Nothing carries the day in education quite like culture. A great culture allows all members of a community to feel valued and loved, it promotes and contributes to learning, and serves as a bulwark against bullying. But in order to experience all of these benefits, a learning community and their culture must be built upon the foundation of a great educational philosophy. Unfortunately, the structures and practices of traditional schooling corrupt even the most well-intentioned philosophies of education.
At the core of a successful philosophy of education is respect for the learner. Most parents, administrators, and teachers demand respect from young people, but they rarely focus on respect in the other direction. When young people are not respected, the learning process is subverted, and the seeds of bullying are planted.
In order for learners to be respected, three conditions must be met. First, a learning space must be committed to principles of anti-oppression and they must reject hierarchy. Second, learners must have full control of their learning. And third, learners must not be manipulated through punishments or rewards.
The easiest and most immediate action schools can take is to commit to principles of anti-oppression within the learning community. Whether adults want to admit it or not, schools were founded upon the basis of oppression. At the very minimum, traditional schools engage in an ongoing practice of demeaning and marginalizing students based on their age. Even if oppression was not built into the structure of schooling, which it is, it would be a natural outcropping to the assumption schools hold that young people are ignorant and incompetent, and therefore need to have their lives dictated to them by adults. But the oppression in schools extends beyond just ageism. It expands to ableism based on physical disability, and spreads beyond ableism and picks on young people based on their mental health, emotional state, and learning differences.
But going back to the history of schooling, there was a very clear objective by the architects of our modern day schooling system to tear down select communities and cultures (e.g, immigrants, indigenous people) for the purpose of assimilating young people into the dominant social order. And this coercive effort to undermine communities and personal identity is not an archaic form of oppression, it continues to this day, although it is now wrapped in much more altruistic language. While oppression is part and parcel of schooling, it is amplified most aggressively against students of color, immigrants, and students of low socioeconomic status. From a social justice perspective, we should demand that the institution of schooling acknowledges and addresses the ongoing oppression of young people. But even if one were uninterested about the broader social justice concerns of schooling, it should be apparent that oppressed students (even if it is only a small minority of students) are going to internalize the belief that power justifies bullying.
The second ingredient of an educational philosophy that schools must adopt in order to promote respect for the learner is to allow young people to take full control of their learning. We spoke at length in the prior essay in this series about learner agency, and how it is good for education and necessary to combat bullying. Simply giving young people a few options in what, when, where, and how they learn is not the same as allowing them to have agency over their learning. Agency requires stepping back and allowing the learner to make all of the decisions related to their education, while recognizing that caring adults can certainly assist on the journey, when invited. It is also worth pointing out that giving respect to young people also requires allowing them to be full and equal partners in the community. It is not sufficient to simply give them a space to learn without giving them the opportunity to shape that space in accordance with their needs and resources, while balancing that with the needs of the other members of the space.
An educational philosophy that prioritizes learner control directly impacts and improves the self-confidence and self-awareness of students. It allows them to experience at a young age the dignity that is often only afforded to well-educated, professionally successful, financially well-off members of society. Self-confidence and self-respect help undercut the drivers of bullying. Further, when learners are able to take their education in any direction they want, they find themselves avoiding the competition that often pits students against other students. When young people are able to learn for the sake of learning, their standing relative to their peers becomes a non-issue, and that also helps undermine bullying.
The third condition that must be incorporated into an educational philosophy is the elimination of punishments and rewards. While some may consider this an extension of learner agency, it warrants additional attention as busybodies are so often eager to try to nudge students down preferred pathways, or to turn self-directed education into “learning opportunities.”
The most obvious form of punishments and rewards in schools are grades, which we have previously addressed in this series on bullying. But punishments and rewards also include compliments, verbal rebukes, praise, detention, honors status, and even criminal charges. The author Alfie Kohn has written extensively about the effect of punishments and rewards on children. In his writings he leans heavily on the work of Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan (who we talked about in the prior essay) to highlight how punishments and rewards can undermine intrinsic motivation. He also references dozens of studies that reaffirm Deci and Ryan’s claims that manipulative efforts to get students to engage in certain types of learning experiences are counterproductive, and that those efforts ultimately decrease interest and performance in the work that adults are most focused on.
If education was the goal, schools would immediately cease their use of punishments and rewards. Likewise, if reducing bullying was the goal, they would also cease the use of punishments and rewards. As Kohn points out, punishments and rewards can elicit temporary compliance, but that those efforts will ultimately “generate anger, defiance, and a desire for revenge.” Since the revenge will rarely be directed directly at the adults who are manipulating the students, it will most likely be redirected toward other students. Kohn also points out that the focus on punishments and rewards illustrates for young people how one can bypass reason and rely on power to get one’s way. School teachers and administrators may not realize it, but they are providing the blueprint for schoolhouse bullying through their practices.
Bullying can be stopped in an environment with a great culture. A commitment to anti-oppression, a willingness to trust young people enough to give them agency over their learning, and a refusal to try to manipulate them through punishments and rewards are essential to building that culture.
(1) A learning environment with a great educational philosophy but a bad culture is a miserable place to be. Countless democratic schools and self-directed learning environments, for example, have failed and shut down because of poor messaging, or conflict and miscommunication among families, guides, and learners. And while a good culture can help mitigate or hide some of the harm to children created by a poor philosophy, it cannot undo the harm.
(3) A commitment to anti-oppression would also address cultural background, ethnicity, gender, immigration status, nationality, language, race, religion, physical appearance, self-expression, sexual orientation, parental education, and other factors. It would also recognize hierarchy within the learning environment and would work to deconstruct it. The list provided herein is not comprehensive, and organizations committed to anti-oppression would consider ongoing evaluation of their practices as necessary to minimize and prevent marginalization.
(5) Abrome’s educational philosophy is one that we would like to see other learning organizations replicate.
(7) Shockingly, schools are even punishing the victims of bullying. Their reasoning is that the victims are partially to blame for being a party to incidents in which they were bullied!
(8) The criminalization of schooling has only recently become a hot topic in the media, but it has already spurred a good amount of legislation to reduce the use of criminal charges to induce desired behavior in students. However, schools across the nation, particularly in the south, continue to station police officers on school grounds, and they continue to dole out criminal charges for classroom disruptions, truancy, and fighting.
(9) Alfie Kohn’s book Punished by Rewards is a must read for parents and educators.