Why No-Nonsense Classrooms Are Less Terrible Than Usual Ones

If a command is a command, the honest approach is to state it as one.

Posted Jan 18, 2016

Pixabay, Creative Commons
Source: Pixabay, Creative Commons

"Children, would you please pick up your pencils and do Problems 1 through 8 in your workbooks?”  The grammar is that of a polite question, as if the teacher were asking a favor and the children had a choice.  But every child knows that this is not a question; it’s an order.  So, why not state it as one?  “Pick up your pencils and do Problems 1 through 8 in your workbooks.”  Why the hypocritical pretense that the children are complying with their own free will rather than because they are being ordered around and have no choice? 

In previous essays I have explained how our schools teach children that their own questions don’t matter; that they have no right to their own ideas; that high grades are more important than real understanding; that everyone is supposed to learn the same things and if you learn something different it doesn’t count; that play is a waste of time; that learning is work, not fun; that blind obedience to authority is the key to success; and that success is defined as making it through the next hoop put in front of you by the schooling system.  Now here’s one more lesson our schools teach: Polite language, when it comes from a teacher in a classroom, is a lie.  A question is not a question but an order, and “Please” means “Do it or else….

Readers who know my educational philosophy, and who know about the evidence for the success of self-directed education, might assume that I would hate the new, so-called “no-nonsense classrooms,” where there is not even an illusion of choice.  Well, those readers are right, I do hate them.  But I don’t hate them as much as I hate the “nonsense classrooms” that most of our children attend.

Truth be told, the polite language used by teachers in most classrooms has nothing to do with what’s good for children and everything to do with what’s good for teachers. Most teachers, by nature, are polite and loving people. I mean that. They are people who care deeply for children and want to help them. They don’t want to see schools as prisons or themselves as wardens. They don’t want to see themselves as ordering children to do things that the children don’t want to do.  But here they are, in a setting where the children have no choice except to be there and where they, the teachers, are required by the system to make sure that every child - regardless of the child’s unique dispositions and interests - completes the preset curriculum and passes the required tests in accordance with a preset schedule. In reality, there is no way to do what teachers are required to do without giving orders and somehow enforcing them.

So, to protect their own egos, teachers use language that makes it seem like they are not giving orders, even when they are.  They fool themselves into believing that the children in their classrooms are following their “suggestions” because they are good suggestions and the children want to follow them. This allows the teachers to live with themselves. Children, generally, have been raised to be rather polite and accommodating, so they don’t often rebel; except for those who do often rebel, and those ones get drugged. They’re not really rebelling; they have a “disorder.”

No-nonsense classrooms might also be called honest classrooms.  No-nonsense teachers make it clear to students what they must do, when they must do it, how they must do it, and what the consequences are for not doing it (see here).  They don’t preface orders with words like please or end them with question marks. Ideally, they maintain a positive and supportive attitude and hold high expectations about students’ abilities to do well what they are told to do, but they do not pretend that students have any choice about it.  I’m not surprised by the claims that this approach works better than the more typical, falsely polite approach, as measured both by students’ satisfaction and by higher test scores.  I’m also not surprised by reports that many teachers resist taking this route; it deprives them of an ego-protecting illusion. 

For more about the no-nonsense teaching method and testimonials on its success, see the Center for Transformative Teacher Training website. You may also be interested in this NPR story about it.

Basic Books
Source: Basic Books


And now, what do you think?  Have you had experience with “no-nonsense” teachers?  If so, what did you think of them?  (My memory might be biased, but I seem to recall liking my classes best when teachers took a no-nonsense approach.)  This blog is, among other things, a forum for discussion. Your views are treated with respect, by other readers and by me.  

As always, I prefer if you post your comments and questions here rather than send them to me by private email. By putting them here, you share with other readers, not just with me.  I read all comments and try to respond to all serious questions if I think I have something worth saying.  Of course, if you have something to say that applies only to you and me, then send me an email.


For much more on how children find their way in the word and how adults can help, see Free to Learn.  And join me on Facebook.  And see alternativestoschool.com.

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