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Needs

November 1, 2008

Agreement about needs, then, depends upon agreement about values. An adolescent, you may say, needs freedom to express himself; I may say that he needs to consider other people’s feelings. To claim, therefore, that education should ‘meet the needs’ of adolescents (or any other category of pupil), or to argue that the curriculum is a good one if it ‘meets the children’s needs’, by itself is meaningless. ‘Needs’ for what? Unless goals are specified no ‘needs’ can be identified. Even then, unless goals are agreed to be good ones, ‘meeting needs’ is still far from being justified. A young bully, for example, from his point of view may ‘need’ to find victims. Plainly this is a ‘need’ which, though identifiable, should not be met. Further still, though, even if we managed to reach agreement about which of his ‘needs’ we satisfy, it would still have to be shown that it was education, specifically, which should be employed to bring about these deprivations and satisfactions.

P.S.Wilson (1971)

So far I have discussed the three main explanations given as to why children are blameless for their behaviour. These were:

In practice, it can undermine the case against personal responsibility to use several different explanations. Jordan can’t have told me to “fuck off” because he’s young and because he’s poor and because he has an undiagnosed medical condition. A willingness to use all three explanations only serves to show up the fact that these explanations are functioning as nothing more than excuses.

Describing all three as examples of a broad category of “needs” gets round this difficulty. A child’s immaturity, poverty and disability are all “needs” to be met. Not only that, but it can then be claimed that any teacher who wishes to hold a student to account is deliberately letting a students’ needs go unmet out of personal malice. After all, who would dare deprive a child of something they need? All bad behaviour is then declared to be a result of unmet needs. A propagandist for this idea might then try to give examples such as a hungry child being bad-tempered, a young child crying, a deprived child being punished for not bringing expensive equipment to school, or a colour blind child using the wrong pens when drawing a diagram as typical examples of bad behaviour. The logic is simple, if a child behaves badly it is simply a sign that the teacher had failed to be kind enough, or understanding enough, to meet that child’s needs. Alternatively it can be claimed that whole schools have failed to provide enough expertise to identify all needs or failed to recreate themselves as what Peters (1966) called “orphanages for children with parents”; institutions concerned with all possible aspects of student well-being, rather than their education. All that is needed is kinder and better trained teachers, and more sympathetic schools, to diagnose and treat all needs and bad behaviour would just disappear. The cloak of pseudo-scientific expertise can then be adopted by appealing to Maslow’s (1943) Hierachy of Needs a psychological theory which attempted to list and rank all human drives as “needs” of one sort or another.

Of course, such an argument is fundamentally incoherent. As Wilson (above) pointed out, needs do not exist in isolation; something can only be needed for a purpose. When we recognise this then the idea that we can categorise a wide variety of human conditions and human wants as “needs”, let alone the idea that we can use these needs to explain bad behaviour or absolve people of responsibility for their actions falls apart on many different grounds. There are a number of unanswerable questions and objections to the model.

Firstly, we have the problem of identifying what counts as a need and in particular which needs educational institutions have an obligation to meet. We can’t even agree that we need food and air unless we first agree that we want to live. The purpose of meeting psychological and social needs is far from clear. Happiness? Psychological health? Are we really obliged to make all students happy and psychologically healthy? It would be an absurdity to try and provide everything our students want, but it is far from clear which of their desires count as a need or not. Maslow has helpfully included sex as a basic need, a fact often forgotten by those who would quote him in an educational context, as the obvious implication would involve turning schools into brothels (as well as orphanages). However, if it is not possible to identify what needs we should be meeting then we can’t possibly declare that needs haven’t been met.

Secondly, we have the problem of identifying what exactly is needed. It might be easy to recognise that a hungry child needs food or that a child with no legs might need, say, a wheelchair. It is less clear as to what, say, a dyslexic, child needs. By this I don’t mean that there are different treatments for dyslexia that we would have to select between, I mean that there are value judgements to be made before we can judge what is needed. Specifically, do we believe that a dyslexic child needs to gain the greatest possible skill in reading and writing or do we believe that they need to be assisted with reading and writing where it might obstruct them? This is not a minor issue that can simply be answered by saying “a bit of both”. If we take the first option we will be trying to make them read and write as much as possible, even to the extent of giving them extra lessons in reading and writing and removing them from conventional lessons, or even mainstream schooling. If we take the second option then we are choosing to give them as little reading and writing as possible. Two exact opposite answers to what appears to be the same need. Without a value judgement about the aims of education (i.e. an answer to the question of whether we want the student’s school experience, or their abilities, to most closely resemble what is “normal”) we cannot decide what it is that the student needs. This problem doesn’t end with learning disabilities. How do we confront a child’s poverty? Or their immaturity? I am not simply saying that these problems are difficult, I am saying they are insoluble without identifying a purpose alongside a need. It is only by knowing explicitly what we are trying to achieve that we can judge what is needed to achieve it.

Finally, we have moral and psychological questions about “meeting the needs” of badly behaved children. Assume that answers existed to the question of which categories of needs should be met and how schools and teachers can meet them. We still have problems relating this idea specifically to badly behaved children. Even if we could find a situation where meeting a need was not contentious in general, we might still find it difficult to see meeting that need as a way to deal with a particular child’s poor behaviour. To pick the most extreme example, imagine a school that discovered many of its students were starved of food, that this could not be dealt with more effectively through other agencies, and the school had the resources and facilities to feed these students. It seems clear that, unless you favour child starvation, there is an obvious moral case for meeting this need, and the available food would be given to those who most needed it. Now imagine we accepted the belief that meeting this need was not, a moral duty, or an act of charity, but a method of treating the underlying cause of poor behaviour. We would cease looking for the most famished child to feed first and start feeding the worst behaved. Here is where the moral and psychological problems begin. We would be rewarding the worst behaved child with something they wanted. Yes, we could tell ourselves that every child, even the worst behaved ones, deserve to be fed, but we would nevertheless be providing the badly behaved hungry child with preferential treatment over the well-behaved hungry child. This is an obvious and blatant injustice. If this moral problem was something that we could ignore (perhaps by convincing ourselves that all hungry children are badly behaved and any well-behaved child simply cannot be terribly hungry, or by denying any relevance of morality to the “science” of behaviour management), we still have the psychological problem. For that child, and no doubt their peers, we have established that you are rewarded with food for bad behaviour. This will serve only to reinforce and encourage the bad behaviour. Now, if this is the case for the most obvious and blatant need, for a case where the only action taken is as morally desirable as you can get, it seems highly unlikely that there are going to be any cases at all where meeting needs (in the sense of providing a student with something they actually want) is a just, or an effective way to deal with bad behaviour. If feeding the hungry might be harmful or wrong in this situation, imagine how more contentious other types of “help” (like extra attention, free holidays, help in lessons or immunity from punishment) might be. They are likely to be even more obviously unjust and counter-productive.

Of course, the incoherence and injustice of the needs-based approach to education is inevitable. Modelling human beings as bundles of needs is to rob them of their humanity. Whenever we view human beings as something other than moral agents we are likely to end up advocating solutions which are in conflict with both our consciences and our knowledge of the human mind. As long as we expect children to have no conscience, then we cannot help them, we can only dehumanise them.

 

References

Maslow, A.H. A Theory of Human Motivation, Psychological Review 50 1943:370-96, 1943

Peters, R.S. Ethics and Education, Allen and Unwin, 1966

Wilson, P.S. Interest and Discipline In Education, Routledge And Kegan Paul, 1971

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43 comments

  1. Jordan does indeed have an unmet need ; that is the sure knowledge that if he tells an adult teacher to f–k off unpleasant things will happen to him.


  2. Indeed. We can, of course, class anything at all, including that, as “meeting a need”. This is because the whole concept of “meeting needs” when dealing with behaviour is so vacuous and ill-defined. I find that those who talk most about “meeting needs” are very often those least able to define what “meeting a need” actually means.

    You might want to look at this discussion here:

    http://forum.ship-of-fools.com/cgi-bin/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=get_topic;f=2;t=011521;p=1

    where, over the course of several weeks, a whole army of people claimed that “meeting needs” was key to dealing with behaviour but nobody could come up with a coherent definition of what a need actually was.


  3. The problem, Andrew, is that really nobody makes those three arguments that you attribute to some mysterious ‘them’ (bad teachers, making excuses for naughty kids, presumably). There may well be people who suggest that SOME pupils have conditions. Believe it or not, some have. There may well be people who argue that certain ‘outside of school’ factors (that could be loosely described as ‘background’) influence children’s behaviour (please refer me to somebody actually arguing that it ‘determines’ it). Believe it or not certain factors outside of school do influence children’s behaviour. Of course the same factors can influence different children differently, of course its not a reason not to deal with bad behaviour, of course its not an excuse for extreme behaviour, but it undermines your own case to present this (as with the others) as just excuses. All three may sometimes be misapplied, but you seem over-eager to assume them excuses.

    And of course, some children haven’t learnt acceptable behaviour yet – whether you want to say that’s because they’re ‘too young’ is a different matter. Again, how you deal with that is a different matter, but to pretend it isn’t true is as absurd as anything you wish to satirise.

    The problem of course is that in your (valid and admirable) attempt to avoid the dehumanisation of children into empty, needy vessels who have no human agency, you almost manage to dehumanise them at the other extreme: as beings determined by your sense of rationality (slaves to a mathematical equation almost). One clear example of this was when you suggested that a pupil who could not do the work should (rationally) explain to the teacher that they couldn’t do it rather than misbehave – unless they were calculating that the repercussions of misunderstanding were worse than the repercussions for bad behaviour. This attempt to place the child’s behaviour into a logic puzzle is as careless of human agency as (imaginary) suggestions that they are determined by economic circumstances or whatever. Apart from the fact that mathematically it is based on a notion that the repercussions are all in the gift of the teacher, it ignores the fact that all humans (not just children) are perfectly capable of acting irrationally. Similarly, the underlying reasons for certain behaviour patterns may not be rationalised at a conscious level. If I think back to stupid or damaging things I’ve done – particularly in my youth! – I may now interpret them in a way that I certainly wouldn’t have done at the time. I now think I know why I decided to drink lots of vodka one night; at the time my rationale was getting drunk and easy access to the drink.

    I’d better stop there. No doubt you’ll have some pithy put-down ready (based on further assumptions and straw men) but there you are.


  4. I don’t have some pithy put down.

    But then I don’t really understand your argument. At one moment you appear to be claiming that nobody makes the excuses I talk about, the next you seem to make them yourself.

    And yes, claiming children are too irrational to know better than to tell their teacher to fuck off when they are stuck, is most definitely an excuse. It’s also not a very convincing one, as they hardly have to be Mr Spock to see why that might be unacceptable.

    Beyond that you appear to be doing a “News Is Good” and confusing the claim that children are responsible for their actions with the claim that they are never influenced to do wrong. I do not deny that they are influenced to do wrong (those influences are often called “temptations”). I just think that as “I felt like it” is no excuse for doing wrong the reasons why somebody felt like doing wrong aren’t terribly important.


  5. I think it would be more clear if you talked about “rights” rather than “needs” at some points. In our current language of human rights, we could all understand the tension in the passage you quote above:
    “Agreement about needs, then, depends upon agreement about values. An adolescent, you may say, needs freedom to express himself; I may say that he needs to consider other people’s feelings.”

    Change ‘needs’ for ‘rights’ and it immediately becomes clearer what we are talking about.
    Hobbes would say that obligations and rights are totally different (rather than current ideas that say that rights involve obligations, which I am not sure I often agree with). When you have a right to do something, there is a lack of obligation on your part. When you are obligated, you lack a right to choose.

    So, where do ‘needs’ come from this framework? In a classroom, does a child have a ‘right’ to swear or misbehave? I certainly hope not. So why must we invoke ‘needs’ to explain why they do it? The answer is that we have an obligation – a legal obligation – to teach all children. This is a need. We also have a moral obligation to attempt to educate them as much as possible. This is a need. To add social justice and such things as equality of opportunity in the mix, there are all sorts of needs to consider.

    Therefore, children do have needs. Where these needs are thwarted, even by the child’s own behaviour, we will talk about needs. Education and instruction are needed. And if we can explain the problems in terms of poverty or psychological problems, there is a need to address there, if we can do so within the limited frameworks we work in.

    That is why children have needs.


  6. [Beyond that you appear to be doing a “News Is Good” and confusing the claim that children are responsible for their actions with the claim that they are never influenced to do wrong. I do not deny that they are influenced to do wrong (those influences are often called “temptations”). I just think that as “I felt like it” is no excuse for doing wrong the reasons why somebody felt like doing wrong aren’t terribly important.]

    I’m not sure, but you seem to be doing a “DiogenesofSinope” and confusing the claim that “they were influence to do wrong” with the claim that “I felt like it”.

    Are you really saying that any appeal to outside determining factors is the same as saying “hey, I just felt like it”?


  7. I think it would be more clear if you talked about “rights” rather than “needs” at some points.

    Er…

    Only if “it would be more clear” actually means “it would change the topic of conversation to something else entirely”.

    The answer is that we have an obligation – a legal obligation – to teach all children. This is a need.

    No it isn’t. It is a duty. And even then, it is far from clear that we have a legal obligation to teach children who subject us to conditions that we are not legally obliged to endure.


  8. Are you really saying that any appeal to outside determining factors is the same as saying “hey, I just felt like it”?

    You appear to be once more adding qualifiers, (in this case the word “just”) in order to suggest my position is more extreme than it is. The point is that influencing factors affect motivation (i.e. what a child feels like doing) they do not turn children into robots. To suggest that influences excuse, is to suggest that motives, feelings and temptations excuse.


  9. Do you really not understand the point I’m making? I find that hard to believe, as I know the you are very intelligent and are not normally so lacking in understanding.

    Let me try and explain it in different terms:

    You say that ‘people’ make the following arguments to suggest children are ‘blameless for their behaviour':

    Children are too young to understand how to behave.
    Children’s behaviour is determined by their background.
    Badly behaved children have a medical or psychological condition.

    I say nobody makes any of those arguments. I then go on to suggest the actual arguments that people might make (not vouching for any of them, necessarily) that you have thus reduced.

    So – first of all, despite spending most of my life in the company of wishy-washy lefty educationalists I have never heard anybody suggest that children are blameless for their behaviour. From that point, the three ‘excuses’ don’t really need further examination. But, you have expended quite a lot of time and effort on the argument so I’m keen to explore it a little further. If we take these ‘excuses’ as being for children not being solely to blame, or 100% responsible for their behaviour, we can perhaps take it a little further.

    The first ‘excuse’ (while we’ve already established has never been used to suggest that children are ‘blameless’) has a truth at its heart. If a baby punches a cat in the face, we respond differently than if an 12 year old does it, and again differently from if a 34 year old does it. Age is uncontroversially a factor that influences people understanding of behaviour and of consequences. Assuming you are primarily talking about older children, we shall move on.

    I ask again for a reference for somebody claiming that children’s behaviour is determined by their background. Influenced by it? Maybe. Again – it doesn’t make them blameless, but I don’t believe anybody has ever suggested that it does. I could give some rather emotional examples to support the idea that background can influence behaviour and as such, sometimes the teacher response to the behaviour has to take it into account, but I don’t want to go pulling at heart-strings and appealing to pity. The point is that we’re all intelligent human beings and understand that of course outside-of-school factors can have a big impact on various aspects of a child’s education.

    Finally, of course, some children DO have conditions. There are behavioural conditions that do exist. Of course (except in very severe cases) those children still have choices, it doesn’t render anybody ‘blameless’ but it isn’t just an excuse. If a child in your class with aspergers told you to f*** off would you deal with it in exactly the same way that you would any other child? Do you think that would be appropriate? Of course it would be as important to make it clear to that child as any other that the behaviour was completely unacceptable but whether children have ‘needs’ or not, there are good and bad ways to deal with certain very real conditions.

    On your last point, the reasons why somebody felt like it ARE important. You might choose to decide that they’re not important to you because you’re there to teach Maths. That’s your professional decision. But I hope somebody considers those reasons important. The fact that one child with a serious behavioural condition and a difficult home life behaves well and another does not should not, I trust, mean that we decide that such conditions are such difficulties are unimportant. You might fairly conclude that it illustrates that the poorly behaving child is not blameless (and, again, I doubt anybody would disagree with you) but such apportioning of blame (insofar as that is a meaningful concept) should not impact on the importance of the difficulties, quite apart from the behavioural issue.


  10. You seem to want to exist in the vagueness allowed by those who use weasel words to get around the incoherence in their concepts.

    Somebody advocating the ideas that I am criticising will, of course, say “we shouldn’t blame children” rather than “children are blameless”. They will say “Jordan shouldn’t be punished for having a behaviour problem” rather than “Jordan isn’t responsible for telling his teacher to fuck off”. They will say “children from deprived backgrounds cannot be expected to behave quite so well” instead of “the poor are allowed to act like scum”.

    But the use of weasel words doesn’t get them off the hook. If children are beyond blame then they are blameless. If Jordan’s “behaviour problem” excuses him from punishment then he is not being held responsible for his actions. If we have low expectations for the behaviour of the less well off we are expecting them to act like scum. Of course, I don’t use their weasel words, but that doesn’t mean the weasel words contain genuine distinctions. People don’t get to say “my opinions are incoherent and badly expressed therefore they are beyond criticism”. Similarly, there is not a cosy middle ground between holding children morally responsible for their actions and not holding them responsible. It is one or the other.

    As for nobody making those arguments, have a look at the link I posted earlier. How do you interpret statements such as

    “Let’s quit blaming the kids. They’re powerless. They’re the victims in all this.”

    when discussing bad behaviour? If I am saying what everybody agrees with anyway, how come it provokes the response it does? Go back a few posts to look as some of the insults thrown at me for saying children are responsible for their behaviour or that bad behaviour does deserve to be punished. The response is not one that you would expect if I was simply mouthing platitudes that everyone accepts. Similarly I can’t really see why you are bothering to put so much time and effort into discussing this topic if everyone actually already agrees with me.

    There’s something really, really unconvincing about any challenge that goes along the lines of “you are wrong, all this is wrong about what you say, also nobody disagrees with you”.

    Oh, with regard to the kid with Aspergers, of course, I would enforce the rules on him the same as anybody else. Virtually every advice going about Aspergers recommends clarity and consistency in rules and expectations. There are few things worse for kids with Aspergers than inconsistency regarding discipline and classroom expectations.


  11. “So – first of all, despite spending most of my life in the company of wishy-washy lefty educationalists I have never heard anybody suggest that children are blameless for their behaviour.”

    May well be the case, but they also won’t say they are to blame for their behaviour either, because then it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that some sort of punishment should arise.

    No-one wants an all-stick approach. The problem is the prevalence of the no-stick approach (note, this is a metaphor)

    All these idiots never see the reality of the children’s POV (the real one, not the wet leftie think imaginary one) which is “f–k me, I can do whatever I want and nothing ever happens to me”.

    A lot of this behaviour is perfectly measured ; it is not a snap bad reaction brought on in a stressful situation (which can be caused by an awful home life).

    They know exactly what they are doing ; they tell the teacher to f-off because it’s fun, more interesting than virtually any lesson, and there’s no reason not to.

    Of course, this then leads them to continue that behaviour when they leave school, which is why (IMO anyway) there are an ever increasing number of violent almost random kicking/knifing deaths.

    With the Aspergers child, the thing is to make sure he (mostly) actually understands the rules …….. stopping them rule following is sometimes the hard bit :)


  12. It is not a question of ‘weasel words’ its a question of actual meanings.
    It is very easy to create an absurd, exaggerated version of an opponents views and then devote page after page in ridiculing it. Even selective quotations don’t do a lot more good.

    If we’re going to talk about ‘weasel words’ lets analyse yours for a moment. You rework the already absurdly de-problematised and simplified ‘Children’s behaviour is determined by their background’ into ‘children from deprived backgrounds cannot be expected to behave quite so well’. These are weasel words indeed for they transform a discussion about classroom management and education (dare I talk about education beyond injecting facts, or is that too close to suggesting children have ‘needs’?) into a discussion about teachers’ expectations which is entirely tangential. A teacher may have negative expectations of pupils’ behaviour (I hate to add another ‘excuse’ to your list, but such negative labelling by teachers also contributes to poor behaviour, by way of a self-fulfilling prophesy) – that is never anything but a damaging and negative factor. That has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact – uncontroversial fact – that things that happen outside school can influence a pupil’s behaviour, and that any attempt to deal with that behaviour that ignores the outside-of-school factors is unlikely to be terribly successful.

    I certainly wasn’t suggesting that people don’t disagree with you. I disagree with you very strongly indeed (and I’d like to think others share my view). Where I don’t disagree with you (and I suspect almost everyone if not everyone would have the same view) is that children are not blameless for their bad behaviour. From that point onwards there is very little agreement at all. If any. (I agree with the point about Aspergers, actually – although the point remains that I would deal with behaviours that were part of the condition differently than I might with another child; for example, an inappropriate emotional response – while it should be challenged in all cases, would not be punished in the case of a child with Aspergers: that would be like punishing a kid with asthma for coughing).


  13. It is very easy to create an absurd, exaggerated version of an opponents views and then devote page after page in ridiculing it.

    This is why I am careful to start by describing the opinions rather than describe the opponents. If nobody had the views I expressed then everyone could just agree and they’d be no debate. Obviously people do disagree with me on this, and just because they are too cowardly to express direct disagreement and would rather grumble over the wording, doesn’t actually hide that.

    Where I don’t disagree with you (and I suspect almost everyone if not everyone would have the same view) is that children are not blameless for their bad behaviour.

    But that is my main point, so we end up back at the point where you are simultaneously condemning what I say, but at the same time conceding my argument.

    The only time you actually express an opinion instead of crying foul over my opinion is where you make an empirical statement instead, i.e.: “any attempt to deal with that behaviour that ignores the outside-of-school factors is unlikely to be terribly successful”. Now this is a statement that is so obviously wrong that there’s not a discussion to be had, other than to suggest you try teaching in even an average (or worse) secondary school some day, and see how far that sentiment gets you.

    So, do you actually have any argument other than

    a) complaining that I phrase my arguments in ways that make it clear how absurd the opposing view is

    or

    b) claiming that your bizarre fantasy, about behaviour management in a tough school, is some kind of empirical reality that those of us who actually do teach in tough schools have missed?


  14. To start with, can I just echo Duncan in saying that I do not entirely trust your reliance on what “they” say as an indicator of what is common in education. As I have pointed out before, I’ve never met anybody that says that students are not to blame for their behaviour, just the far less contentious position that behaviour has multiple causes that we can attempt to understand and, in some cases, improve.
    If you can point out who said it and, if possible, even provide evidence that would be great. You make it seem as if the government is publishing pronouncements that “You Must Never Blame A Child” and “There Is No Such Thing As Misbehaviour, Only Children With Dyslexia Throwing Chairs In Anger At Not Learning”. If you can’t show such pronouncements, and instead are referring to some ‘ideology’ of teaching that does not actually show itself in words, then this is far more problematic.

    Anyway, back to addressing your previous comments:

    The answer is that we have an obligation – a legal obligation – to teach all children. This is a need.

    No it isn’t. It is a duty. And even then, it is far from clear that we have a legal obligation to teach children who subject us to conditions that we are not legally obliged to endure.

    OK, so now we can all appreciate that you do not think that all children should receive an education, based on their behaviour. Thank you for clarifying this point.

    To suggest that influences excuse, is to suggest that motives, feelings and temptations excuse.

    Please explain how an influence is morally or causally equivalent to a motive. e.g. a hungry child is influenced to steal food by their hunger, caused by their background conditions (such as parental neglect). They are also motivated by their selfish desire to sustain themselves by eating another’s property.
    Are these not different? Would you not view the ‘excuse’ for stealing on the grounds of hunger caused by parental neglect more kindly than the ‘excuse’ for stealing on the grounds of being motivated by selfish desire?

    If children are beyond blame then they are blameless.

    A fascinating argument. A dead person is ‘beyond blame’. Does that mean that a murderer who is now dead is blameless for their killings?
    You see, you are missing the point that “beyond blame” is not a MORAL event. It is a PRAGMATIC one. It is to say “there is no point blaming this person, as they have a compromised control over this situation”. You can blame a parent for having given birth to a baby with inherited genetic abnormalities. Yet, they are beyond blame because they did not cause their own genes to be faulty. The fault is within them, and you could blame them for this, yet they are beyond blame. There is no point blaming the parent for their genes.

    In essence, blame is not always a moral judgement. I think your whole idea of blame is questionable, as you always use it in reference to moral terms – “this person is compromised by giving in to temptation, and only their free will can be seen as a cause no matter what the context of their decision”. However, blame can also be seen as nothing more as a relation between you and somebody else – “I blame them for this and won’t trust them in a similar capacity again”. Blame is not a matter of besmirching someone’s soul or virtue, but simply a matter of trust. (This idea comes from modern virtue ethics, and I can get you the name of the relevant philosopher when I am next in the library).

    So, I would like to put forward the idea that your whole idea of blame is a large part of the cause of any disagreement between you and me and anybody else that disagrees with you.
    If children are “beyond blame”, that does not mean they do not share in personal responsibility. It just means their responsibility is compromised by certain factors that we can help to alleviate, in order to get them to a situation where they can be more able to exercise an uncompromised will. For example, if a child has been taught at home that violence will receive rewards in terms of attention and the spoils of aggression, then they must be retaught that this does not apply in other contexts.


  15. To start with, can I just echo Duncan in saying that I do not entirely trust your reliance on what “they” say as an indicator of what is common in education. As I have pointed out before, I’ve never met anybody that says that students are not to blame for their behaviour

    As one of the previous commentators pointed out, if they tell us not to blame, they are, in effect, saying that the children aren’t to blame.

    If you can point out who said it and, if possible, even provide evidence that would be great. You make it seem as if the government is publishing pronouncements that “You Must Never Blame A Child” and “There Is No Such Thing As Misbehaviour, Only Children With Dyslexia Throwing Chairs In Anger At Not Learning”.

    That assumes that I am talking about the government. I am not. I am talking about the stuff I see every day, not some kind of official plan to bring the mess about.

    That said if you care to look for it you will find DCSF guidance that tells schools not to exclude children with SEN for their bad behaviour.

    If you can’t show such pronouncements, and instead are referring to some ‘ideology’ of teaching that does not actually show itself in words, then this is far more problematic.

    The only problem is that people resort to weasel words in order to disapprove of my point rather than argue against it.

    OK, so now we can all appreciate that you do not think that all children should receive an education, based on their behaviour. Thank you for clarifying this point.

    Strawman. I am merely pointing out the difference between a duty to educate and a right to be taught. While I think we should seek to educate everyone, nobody has an unconditional “right to be taught” that applies even in situations where they choose not to learn.

    Please explain how an influence is morally or causally equivalent to a motive.

    I didn’t say that. I simply pointed out that influences can only give you motives. They don’t possess you.

    e.g. a hungry child is influenced to steal food by their hunger, caused by their background conditions (such as parental neglect). They are also motivated by their selfish desire to sustain themselves by eating another’s property.

    Did you miss the bit in the original post where I talked about selective examples? Children are not forced to break the rules. If a child would starve to death by not keeping the rules I would see the matter differently.

    A dead person is ‘beyond blame’.

    No, they are not. Perhaps you need to look up what “blame” means.

    In essence, blame is not always a moral judgement.

    Yes, it is.

    I think your whole idea of blame is questionable, as you always use it in reference to moral terms – “this person is compromised by giving in to temptation, and only their free will can be seen as a cause no matter what the context of their decision”. However, blame can also be seen as nothing more as a relation between you and somebody else – “I blame them for this and won’t trust them in a similar capacity again”. In essence, blame is not always a moral judgement.

    This is almost perfect. You are throwing out the entire concept of blame here, yet somehow acting as if it is outrageous that I would accuse anyone of saying children are blameless. For those of us using the conventional notion of “blame” that is entirely what you are saying, when it is translated out of weasel.

    I think your whole idea of blame is questionable, as you always use it in reference to moral terms – “this person is compromised by giving in to temptation, and only their free will can be seen as a cause no matter what the context of their decision”. However, blame can also be seen as nothing more as a relation between you and somebody else – “I blame them for this and won’t trust them in a similar capacity again”. Blame is not a matter of besmirching someone’s soul or virtue, but simply a matter of trust. (This idea comes from modern virtue ethics, and I can get you the name of the relevant philosopher when I am next in the library).

    Oh please do.


  16. I fear we have reached an impasse. Your assertion that you are tackling opinions rather than opponents is noble, but it rather relieves you from any duty in proving that such opinions actually exist. If you think that I have expressed any of those opinions then your problems stem from basic understanding, and I’m not sure there’s a lot we can do about that.

    There is a great difference between clarifying an opponents views and completely misrepresenting them, and you tend towards the latter.

    I could accuse you of believing that education should be exclusive, that poorly behaved children are evil and need to be severely punished (preferably bringing back the birch) and that you believe any teacher that hasn’t seen your extraordinary truths contributes to children’s poor behaviour and those that have seen the light never do so – I don’t, because I don’t believe those to be your views. Please respond with the same courtesy of dealing with the substance of what your critics say rather than how their comments might fit into your various stereotypes and models which are, I can’t help but repeat, exactly that: yours.

    In the current discussion I have not expressed any views about behaviour management in tough schools, other than to emphasize that those factors that influence children’s behaviour that are external to the child are not irrelevant and shouldn’t be dismissed. This is not a bizarre fantasy; I can’t really imagine what objection you could have to the view. I am quite confident that in practise you will be very far removed from dismissing such things (indeed, I know this to be the case because, outside the classroom, you have demonstrated commitment to alleviating various social ills) and while you appear determined to seperate the ‘out of school’ from the ‘in school’ in theory and practice, you come close to admitting the link in another thread (and it is really only a Maths problem that justifies your later dismissing it).

    I have not said a great deal about how this could or should translate into practise (and in this thread neither have you). Now, we do disagree on that (to a greater or lesser extent on certain matters) but there is no point even entering into that while we are at such an impasse on the basic premises that underline your arguments.

    (As it happens, last week two young fellows decided to throw a lighted firework through the window of our office, exploding next to a colleagues face; in fact in the three weeks before half term I had the police in more days than not – although not always to do with discipline issues. We educate in different settings, but I don’t think it is particularly sensible for you to overstate the difference – the main difference is that they’re bigger).


  17. If you are disagreeing with me, it is not “completely misrepresenting” you to say that you appear to reject what I am saying. If you feel misunderstood it is probably only because you are simultaneously disagreeing with my argument and accusing me of arguing something that nobody disagrees with.

    I stick by the suggestion that it is a “bizarre fantasy” to suggest “any attempt to deal with that behaviour that ignores the outside-of-school factors is unlikely to be terribly successful” as it would be physically impossible to deal with behaviour on this basis, and for you to think otherwise simply illustrates a complete lack of awareness of what my job entails.


  18. I stick by the suggestion that it is a “bizarre fantasy” to suggest “any attempt to deal with that behaviour that ignores the outside-of-school factors is unlikely to be terribly successful” as it would be physically impossible to deal with behaviour on this basis, and for you to think otherwise simply illustrates a complete lack of awareness of what my job entails.

    I’m confused here. You are, on one hand, talking about the moral necessities of blaming the individual for their decisions, regardless of any ‘excuses’ they can give from outside influences. As you said, the “influences can only give you motives. They cannot possess you”. You boil all this down to a moral problem of temptation. To give an example: when a child succumbs to using anger in class because it works for them at home, has been taught to them by their parents, and their low status in class due to poor home backgrounds has led to them being a partial outcast, all these are merely excuses behind giving in to a temptation to lash out. (Please correct me if I am misrepresenting your position).

    Yet, now you are saying the problem is that you couldn’t deal with this because of pragmatic reasons – what effect could you possibly have on all these outside factors with teachers raise to explain away bad behaviour? Far easier to blame the student and hold them morally responsible.

    What confuses me is this. if it is morally wrong to fail to blame, then it doesn’t matter if failing to blame is impractical or not. I wouldn’t, for example, object to murder by saying “it’s wrong to kill. Oh, and it makes a mess” unless I was telling a rather unfunny joke. The fact that you conjure up this argument from impracticality makes it seem that this argument is at least as important, if not more important, than your argument from morality. So, which comes first – your concerns about morality, or your concerns about what you can humanly do in the classroom?

    On the note of “what can I do about outside-of-school factors”, the answer is, as a teacher, you are part of the educational establishment that must do something. On the basis that students have needs to learn, and that all students should have equal opportunity to learn, this means allocating more resources to those who have more need, e.g. those who are not being given or taking that opportunity. Basil Bernstein wrote a famous essay entitled “Education cannot compensate for society”. This was taken by many as an admission of the impossibility of educating those who behave in such a way as to opt out from the classroom, much like in your argument. However:

    Bernstein spells out here with unmistakeable clarity the steps in his argument. First, he states his view that the current education system has ‘failed to provide, on the scale required, an initial satisfactory educational environment’ (so that ‘compensation’ is beside the point). Next, he claims that compensatory education reinforces an unjustified belief that certain kinds of families are deficient:

    If only the parents were interested in the goodies we offer, if only they were like middle class parents, then we could do our job.

    Is it possible that contemporary readers happened upon this mischievous sentence and took it to be Bernstein’s own view, rather than his parody of the view of schools? As a result of this belief, children are labelled as deprived, and ‘then these labels do their own sad work’, by means of low teacher expectations and a failure to value the child’s home language and culture.

    You seem to tire of blaming the parents. You wish to bring to bear a moral framework of blame, and no-one is more available to blame than the student themselves. So you are getting rid of outside factors and just saying – look, the student is the one at fault. No matter what their excuses are, no-one made them misbehave. You are then concluding that “opportunity should only go to students who want to learn”. It is the students who don’t want to learn that most need the opportunity, however, unless you want to aid in perpetuating a sub-culture that does not see the point of education.

    Those who disagree with you have many reasons. For the record, mine are:
    * a duty on our part to educate must necessarily involve a right to be taught in pupils. This does not necessarily mean a right to be taught in your class, however.
    * needs must therefore be met, which involves a framework that accommodates all those involves in learning – so that is you as a teacher as well.
    * therefore we must focus on out-of-school factors when they affect a child’s education.
    * you personally cannot do this as a teacher. There must be more support – including segregated schooling, which we do have in the form of PRUs – so that lessons are not disrupted.

    What I see as a unforgivable failing in terms of the infrastructure that is aiding you, you see as personal moral faults on the part of the students. While I think that this approach is a way of mediating your extreme discomfort and anger at the situation you face, I think it is misplaced. I hope you can begin to understand what I and others are trying to get at – yes the student is personally responsible for their actions; no this does not mean that out-of-school factors are not important; and while this is not something you can deal with on your own, that does not mean that a wholesale disregard for external factors to be replaced by moral failings is aiding students. All it does is help you to combat the perceived culture of blame which you say expects you to do something about problem children, by displacing that blame onto the students. Where this culture of blame is coming from is, I hope, located in the governance of the various schools you have worked in. While I can appreciate the government keeps making noises about linking performance to teacher pay, and therefore making teachers wholly answerable for student grades (which is a terrible idea), the government has not yet, to my knowledge, blamed teachers for bad student behaviour.


  19. Both Duncan and I have asked for clarification of your point that someone is saying that students are blameless for their actions. I hope we have clarified our positions enough that you know we do not believe this, nor have we encountered this ourselves.

    Your original proof of these assertions comes from the blog post ‘ethics man’. It seems that you have been the focus of some vitriol on forums online. You appear to think that this is because you had the temerity to claim that students “might deserve punishments (as well as rewards) for those actions” as “it is controversial to even challenge this”. You categorised the vitriol as “The received wisdom – that children are beyond blame”.

    I have first-hand knowledge that there are still forms of management and discipline for behaviour in schools. Duncan seems to as well. These necessarily involve believing a child to be responsible for their actions, and blaming them. What I am not sure of is that these approaches are working all that well. Students keep on acting badly regardless of the consequences. If you wish to argue that these consequences should be harsher, meted out earlier, or more terminal… that is a totally different argument to the current one of “blame is against the law”.

    You feel that online ad hominem was directed at your reasons for punishment, i.e. you dared to blame a student for their actions. I will now point out other reasons for the vitriol that you see as an anti-blame bias:
    *the punishments you described were too punitive, irregardless of your reasons to punish
    *you were arguing that students are not only to blame for their actions, but also that there is no external factor that influences their behaviour that is not an excuse. Disagreeing with this, no matter how angrily, is not necessarily to say that blaming in itself is bad
    *your online manner could be interpreted as abrasive, something that we all fall prey to on a textual medium (on that note, I hope you don’t find me purposefully aggressive)
    *this is the internet. The internet is conducive to anonymous hate.

    That said, if you could elucidate your basis for “the received wisdom” that “the children are not to blame”, I would be most shocked to find that there is such a movement in education, as it would be very disappointing.


  20. Andrew – rejecting (some of) what you are saying is not the same as agreeing with your imagined alternatives.

    The point about dealing with behaviour on the basis of taking account of ‘out of school factors’ – I agree that in terms of day-to-day classroom management there’s not much you can do about that (other than, where appropriate, bear it in mind and – and this of course is where we differ – deal with it sympathetically); the real responsibility for dealing with this on a larger scale is – for the most part – out of your hands (and mostly out of mine, although I am specifically charged with pastoral care in my role). But it isn’t just an excuse to absolve children of ‘blame’ for their actions, nor does it actually absolve children of blame for their actions – the reality is rather more complex. That isn’t weasel words it’s just trying to deal with reality rather than convenient stereotypes and models.


  21. “Yet, now you are saying the problem is that you couldn’t deal with this because of pragmatic reasons – what effect could you possibly have on all these outside factors with teachers raise to explain away bad behaviour? Far easier to blame the student and hold them morally responsible. What confuses me is this. if it is morally wrong to fail to blame, then it doesn’t matter if failing to blame is impractical or not. “

    It is Duncan that started to argue about what worked, I pointed out that what he claimed would work was actually impossible. The practical point was relevant to Duncan;s point not to my argument in general. It would help if you looked at what I write in context rather than using selective quotations.

    “You are then concluding that “opportunity should only go to students who want to learn”. It is the students who don’t want to learn that most need the opportunity, however, unless you want to aid in perpetuating a sub-culture that does not see the point of education.”

    I don’t believe I ever said what you quote here. I am not saying that badly behaved kids deserve no opportunities. I am merely pointing out the ludicrous nature of a “right to be taught” that does not have a corresponding duty to learn.

    “What I see as a unforgivable failing in terms of the infrastructure that is aiding you, you see as personal moral faults on the part of the students. While I think that this approach is a way of mediating your extreme discomfort and anger at the situation you face, I think it is misplaced. I hope you can begin to understand what I and others are trying to get at – yes the student is personally responsible for their actions; no this does not mean that out-of-school factors are not important; and while this is not something you can deal with on your own, that does not mean that a wholesale disregard for external factors to be replaced by moral failings is aiding students. All it does is help you to combat the perceived culture of blame which you say expects you to do something about problem children, by displacing that blame onto the students.”

    Oh for pity’s sake.

    You have some cheek posting this stuff after suggesting that I was wrong to suggest anyone sees children as blameless.

    “I hope we have clarified our positions enough that you know we do not believe this”

    You have just clarified that you do believe this. Blame can’t be displaced if it is given to people who are to blame. It’s getting very difficult to keep up with what you say you believe.

    “I have first-hand knowledge that there are still forms of management and discipline for behaviour in schools.”

    This is a bit like saying nobody could be starving in a country with a loaf of bread.

    As ever you want to attribute to me some ludicrously absolute position (like “no child is ever held responsible for their actions ever”) rather than what I am actually arguing (that children are often, and inexcusably, not held responsible for their actions).


  22. Surely the practical, pragmatic impossibility of meeting the ‘needs’of students who cannot or will not behave appropriately is down to the idea that all teachers in all classes in all schools can deliver 11 kinds of therapy simultaneously. Until the infrastructure – and educational theory and practice – acknowledge that teaching a class, individual tuition and all kinds of therapy are separate activities and should have specific provisions made for them, education will suffer.

    Teachers can refer a constantly squinting, coughing or crying student to an optometrist, doctor or psychologist. It does not follow that teachers of classes can deal with all of the medical or therapeutic consequences of diagnosis or treatment for all conditions. Primary teachers may be better placed than secondary, but not always. And it certainly does not follow that fellow students can, let alone should, be involved in the details. Just try and tell a privacy commission that it’s ok for 200 unrelated people to be told the details of anyone’s medical/psychological/familial problems.

    We all know the heartwarming stories of how classes or whole schools have taken a disabled child to their bosoms and everyone is pleased how well it’s worked out. But these specific examples cannot be magically transformed into general rules for all conditions in all circumstances. And they certainly have no relevance to people who bully and attack disabled students.

    Teaching requires a curriculum to be taught to a class. (Forget setting for the time being.) Individual tuition needs a competent teacher to assess individual needs and design & deliver tailored guidance and instruction to deal precisely with those needs. Therapy for psychological or behavioural problems needs specific techniques, maybe medications, probably specially qualified experts to sort out diagnosis and programs of intervention.

    Just because there is – most of the time – a certain amount of overlap between classroom, therapy and tuition, it does not follow that all students could or should be in a classroom at any time in a day/week/term/couple of years. And the fact that teachers can take account of 1 or 2 non-English speakers, a couple of intellectually disabled, a couple whose families are imploding, an autistic student or a few rowdies does not mean that they can be expected to deal with all of them all day every day.

    For some conditions, the classic being the correctly diagnosed, accurately medicated ADHD student, a classroom is no problem. (For me, watching the transformation is near miraculous.) The school’s only involvement is checking/ controlling access to meds and the occasional report for progress reviews – by the doctor, not a teacher. For disruptive, violent, abusive students, neither individual teachers nor fellow students should have to take on the skills of security guards, police or prison officers to cope with the personal risks they face in dealing with these people.

    And I have no idea why ‘blame’ for bad behaviour should be so contentious. In the end, explanations are not excuses. Courts of law deal with these issues every day.

    Yes you are to blame. The ~amount~ of blame can be calibrated according to the nature of the crime and the severity of the psychiatric or other condition. If the explanation for removing the roofs of a dozen houses is that they’re obstructing the landing zone for our friends from planet Xtjp, then that (genuine) explanation will probably amount to an excuse that absolves anyone of criminal responsibility. Judges and juries normally have to deal with more complex balancing acts than this – and so do we.

    If we accidentally bruise or hurt someone by stepping on a foot, do we apologise? Yes, we do. It doesn’t matter that we didn’t mean to do it and it was a genuine accident. Once we accept that we have obligations arising from the unintended consequences of our actions, we are in a better position to judge how much blame to attribute or accept for intended actions.

    And if we exceed a speed limit, cross through a red light or park in a prohibited zone, there are standard penalties regardless of any personal reasons. In a school, swearing, fighting, chewing gum……….there should be standard penalties with standard enforcement. This is calle setting and maintaining standards.


  23. Do you read your email?


  24. Sorry, I do read my email but I take a while to reply. No doubt because I spend too much time arguing on blogs.


  25. By the way, may I point out that you are replacing the psychological needs of students to be made able to learn by a sensitive and caring educational context and teacher with the moral needs for the students to, er… ‘just be a good student and conform to my standards’?

    It is quite clear that your standards are not the only ones, and also that they are not without criticism from many other teachers. So why should we go for a set of needs based on you and your standards, rather than a set of needs based on including as many different students and perspectives as possible? (Unless it is not at all important that your way fails to include everybody else).


  26. Did you read past the title of this blog entry? I have never suggested that the problem with “needs” is that nothing is required, i.e. that nothing is ever needed.

    The problem is that there is no consideration of what the “needed” things are required for, or why it should be the education system that should meet these alleged needs.


  27. DoS, … including as many different students and perspectives as possible …

    Surely the classroom teacher must look to the needs of students who ~need~ a quiet, calm and peaceful environment for learning. Reconciling this with a need to be disruptive, abusive or just plain rowdy can be achieved … how?

    A teacher’s priority should always be teaching and learning surely. So the rowdies and the bullies have to be accommodated by, giving them another environment, say an exclusion room or another activity where their “needs” don’t impinge on others. Or is there a realistic other way.


  28. “All bad behaviour is then declared to be a result of unmet needs.”

    This is not a modern psychological idea. You yourself see bad behaviour as a result of unmet needs. A badly behaved child needs blame, official sanction, punishment, and to be able to control their desires so as not to fall into temptation again.
    If you wouldn’t say that the child ‘needs’ this, what would you say?

    We always talk about ‘needs’ when it comes to behaviour. We say that some people ‘need’ to be put in prison – so we can either talk about the needs for society (or the class) for someone to be removed, rather than the needs within the person that lead them to break rules. Surely, when someone deserves a punishment, it is a need that it be acted out? I do not think you have moved past ‘needs’ at all, all you are doing is replacing psychological and environmental needs (which can be addressed) with moral needs (which must be punished). And this moral framework demonstrably does not work – it is what we used to do, and we became unhappy with it.


  29. This is not a modern psychological idea. You yourself see bad behaviour as a result of unmet needs. A badly behaved child needs blame, official sanction, punishment, and to be able to control their desires so as not to fall into temptation again.

    I answered this point in the second comment above.

    And this moral framework demonstrably does not work – it is what we used to do, and we became unhappy with it.

    Just because some people become unhappy with something it does not mean that it “does not work” or indeed that it has anything wrong with it at all. In fact dissatisfaction with what is usually unavoidable strikes me as a pretty common symptom of decadence.


  30. “‘This is not a modern psychological idea. You yourself see bad behaviour as a result of unmet needs. A badly behaved child needs blame, official sanction, punishment, and to be able to control their desires so as not to fall into temptation again.’
    I answered this point in the second comment above.”

    This is the major portion of the second comment: Indeed. We can, of course, class anything at all, including that, as “meeting a need”. This is because the whole concept of “meeting needs” when dealing with behaviour is so vacuous and ill-defined. I find that those who talk most about “meeting needs” are very often those least able to define what “meeting a need” actually means.

    I comprehend that it is hard to define what a need is. This does nothing to go against my claim that your argument itself is based on ‘meeting needs’, albeit of a moral nature.
    .

    .

    .

    “In fact dissatisfaction with what is usually unavoidable strikes me as a pretty common symptom of decadence.”

    Would you say that the reticence to punish children is a symptom of decadence?


  31. I comprehend that it is hard to define what a need is. This does nothing to go against my claim that your argument itself is based on ‘meeting needs’, albeit of a moral nature.

    The point is not that your claim is false but that it is irrelevant. I am arguing that calling something “meeting a need” is no argument, not that no need should ever be met.

    Would you say that the reticence to punish children is a symptom of decadence?

    They certainly seem to go hand in hand.


  32. I am arguing that you are replacing one argument for meeting needs with another argument for meeting different needs. You responded: “I am arguing that calling something “meeting a need” is no argument, not that no need should ever be met.”

    So, are you getting rid of a ‘psychological needs based approach’ for a ‘moral needs based approach’? This is how you concluded your original post:
    “Of course, the incoherence and injustice of the needs-based approach to education is inevitable. Modelling human beings as bundles of needs is to rob them of their humanity. Whenever we view human beings as something other than moral agents we are likely to end up advocating solutions which are in conflict with both our consciences and our knowledge of the human mind.”

    If you end up saying ‘pupils have needs, such as the need to be seen as moral agents’, doesn’t the argument work against yourself as well?


  33. I’m sorry, but repeating yourself is not an argument.


  34. “I am arguing that calling something “meeting a need” is no argument, not that no need should ever be met.”

    OK, let’s agree to meet needs, then. You can continue to argue to meet needs without basing your argument on ‘meeting a need’.

    I look forward to finding out how successful you are!


  35. It’s weird, I see the words but I can’t see anything resembling an argument in there.

    Why does it make me think of Steve Carell’s character here:

    http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=-VGM_jAzPj8


  36. Good grief DoS

    “OK, let’s agree to meet needs, then. You can continue to argue to meet needs without basing your argument on ‘meeting a need’. ”

    OA’s obviously fed up but I’m fresh back from hols. Needs in this context are primarily educational. Health, psychology, poverty and family or social circumstances obviously impinge but we have to keep our eye on the educational ball.

    You’re a teacher of a class with an autistic student who needs routine, quiet and personal attention, a few scallywags who can stay on task as long as they’re kept separate and not distracted, a couple with dyslexia, a student with a hearing device, a trio whose first language is not English and more than a dozen who can work well in a peaceful, threat-free environment. So the educational needs of these 20+ students are for calm, order and freedom from fear. What do you do with the bully, the disruptive, the violent or the abusive student? Say 5 or fewer of the students in this class feel a need to dominate or intimidate others. (This does not qualify as an educational need, by the way.)

    If you want to introduce a philosophical theme that OA doesn’t want or need, try simplistic utilitarianism. The greatest good for the greatest number will result in … ? No need to guess, I know the answer. Exclusion from this class.

    Even if we accept that these few students have a right to express or act out their desires, it does not logically follow that the action or expression has to be in this classroom with these students. The school may provide other classrooms, activities or environments for them – because even if these nasty, non-educational rights are equal to others’ more palatable rights, they are not and never will be superior to them.

    We don’t expect students to study or learn in a noisy factory or a bustling shop, we provide a classroom and a teacher. We don’t then fill these rooms with blaring fire engines or tumbling acrobats, nor should we allow a few students to behave in scary or disruptive ways.


  37. A most interesting and provocative post, with lots of frank-bordering-on-the-plain-rude responses in the comments. I shall try to enter into the spirit of things.

    In your original article, you fail to make several, crucial, distinctions; which omissions weaken your argument, whereas inclusion would strengthen it.

    1) You fail to distinguish personal needs from social ones; i.e. personal, private needs (such as for food, sleep, sex, etc) which are and should be met by the individual him/herself, on the one hand, and needs which can and should be met by others, e.g. the educational institutions, on the other.
    You write, we have the problem of identifying what counts as a need and in particular which needs educational institutions have an obligation to meet. It is indeed difficult, so all the more reason to bear in mind the distinction between personal and social needs.
    Failure to keep, or perhaps make, this distinction leads you to set up straw men, such as Are we really obliged to make all students happy and psychologically healthy? (“We” here presumably meaning schoolteachers.) Students are people and need to be happy and psychologically healthy. It does not necessarily follow that schoolteachers are responsible for meeting this need. Presumably, you have heard people make this assertion. They are wrong, and need to have their faulty logic pointed out to them (but please see the point below about the hierarchy of needs).

    2) You fail to distinguish between needs and wants: (quoting P.S. Wilson)a young bully, for example, from his point of view may ‘need’ to find victims. Plainly this is a ‘need’ which, though identifiable, should not be met.
    This is not a need. A bully may want to find victims, but a want is not a need. Although I am quoting Wilson, not you, nowhere in your post do you make this rather crucial distinction. That omission weakens your argument, because your opponents’ argument (that if something is a need, that implies a moral duty to meet it) is seriously weakened once this distinction is made plain.

    3) I have discussed the three main explanations given as to why children are blameless for their behaviour.
    The three you list are, in my experience, given as explanations for behaviour. An explanation for behaviour is not the same as an excuse for bad behaviour or a reason not to blame or not to punish. Folks who use these explanations as reasons why children should not be blamed or punished for bad behaviour, are failing to make this crucial disctinction. An explanation for behaviour (bad or not) does not imply blamelessness; the one does not logically follow from the other.
    It seems to be a common human need to explain behaviour. This is not the same thing as explaining away behaviour. Why don’t you point out this distinction to your opponents and detractors? It would seriously weaken their argument, and strengthen yours. If a student commands you to perform a private bodily function, you must first obviously deal with this act of rudeness, especially if it takes place in a classroom in front of others. However, how you deal with it (right then and there, outside in the corridor, privately after class, etc), what punishment you decide on, will be influenced (at least in part, I suggest) by what you consider to be the reasons for it; in other words. you will want to know whether there are any mitigating circumstances, so that you can judge what the person deserves.

    4) You fail to show you are aware of the significance of Maslow’s Theory, A Hierarchy of Needs (hint: the key word is “hierarchy”, it’s right there in the title), which, combined with your failure to make the above 3 distinctions, leads you to make the hilarious statement, “Maslow has helpfully included sex as a basic need, a fact forgotten by those who would quote him in an educational context, as the obvious implication would involve turning schools into brothels.” Who is implying this? Only you! Only someone who fails to distinguish between private, personal needs (e.g., sex), and social ones, i.e. needs that should be met by, e.g., an educational institution, could make such a suggestion. Only someone who fails to distinguish clearly that a need does not imply a moral duty to fulfill it, could make such a ludicrous suggestion. In addition, only someone who fails to appreciate the significance of “hierarchy” in “hierarchy of needs”, and someone who fails to distinguish between an explanation for behaviour and an excuse for behaviour, could make such a statement. Frustrated sexual desires (a basic need) do affect behaviour. This, clearly, does not excuse bad behaviour. The key word is “basic”. In Maslow’s hierarchy, he is stating that basic needs must be met first, before the person can attend to higher needs. This is relevant to teachers, because they have the problem of identifying what counts as a need and in particular which needs educational institutions have an obligation to meet.

    if it is not possible to identify what needs we should be meeting then we can’t possibly declare that needs haven’t been met. Identifying needs that an educational institution should meet is greatly helped by distinguishing between needs and wants, between personal, private needs and others, and between basic versus higher needs.

    Finally, students are people and have emotional needs which must be met. One such need is for attention. For a baby, attention or lack of it means the difference between life and death, because a baby cannot feed itself. Some children learn that a sure-fire way to get attention is to do something naughty. This puts the adult, who is aware of this, in a dilemma when considering how to deal with the bad behaviour: paying attention to the behaviour merely re-inforces it, yet not paying attention to it may encourage the behaviour, a) because the student thinks they can get away with it, and b) because the person’s need for attention is still unsatisfied.
    The knowledge that emotional needs are basic needs, and that one key emotional need, particularly with young children but not limited to them, is attention, is useful. It helps satisfy the teacher’s/parent’s/adult’s need for explanation for behaviour. Explanation for behaviour is useful when deciding how to respond. But it does not excuse bad behaviour. (Did I already mention that?)

    There are more problems with your article, but this comment has become too long already.

    Further reading: Go For It! by Dr. Irene Kassorla;
    How To Talk so Kids Will Listen, and Listen so Kids will Talk, by Faber & Mazlish;
    anything by Dr. Haim Ginott


    • I think, in your comments numbered 1), 2) and 3), you have missed the key point of my argument. You appear to be complaining that I haven’t made distinctions between needs. The point is that we cannot make these distinctions between needs within the framework that I am arguing against. I am complaining that almost anything can be classed as a need and treated as something we are obliged to meet. So I really don’t see why you are telling me that wants aren’t needs or that there are needs that shouldn’t be met. That’s my whole point.

      With regard to the differences between explanations and excuses, I am dealing with excusess. Explanations that aren’t used to excuse are neither here nor there.

      That said, I am deeply suspicious of any teacher who needs to resort to psychological models to understand everyday behaviour of students. We all have minds, and one of the things minds do best is understand other minds. Does Maslow really tell us anything useful that wasn’t already obvious? You tell me

      “The knowledge that emotional needs are basic needs, and that one key emotional need, particularly with young children but not limited to them, is attention, is useful”

      which leaves me wondering how many teachers, how many human beings, needed Maslow to tell them that that students usually want, sorry, need attention.


      • So I really don’t see why you are telling me that wants aren’t needs or that there are needs that shouldn’t be met. That’s my whole point.
        Yes, but you weren’t making it clearly, so I improved on it;-)

        I am dealing with excuses. Explanations that aren’t used to excuse are neither here nor there.
        But isn’t it your complaint that too many people who are involved in education (according to you, at least) are confusing explanations with excuses?

        how many human beings, needed Maslow to tell them that students usually want, sorry, need attention.
        So you think it’s a want not a need? I disagree. If it were a want, you would hear it more often: “I want attention!” (Come to think of it, teachers do say this a lot, don’t they? Maybe you’re right!!)

        Judging from my personal experience, lots of people need reminding that children (young children, especially) need attention. I certainly do. You are obviously one of the lucky few who already knew that and don’t need reminding. You, therefore, would never make the mistake of scolding a child who repeatedly wets the bed, because you would immediately realize they were subconsciously doing it to get attention. You would intuitively do the right thing and give them lots of attention for other things and pay absolutely no attention to the bed-wetting. And if a student in class should, I don’t know, say that “this is boring”, you would immediately interpret this as a subconscious call for attention, and not assume (as so many would) that the kid is demanding to be entertained. Does everyone share your wisdom, I wonder?

        We all have minds, and one of the things minds do best is understand other minds.
        Ho-ho, that’s a good one! Yes, indeed, and proof is right here on this blog!

        Did Maslow tell people that students usually want attention? All I can recall of Maslow’s was his hierarchy of needs: that higher needs cannot be adequately attended to if lower needs have not been dealt with. Common sense, if you stop to think about it, but how common is common sense? And how many people usually stop to think? (I know you do, I mean all the rest of us out there.)

        I think, in your comments numbered 1), 2) and 3), you have missed the key point of my argument. A likely story! I am super intelligent and never miss a trick. Although, I must confess to sometimes finding it difficult to keep track of who exactly you are referring to each time when you write “we”: do you mean “my opponents and detractors”, or people in general, or just teachers in general, or secondary schoolteachers in the UK, or yourself? This confusion must be your fault because, as I said, I am super intelligent ;-)


        • My objection to excuses has nothing to do with anybody confusing explanations and excuses. An explanation might be an excuse, or it might not be. I object to it if it is. There’s no confusion here.

          You seem to think that if you keep talking about there being a distinction between wants and needs you have somehow made that distinction in a coherent way; you haven’t.

          With regard to Maslow, you don’t prove a model is useful by giving examples of people who don’t use the model making mistakes. You demonstrate it by making accurate predictions that could not be made as easily without it. It is far from obvious that treating children as bundles of linearly ordered needs, rather than as human beings with minds like one’s own, tells us anything about how to educate.

          This is not because anyone is infallible in their judgements already, but because children are not bundles of linearly ordered needs, and needs are not even comprehensible without identifying purposes. The important distinction between the “need” for food and the “need” for companionship is not where it fits in a hierachy, but what each is needed for.


      • Now imagine we accepted the belief that meeting this need was not, a moral duty, or an act of charity, but a method of treating the underlying cause of poor behaviour. We would cease looking for the most famished child to feed first and start feeding the worst behaved.
        A very good point. And your final paragraph is particularly powerful.

        For the record, I agree with you. People who fail to distinguish between needs and wants, who bundle human behaviour up into all-encompassing “needs”, then further simply assume (without justification or explanation) that some or all of these “needs” must be met (“because they’re needs!”) by the educational institution generally and by teachers in particular – such people are using sloppy thinking, faulty logic, and they should be exposed without mercy and as soon as possible, because their ideology is seriously damaging.

        I don’t live in the UK so I have no idea how dominant the ideology is which you are arguing against. Judging from your blog, it sounds like you (and a handful of other crazies) are the only dissenters. Is there a big debate going on about this? Or are you, in fact, a minority of one?


        • It depends how you define the ideology concerned as to how many people oppose it. In my experience, most of my concerns are very widely shared. That said, just because somebody is apparently concerned about a problem doesn’t mean they are interested in solving it. Education is highly politicised, and you frequently encounter people who agree that a problem exists, but will not admit to any solution other than advancing some policy they already believed in.

          So for instance, there are lots of people who admit discipline is a problem but instead of wanting to do something directly about discipline they claim it can be solved by bringing in more vocational qualifications, privatising schools, reforming spelling, purging the system of socialists, making education voluntary, making teaching more entertaining, or some other idea that they’d have proposed even if behaviour wasn’t a problem.


  38. MP; I think you are confusing super intelligent for super annoying.

    A request- Please spare us from your ironic wisdom- think of it as a late xmas present.



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