Teaching Style Shifts Power in Classroom


Paul Gathercoal doesn't seem the revolutionary type.

An associate professor of education in his first year at Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, the 49-year-old Gathercoal regularly attends morning chapel at the private, church-affiliated school.

Upon moving to Ventura County about four months ago he chose to live in suburban Camarillo, hardly a hotbed of nonconformity.

And scholarly contributions that include articles in professional journals decrying the role that video games play in defining a child's view of the world don't exactly challenge conventional wisdom.

But Gathercoal is an advocate of an educational philosophy--"judicious discipline"--that many people find threatening, he said. The idea is seen as such a danger to the status quo that many teachers reject it outright, and some instructors who have successfully employed it have been denied tenure, he said.

Just what does this radical doctrine entail?

Judicious discipline emphasizes replacing the instructor-as-dictator style of classroom management, which stresses rewards and punishment, with a democratic approach based on mutual respect and trust between teacher and student.

Under this philosophy, a teacher becomes a partner in the learning process, a mentor rather than instructor, with a responsibility to teach that is equal to a student's responsibility to learn.

"This makes some teachers angry," Gathercoal said. "No one believes it can work. What? Trust kids? . . . Isn't it ironic that we're trying to teach students to be responsible citizens in a free democratic society in an autocratic classroom?"

Under judicious discipline, rules are seen as guidelines for promoting responsible behavior rather than restricting behavior.

For example, the rule "No running in the halls" would instead become "Move carefully in the halls."

That philosophical shift means replacing what proponents of judicious discipline describe as an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. Instead, a teacher would help a student understand that running in a school hallway is unsafe, and the two would discuss what needs to be done--perhaps involving some sort of restitution and an apology--to right the situation.

The result, Gathercoal maintains, is the perpetuation of an environment conducive to learning. Students are far less likely to abuse a system they believe provides them with a safe and fair environment aimed at helping them succeed, rather than fail, he said.

And judicious discipline does succeed, Gathercoal said.

In Mankato, Minn., where judicious discipline has been used more extensively than perhaps anywhere else, one elementary school that had averaged two playground fights a month eliminated such student conflicts after instituting the idea, officials there said.

"You often hear about using school uniforms as a way to cut down on fights," said Ginny Nimmo, a district psychologist. "The statistics I see are that this [use of uniforms] cuts down fights almost 50%. We cut down fights 100%."


Moreover, teachers who tried judicious discipline discovered to their surprise that they spent more classroom time actually teaching students rather than controlling them, she said.

Suspensions and detention not only diminished, but became less a punishment than an opportunity for those involved to take an emotional timeout, school officials said.

Parents found teachers to be more approachable and were pleased their children's concerns were being heard and treated fairly, Nimmo said. And once teachers discovered their relationship with students was based more on partnership than hierarchy, the result was a more pleasant and less stressful classroom environment.

"What we've learned from judicious discipline is that first and foremost our job as educators is not to be policemen," Nimmo said. "We're trying to give [children] a model in the classroom they can use in society and be successful."

That attitude is actually antithetical to the way most classrooms operate, said Gathercoal, who, not so coincidentally, formerly taught at Gustavus Adolphus College in the community of St. Peter, just north of Mankato.

In general, teachers are expected to establish their authority, he said.

But awarding students gold stars for good work or behavior and detentions for subpar scholastic performance or conduct is comparable to the methods used in dog obedience training. Such tactics represent the lowest level of moral development, he said.

Instead, judicious discipline is based upon the highest level of moral development: a socially agreed-upon standard of rights and responsibilities that is the foundation of free society, he said.

"There is nothing more aligned with the Constitution of the United States than this model," Gathercoal said. "There is nothing more educationally ethical than this. . . . We don't have a right to teach; we have a responsibility to teach."

Getting teachers to understand that requires a paradigm shift some are incapable of making, say the proponents of judicious discipline.

Judicious discipline has only a dozen or so underlying principles. It is the application that can be difficult.

"This isn't a quick fix," Nimmo said. "This isn't a philosophy that you can just write down on one page and understand. . . . So we have spent a great deal of time telling our parents about this philosophy."

Forrest Gathercoal, Paul's brother, has encountered resistance to judicious discipline since he came up with the name and literally wrote the book on the concept in 1987, while a professor at Oregon State University.

He maintains he has simply coined a language that makes the ideas some see as intimidating easier to put into practice.

"This is so threatening to so many people that I cannot discuss this at lunch with my colleagues," Forrest Gathercoal said. "They don't believe students have rights because they think it's a giveaway. . . . People that have to dominate people don't trust them. It's the same way with teachers."

Too often rules--especially zero-tolerance policies for weapons and drugs--are used to exclude kids, Paul Gathercoal said.

Blanket zero-tolerance policies can result in farcical outcomes: a student facing disciplinary action for bringing a penknife to school, for instance.


Such actions can be counterproductive, undermining a student's respect for rules and authority figures.

"Sometimes the biggest bully in the classroom is a teacher," Paul Gathercoal said.

"How many times have you seen the teacher holding a cup of coffee and saying, 'OK, kids, no food or drink in here.' . . . What the teacher is saying is, my personal convenience is more important than yours, and that's exactly what a bully does."

Instead, a teacher should either abide by the same rules or teach kids to sip a soft drink responsibly, Gathercoal said.

Charles Weis, Ventura County superintendent of schools--who says he disliked high school because of what he perceived as a multitude of superfluous rules--observes that the issue relates to the age-old question of balancing discipline with compassion.

"Many of my colleagues think that one of the purposes of the early grades is to build compliance in children," he said. "Certainly that's a part of it, but I think we can overdo that. . . . Making hard and fast rules and just hammering kids doesn't necessarily make them grow up to be good adults."

Forrest Gathercoal considers judicious discipline more than simply a philosophy. Using rewards and punishments as motivation can cause very practical problems, he says.

Rewards must get bigger so that by the time a child graduates from high school, a new car has replaced a gold star as incentive. Punishments escalate as well, with expulsion becoming the educational system's eventual response.

And how does that apply to society as a whole?

"We have schools that are using the criminal justice model of classroom management," Forrest Gathercoal said. "Some states are using the detention rate of second-graders to determine the number of prison beds they are going to need."


A member of Cal Lutheran University's speakers bureau, Paul Gathercoal is available to talk to groups and organizations about judicious discipline, judicious parenting and other education-related topics. To schedule a speaker, call the university at 493-3151.

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