No detention and Systemic Lies

17 Jul

Which is more kind to the student – to give them another chance to achieve and be at par with their peers by learning level or to keep them with their cohort of peers by age?

Does the question not answer itself if asked in the context of learning?

In life, in games, in social contexts age may matter. But when it comes to learning it is irrelevant, illogical and unkind. It is illogical to allow a child to progress just because chronology dictates that they are so many years old – age has little to do with learning levels especially as one progresses along the learning ladder. To group children by age and force them to remain in the same groups for 8-12 years of their learning is as logical as grouping them by height or weight. As children grow up they do not have to be bunched and batched by age. (There may be good reasons to do so for early years education, certainly no reason to be rigid at middle school and beyond). It is easy to suspect that this linking of age to levels was only drawn up by lazy administrators at a time when there was little interest in understanding the learning levels of a child and supporting them. It was used when there were only a few basic subjects and skills.

Now a child may zoom ahead in mathematics and computers/ICT and require slower paced learning in say social sciences or environmental studies or even the third language. It would be wrong to hold a more talented child back merely to adhere to the age cohort. At the same time, it is unkind to allow a child to feel dumb in a class where the declared peers have understood things and this child is just slower and needs more time – it is unkind to deny this child the extra time. Over the years the gap merely widens, and the child is even more lost as others progress – how much more cruel can a system get than expecting someone to perform at 3-4 levels higher than their capacity just because others who were born in the same solar revolution are able to do so?

Understandably the idea is to shield children from the hurt and humiliation that they will suffer if they are left behind. If the teaching system is designed to shame children who cannot keep up then it will do so regardless of detention or no detention. If a school is unkind enough to allow hurt and humiliation to be felt simply for attempting something one more time then it has deep and fundamental problems that need different interventions. It is not detention that is a failure if there is trauma, it is the teachers who have failed a child if they make them feel that asking for more time is wrong! What children need is an act of support, not an act of judgement. The support required is clearly identified by a well run CCE system. The continuous and comprehensive assessment exercises are designed to inform the teacher to change their ways and perform better. If teachers cannot perform better, why blame the child?

If there are other issues – malnutrition, family pressures, learning disabilities etc, then again, why shame the child? What children need is scaffolded support in order to perform better, not a shield from the truth. Such a shield will only set them up for inevitable failure when it is taken away. Currently it is taken away after Class 8, and the shock reverberates through the ‘failures’ of class 9 where those who have barely learnt to write their name or compose a sentence are expected to analyse and process complex content. How does it help a child to live a lie and then suddenly be asked to face a truth they are unprepared to handle?

Not only does the no detention policy give permission to the system to lie to a child and the community, it also teaches the entire system that the truth is a postponable, indeed trade-able value. That a private truth and a public truth may be different (try that in paying your taxes please!). Truth and kindness are placed in opposition to each other as values. How can that be right when truth and kindness both are good values. To be kind and to create a kind, safe, empathetic learning system is the job of each teacher and principal anyway. If teachers do not have the skills to speak the truth with firm kindness, then this is a teacher training issue – not a choice between detention or a no-detention Policy. What is needed is for teachers to retrain themselves rather than seek false compromises.

To ensure each child is supported and taught till they achieve the learning outcomes is also the task entrusted to teachers – and this must be done supportively and with kindness. To give a child another chance, and another is part of the same values. To give in to the No Detention Policy is a signal to students to stop trying if you cannot achieve in your goals in the first attempt. There is nothing that kills learning faster than this – indeed true learning is attained by trying it differently and figuring out what works. The No Detention Policy focuses merely on outcomes – ironically by declaring them to be irrelevant – and in the process ignores the entire self and assisted learning processes that are the core business of the school. A second chance in the same class, or at the same learning level will give the student a chance to genuinely learn both the content and a different approach to mastery – a chance to learn how to learn. The race to keep up with the age cohort gives no such chances to true learning.

Which of the policies is geared towards better quality, care and achievement? A child who is given another chance to achieve amongst peers who are within 2-3 years of the age cohort (and admissions too could recognise age ranges per cohort rather than being rigid) or the child who is forced to sit day after day in a class not understanding a thing because the foundational content was not mastered and the child rushed ahead to keep up with birthday cake candle counts. The NDP is advocated on the basis of avoiding trauma and shame to the child. But what could be more traumatic or even cruel than to force the child to experience that failure everyday in class. How can it enhance retention if each class is a shameful demonstration of the gap between the slow learner and the ‘good children’ who performed to level expectations.  Is it not cruel if a child is forced to sit in a classroom where others seem to breeze through multiplication or trigonometry when you have not even mastered 3 digit operations.

Put yourself in the child’s place and tell me – what helps the child more. Which child would you like to be? The one lost in a group of equally sized children or one who can feel good about achievement earned with those at the same learning level? Which one encourages one to stay on in school, improves attendance? Surely the child lost at the back of the class is not the one motivated to stay on. Teachers have reported increased aggression and even violence from these students who are now forced to demonstrate abilities that they do not have – they never learnt in the early years. They were never given a second chance.

The real debate in the detention policy is that of child centricity and kindness. While I’ve always agreed that no detention is impractical, the intent was to introduce kindness and a humane approach in education.The no-detention policy is bound to fail if behaviours at school don’t change.  Detention is a tool of power, it is harsh and certainly not an intelligent way of helping students progress. Saying that no detention has failed is really saying – we could not work smarter. Admittedly tough, but change always is tough. The point of a no detention policy is to tell schools to move away from using stick to growing a few carrots-using smart humane incentives. So many schools are so far gone to teaching by bullying, humiliation and force that they’ve forgotten what real teaching looks like. No detention was meant to be a tool of self reflection – but it was the wrong lever to try to bring about this change. Schools rarely made the connection between No-Detention and kinder teaching, then how could it be useful at all?

What shall one do with the schools who failed to learn?

There is a delicious irony in the debate about the no detention policy too. State governments that are now saying that they failed in managing the no detention policy and want it rolled back. They are effectively saying – if a student does not perform well and fails at a task, the student must be detained but we have failed at our task and we really do not want to be detained and held back. We do not want another chance to succeed, don’t give us another year of trying the same. Detain students if they fail to learn, but not us even if we have failed to learn a new way of doing things. Be that as it may, we can smile and move on to the real problems shown up in this debate.

It is strange when the problem is with the industrial age assembly line design of schools that forces age cohorts to be rigid and the solution is sought in an entirely different place – assessments and action on assessments. Supportive school structures that engage the larger learning community would have made this question moot – and that in itself is a goal for the future. Next, if admissions and promotions did not fixate on age, then each learning level would automatically have students that are within a 2-3 year age range. Detention would not be traumatic at all, it would not even be noticed given the age ranges and there would be no need for this sideshow to become a national policy debate. If one discovers that each ‘class’ or learning level is becoming unmanageable with a larger age range in each group then it debunks the theories that correlate age to learning levels anyway and forces a rethink of school structures. In the absence of adequate and scaled national research in education, this is the best alternative to discovery.

The No Detention Policy debate is really a signal to focus on the real issues – assembly line administration driven school systems that have not been designed for the needs of the 21st century. Detention itself is a strange 20th century term from the command and control era and is quite unnecessary when we have the capacity to  give children as many chances as they want at learning and assessments till they achieve the level and competence levels that meet their aspirations. The need to stick to static cohorts comes from 18th century administrators and in this day of digital tracking and e-governance of systems it is completely redundant. A smart system will bypass the detention question – it represents an age and an ambition long past and has no role in a child centric, creativity driven, value seeking education system we are trying to build for the future.

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