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A person who self-governs does not need to be told by an authority what is good and be made to do it. Rather, he is able to judge independently what is good, and then act in accordance with it or in the pursuit of it.

The question before us is how well are our public schools doing in developing people who can self-govern. Based on my experience as a teacher, I am concerned that public schools are mostly producing people who have low capacity for self-government. I have seen numerous indicators of this in my career. My generalizations do not apply to every student; there are, of course, exceptions. What follows, however, is common, describing typical high school students I have worked with.

Students still depend on me to tell them what information is important –
Whether during a lecture or in reading a textbook, most of my students cannot on their own assign value to information they encounter, e.g. identifying a main idea, subordinate ideas, relevant facts that support these ideas. They often cannot decide for themselves what to write in their notes and what not to write, either from what they read or what they hear.

I am often asked, even about material I have written on the board, “Are we supposed to write this down?” I usually respond with: “If you do not know it, write it down; if you do know it, then you probably do not need to. It’s up to you.” In this, I am trying to encourage independence by making my students exercise their own judgment: do not do something just because I say so; do something because you judge it to be important. This kind of self-awareness, achieved through reflection, is essential to self-government: do I realize what am lacking in relationship to my goals? Can I act on my own to get what I am lacking?

Students only do work when they are made to, i.e. when there is an immediate consequence to not doing it.
This is habit I have noticed in both higher and lower level students. In higher level classes, I have often have the majority of the class show up unprepared when I have given a reading assignment (in response, I had to resort to pop reading quizzes that I could give any day), or not write in their journals if they thought it was not going to be graded that day. In most cases, students need to do more work, especially reading and writing, than any teacher can possibly grade (meaning actually evaluate, and not just check for completion) in order to master the goals for the course. But if they think it is not going to be graded (an immediate consequence), most students will not do it. Of course, there are consequences to not doing it: it will catch up with them eventually when their lack of knowledge is exposed on exams or other major assignments.

I usually do not grade students homework in my science classes because I know that many will just copy each other and because it is not a reliable indicator of understanding. Instead, I will give them quizzes based on their homework. I’ll go over the homework before the quiz, and if they understood the homework, they will do well on the quiz. Most of my students do not do the homework, because they know I won’t grade it (though sometimes I collect it unannounced!), but then most of the time they then fail the quiz.  These students, it seems, cannot even make the connection between not doing their homework the night before and failing a quiz that their homework was designed to prepare them for the next day.

This is the mentality of a small child, not of a child maturing to adulthood (I teach 16-18 year olds) A small child lives in the moment, unable to project the consequences of his actions beyond the moment. The purpose of discipline is to teach a child that there are negative consequences to wrong behavior. For my one year old, the discipline has to be immediate to be effective, because he lives in the present. For our older children, the discipline can come later because they can connect behavior to consequences over a longer period of time. The more they can project the consequences of possible actions, and make decisions that avoid negative ones, the less they need discipline from us.

A self-governing person, and therefore a free person, does not need immediate consequences, enforced by a governing authority, to force him to do what is right (and even what is in his best interests!). Instead, he can imagine the paths on which the choices before him will lead, and make choices that he foresees will likely lead to good outcomes. When teachers rely only a short-term, immediate punishments or rewards to get students to behave, especially older children on the verge of adulthood, they keep students dependent on others to govern them instead of helping them learn to self-govern.

I will continue describing these indicators of dependence in my next post.  Please share how you have seen what I describe here in high school students.