A philosophical view of discipline

Behaviour ‘management’ approaches could do with a philosophy lesson, says James MacAllister.

Student arguing with teacherNew teachers are often given advice on how to ‘manage’ pupils to help them to ‘behave better’ in schools. There are strategies and tips, systems of rewards and sanctions, an emphasis on consistency and enforcing the rules.

The language of behaviour ‘management’ continues to be prominent in UK education policy (for example in the recent Behaviour and discipline in schools report), but this ‘managerial’ approach risks short-changing students, removing the opportunity for them to develop their own self-discipline.

Philosophers have long been aware of the potential pitfalls of teachers being overly directive of pupils in their efforts to establish a climate of school discipline, and perhaps have something to offer today’s education professionals.

Persistence and endurance

There is a diverse – if neglected – range of philosophical texts that explore how school discipline might promote educational ends, with John Dewey’s famous 1916 work Democracy and Education containing some pertinent observations.

Discipline was, for Dewey, a disposition of persistence and endurance in the face of challenge and difficulty. The disciplined person has the important executive ability to set goals based on their interests, as well as the wherewithal to think about what actions are necessary to achieve these goals. Discipline, Dewey stresses, is a positive quality and it is positive because of the responsibility individuals take over their own actions and conduct.

In contrast, discipline conceived as ‘management of pupils’ is largely something that teachers do to pupils in a deterministic fashion, rather than something that pupils can take some personal responsibility for. Managerial thinking about school discipline can also encourage teachers to form predetermined ideas about what good or bad behaviour consists of and of how it may be brought about.

The discourse of behaviour management that has emerged in UK education policy and practice in more recent times appears to have had some unfortunate educational consequences then. Chief among these are the marginalisation of debate about how schools might promote educational discipline in pupils rather than their external management and control.

The idea that discipline might be educational (where pupils actively take responsibility for their own learning and development even in the face of obstacles) is very different to the notion of discipline advanced in behaviour management literature. In a continuing climate of global economic uncertainty, and with employment opportunities increasingly hard to come by, it is probably more important than ever that teachers help young people learn how to set goals for themselves and see them through even in the face of challenge and difficulty.

Seen in this light, it is difficult not to conclude that schools do pupils a great disservice if they downplay opportunities for the development of educational, as opposed to managerial, discipline.

James MacAllister is a lecturer in education at the University of Stirling

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