Friday, 7 October 2011

Skinning Machiavelli

I'm still amazed by the power of a throw-away comment from a quarter-century ago.  We're sitting in Grade 11 history class and Mr. Sparks tosses out 'if Nixon had read Machiavelli more closely, Watergate wouldn't have happened.'  It's a shame that he retired in 2002, since I would dearly love to write him a quick thank you note.  In retrospect, I see that his introduction of this kind of thought experiment planted the seed for my eventual interest in Brock's Liberal Arts program.

Yo history dudes, stop hating on me

So we're sitting in psychology class yesterday, and I'm cringing.  We're discussing punishment and reinforcement, and I don't like what I'm hearing.  Condition responses using Pavlov, keep Thorndike's law of effect in mind, and condition students based on Skinner.  I hate the thought of having to manipulate my students in this manner.  I want to hold classes that are so engaging that I don't have to rely on underhanded manipulations as a means to keep students focused.  I want to believe that they're going to enjoy my classes enough that discipline won't be an issue.

'Nevertheless, the new prince teacher should not be too ready of belief, nor too easily set in motion; nor should he himself be the first to raise alarms; but should so temper prudence with kindliness that too great confidence in others shall not throw him off his guard, nor groundless distrust render him insupportable.'

Thanks Nicolo.  I recognize that I'm a little idealistic, but I still don't like the idea that I'll have to manipulate students using rewards and punishments.  Why should I bribe them with praise and treats?  Isn't it my fault if the students aren't behaving ... shouldn't I just keep trying different methods of engagement until I can capture their interest?  I worry that I'm going to resort to these tactics too quickly, and not as a last resort.

'A prince teacher should therefore disregard the reproach of being thought cruel unfair where it enables him to keep his subjects class united and obedient.  For he who quells disorder by a very few signal examples will in the end be more merciful than he who through great leniency permits things to take their course and so result in rapine and bloodshed; for those hurt the entire state class, whereas the severities of the prince teacher injure individuals only.'

Yes, whether I like it or not, I am going to have to use some kind of reward scheme in my classes.  I'm really not sure what it will be, and I'm probably going to be fighting myself while I'm enforcing it.  There will be students that I can't motivate, and it's only fair to the balance of the class that I find the means to keep them under control.  Part of my difficulty is that I would have no problems offering sincere praises to my students, but knowing that praising my students is part of a larger reward management scheme feels like I'm moving praise from being an honest expression, to being a tool.  Also, as mentioned above, I worry that I'm going to reach for the candy bag too quickly and avoid exhausting my other options first.

'For the friendships which we buy with a price, and do not gain by greatness and nobility of character, though they be fairly earned are not made good, but fail us when we have occasion to use them.'

And I think that's my greatest issue with reward / punishment schemes.  I want the students to show up on time because they want to be there, not because Mr. Dallmann is going to offer them pizza every quarter if the quota target is met.  I want praise to be legitimate and not a price paid in return for engagement.  Finally, I hate the thought of hurting anyone or anything ... and reward / punishment schemes have at their root the fact that people will do more to avoid pain than to gain pleasure.  Yes, my ideal world would include me getting to ignore this part of classroom management, and that's where my cringing comes from.  

'Returning to the question of being loved or feared, I sum up by saying, that since his being loved depends on his subjects, while his being feared depends on himself, a wise prince teacher should build on what is his own, and not what rests with others.  Only, as I have said, he must do his utmost to escape hatred.'

Yes, I may not like it, but I'm going to have to deal with it and not hide my head in the sand.  I just hope that I do it right and don't choose the easy way out.

(quotations from Chapter XVII:  'Of Cruelty and Clemency', The Prince.)


  1. The good news about classroom management is that there is no right way. There may be better ways but there is no one right way. The other good thing about it is that your techniques are not set in stone. If something isn't working you can change at any time. Yes this can be a difficult and challenging change to make for both you and your students but it can be done.

  2. Thanks for the confirmation Dave. As much as I'm reassured that a way will be found, I'm having to face some of my assumptions and curtail my "I want to know now" thoughts. My next post (based on your comment) further addresses my problems. It does help a lot just knowing that it can be done ... because for now it seems incredibly daunting.