Teaching Character vs. Compliance

Katy BurkeUncategorized

ready for testing

Educating children can look and feel a lot like raising them.  It is certainly not the same as parentingI say that as an educator and a parent. However, the purpose of parenting and educating are very much aligned. The word “educate” means “to lead out”to lead out into the world, into adulthood, into a future. I think it’s important that we keep in mind the end goal, which is to raise independent, capable, confident, caring adults. Adults who know themselves, who see a place in the world for themselves, and care to contribute to it in a constructive way. At least in my mind, as an educator for many years, this is the goal.

If this is a fair goal to have in mind, then I think we have to really look at our daily practices, which can often feel so disconnected from our goal, and ask: Will this get us there? Sometimes focusing on success in the moment will actually rob from success in the future. What I mean by this is that we may teach, guide, steer, even discipline to get a semblance of competence and independence in the moment, but what we are actually doing is teaching compliance. I don’t think compliance is an awful trait. In the right time and place, it serves a purpose. But is this THE value we want to instill deeply in the heart of youth? Is this the value that will build confidence, courage, and compassion to face the world and be a part of it?  It is difficult working with a group of young people sometimes. Heck, it’s difficult working with a single young person sometimes. So putting the focus on rules and order can seem really sensible.  I mean, come on, if everyone just arrived on time, and everyone spoke in turn, and everyone had stellar attendance and did all their work and followed directions and…wouldn’t it be a lot easier? If every kid was doing all those things on a regular basis, wouldn’t that be evidence that something is very right?  Or would it be evidence that we have made those things the end goal?

Appearances can be deceiving. Why would I question the effectiveness of a community like the one I described? Because real transformation (like that from child to adult) requires struggle of some kind or another. Learning itself requires it. In his book, Make It Stick, Peter Brown, explains that learning is misunderstood because “Many people believe learning is better when it is easier, but certain kinds of difficulties that require more effort make it stronger and longer-lasting.” When we are reviewing information by simply reciting what we have just read, we believe we are learning because the exercise goes smoothly. However, this is not learning. Brown explains that deep, lasting learning occurs when retrieval is spaced out and often difficult. Typically, when we struggle to remember something, we believe we are doing a poor job at learning, and we think we have to try something else because “this just isn’t working.” But, in fact, the struggle is precisely the evidence that we are learning, that it IS working.

I believe this is exactly how education works, and that this same principle that applies to working through math problems and memorizing state capitols, applies to working through life problems and building the skills that young people will one day employ to serve their communities.  This is what it is to teach character rather than compliance. I think it means building relationships with kids and helping them to navigate through difficulties of all kinds, rather than fostering an environment in which problems don’t arise.

(photo credit: Pete, cropped, public domain)