This double-edged blade that cuts society is a loss of discipline – parents do not control their childre3n the way that our parents disciplined us, students do not do what they are told the way we used to, and we are gradually descending into chaos. On the other hand, there is more creativity, more self-expression and more personal development than ever before. How can we take advantage of these new developments without being overwhelmed by a sense of the loss of order?

The first step is to make sure that we do not confuse the concept of “discipline” with that of “self-discipline”. Self-discipline is an absolutely essential lubricant and glue of a civilised society. Discipline is not necessarily so positive. We might tolerate discipline in society, and especially in schools, if it were possible to establish that discipline was a valuable way of developing self-discipline. Unfortunately, it is not.

I had the benefit of excellent teachers when I was in secondary school, and have been trying to recover from that fact ever since. My learning was so well regulated, so well managed, that when I left secondary school and went to university, I was completely incapable of learning on my own, and I had to start learning all over again. Most importantly, I had to learn how to learn.

Surely, this is what “learning-to-learn” should mean; it should mean the development of the ability to manage oneself and one’s concentration in order to learn. It is a false dichotomy to set up learning-to-learn as in opposition to learning facts, or contents or knowledge, or whatever else it is that the back-to-basics brigade thinks that we are overlooking if we suggest that children need to learn how to learn rather than to learn anything specific. One can learn, as I did, under direction. But as soon as that direction is lost, or released, something else has to be substituted for it, and that something else is self-discipline. And like anything else, self-discipline has to be learned.

So the question we should really be addressing is, “What is the best way of teaching self-discipline?” Put in those terms, the answer seems more straightforward; the best way of teaching self-discipline is to give learners the opportunity to exercise it, at the same time as pointing out the consequences of not being self-disciplined. Learners have to be given the opportunity to exercise self-discipline, and if necessary to fail in the attempt, without making too much of a thing out of failure. As Tyrrell Burgess noted in The Devil’s Dictionary of Education, a toddler is a child who learns to walk because he or she does not realise that falling over is a failure.

And when I say that part of the teacher’s job is to point out the consequences of failure of self-discipline, these have to be real consequences, not imaginary or manufactured ones. When I drive my car, I stop at red traffic lights. Of course, one of the consequences of not stopping at red traffic lights is that I might be fined for breaking the law. However, that is a minor consequence compared with the more direct consequences that might follow form a collision with a speeding car in the other direction which is passing a green light. Similarly, I do not park on yellow lines or drive into controlled junctions without being able to leave the other side. In both cases there are fines for not following the rules, and the consequences are less likely to be fatal than jumping a red light. But there are still consequences in terms of traffic flow and traffic jams, as anybody who has been to Beijing can attest. In fact, in a small way, I am inclined to believe that people enjoy traffic jams, given their inclination to create them by bad parking and inconsiderate driving.

In much the same way, the consequences of lack of self-discipline for learning may not be fatal or immediate, but if we have the courage of our convictions, if we believe that we know how to study well, then we should explain what we believe to be the case and leave students to discover that we are right.

Sadly, the sentiments that I express here are contrary to almost everything that happens in society these days. The politicians’ instinct is to meet reduced order with increased control. If people are unruly, introduce a new law. If the law is not obeyed, increase the fines. If the fines are not effective, increase the surveillance. But a failure of self-discipline is not to be overcome by an increase in discipline. Increased discipline is like a pressure cooker; the steam will seek an outlet somewhere else if it is denied in one place. Self-discipline is nothing like that. In fact, perhaps we need some new words so that the two concepts cannot be confused.

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