Do not Teach Them to Comply

It’s really been fascinating to read the series of discussions surrounding the practice of a Certain London School and it’s forced me to think about my own position on several of the associated arguments – discipline, authority, trad/prog, etc.

I don’t instantly dismiss nor praise the place. I can’t really pass judgement as I haven’t visited and I don’t know what it’s really like there. Many have and many rave about how effective it is. I confess that I’m drawn to the idea of being able to focus on teaching in a quiet, orderly environment where I don’t have to waste any time on dealing with disruption and behaviour. Nevertheless, I feel that something isn’t quite right. I’m reminded of the town of Stepford. If it all seems to work so well, why am I a trifle uneasy?

What comes to mind is that there appears to be a sense of pride in the compliance of the pupils. The teachers’ authority is paramount and total. The problem is this: compliance and submission to authority are not attitudes we should be teaching. I can hear the counter arguments already. ‘How can we teach if the pupils don’t do what they’re asked to do?’ My answer is that the pupils should do what they’re asked to do, not because they’ve been trained in compliance, but because they’ve been trained in courtesy and good judgement. That may not be as straightforward as drilling to conform, but it’s a lot, lot safer.

One of the most important lessons I teach in the school year is the one that tells the pupils that they should not do what an adult tells them to do.* That’s the one in which they learn to recognise that adults do not have absolute authority over them and that they have a right to say ‘no’ if what they are being asked to do is wrong. Famously, the pupils of the school in question would pick up someone’s grape off the floor, without argument or complaint. Whilst the total authority of the teachers in this school appears to be underpinned by kindness and concern – a benevolent dictatorship, if you will – administrations and contexts change. Would they comply if it were something considerably less pleasant? If it were someone considerably less pleasant?

I recently responded to a question as to whether I would send my daughter to such a school. The answer was easy. Of everyone I know, my daughter is one of the people least likely to respond to Milgram’s disturbing but important experiment and I’m very proud of that. She’s also one of the first to help someone in need, or to intervene when she sees bullying or injustice. At school she was not compliant for the sake of it, but she was respectful if respect was warranted (invariably to teachers with good subject knowledge, as it happens). I admire her bravery and I wish I could be more like her. We should never forget why Milgram and others set up their investigation in the first place, in response to the events that had happened some 15 years previously. Of all the arguments that were put forward to justify actions during the war, the one of, ‘only following orders’ was considered to be the most lame. It was argued that we know the difference between right and wrong and that we should not do the wrong thing just because we are submitting to authority. Milgram demonstrated that it’s a great deal more easily said than done. If it’s seen as a good thing to train a population to be compliant, then we should ask ourselves the questions, ‘For whom and for what purpose?’ Who gains by this?

Which brings me to the second half of this musing. The pupils in this school do well by the measures we use. Apparently they’re all being trained to go to Oxford and Cambridge. Since I’m a fan of high expectations, why do I feel uneasy about this too? I was trying to think of an analogy for my discomfort with the current atmosphere of social mobility, high attainment, grammar schools, PISA results etc. Although it’s not perfect, I came up with the dieting comparison. If we take weight-loss as the measure (who would argue with that?) then the quickest route is to eat nothing at all. If we take a measure of attainment at a certain point, as one-off tests do, then we also are measuring who gets there by the quickest route and there are winners and losers. My concern is that, as in the dieting analogy,  it might not be the best route. As always, I’m trying to argue that what we measure in attainment is not necessarily the most indicative of a good education. It may be that attainment can be massively improved by doing the wrong things – narrowing the focus and reducing the curriculum, for example. This is why, although I’m very much a ‘traditionalist’ in many ways, I cannot completely embrace the philosophy. The evidence is that traditional teaching methods have more impact on attainment, but I don’t think the argument should therefore be that we do nothing else. There are reasons for doing things in schools, with pupils, that are not about their attainment in the things that we currently measure. For example, projects done by the pupils on areas of their own interest have apparently been shown to have no positive impact. But we don’t currently measure the things that project work is all about. Anecdotally, I would argue that all the projects I did before the age of 12, had a long term effect on how easy I found doing research later in books and online, but I couldn’t prove it!

Many of my discussions recently have been with the ‘losers‘ of the system we’re currently in, and one of my concerns is how partisan that particular school is. They win because others are not as good. I’m interested in education, per se – not just of my pupils, but of other pupils in other schools, not just of the most academically able, not just in this country but everywhere. We have a right, not only to be well-educated, but to have well-educated people around us – in positions of responsibility and leadership, for example! If that is the case, we can’t measure success by those we have fast-tracked to a ‘top’ university, as much as that might be a desirable outcome for some of us. There are other desirable outcomes. I often have to let people know that working for and sitting exams does not have to be done within the time-frame and context of school. It’s great to see the burgeoning of MOOCs and open access education and I imagine a future where technology gives us a truly global and responsive curriculum, accessible to nearly everyone, but even that would only be tiny fraction of the whole education domain. Not attaining a set of acceptable grades in some GCSEs at the end of year 10 becomes less of an issue. Attain it within a different time-frame… or attain something else.

It’s possible to look at many great achievers and see that they were most significantly not compliant or they’d never had done anything remarkable. Rather than teach us to submit to authority in order to avoid punishment and to achieve a reward, a better education teaches us to question authority and to develop an analytical approach towards notions of reward and punishment – but we’d only know that, if we hadn’t been taught to comply.


  • Edit for those who really found that bit too cryptic. The lesson in question is on ‘Protective Behaviours’, i.e. protecting oneself from being abused.





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