Obedience is not a virtue

A choice

I want you to make a choice. The choice is between tyranny and anarchy.

If you chose tyranny the country will be run as a dictatorship, backed up by the armed forces. Laws will be made arbitrarily in the interests of those in power. There will be no checks and balances, no free press, no independent judicial system. All that is required of every citizen is unquestioning obedience. If you don’t break the law, then you won’t get into trouble. If you do then the consequences will be dire: there will be no excuses, no opportunity to explain, no questioning of the law, just swift and certain justice.

If you chose anarchy the state will disappear. You will be allowed to do whatever you desire, without responsibility, without legal consequences, and without restraint. Of course everyone else will be allowed to do whatever they desire too. Break into your home at night, take your possessions, whatever. And there will be no police force to protect you, no legal system, no laws: Just you verses the rest of the world.

It is not much of a choice is it? What do you choose?

I choose neither.

“But that’s cheating!” You cry, “You didn’t give me that choice.”

I did, you just didn’t see it.

This is because I offered you a false choice. I made it appear as though there were only two choices, both of them bad, when in fact there was a whole range of other choices in between.

“That’s still cheating.” You mutter.

It’s a linguistic trick. Sometimes called a false dilemma or the either-or fallacy. Wikipedia defines it as: ‘The presentation of a false choice which deliberates attempt to eliminate the middle ground on an issue.’

It’s a handy debating trick because it forces your interlocutor into making a choice they don’t want to make. When they concede that one is more desirable than the other then you claim victory without having to make a real argument.

Neat, but there is a downside, once the trick is spotted it looks pretty shabby.

Which brings me to the debate on obedience.

There is an argument currently raging, in the tiny world of edTwitter, about whether students should be obedient at school. This started because a newly established Free School have decided to make student obedience one of their central tenets. @heymisssmith drew attention to this, in her usual mischievous way, and within a few short hours a full twitter-storm was blowing.

I, rather regretfully now, joined in: regretfully, because behaviour is an emotive subject amongst teachers and one of the few that is truly divisive. I wrote a blog once about behaviour on the Guardian Network and got dog’s abuse from the commentators, one called me a Judas, as a consequence I generally keep my views on the subject to myself.

However, when I saw the new school was making a virtue of obedience, putting it front and centre on their website, I thought this needed discussing.

Obedience is strong word to use. Compliant would be less emotive, well-behaved more common. But obedient is loaded, deliberately provocative, even defiant. Is this what the leaders of school wanted? It has certainly created a lot of free publicity in the world of edTwitter.

Personally, I have nothing against free schools in principle, although I understand there can be problems. And, I have absolutely no feelings what so ever about the school in question, how can I, they haven’t even opened yet: certainly if you want a neo-trad education for your kids then this school is the place to send them.

However, I do have a problem with making student obedience a virtue and here is my argument: take or leave it, you always have a choice.

Binary opposites

The choice between obedience and disobedience is a false dilemma. As I explained earlier, those that try to frame the argument in this way are attempting to eliminate the middle ground and force those they disagree with into making a choice they don’t want to make. This is a shoddy ploy because it closes down the discussion and demonizes those that want to debate the issue.

Obedience and disobedience are not mutually exclusive terms in the way on and off are, or up and down, left and right, they are binary opposites: two ends of a spectrum, like boiling and freezing, saintly and evil, tyranny and anarchy. In between the two extremes are a whole range of other possibilities.

Sometimes these possibilities are neutral, like the ones between boiling and freezing – warm, tepid, chilly, icy etc – and sometimes they are not, like the ones between tyranny and anarchy – benevolent dictatorship, liberal democracy etc.

In my view, neither obedience nor disobedience are desirable outcomes in a place of learning. They are two extreme ends of a continuum, both unwanted possibilities. I believe we should avoid both and focus on the range of other more desirable and effective options that exist in between.

In fact, let’s start by all agreeing no sane person chooses disobedience as an option: no one wants kids running schools and no one wants anarchy.

Just as, I would hope, no one wants unquestioning, blind obedience, from children to adults.

We are, all of us somewhere in between the two. Some of us lean more towards one end than the other. Some more towards the discipline end of the spectrum, others more towards the freedom end. This seems perfectly reasonable to me.

So, let’s have no more of the false dichotomies, no more trying to polarize opinions, and no more shutting down the debate. Let’s move on and accept there are differences of emphasis, some differences of values and points of view, but, essentially, at the bottom of all this, is a general agreement we all want what is best for the students in our schools.

With this in mind, I propose we debate on the subject professionally, without silly points scoring and shoddy debating tricks. Please.

My problem with the term, obedience

It is problematic to make a virtue of obedience. Of course children must behave in ways that allow themselves and others to learn, and for teachers to teach. We all want that. But schools are places of learning, places for thinking, questioning, acquiring and applying knowledge, places for developing new skills, places for finding out about the world and for meeting people outside of our own families.

Obedience is not an end, it is not something we want to foster and develop, it is a final resort. To be used when all else fails, a kind of defcon 1: “If you want to stay here then you have to let others learn and your teachers teach.” Sadly, this happens. No one wants it, but it does happen.

However, this is the end of the line, not the beginning. We shouldn’t start out assuming our students are just waiting to tear the place apart and the only thing standing between school order and total chaos is a thin tweed line of teacher authority.

Hobbes famously argued humans are motivated entirely by selfish concerns (notably fear of death), and given half a chance would act upon these selfish concerns and take what they can. Therefore, those with power (the absolute monarchy, the only rational and desirable form of government) should ensure the masses are never given the chance. Hence, it is in everyone’s interest (but most of all those with power and property) to maintain order by punishing those that transgress.

Sound familiar?

Two things about Hobbes: First, he was writing in the 17th century in the aftermath of a terrible civil war, making an argument for the restoration of the monarchy. Second, he was writing about society as a whole, large groups of people, who have little or no connection with each other, not about smaller communities of people who share time and common goals, like families and classrooms.

Of course, you can build a school based on Hobbes’ ideas. And you can believe his pessimistic view of human nature if you like. I choose not to.

In my experience (other experiences are available) children are not looking to wreck their school, they are not itching to tear each apart, and they are not motivated entirely by selfish concerns. They are, actually, quite nice. They just want to be treated, like the rest of us with respect. They want to be heard and they want to have a say in their lives. Including their school lives. And why not?

Let me make clear, I’m not saying things don’t go wrong or that there should be no repercussions for anti-social behaviour. To argue this would be mad. I’m saying we should start by building classroom communities on the basis of trust and mutual respect, not unquestioning obedience to adult authority.

Obedience is for dogs. We should have higher aspirations for our students.

I advocate ‘co-operation’ as the term to use. I’ve used it for twenty years and my classrooms have never once descended into anarchy.

Co-operation puts the focus on understanding rather than obedience. Obedience only demands our students do as they are told (because we have more power than they do), co-operation requires students to understand why learning requires certain kinds of behaviour. For those of you who like Dweck, obedience develops a fixed mindset, while co-operation develops a growth mindset.

“What happens when children don’t co-operate?” Is a fair question. The answer is we stop co-operating with them. Why should we (as a community) put up with someone who refuses to let us learn? Disrupts our lessons? Shouts abuse? The answer is we shouldn’t. It’s a simple choice, the job at school is learning, everyone has a responsibility to help this happen. That’s what it means to co-operate.

“Aren’t you just splitting hairs?” Is another fair question. I’d say, no. The difference is subtle, but profound. Talking about co-operation with students makes the way authority works explicit. It opens up the reasons for rules and the benefits of being part of a community to scrutiny and discussion.

Not, however, for negotiation. This is a mistake I’ve heard people make. There are layers of responsibilities we are all subject to, including adults. Schools are not hippy communes where the inhabitants can make up the rules and do as they like. They are places of learning. That means any rules we create must bear this higher cause in mind. You mind call it the ‘prime directive’.

Making co-operation a virtue seems to me a much higher and more ambitious aim. Obedience is easy: just scare the blighters by shouting at them and threatening them with terrible consequences. Creating a community of like-minded people who co-operate and do their best because they want to learn, that is a lot harder and something genuinely worthwhile.

I’d send my kids to a school who put that on their website.


Leave a comment
  1. ChemistryPoet March 24, 2014 at 6:36 pm #

    Tim, this is a sane and reasonable blog. I only picked up the twitter storm, and did not see how it started….and, as you hint, it wasn’t pleasant. I agree that the word selection is important, as is the way we use words. Obedience does seem to be very emotive, because it conjures up pictures of dictatorship and totalitarianism. There is also no doubt that the word has been especially chosen by the free school to signal it’s approach. This is a shame. If they were trying to say that they intend to generate a school where disruption to others’ learning will not be allowed, then there were other ways to say it.

    You use the word co-operate, rather than obedience. This could cause problems, but you have a clear view of what that means, and if that is clearly communicated you have established the framework required for appropriate behaviour and effective learning, I think. I wonder how easy it would be for someone else (without that clarity of thought) to conclude that they need the negotiated approach you allude to, or, indeed, to arrive at consensus?

    • Tim Taylor March 24, 2014 at 9:50 pm #

      Thank you for your comment. I agree it is an approach I use and I’m not sure how easy or feasible it would be for others. The point of my blog was not to tell others how to run their classrooms or to do it the way I do, but to say two things. First, the obedience/disobedience choice is a false dichotomy designed to close the debate and there are a number of different ways of developing communities of learning. Second, in my opinion, a system that foregrounds obedience is less effective (at developing learners) than an approach that foregrounds co-operation. This I hope I’ve explained is because co-operation makes the benefits of behaving in a co-operative way explicit, while obedience only demands the children obey authority. I’m not pretending it is easy or straightforward to do the difficult thing, but this is what we should strive for.

      • Chemistrypoet March 24, 2014 at 11:02 pm #

        Tim, thanks. There is a pervasive assumption that projecting authority does not allow children to develop into learners as effectively as not doing so; that overt signs of authority crush children. I think this is lacking nuance. I can envisage where a set of behavioural expectations are clearly stated (not agreed, per se), and rigorously enforced, but within the behavioural framework the teaching is designed to encourage the children to flower. I don’t see this as mutually exclusive. The key is the detail….what is the behavioural framework (could be ‘don’t throw chairs’ depending on intake/context, could be don’t talk over other learners etc)….doesn’t need to be ‘sit silently in rows’. I’m also not sure that authority excludes co-operation…..do you think authority is too closely associated with fear and unseeing compliance?

  2. Ann O’Nymous March 24, 2014 at 8:11 pm #

    “Creating a community of like-minded people who co-operate and do their best because they want to learn, that is a lot harder and something genuinely worthwhile.”

    Of course, this is exactly how an anarchist would describe anarchy.

    The school you’d send your children to sounds suspiciously like Summerhill.

    • ChemistryPoet March 24, 2014 at 9:26 pm #

      No, I think that is harsh. Tim made it clear that sanctions cut in pretty early in the veering off the path scenario…….although he hasn’t set out what stopping co-operation with the transgressors means…..

      • Tim Taylor March 24, 2014 at 10:11 pm #

        No, I didn’t want to get into that kind of detail. Basically I use contracts. There is a social contract with the class, which everyone signs at the start of the year. This is a list of rules that everyone agrees to that we hope will create the best environment for learning. I tell the children I will enforce the rules, because I have the power and authority to do so, and this might involve me getting ‘grumpy’ if I need to.
        If a student refuses to follow the rules (co-operate) then I’ll tell them I will no longer co-operate with them. This is the downside of being uncooperative. Somethings in class are entitlements (going out to play, being involved in lessons), while other things are privileges (going to the toilet unaccompanied, doing classroom jobs, playing on the computers during ‘down’ time etc). Not co-operating involves being ‘on-contract’ this is a separate contract for the transgressor which means they have the entitlements of the community, but not the privileges.
        Children can come off-contract whenever they like, but only if they are prepared to co-operate. If they co-operate then all is fine, if not, then they go back on contract.
        To be honest, I’ve been running this system for over ten years and it works. Very few children go on contract and very, very few go on more than once.

    • Tim Taylor March 24, 2014 at 9:58 pm #

      Answer to Ann – It may. But I visited Summerhill in the late 90s and it had a profound affect on me. I thought it was terrible. The children ran the school, as far as I could tell, and there was little recourse to a higher authority. The children had created a huge list of rules, which students could break without even knowing they had, and the system of justice seemed arbitrary. I would describe it as a tyranny. The was plenty of responsibility, but very few rights. The powerful ruled.
      This is not how I want to run my classrooms. Learning (as I explained) is the business of schools. Its our jobs, teachers and students. Schools are not democracies and should not be run as such. There is no direct political analogy. Classrooms are small communities of people with similar aims. The teachers are in charge, they are the leaders. They can chose to demand obedience or they can chose to build a community based on mutual respect and co-operation that is their choice. The children do not have that choice and neither should they.

      • Ann O'Nymous March 25, 2014 at 5:11 am #

        Thanks, Tim. My initial response was a somewhat flippant one that sought to rescue the honourable tradition of anarchism from its name being besmirched. Your response is more considered, and I find nothing there that I can disagree with. Your comments about Summerhill are interesting. I haven’t visited it, but I can recognise the scenario that you describe. And of course, you are right – schools are communities made up of smaller communities and it is more effective to take care of the local than concentrate on the global.

        Actually, like you, I think that schools can encourage the individual and foster critical engagement without needing to go too far down the line of handing over power to the people. As I age, I become more and more resigned to the fact that leaders emerge, no matter what social system is in place. Leaders need to emerge. And in schools, leaders are employed. If there were to be any political analogy, perhaps we are looking at a microcosmic benevolent dictatorship?

        And, as you say, school leaders -like any other leaders- can either demand obedience or seek to create consensus and cooperation. Like you, I would favour a school that encouraged its teachers to adopt the latter approach, but I can see a value to some degree of the former as well. I suspect that my children would say that the former is what is exercised most frequently in our house and the point I make frequently to them is that teachers need to be obeyed because they are teachers. It might not be fair, I tell them, but that is just the way it is. I try to teach them that perspective is a valuable antidote to perceived injustice. “Will it matter in a year’s time?” they have been instructed to ask themselves. If the answer is “no”, they are to buck up and shut up. The learning experience is that things don’t always go as they should but that sometimes the best solution is to keep your mouth closed and your head down. In the end, I tell them, you learn more about what kind of teachers you have and -to surrender entirely to cliche- knowledge is power. Quite what my 11 year old and my 13 year old make of this is anybody’s guess.

        In short, I agree with everything that you have written -here, in the comments, on Twitter. If I wanted to be twee about it, I would say that you seem to be arguing for teachers as leaders and Harry seems to be arguing for teachers as managers. Harry seems to have gone over to the banners of You Are Either With Me Or Against Me which is a pity, because debate becomes most engaging when all sides acknowledge the delights to be found in the grey. As I know from (bitter) experience, leaders tend to be more inspirational than managers. And surely we all agree that teachers should strive to be inspirational?

        • Harry Webb March 26, 2014 at 1:50 am #

          I have not argued for teachers as managers. That just seems to be a lazy way to dismiss my views without refuting them, as is claiming that I am now carrying a You Are Either With Me Or Against Me banner. Teachers should most definitely *not* have to waste time managing behaviour. Instead, they should be free to lead students on a journey through the subject that they teach. That’s my position.

          In fact, this whole post misses the point. I don’t think that Michaela is making obedience an end in itself. It is a means to an end. They have expressed it as an expectation; “we expect our students to be polite and obedient.” That doesn’t sound like something that the school is hoping to develop in children as a main aim of education. It sounds like a given; a starting point. Clearly, they are mainly interested in developing the knowledge of students and they see this as a prerequisite.

          There seems to be a new approach to countering any of my arguments; it’s all just a false dichotomy. This is silly. For instance, I do not advocate corporal punishment; something that might be considered a (extreme) traditionalist position. However, I have no problem being described as broadly traditionalist and I am happy to debate the details. Pointing out that two extreme ends of a spectrum represent a false dichotomy is not really an argument at all.

          However, It is really quite odd to state that obedience versus disobedience is a false choice. Clearly, in any given situation, a student may choose whether to obey the instruction of a teacher or to disobey it. There is no grey there. The grey comes in the extent that we seek obedience or to which we make rules or the manner in which these rules are made. There are plenty of alternatives here.

          However, even in a democratic society such as the UK or Australia, once rules have been democratically determined, people are expected to obey them. And the penalties for disobeying them are far harsher than they are in schools. I have sat with a teacher who was physically assaulted by a child and who was wondering whether to report it to the police, knowing that the legal view of the assault was likely to be far harsher than the school’s. In fact, I have argued before that we do kids no favours at all by signalling that many behaviours are up for negotiation or that compliance is not always necessary because they then come unstuck in wider society. The law expects obedience. Employers expect obedience.

          You might not like the word. I probably wouldn’t use it. But I don’t disagree with the meaning.

          • ChemistryPoet March 26, 2014 at 9:52 pm #

            I agree with Harry. Obedience is generally required in Society – rightfully so, I think, otherwise Society can’t function. But, exercising authority (and requiring obedience) is the real point of debate. How should authority be wielded? There is authority in Society (and again, I would argue that Society can’t function without it), but those in authority have to determine how they exercise it, and how and in what context they require obedience. I think it is possible to exercise authority and require obedience without crushing people (including children) and encourage thoughtfulness, independence and constructive engagement. Obedience I and these things are not mutually exclusive, I would suggest.

  3. Tim Taylor March 30, 2014 at 2:46 pm #

    Geoff James has written a blog in response to this blog – Marching to the sound of a distant drum – Behaviour, behaviour, Behaviour, obedience, dis-obedience

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