Friday, August 18, 2017

Those Damn Five Year Old Anarchists

Someone brought this classroom poster to my attention today:

That's from a classroom for five year olds. A classroom. For five year olds.

There are so many problems here. Equating considerate, compliant and conforms is just bizarre, like saying that bananas and baseballs make for equally good meals because both start with "b." And bossing is somehow a lower level, as if bossy people can be expected to grow into compliant people (who then become democratic people)? And the idea of some five year old child coming home from school today to despondently tell her parents, "Today I was an anarchist." Because when you run down the hall, you're not just breaking a rule or letting your five-year-old feelings carry you away-- you are challenging the very order of the universe itself.

The source of this system is, as is often the case, a guy with a dream and a consulting firm. Marvin "Marv" Marshall has written some books and booked a bunch of speaking gigs, so you know he's an expert in the field of stress reduction. In particular he focuses on reducing stress by exercising authority without coercion. Note, that's still essentially an authoritarian approach. Just a smiley one.  He's been a college lecturer, operated a charity to spread his ideas, and taught school (though I can't find anything about where or how long). Along with various other degrees, he scored a Doctorate in Education from University of Southern California in 1968. He's been an author and presenter since 1992.

There is a Marvin Marshall Preschool and Children's Center in Carmichael, CA, presumably without any nests of anarchists in it (GreatSchools reports enrollment of 2 students, both white). There are youtube videos, including a long one that explains, among other things, that the method was developed "to meet the needs of today's diverse students" which certainly matches the impression is a system about "criminalizing" non-compliant behavior. In another he credits his system as a "take-off" on Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development and it is, in the sense that tofu is a take-off on meat.  And you can watch Marshall himself in action; I will warn you that he has a bit of a smarm issue (which is fine-- after all, I have a bit of a jerk issue).

In short, I'm not so sure how much we can trust the expertise behind this system. And Nancy Bailey does an excellent job of putting this in a larger context of school discipline.And while this system drew attention because it popped up in Pasco County, Florida, you should know that it's spread far and wide-- here's a slide show presentation about it from a school in California.

But the bottom line here is, do we want to teach five year olds that being an anarchist is a bad thing and being compliant is a good thing? What if we renamed Marshall's stages-- what if students were labeled "freedom fighters" or "soldiers of the patriarchy" or "weasely collaborator." Heck, we could assign students to one of the four houses of Hogwarts every day. Or we could come up with a schema based on chaos and order muppets. I rather like the image or a small child coming home to announce, "Hey, I'm still a Swedish Chef today!!" And if you like your Muppet universe a little more complex, then there's this chart:

Here's the thing to remember about discipline systems at school-- every one of them codifies somebody's value system, sets in rules and regulations judgments like "being compliant is good" or "a good student is one who questions authority." When a system codifies love of compliance (and can't distinguish between compliance and cooperation) and negative labeling of any sort of age-appropriate behavior (five year olds running! zounds!!), my eyebrows go up. Frankly, I'd much rather see a system that codifies fuzzy Muppets.

UPDATE: After the social media flap and Nancy Bailey's piece, the superintendent decided maybe they'd just better slow that anarchy train down a bit.


  1. Not to mention Mr. Marshall seriously needs to educate himself about anarchy, which is simply a rejection of hierarchy. It is *not* a rejection of rules or order because a group of free people can certainly freely come together and enact rules by which they agree to abide.

  2. Oh good lord. What a steaming load of - oh never mind.

    It makes me fairly nostalgic for the vaguely religious moralizing I experienced in my Church of England schools. At least they had nice hymns, with words from John Donne and tunes from J. S. Bach, written in the language of the King James Bible, and not that of politico-corporate donkeyballs.

  3. I doubt the kids understand the fancy lingo. They probably just realize when they are in trouble. I don't know if I really understand what anarchists really believe.

  4. <<<Here's the thing to remember about discipline systems at school-- every one of them codifies somebody's value system, sets in rules and regulations judgments like "being compliant is good" or "a good student is one who questions authority."

    I promise you I'm not being the least bit cheeky or cute when I say this. Rather I say it in dead earnest: You are precisely right. And this is the single strongest argument in favor of school choice.

    Nearly every interpersonal transaction that occurs in a place called a school is freighted with norms and values. And none of us have the right to impose our own. And increasingly, the presumption of "community norms" is precisely that--presumption. No school will ever be in complete alignment with a family's values in a diverse (and divided) nation. This can only be resolved by letting families choose.

    1. I didn't for a minute imagine you were being cute or cheeky. And I do recognize that charter advocates see this as an argument in favor of school choice.

      This would be one of those areas where we can agree on the problem, but not on the solution. First, I think there are far too many values at play to make every one available in a choice school-- particularly when those have to be cross-checked against academics, sports, activities and all the other things folks want for their children. Second, I don't think that, for instance No Excuses schools, were created with family values in mind-- I think they were created with the charter creator's values in mind. Maybe that will line up with some families, but it strikes me as a huge crap shoot, a kind of hopeless numbers game.

      Third, we get the issue of responsiveness, which we've disagreed about before. If a parent at my school doesn't like how we've handled something, she can start making phone calls and work her way up through staff, administration, superintendent and school board, whereas in many charters parents simply meet a stone wall. How many Success Academy parents have told the story of being called by the school time after time, and the school isn't interested in working with them-- just in inviting the parents to vote with their feet.

      I will not pretend for half a second that public schools have this issue well in hand and totally under control, with some spectacular cases of disastrous disciplinary mismanagement. But for me the critical difference is that public schools largely offer at least part of a pathway for seeking justice, while charters largely do not.

      I also suspect this is another area where large vs. small district issues come into play. If it makes any difference, I'm encouraged that the debate about schools can finally come down to some nuts and bolts issues like this one rather than just hollering back and forth about how much one TPS or charters generally suck. Because I think this particular issue is probably solvable for both kinds of schools.

  5. So whose values reflect the default setting for classroom management in traditional public schools? You, me, Eva Moskowitz, restorative justice advocates, or someone else. You've acknowledged -- and I agree -- that discipline is values-driven. That means someone's values are going to win? Who? And who decides?

  6. I'm not sure it's as simple as someone "winning."

    Generally our disciplinary rules are proposed by administrators, theh they go to the board, which makes the adoption of rules open to public discussion. But practically speaking, they then become enforced/interpreted by teachers and administrators in the school. One hopes (and I know in some bad instances one hopes in vain) that those folks make decisions based on a professional understanding of child development, plus experience in dealing with and helping young humans. So there's some expertise in there and not just a personal feeling that this is how things ought to be.

    And of course at any time parents or board members or even students may pipe to say "This isn't working. Let's take another look."

    Lots of cooks in the kitchen, and not always the right ones, but that;s how I see tps working

  7. If I may, you might be uncomfortable with the idea of someone's values "winning" because it's your values that have "won." The fact that you have acknowledged that *all* discipline systems (and I would add, by extension, classroom culture at large) is values-driven is an acknowledgement that there is much potential for conflict in a traditional public between and among families whose values are not reflected in the school's mission, culture, and values.

    1. I suppose that as a middle aged white guy, I can't rule your suggestion out, at least on the larger level. Personally, I feel as if I'm advocating for my values upstream in my workplace a large part of the time. And I accept that there will always be families who don't feel their values are fully reflected by the school, particularly if the school embraces pluralistic inclusive values and the family comes from a "only our values are True" place (which is where many of our local homeschoolers are). In this, I think public schools reflect our ongoing struggle as a society-- do we really make room for any points of view, or do we settle on the One True Path and make everyone walk it. We've been living with that tension for centuries; it doesn't surprise me to find it in schools.

      But it brings me back to my original question-- what is there in a charter choice system to suggest they would have any less difficulty with any of this?

    2. <<< what is there in a charter choice system to suggest they would have any less difficulty with any of this?

      Nothing at all. But in places with a wide variety of private and parochial choices, affluent parents are used to weighing multiple factors: I might like School A's sports, facilities and IB program. But School B values the arts and diversity. One of those factors -- a huge one -- is school culture. One of the deleterious effects of ed reform (I think you and I agree on this) is that test-driven accountability seems to have create more sameness than differences in charters. A more robust choice environment would allow for far greater differentiation among charters. I think this might most readily manifest itself on issues pertaining to school culture and discipline.

    3. <<< what is there in a charter choice system to suggest they would have any less difficulty with any of this?

      Little at present but perhaps you and I can agree on this: wouldn't you rather see a charter sector whose main points of differentiation is school culture, and not variations of a single model chasing higher test scores? I would. Bet parents (and teachers) would too.

    4. Yes, test-driven accountability and modern charters hitting big at the same time was definitely a problem for charters (at least in the states where they were held to that same test-based accountability). Charters would certainly make more sense if they weren't all chasing the same test results. Of course, I think public schools would be better off without the tests as well. But yes-- I think you've identified a point of agreement for us.

    5. One of the troubling things to me about publicly subsidized charters, though, is how values are reflected, not merely in rules governing behavior and consequence structures, but in curriculum. I'm from the Deep South, and the number of charters down there that openly teach anti-scientific religious dogma such as creationism, the idea that the Earth is only 6,000 years old, etcetera, is really troubling to me.
      Of course people have an absolute right to pass on to their children whatever ideas they want and I wouldn't want the government trying to stop them from teaching their children things the state has concluded are wrong. And with the rise of home schooling, people can really prevent children from being exposed to any outside ideas to a great extent for a very long time. But the idea of the government subsidizing the promotion of concepts that are entirely outside the realm of scientific and scholarly consensus strikes me as a real disservice to say the least.

    6. <<< I wouldn't want the government trying to stop them from teaching their children things the state has concluded are wrong. >>>

      What your saying sounds great, as long as you're on the side the state has decided is "right". Fromthe other direction, it looks like discrimination though.

      I know you're trying to say that only "scientific" things should be taught, but the line isn't that plain. Here are a few examples:

      What do we teach about "global warming"? Do we teach the science: "the Earth is getting slightly warmer"; or do we teach the politics: "if we don't go back to the stone age, the seas will rise and we'll all die."

      How do you teach history? Did Western man use his superior weaponry to murder and enslave millions and plunder great civilizations? Or did the fusion of Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian values create a uniquely powerful engine of progress that has raised billions of people above subsidence for the first time in human history?

      What do we teach about the environment? Do we teach that Earth is a privileged planet that appears to be ideally suited for us? Or do we teach that humans are a malignant cancer on an otherwise pristine world?

      What do we teach about sex and when do we teach it? Does a 6 year old need to explore his sexual identity? (I live in CA, and my state emphatically says "yes".) Do we teach abstinence? Do we pull out the condoms and the bananas? Both sides will cite quasi-science in order to silence the other, but those decisions are values based, not science based.

      Charters are about empowering parents to make decisions for the education of their own children. Some parents will send their kids to a Waldorf school that teaches naturalistic evolution, environmental sustainability, Western plunder, and condom usage. Other parents will choose a parochial school that teaches special creation, Western civilization, and abstinence. Both are entitled to that choice. Allowing the state to decide for them is discriminatory against 1 group.

      In the end, look at your own family. Who do you trust to do right by your kids: yourself, or your Congressman?

    7. In a public school you don't teach the things you're asking about in the way you're saying. You teach facts and have discussion and students use their innate critical thinking skills to reach their own conclusions. The only value you need to teach is to be kind to others.

  8. I think you touched on the key issue which is child development. We know enough about neuroscience and brain development regarding the pre-frontal lobe and the so-called executive functions (self-discipline, organization, empathy)to have some insights into child behavior. The complete development of this part of the brain can take up to 24 years and is slower in developing in boys than girls. It's not that some kids don't want to behave they just can't, so some progressive school are working with the child by providing calming spaces with soothing colors and by asking the child how he/she feels about how they are behaving rather than dictating directives. The child is also always given a snack in case low levels of blood sugar is the problem. I know this isn't really what this article is about but I think any set of rules has to be age specific and developmentally oriented. Just as personalized learning is now in vogue (as well it should be) personalized discipline should also be considered. A balanced and blended personalized approach should the primary rule in any list of behavior rules.
    Michael Haran
    Institute of Progressive Education and Learning (

  9. Here's what She says about 5-year-old developmental milestones

    Social skills for 5-year-olds

    knows right from wrong
    doesn't use adult logic
    plays make-believe
    likes to play with friends rather than alone
    plays with both boys and girls but prefers the same sex
    seeks praise from adults and peers
    wants to conform and may tease those who don't

    And Parental survival tips

    Every parent can use some tips when it comes to raising a 5-year-old. Dr. Robyn McKay, a therapist at Arizona State University and expert in child and adolescent development, offers the following nuggets of wisdom:

    Encourage your child's curiosity (tiresome and frustrating sometimes). Ask him, "What do you think?" You'll be amazed at his creative responses!
    Keep challenging your own mind. One of the best predictors of a child's future success is his or her parents' own educational level. When you keep learning, you grow, and your child most certainly benefits. For example, learn a second language along with your child, take a creative writing class, or finish your master's degree.
    Focus on what's right with your child. Does she belt out songs from the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack? Is he already a math whiz? Celebrate your child's strengths and encourage him or her to continue focusing on what's right. The world is full of critics. Be your child's biggest fan.