Taking the Highway Out of My Way

Published January 1, 2002

Imagine this: A teacher gives an assignment to his class. Students begin the assignment, but the noise level steadily creeps up beyond a comfortable level.

Suddenly, a girl raises her voice and says, “This is anarchy!” The noise abates and the students quietly resume work on their assignment, motivated by a sincere interest in the subject.

That is the utopian classroom Marvin Marshall describes in Discipline Without Stress, Punishments, or Rewards (Piper Press, Los Alamitos, California, 2001; 229 pages, $39.95).

User-Friendly and Practical

A user-friendly resource for teachers, administrators, and parents, Marshall’s book outlines the theory and practice of discipline designed to empower young people with responsibility. It provides a theoretical framework for discipline that is ultimately respectful of students as well as teachers.

Marshall also does what many educational theorists often neglect to do: Offer many practical suggestions.

The book describes a discipline system focused on self-discipline rather than externally imposed consequences. Eschewing the self-esteem movement’s belief that one person can change another’s self-esteem through external motivators, Marshall instead argues for unconditional self-acceptance coupled with self-awareness, reflection, and responsibility.

Although the research is not mentioned in the book, empirical studies have shown that positive rather than punitive approaches are more effective in shaping behavior. Marshall endorses this positive approach to discipline. Although punishment does deter people from certain behaviors, he notes it does not necessarily instill a desire to “do the right thing.” Instead, it promotes a desire to avoid being caught and punished.

Contingencies, Not Consequences

One way of focusing on the positive is to provide contingencies, rather than consequences.

For example, instead of specifying a consequence such as, “If your work is not finished, you’re not going,” a parent or teacher might specify a contingency such as, “You can go as soon as your work is finished.” The contingency approach implies the parent or teacher trusts the youngster to get his or her work done.

Grandmothers have long known the value of contingencies, as this familiar phrase indicates: “You can have a slice of pie as soon as you eat the rest of your brussels sprouts.”

Marshall points out that rewards and punishment are two sides of the same coin. Both provide external motivation, and neither promotes responsibility. Gushing praise is like candy, which a young person may come to crave rather than feeling the natural satisfaction of being responsible or performing a task well.

Theory Y

The theoretical foundation of Marshall’s discipline system comes from Douglas McGregor, the late Sloan Professor of Management at MIT, whose 1960 book, The Human Side of Enterprise, applied behavioral science to improve productivity in organizations. According to McGregor, there are two theories that people in authority have about people, Theory X and Theory Y.

Theory X makes the following assumptions about people: They dislike work and responsibility, they must be coerced into achieving goals, and they want security above all else.

By contrast, Theory Y assumes: Creativity and ingenuity are present in most people, work may be a source of satisfaction to them, the average person learns to seek out responsibility, and intellectual potentials are only partially realized in most people.

Theory Y forms the basis of Marshall’s “Raise Responsibility System,” which recognizes that four levels of government may be applied to a classroom. Students learn the four levels and then use them to evaluate the quality of their own behavior.

Governing in the Classroom

In the highest level, democracy, students regulate their own behavior according to an internal desire to show positive character attributes such as caring, citizenship, justice, respect, responsibility, and trustworthiness. Anarchy represents the lowest level, and is characterized by the absence of order, lack of safety, aimlessness, and the absence of government.

Between these two extremes are bullying, where some people boss others around and bother them; and conformity, where people cooperate but are motivated externally rather than internally.

To raise students’ awareness of responsibility when a discipline problem occurs, Marshall’s system first asks students to identify the level of their behavior. Next, they are asked to identify the level on which the teacher is forced to respond to them. Finally, they are asked on what level they would prefer to be responded to. The desire to act at a higher level is its own motivation.

Marshall’s system separates the person from the behavior and encourages moral awareness and responsibility, not just compliance. Reflection and understanding are key to making the system work . . . as are skilled, intelligent teachers.

Marshall’s discipline system would probably work best when coupled with other character education methods, such as Socratic discussions of moral issues. While his book is not guaranteed to catapult the average classroom into a utopia, it does provide some very useful tools for adults who work with children.

Sarah Clowes is an English teacher at Spring Lake Park High School in the suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesota. She previously taught at Zuni High School in Zuni, New Mexico.