachers alike accept a cultural norm of punctuality "lates" still occur, but less frequently, and the students arriving late do so in a hurry with an apology on their lips.  Any teacher or administrator will tell that this attitude toward tardiness makes ALL the difference.

Though neither of these two issues is of earth shattering importance, they both serve to illustrate a point. If acceptable behaviour is achieved through rules it amounts to enforcement through coercion, yes it's effective in the present, and it certainly helps in preserving order, but if the enforcement flags, the reason to behave in an acceptable manner disappears.  Not only that, the following (or breaking) of rules does not necessarily lead to any appreciation of why the rule was enacted in the first place. The more effective method of establishing acceptable behaviours is through cultural norms or expectations.  Establishing these norms is never easy, it takes patience, skill and clear vision.  But to a certain extent, therein lies the difference between management in schools and leadership in schools.