From Discipline to Self-Actualization

Often when I begin a conversation about education reform I start with the topic of discipline. Inevitably the person with whom I am having this conversation responds, “Yes and we need more of it – we must keep the kids in line” and similar statements. My reply is, “our children need to become self disciplined and responsible for their own behavior. This cannot happen if, for all of their formative years, they have lived in a world of external discipline. They have to learn to handle freedom in order to learn what it is to be a self-disciplined contributing member of our society.” Our schools must come to recognize this wrong, which they are imposing, on our children for short-term gain. When you keep children in an externally controlled state, where the teacher is the controller, the disciplinarian, for the entire twelve-year spectrum of the child’s basic education the teenage graduate leaves with a serious deficit.

This misconception of the function of discipline is one of the root ills of our current educational system. Young adults who have been subjected to externally imposed discipline for all of their formative years have no idea how to become responsible citizens in our free society. As graduates they push beyond the limits of acceptable behavior. They do not know how to fit into work or higher education since, until now, they have had no experience in self-initiating. The curriculum specialist has met all of the decisions regarding education, what to study and how deeply to explore a subject. The interplay of externally imposed discipline and cookie cutter curriculum, where the child is excluded from the decision process, yields a young adult who is diminished in his/her ability to function as a contributing responsible citizen or as a fully functioning college student. In comparison, those students who have had the freedom to choose and make meaningful decisions during their school years leave with a firm sense of identity, and with a knowledge that their responsible behavior will sit well where ever they choose to engage themselves. While those attending college are prepared with the self-discipline to undertake the rigors of academic study.

In researching this article I spent some time looking through the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). I was searching for what the OED had as a definition for discipline and self-discipline. All of the entries for discipline had a negative tone. When I sought the entry for self-discipline it wasn’t there! I couldn’t believe it; especially since I found over 25 entries for other self prefaced words. The one that stood out in my mind as most significant in its relevance to freedom, responsibility and self-image was self-actualization. How much room is there for a student to self-actualize in the traditional classroom? He/she just cannot self-actualize in a setting where the teacher controls every aspect of life. In contrast in a multi-age classroom or in a Sudbury Valley School there are multiple opportunities for a student to begin to realize the potentials of self-actualization.

I would suggest that life for students gains meaning as one is given an opportunity to make meaningful decisions on a daily basis regarding each small step of life’s encounters. This requires giving students a great more say, through freedom of choice, in the day-to-day operation of the classroom. As students become proficient in classrooms whose management allows for increased freedom they also learn how to become responsible and self disciplined and, in turn, their self image and academic achievement improves drastically. This does not happen over night. Educators at all levels need training and support. Teachers who have been applauded for their control strategies must learn how to gradually yield some of their control to the students. Administrators and supervisors must participate in similar training in order that they are able to provide support to their teachers as they make this difficult transition, and the students need to be trained to understand the new parameters under which they are expected to work. In order for the realization of a child’s potential in becoming self-disciplined, and, consequently self-actualized, he/she must have parents who value and support this critical dimension of upbringing and education.

Ted Sizer of Brown University Coalition of Essential Schools has met with a modest degree of success with this retraining process through his innovative high school social studies program. Without continued support over extended periods of time the system seems to revert back to the teacher controlled, teacher disciplined classroom. One video clip, of a female high school student who participated in his program, supports the value of this transfer of power from teacher to student. With a big smile on her face she states, “Before this new program I had difficulty writing a single page essay which yielded a C, now I write a ten page paper and get an easy A”. Her smile and personal manner tells much about the self-confidence she has gained through her involvement in Sizer’s social studies program.

The multi-age classroom at the elementary school provides many opportunities for students to learn about self-initiation, self-discipline, and responsibility. The following e-mail, posted from a teacher to the Multiage Listserv, shows how self directed students can be if they have had previous experience in sharing some of the responsibilities of running a class:

“I was out on a personal day yesterday and my sub never showed up. My students had it all under control and taught themselves for 45 minutes! Apparently, the 1st grade teacher went in to hear the announcements (as her intercom isn’t working) and she asked the kids where their teacher was and they told her she never came. She said they were all very attentive on the rug doing calendar. She found an Ed. Tech. to cover my room for the day! I talked to my kids about it today and I asked them why they didn’t tell the office, and they said they knew what to do – they had even found my sub plans and read the plans and were ready to go through with the day. Two of the older students decided they were in charge and everyone agreed to it. They even took the lunch count slip to the office and never said a word! I told them how proud I was of them, but in the future, let someone know! I have seen some classes go into their room and if the teacher isn’t right there, they panic!

This is the type of behavior one may expect when a teacher shares responsibility with his students. The one error here was that the Ed. Tech. (who eventually became the substitute) intervened in the students’ self-directed self-disciplined behavior. I imagine they would have been quite successful in preceding though the day’s activities without guidance. In fact, they knew far more about how their particular class functioned than any substitute could have known.

Opening the door to allow self-discipline to develop represents the single most important change that can be introduced to our schools. We know very little about the course of action related to self-discipline, yet in those settings where it has been explored, the resultant change in responsible behavior and the level of self-direction has been significant.

What follows is a quote from an e-mail that appeared on the Multiage Listserv that demonstrates how students, given freedom, are able to begin the self-actualization process:

“I would like to address the issue of multiage and self image, from my experiences working with classes of 9-12 year olds for eight years in a multiage atmosphere, and then watching them continue with their education. Our students became very independent and responsible, and felt very successful. It was very obvious which students came to me from our primary multiage classrooms, due to such things as their independence and ability to make their own decisions, work cooperatively, work until they completed a task, seek help from other students, and not wait for me to tell them every step to take. Many of them were also working above grade level in one or more areas due to the exposure to 4th and 5th grade work in the primary centers.

When our intermediate students continued into middle school, many of them were also working above grade level, and the feedback from the middle school teachers was the same. Even our students who tested average and below average were very successful. They accepted responsibility to complete assignments, made decisions without waiting for the teacher to tell them what to do, tended to put extra effort into projects, etc. The teachers indicated they “knew how to learn.” None of our students ended upon their “at risk” lists. We continue to see the names of our students, including these “average and below average” students on the honor rolls, both in middle school and high school.”

– Janet Banks, CATS Publications, Edmonds, WA

Another model worth investigating in regard to self-actualization is the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham Massachusetts. This school, founded in 1969, demonstrates the possibilities that exist when you remove all of the controls we have in public education and allow a child to use his/her innate inquiry skills to initiate all of their learning experiences within a community of inquirers. Even those students who make the transition from traditional high school soon learns to reignite their innate inquiry skills and renew the experience of having a love of learning. What a gift to give a child who has fought the controls of traditional education. The joy of self-discovery is an empowering force, yet we deny it to our masses. The success of this 32-year program is well documented. There are now over 20 clones of this model throughout the US and several other countries around the world. There is value in examining this model as we consider providing freedom to our students in traditional US classrooms. What has been so spectacularly demonstrated at the Sudbury School is that when students are given total freedom to choose what they wish to study they do so with focus, enthusiasm, and a level of intensity that far surpasses the effort traditional students put into their studies.

In the November/December 2000 issue of Mothering magazine, Daniel Greenberg, one of the founders of the Sudbury Valley School, writes about self-actualization in “Respect, What Children Get in Democratic Schools”. In his concluding remarks, he offers insight into how freedom and its related elements contribute to the maturation of the Sudbury students: “A university researcher periodically interviewed Sudbury students over a seven year period. The researcher noted that although parents often had reservations about sending a child to a school that does not “prepare” them for particular career goals, those who emerge from Sudbury have gotten further with these concerns than those who haven’t learned self-reliance. While still in school, they seem to reach stages of maturity most people do not achieve until they are graduated from college. They don’t seem to be plagued by the feelings of uncertainties, confusion, or despair that characterize so many people on the verge of assuming adult responsibilities. They examine their motives and activities thoroughly and continually, regardless of what particular thing they are doing, and they are not afraid of obstacles or failure. “ (Daniel Greenberg, Mothering Magazine, no. 103, Nov/Dec 2000.)

The fully self-confident, self-actualized student cannot properly develop in a classroom where he/she is deprived of making meaningful decisions about daily life. We are not used to thinking about these very important dimensions in decisions regarding the development of our youth. This goes far beyond our antiquated focus on traditional curricula. In settings where teachers have been wise enough to yield control over many day-to-day management and circular decisions to the students, many of the self-actualization behaviors begin to emerge. The multiage classroom and the Sudbury Valley school experiences are two exemplary models where students may be observed taking charge of their education and begin to develop their self-actualization skills.

Raymond H. Hartjen, PhD.
January 2, 2001

The following e-mail from Janet Banks supports arguments for fostering self-actualization in the K-12 classroom:

“I wanted to get back to you with regard to your paper. It was very interesting to read, and we are certainly thinking along the same track regarding the relationship between social interaction and intelligence, and how students educated in multi-age groups are the ones who see the greatest benefits in this way.  I have no doubt that many of our children did better academically and socially than their counterparts in the regular graded classrooms, and more of them developed leadership skills. Some of our students who would have been average or below average in a classroom of same-aged peers, were very successful academically and socially, and became strong leaders of their younger classmates. These academic, social, and leadership skills transferred over to same age classes as they continued on through middle school and high school. Most of our students became self-directed learners with a great deal of self-confidence, self-discipline and motivation to do their best. As mentioned before, many of these students were on the honor rolls throughout middle school and high school, and they also assumed leadership rolls in school and community activities.
We always felt that a lot of their successes came from the wonderful feeling tone of the classroom, the family atmosphere, where every student was expected to work cooperatively with their peers and ask for or give help to each other as necessary. Students were able to follow their own needs and interests and develop according to their own potential, therefore making more progress than they would in a typical, graded classroom. Feeling accepted socially and affirmed academically by peers of different ages did a lot to develop their self-confidence. Life-coping skills were a major part of the program, as children were made aware of the skills, which would help them to become life-long learners. They evaluated themselves on these skills, as well as evaluating their peers, in a positive way. Teachers also conferenced with students and parents in relation to these skills. I can certainly see how all of this social interaction could relate to the development of increased intelligence.
Sincerely, Janet”

The following is an e-mail received from Marion Lerer on 1/21/02:

“I’ve just read your paper with interest and couldn’t help think about the work of Alphie Kohn who writes and speaks a lot about discipline. He and you definitely share the same belief about social development of children (and I see that he has a new book out called, “The Case Against Standardized Testing, Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools.”) The fact that there was no definition for “self discipline” in the dictionary is interesting as many teachers (including myself) have used this terminology for years; and now, having read your paper, I am trying to analyze what exactly I mean by that – and how it is similar and yet different from “self actualization”.

I can now see that when I use the term “self discipline”, I am meaning inner control of emotions, impulses and behavior – “self governance”. This is a goal that I hope for all my students but “self actualization” encompasses so much more. Intrinsic motivation has always been an attribute that I look for and try to instill in students; but is hopeless when children are “jumping through hoops”. I think authentic assessment (when students are required to reflect on their learning regularly, recognize their strengths and weaknesses, and set goals) contributes to “self respect” and as a domino effect, builds “self improving”, “self directing” and “self reliance”. However, it is crucial that students see this evaluation process as powerful and important. In today’s educational political climate, teachers need to learn how to do the dance of juggling accountability and protecting students from a “strangling control” imposed by bureaucrats. That means, teachers also need to develop “self actualization” to work toward positive change in the educational climate to enable optimal student-centered learning.

I know that I have mentioned to you before that I have wanted to document the phenomenon that the oldest students experience in a multiage setting. Perhaps this is part of the term, “self actualization”. Being placed in a leadership role certainly impacts on self-image and therefore, on most of the other elements of self-actualization. Perhaps these concepts need to be more concretely demonstrated to children, as does a multiage social setting. In other words, learning with the same “best teaching practices”, students cannot achieve as high a level of “self actualization” in a single age class as in a multiage class. And because multiage teachers need to be intricately involved with creating and integrating curriculum and assessment/evaluation methods, they are more often modeling (and enabling) the goals of self-actualization than teachers of single age classes.
How to document these understandings in a convincing thesis still puzzles me – and intrigues me. Thank you for once again, causing me to engage in some “serious ponderings.

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