Developing Discipline and Desire

Last quarter, I had a student from the university in my class twice a week to observe. He emailed me before his visits began to introduce himself and ask some questions about what to expect in my classroom. Needless to say, he had no idea what kind of classroom to which he had been assigned. I still remember his response to my first email explaining the basics about the ARCTIC Zone. It was something like, “That sounds insane, but I’m ready to jump in!” I knew I liked him already.

When it came time for him to teach the one lesson he was expected to teach during his time here (he ended up teaching three full days – he was awesome), he presented students with a storytelling challenge. I watched and listened as he walked from group to group responding to various questions and requests. “Can we try ____?” “Could we use _____?” “Can we build a prop out of ____?”

His answer to nearly every question was, “No.” In debriefing with him later, I asked him why he turned down most of the requests students had offered. He said he didn’t really know why other than he didn’t want things to get out of control. Prior to this day, he and I had talked quite a bit about PBL structures and how a release of control from the teacher to the students is an important and difficult component, so he immediately caught himself when he said that. “I know, I know,” he said. “I just don’t like feeling like I don’t have control over things.” My response? How do you think the kids feel?? 

No one likes to feel like they don’t have control, regardless of who you are, where you are, or how old you are. Why do we expect students to just do as they’re told all day long without allowing their input along the way? Can you imagine how frustrating and stressful that would be?

George Couros writes a blog that I follow, and he recently wrote about the difference between compliance and discipline. He says he often reads and hears people use the two words interchangeably when there is a very critical difference between the two. He states,

In my view, compliance is done to you by others. Discipline is something you do to and for yourself.  If you look at it through the perspective of sports, compliance is listening to my coach and doing what I am told. Discipline is doing things that make me better when my coach isn’t necessarily asking or watching.  That will separate the good from the great. Doing something challenging when you are not asked or pushed by others is not compliance; it is discipline.  Helping our learners develop that internally is crucial if we want “empowerment” to lead to success in the short and long term.

I have noticed a transitional period that exists at the start of the school year with most of our 6th grade students. Many enter our doors fully unprepared for the level of freedom and choice we offer in our space. They have spent years developing compliance. We are ready to support their development in discipline. In order to build discipline in our students, we need to offer and earn trust, to cultivate honest reflection, to give second and third and fourth chances, and to carefully nurture each student’s personal strengths, struggles, motivations, and desires. It takes time. In time, though, we see how providing an environment that supports the development of the whole child can impact a student’s confidence, can rekindle a desire to learn, and can shape a strong sense of discipline and self-actualization.

Yesterday, I sat with a group of 6th grade students who had just been caught chasing each other around the room instead of using their study hall time appropriately. We sat silently at the table for a few moments while they waited, presumably for the chastisement that was sure to come. After a minute or two, I asked them why they think I love having the ARCTIC Zone so much. Confused, none of them answered. I went on to talk about how we have things structured in a way that gives students the freedom to make a lot of their own choices, and one of my favorite things about that is when I finally witness students realizing how much power they have with that freedom – and they start making the right choices. I told them I was excited for that moment with each of them and that would likely be coming soon – the time when they start to realize how their moment-to-moment choices impact their learning, their progress, and their attitudes. The change in their affect was immediately visible. I did not scold. I did not chastise.

Today I helped our first group of 8th grade students in the ARCTIC Zone register for their high school courses. This was a new experience for me. Excitement was battling nervousness all around the room. I had so many meaningful conversations. One student’s story I feel is worth sharing. He came to us in 6th grade with school figured out. He is an incredibly high-level thinker and an incredibly low achiever. He figured out very early how to succeed by doing the bare minimum. The best part about him? His sense of humor – he’ll tell you flat out that he will not do this or do that. He’ll let you know he doesn’t want to actually be in your class. He’ll share his honest opinions about nearly everything. For these reasons, I love this student. And I desperately want him to find whatever it is that excites him and to run with it. Because when he finds it, look out.

I remember discussing his math options with him at the end of his 6th grade year when we were still using our online curriculum. He was perfectly capable and ready for an advanced track in math, but he looked right at me and said, “Which course is shorter? I’ll do that one.” Just a few hours ago, I watched that same student select an Enriched English course for next year. And I listened as he mapped out his plan for the elective courses he knows he will need for his future career. I could cry, but I won’t. He knows how proud I am of him. As do all of my other 8th graders. I hope.


One thought on “Developing Discipline and Desire

  1. maggie schoenfeld says:

    I really liked this post.
    Power with freedom…I guess when there is an overabundance of what you call compliance in the classroom, that must leave a student empty from exploration.
    And with the power/freedom model, I suppose that could lead one to make some misjudgments as well, but therein lies more opportunity to learn and fine tune one’s direction.

    Thank you for helping us understand this innovative approach to learning!


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