FROM DISCIPLINE TO ENGAGEMENT
by Gustavo Ramirez, Guidance Counselor / Education Consultant /
belizeguidance.blogspot.com

This past week I saw electronic media postings by educators who complained that, and seemed to know why, students today are failures. As is usually the case, whenever anyone (parent or teacher) complains about students, whether today or a hundred years ago, the overwhelming reason always is: “they no longer (are allowed to) teach the way they used to”, in other words, “the best way to learn will always be the way that I learned”. How very egocentric. The postings also triggered many memories in me! That very old school line of thinking had originally inspired me to write my first article (Education in Belize) back in October 2011: Wake Up and Smell the Coffee. I wrote it in response to the community’s extremely negative response to my previous announcement, as Guidance Counselor, that San Pedro High School was replacing 2 weeks out-of-school suspension (vacation) with 2 weeks in-school suspension or ISS. My articles on Education are now regularly posted online by other media sources, and in my personal Blog. It’s time now for a 2 year anniversary follow-up.

I admit, though, how gratifying it is for me to see teachers/educators and parents now actively participating in and reacting to the Education process as practiced today in Belize. No matter where we may fit on the broad spectrum of ways to teach/learn, whether old school, new school, or anywhere in between, it is ultimately most productive that we each regularly provide our input, express our opinions, and “act” on them! The other alternative is to sit back and do nothing but continuously complain about students and/or schools. I wholeheartedly congratulate each parent and teacher/educator who voices his/her concerns and suggestions, and actively follows them up in an effort to try to improve the Education process in Belize.

First and foremost, I fully agree with old school teachers and parents: YES, discipline is an extremely necessary factor to keep the wheels of learning greased so they keep turning smoothly and successfully every day. However, I disagree fully with the many punitive ways by which many old school people choose to define discipline. Corporal punishment (whipping and lashing), screaming at, insulting, and belittling students in front of others may have been used as “discipline” in the past – perhaps may have even encouraged some students to study – but they are NOT going to work in the 21st Century to motivate any student to want to learn. Actually, I prefer to use the term “structure” instead of “discipline” to describe the process that we can use to motivate students to want to learn. Structure has nothing whatsoever to do with punishment. On the other hand, most students think of discipline as forms of punishment. To keep structure in the learning method requires/places responsibility on teacher/educator as well as on student. Note: Certain youth from previous generations chose to take several years to travel the world as hippies “to find themselves”; others chose to follow a structured path of studies and/or work. I do not pass judgment on anyone, but merely use this example to show the difference between structured learning, and non-structured learning. There is also structured classroom learning and non-structured classroom learning. Teachers, of course, always make the difference!

Today’s 21st Century world is TOTALLY different from the world of previous generations, and from the world in which I, and most of today’s teachers/educators, grew up. Why, then, can’t we learn to “break free” from the past and change or adapt old patterns/behaviors to match students' needs today, and enhance teaching and learning in today's world?

Many teachers, especially in Belize, openly disagree with my preferred methods of teaching and learning (for students), and often accuse me of unfairly siding with students instead of with teachers – as they claim I should. For the record, I feel strongly that learning has nothing whatsoever to do with whose side you’re on, but rather, could be seen as a constant struggle to overcome and conquer the unknown (what we want/need to learn). However, the environment around us, both physical and emotional, will always greatly influence, positively and negatively, our process of struggling to overcome and learn. Here, also, I disagree greatly with many old school lines of thinking that claim that teachers and students should “make” their environment.

The 21st Century world today is unlike any that ever existed before. So, why do we need to change/adapt our previously set habits and behaviors? Take a look at the world around us today: a large amount (majority?) of adults and young people are constantly stressed out.

  • We do not get enough sleep at night. There’s so very much to see and do in this Age of Advanced Technology that sleep is considered by many as a “waste of valuable time”.
  • We lack proper nutrition and exercise. Who has time to prepare home-cooked meals, eat them slowly, and exercise regularly when there’s so much else around us to see, hear, and do?
  • A large amount of us are overweight today. In our haste to eat any/everything, especially if it can be ready (fast food) in an instant, we have forgotten when to stop.
  • We are today one of the most competitive societies ever on earth. In our haste to always “be first” we rarely ever stop to “breathe”, and celebrate our smallest achievements.
  • Advanced technology has made life so interesting for everyone now, that anything moving slower than “fast technology” is considered totally boring. Might this be why youngsters today spend such an exaggerated time “sitting down” in front of screens instead of moving, exploring, and actively learning?
  • Today's family structure and mechanics have totally changed from what they used to be. Both parents usually work today, and many times youngsters are "on their own".

And the list can go on; but I feel that I have made my point.

In order to fully embrace and use discipline (structure) in today’s classroom, why not use the very things that are distracting students to more fully engage them in learning? I recall how from January 1992 to June 1994 I used to take my high school classes outside the building on hot afternoons, and we would go under a shady tree to read, and have active discussions about the literature that we were reading and from which we were trying to learn (Literature). My students accomplished so very much during those classes, and they always looked forward to having them. They never seemed bored during those classes. Sadly, many teachers today insist that only good old-fashioned whipping, and/or drilling hours on end, along with some good “putting them in their place” is what will make students learn today. My response: we cannot make anyone learn; but, we could find various ways to engage students, and keep motivating them to want to learn more and more. Just because certain methods worked on/for you does not automatically mean they will work on all students today. As I have mentioned in previous articles, we should all make every effort to keep our attitudes “flexible” if we are ever to adapt, change, and be able to grow and keep learning in today’s world. (Only God need not ever change attitude -- there is but one!)

One final reminder for teachers/educators: we easily break free of set habits, attitudes, behaviors, classroom management techniques, and set methods of teaching after we determine why we want to change – never because others may force us to change. If, however, we insist on “doing the same thing over and over again”, don’t expect different results.