Catching up to the 21st Century

Note: The earliest version of this piece was written for a now-out-of-print book, 21st Century Discipline, back in the mid-1980s when the 21st century still felt a way off. The material was reworked slightly for The Win-Win Classroomthe project that updated and replaced the original discipline book, the content even more relevant, perhaps, now that the new millennium is well underway.

If you’ve ever watched any of the television family sit-coms of the 1950s, you may have noticed how, regardless of the show, the family structures and priorities were remarkably similar. To a great extent, the values of suburban, middle-class America at the peak of the post-war industrial era were products of the current factory economy. During this period, as so clearly reflected in the television programming of the time, uniformity was the goal; innovation and initiative were viewed seen as odd or eccentric, if not downright threatening.

These values were clear in the workplace and the classroom, where authority relationships were typically power-oriented and hierarchical. Competitive goal structures limited the number who could succeed and behavior was governed by fairly rigid expectations. In the industrial era, success, recognition, and advancement, whether in school or in the workplace, depended on compliance, conformity and the ability to avoid making waves.

But a gradual shift in economic realities was taking place and by 1956, for the first time in our history, there were more service-oriented jobs than manufacturing. With the continuing technological developments of the past few decades, the industrial economy gave way to an information society. I saw this first-hand as a resident of western Pennsylvania in the 1970s. When I started college there in 1969, the steel mills were running three shifts a day. By the end of the following decade, nearly all of the mills in Pittsburgh had shut down, replaced by restaurants and shopping complexes. Thousands of mill workers were faced with the need to retrain for the newly-emerging white-collar economy.

It isn’t just the type of available jobs that has changed as this change progresses. This new economy demands a different set of work skills than those required by a factory economy, particularly in areas such as interaction, innovation, negotiation, and communication. With a need for different work skills comes a gradual shift in what is valued and expected in the workplace. While the worker of the industrial age may have looked for security and permanence, workers in the current economy shows a marked preference for individuality, autonomy, personal fulfillment, a sense of purpose, and potential for growth.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that while our systems of education have generally made strides in the curriculum and technological resources, they are still, behaviorally and philosophically, set up to crank out factory workers. I hear evidence of this discrepancy when I interview business leaders, who almost uniformly tell me that the last thing in the world they need are kids who are conditioned to simply listen well and follow orders. “Those kids are a liability to me. I need kids who can think and take initiative,” one C.E.O. told me. “I’m not always going to be there to tell them what to do.” Perhaps the best indication of this shift is reflected in a comment from one executive who reported, “I need kids with vision and attitude. That’s what will make my business grow.”

Well, vision and attitude are all well and good until we realize what actually happens to kids when these attributes show up in school! The skills and personal traits that our economy needs are often the very things that will land kids in detention or special-needs classes. (A teacher of gifted students recently told me that a large number of kids end up in his classes not because they are significantly more cognitively skilled than the other students, but because they are behaviorally more manageable.) Nonetheless, present-day businesses, which lean more toward networking, cooperation, negotiation, flexibility, creativity and divergence than their industrial-era counterparts, often attract students schooled in a system that values—and is structured in the context of—factory-era skills. Business leaders report that these students often have difficulty making the transition to an information-age workplace. Even when individual teachers recognize these needs and make a commitment to build toward the future, we are so much a product of factory-era traditions that our teaching and interaction skills may lack congruence between well-intentioned goals and our ability to carry them out.

How many of us have probably vowed, at one time or another, never to act or sound like an authoritarian teacher we did not like when we were in school? And how many of us have actually kept that promise? Regardless of how much we may have resented those behaviors, these individuals were our role models. We grew up with these behaviors; it’s what we know best. At least some of our teaching behavior will reflect what is most familiar, and even the most conscious teacher, when tired or angry or stressed out, will revert to default behaviors, which are generally among the most primitive and negative in our repertoire.

The value system of the industrial era seeped into all authority relationships. These values shaped the behavior of our parents and teachers, who used strategies necessary to help us fit in to a factory society. Perhaps by necessity, the model was rigid and power-oriented, competitive and geared to win-lose outcomes; like it or not, this was how most factories operated. (Ask anyone who ever spent time working on an assembly line—myself included—how much creativity and initiative we were invited to bring to our jobs, or how welcome any comments would be that questioned authority or challenged the status quo.) There existed a generally undisputed “should” or “for-your-own-good” mentality in these workplaces and in society in general, as well as a belief that control and punishment were essential and ultimately effective, particularly with regard to raising and educating children.

It’s doubtful that parents, teachers, or employers of this era were deliberately abusive; more likely, they had simply bought into the values and structures of the times and probably believed themselves to be short on options. Whether or not they actually liked the model, most people accepted it and followed the precedents set by their own parents, teachers, and bosses, probably without giving it much thought. In this context, it’s easy to see how information-age priorities, such as individuality, independence, intrinsic motivation, and self-control would pose quite a threat to any autocratic, conformity-oriented value system or institution.

Regardless of the models we grew up with, the behaviors we observed are the ones we tend to adopt. As society changes, however, the needs of society also change, which is why so many of the old ways, which characterized the factory economy, cannot work in today’s information age. However, when we rely on industrial-age techniques for educating children, we interfere with our students’ ability to develop the skills they will need in an economy structured on a different set of needs and values—often the very skills we claim we’re trying to inspire. Therein lies the confusion and frustration.

When everything is going along well, we have no need to fear the demons of our upbringing. It is the conflict situation that elicits the words and behaviors we had sworn to avoid. And conflict situations are inevitable when we attempt to motivate or teach information-age children with industrial-age strategies. Yet discrepancies often exist between what we are want and what we know best. The world has gotten considerably larger for children than it was even a few years ago. No longer do kids depend on a handful of significant adults to let them know what’s going on. Simply regretting the simplicity of the typically idealized “good old days” will not help kids rise to the demands of contemporary realities. What worked for our teachers not only may not work for us, it may actually work against us. We need a new game plan.

21st century discipline means examining attitudes, beliefs, and behavior patterns that are generally automatic and solidly entrenched in our educational structures, demanding that we bring a greater degree of deliberate awareness and mindfulness to our work than perhaps has ever been asked of us before. It means rethinking goals and priorities and, in some instances, letting go of long-cherished values that no longer serve us. It involves reframing the concept of discipline from a set of punitive behaviors which emphasize reactions to what kids are doing wrong, to a set of preventative behaviors which emphasize relationship building to avoid conflicts and disruptions in the first place. It calls for taking time to learn new techniques to teach responsible learning skills, to prevent conflict and to even restructure entire relationships in order to achieve desired results.

Fortunately, the means to reaching these goals are specific, learnable skills that work in and outside the classroom, and with children or adults. You probably already know many of these skills and use them in successful adult relationships. Now, with the 21st century well upon us, we have a context for applying them in the classroom.

This is an excerpt from The Win-Win Classroom, by Dr. Jane Bluestein, © 2008, Corwin Publishing, Thousand Oaks, CA.

Related resources:

Understanding Schools in Context
What’s so Hard About Win-Win?
Brave New World: The Changing Role of Schools
Positive Consequences

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