Friday, May 14, 2010

Prescriptive vs Personalized

Metaphors are important.

For too long, parenting and schooling has taken on the metaphor of the factory. At one time, this was convenient because factories are predictable. And therefore can be prescriptive.

The problem with the factory model is that life isn't predictable and so when we attempt to be overly prescriptive, things go awry.

Alfie Kohn explains in his book Unconditional Parenting that prescriptive parenting and teaching is a ruse:

I might as well warn you now: What follows will not be a step-by step recipe for How to Raise Good Kids. First of all, I would have to be a nearly perfect parent myself, which I'm not, before I presumed to offer other people a definitive, fail-safe guide to raising their children. Second, I have my doubts about the wisdom of such an approach in any case. Very specific suggestions ("When your child says x, you should stand at location y and use z tone of voice to utter the following sentence...) are disrespectful to parents and kids alike. Raising children is not like assembling a home theater system or preparing a casserole, such that you need only follow an expert's instructions to the letter. No one-size-fits-all formula can possibly work for every family, nor can it anticipate an infinite number of situations. Indeed, books that claim to offer such formulas, while eagerly sought by moms and dads desperate for a miracle cure, usually do more harm than good.

For some, the conditional nature of rewards and punishments have grown tiresome, and there are many teachers and parents who are eager for a new game plan.

However, making the leap from something as prescriptive as if this happens, say this, do that and stand there, to something that resembles less of an instruction booklet can be intimidating.

The factory metaphor is prescriptive and dehumanizing, and it has reached the end of its shelf life.

The organic metaphor is personalized and humanistic.

Rather than guiding our actions with an instruction book, we need to draw on good pedagogy. Here are two very powerful adages I use to guide my teaching and parenting:

Children should experience their successes and failures not as reward and punishment but as information.

There is a big difference between doing things to children and working with them.

Because one-size-fits few, these adages play out in all sorts of different ways. Rather than standardizing our approach to working with children, they need our personalization.


  1. This really needs to be commented on and I encourage people to respond. Joe offers two adages, first that experience is simply information and working with children. In my time I have struggled with colleagues over dehumanizing, prescriptive school-wide discipline programs. To placate them I created flow charts of misbehavior and consequences.My heart was never in them.

    Joe suggests the factory model is ready to be shelved. I think it needs a serious revision but it has a firm grip on the imagination of teachers and students. Perhaps teachers like its predictability, but I think students generally like it too. Engaged learning and commitment to self control, owning what others think you should be learning, is not easy or particularly organic. Autocracy is a familiar concept to young people with engaged parents. It transfers easily into the classroom relationship. Working with children means working with young people who buy into the prevailing management paradigm. I found that made personalizing my response to them as an administrator harder than I expected. They expected consistency. Explaining that would be an extensive discussion.

  2. A quick discussion with my wife clarified a thought. My experience with discipline was that many students like the discipline map. They want to know where they are on it. For some it is a status issue, for others it is so they can play the system better. Essentially, where is the line? We have to accustom young people to differentiation as much as we have to accustom teachers. The impulse to live in a predictable world is universal.

  3. Alan Stange writes: "Autocracy is a familiar concept to young people with engaged parents."

    Not always true. My wife and I are both engaged parents and have been for 25 years and "child management" has always been the antithesis of how we've done things. And we're very happy with the outcome, by the way.

  4. Here is the adage I try to live by: I'm a teacher so I should teach. If I move over to being manager, I need to step back and figure out how I can get back to being a teacher!

    Interesting choice of the word "perscriptive" as I was just blogging about the medical vs social model of disability and commenting on how it links to education in general.


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