EDUCATION: by Frank FurediNews Weekly
Whatever happened to adult authority?
, December 12, 2009
How can teachers keep order in the classroom when they are stripped of the power to discipline their pupils? British author and sociologist Frank Furedi warns that the modern practice of flattering children's self-esteem and devaluing adult authority is a recipe for social anarchy."I hate to say this," says Claire, a Lanarkshire secondary teacher, "but some of my kids make me feel really nervous." Her colleague Jim nods in agreement and tells me that some of his fellow teachers struggle to maintain control over their disruptive pupils.
The problem is not confined to secondary education. Some teachers even find it difficult to manage the behaviour of very young schoolchildren. Last year there were 400 exclusions from Scottish primary schools.
The maintenance of classroom discipline has taxed teachers since the beginning of formal schooling. In recent times, however, the issue has not simply been about disruptive behaviour or conflict between children. Increasingly, teachers perceive the bad behaviour as a direct threat to themselves. During a single academic year, 2007-2008, one primary school in Lochgelly, Fife, recorded 29 cases of assaults by children - a third of which were against staff members.
Research reveals that significant numbers of staff have been teased, abused or physically attacked by pupils. Jim believes the numbers may be higher because male teachers are often too embarrassed to report such incidents for fear of looking weak, or undermining their school's reputation. For many teachers, it is not the threatening behaviour in itself that is a worry, but the realisation that they do not possess the authority to effectively manage children in the classroom.
Recently, in one Lanarkshire school, a teenage boy refused to reveal to teachers the names of fellow students who had beaten him up. Staff were at a loss as to how to deal with this case, eventually warning the victim that he may be excluded because the school could "no longer guarantee his safety". This may have been just a threat to get the boy to talk, but it was also an acknowledgement of the limits of adult influence in the school setting.Teachers powerless
Talk to teachers, and it soon becomes evident that many feel powerless to exercise their authority. Recent research by the Society of Occupational Medicine found that secondary school teachers experience stress rates that are significantly higher than others of working age in Scotland. Male teachers seem to be especially affected, with 28 per cent of respondents reporting psychological distress. But women suffer too. One teacher underlined her sense of powerlessness when she described an incident where she felt that she was "emotionally bullied" by two girl pupils.
The very idea of children bullying their teachers signifies an important reversal in the relationship between generations. Adults no longer feel comfortable about laying down the law and insisting on young people's respect. Teachers, instead of feeling that they are in control of the classroom, are often intimidated by their students' behaviour.
Concern about classroom discipline raises fundamental questions about the capacity of teachers and adults to interact authoritatively with children. Education as a generational transaction presupposes the fact that the older generation has something important to impart that children need to learn. Pupils rely on their teachers to guide them to comprehend new forms of knowledge; this involves a leap of faith which people undertake only if they accept the authority of the educator. And while parents and teachers have always had a hard time gaining the respect of recalcitrant teenagers, these days matters are further complicated by the absence of any serious valuation of adult authority.
One of the most striking manifestations of this is the current tendency to question the wisdom of the older generation, and even to condemn their moral status. "Adults have ruined our world" is the headline of an article published by an online magazine targeting children. It sets out to explain "how climate change is going to affect us as the next generation". A similar message is communicated by the green crusader Jonathan Porritt, who informed children that "your parents and grandparents have made a mess of looking after the Earth". He added: "They may deny it, but they are stealing your future." Instead of being presented as role models, adults are being castigated for setting a bad example to the young.
This is paralleled by a tendency to flatter children by suggesting that their values are more enlightened than those of their elders. Marc Prensky, a leading American advocate of digital learning, argues that, unlike adults, children are used to the "instantaneity of hypertext, downloaded music, phones in their pockets … and instant messaging". As a result they have "little patience for lectures, step-by-step logic and ‘tell-test' instruction". Prensky believes that children are not interested in the traditional curriculum, for good reasons, and concludes that adults will have to change and become more like the young "digital natives". This advice is congruent with the development of what can be most accurately described as socialisation-in-reverse.
Socialisation, the process through which children are prepared for the world ahead of them, has traditionally been a responsibility carried out by adults at home, in their communities and - increasingly - within the formal setting of the school. The devaluation of adult authority has complicated this task, to the extent that children are now being entrusted with the mission of socialising their elders. And while the view that the young know better than their elders has been a constant theme in the modern era, today, this sentiment is often legitimised implicitly by the way educational institutions work.
Socialisation-in-reverse works by communicating the idea that children possess knowledge and competence about certain issues that is way ahead of their parents'. This idea has some basis in reality: young people are far more knowledgeable about the latest music, fashion and digital technology than their elders, who often complain that they can't understand the bizarre language that youngsters use when texting or messaging one another. However, when this generation gap is interpreted in a way that encourages adults to defer to the young, the issue of whose influence carries more weight is open to question. ...Pester power
Policies oriented towards using children to teach their elders are presented as a sensible way of harnessing youngsters' natural curiosity for the good of the community. So who could possibly object to a Scottish Government campaign to provide fire safety education to 5,000 primary school pupils in the Falkirk, Stirling and Clackmannanshire areas? In line with the temper of our times, the campaign was promoted as an opportunity for children to educate their parents, and quoted a firefighter who pointed out that nine-year-old primary school pupils are "just the right age to get the message across … through pester power".
For years, pester power was depicted as a scourge of consumer society, with advertisers accused of manipulating children to nag their parents into purchasing the latest toy or trainers. Now, however, the practice has been rehabilitated, as demonstrated by the British Home Office in 2007 when it organised a neighbourhood clean-up competition which was designed to encourage children to embarrass badly-behaved adults and "to use their pester power in a positive way" by "reminding grown-ups how to behave".
"School council teach parents a lesson" is the title of an article published by the website of School Councils UK, which states that "pupils at St Nicholas' Primary School, Lincolnshire, have had enough of naughty parents parking illegally in the yellow zigzag zones". The article praises members of the school council for leafleting and petitioning parents as they dropped off children. At first sight this is a heart-warming illustration of how idealistic children take action against irresponsible adult behaviour.
However, it is also a story about role-reversal in inter-generational relations. The parents are infantalised - "naughty parents" - and brought up short by their morally superior youngsters who "teach them a lesson".
Officials, advocacy groups and educational experts are increasingly harnessing young people's well-meaning idealism in order to chastise their elders, yet there is nothing natural or spontaneous about children educating their parents.
In previous times, the practice of mobilising children to police their parents' behaviour was confined to totalitarian societies. But who needs Big Brother? The UK Government has no inhibition about using children's anxiety to manipulate adult behaviour, as demonstrated recently by Department of Energy and Climate Change's controversial £6 million television campaign, which features a father recounting a scary bedtime story about the "horrible consequence" of climate change, but whose real intent is to make adults feel embarrassed and guilty.
The effect of all this is to weaken the authority that parents can exert over their children, and this has knock-on effects for teachers. In a fundamental sense, adult authority is indivisible and if the moral status of parents is undermined, so is that of other grown-ups, including teachers. ...
Education itself requires the conscious and regular imposition of adult authority. Teachers need to initiate, direct and set the terms of the relationship with their pupils, often making demands that go against the children's inclination and insisting that they study topics which don't interest them, but which are fundamentally important to their development.
The devaluation of grown-ups' moral authority is responsible for many of the problems afflicting our schools. By failing to respect the wisdom of adults, we deprive parents and teachers of the self-belief they need to engage confidently with the younger generation. ...
If we are to have any hope of tackling the problems confronting educationalists like Jim and Claire, we need to start by allowing teachers to teach. That means affirming once again the authority of the teacher, and the process must begin with a serious debate about how to put grown-ups back in charge: in short, how to reverse the process of socialisation-in-reverse.
Perhaps it has already begun. More than 350 British people complained about the Department of Energy and Climate Change's "bedtime stories" campaign - evidence, perhaps, that grown-ups have had enough of being ticked-off like naughty children.
Society cannot avoid confronting the problem of school discipline. Learning how to keep time, how to divide, multiply, spell or assume the habit of responsible behaviour require the application of discipline. Discipline is not just about managing behaviour - it has a creative dimension in the cultivation of young people's tastes and sensibilities. The internalisation of the habit of discipline encourages habits and attitudes that help children gain a sense of independence and self-mastery. It prepares them for a world where they can exercise their freedom - and that is one of the principal goals of education.Hungarian-born Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent, England, and author of Paranoid Parenting: Why Ignoring the Experts May Be Best for Your Child (2nd edition, 2008) and Wasted: Why Education Isn't Educating (2009). This article is an abridged version of a piece that appeared in the UK Sunday Herald. The full version may be found at: