Thursday, January 31, 2013

Assertive Discipline - How do I hate thee? Let me count the ways…

Karen Hamilton April 3, 2010

Assertive Discipline - How do I hate thee? Let me count the ways….

Over the last few days reading about assertive discipline, I have found myself getting angrier and angrier. Is that a sign of getting old? I must confess, I have absolutely hated reading about 80% of what I have read. I have to ask myself, what, oh what could have caused such a reaction in one like me who is usually cool, calm, and collected. In two words: Assertive Discipline!!- Hated it.

Control versus Autonomy

In his book Solving Discipline and Classroom Management Problems: Method’s and Models for today’s teachers, Charles Wolfgang talks about “personality fit.” To explain the concept, he illustrates the difference between two types of teachers: Mrs. Control and Mrs. Autonomy. Wolfgang believes that teachers have “a personality core that is the ‘child’ in us.” (Wolfgang, 3) From his point of view, the teachers who by choice primarily use rules and consequences in their classrooms are projecting their core personality, one of control. The autonomous teacher on the other hand moves away from rules and consequences towards relationship and listening and projects a core personality of autonomy. A problem naturally arises when teachers are forced to teach in ways that are against their nature.

To project further, maybe it is the case that when teachers are forced to read large amounts of data that report on a subject that goes against their nature, they get angry! Grrrrr!

Declaration of Bias

OK, time for a deep breath. (Oh no- that was step 4 in limit setting!) It’s no secret then, that my nature is one of autonomy and my teaching method is primarily relationship, listening. To me that is the way it should be because, I teach in college, a world populated by adults who have chosen to be there. The term discipline in a punitive sense is very rarely a part of the college classroom.

Now that I have completely declared my obvious bias, it’s time to discuss so-called assertive discipline and spin-offs and how they fit or do not fit into the adult group activities of my life.

Assertive Discipline

According to Lee and Marlene Canter and their Assertive Discipline approach, a teacher needs to have a high level of control in a class. Teachers get that control by establishing clear rules and directions that define the limits of behaviour. Students who exhibit good behaviours get positive recognition and rewards, while students who exhibit bad behaviours face escalating consequences. Clearly, their model is based on behaviourist ideas. But from my point of view, they push the boundary of behaviourism even further. Where many behaviourists see humans as entering the world as a blank slate, (Locke’s tabla rasa) Canter and Canter see children’s natural instinct as one of misbehaviour. According to Canter & Canter 1992, “Children are not innately motivated to behave in school.” To them children are bad until you make them good. Sadly, this system of authoritative classroom management is one of the most widely used programs in schools today.

Positive Discipline

A spin off of Assertive Discipline, is Fredric Jones’ Positive Discipline. What is different in Jones’ model is that the focus is on positive rewards and only when the positive techniques fail would a teacher use punishments. This theory uses “limit setting” to keep students on task and again is clearly a behaviourist approach to teaching, learning and discipline. Teachers are taught to follow the exact step-by-step approach that is limit setting to control their classes. One technique is to get into the child’s space by getting close to them. This intimidation tactic may work with young children, but if a college teacher were to try something like this there may be unintended consequences.

The Groups in my life- Not!

Groucho Marx once said, “I don’t want to belong to any group that would accept me as a member.” I’m with Groucho. Now of course Groucho was a comedian and he was joking, but what did he mean? I can’t speak for him, but I can explain why I relate. It is certainly not like some might assume that I feel that I am not good enough to be in any group. It is that I treasure my absolute freedom and independence and perhaps this is at the root of my problem with theories that control, theories that reward and punish, theories that assume that people are bad, and theories that separate people into opposing camps and groups in general.

All groups in any culture or subculture create norms which members are expected to follow. In a democratic society, theoretically, the members vote for leaders to represent their interests. Certain of these leaders become the lawmakers who create the rules, regulations and consequences. Those who disobey face the punishments their society has deemed appropriate. So no matter how much any of us may want to be free, we are still members of a larger society that often follows rules, regulations and behaviourist consequences.

Rules and regulations have never been my favourite thing and anytime they have been overly imposed on me in situations like schooling, they have stifled my creativity. For me a rule has to be grounded in logic, or I may not follow it. Obviously, in our society one needs rules, regulations and conformity to a certain extent. You cannot arbitrarily decide to drive on the wrong side of the road. You need to meet certain criteria to complete studies, and if you have a job you have obligations to meet the job requirements. A member of a union, must follow the rules determined by the majority. To survive and strive in society requires self-discipline.

But what is this word discipline? And how does one acquire self-discipline?

Covaleskie and Dewey

In an article called “Dewey, Discipline, and Democracy”, John Covaleskie talks about John Dewey and his ideas about the nature of discipline and its role in both democracy and education. According to Covaleskie,

“Dewey does not think of discipline as a matter of control or a precondition of teaching, but as an integral part of education. Further, he is not interested in education as a transfer of information so much as an apprenticeship for a certain sort of social life. In this respect, discipline is required for social membership. In addition, as part of the ability to pursue worthwhile goals, discipline contributes to the creation of a good life. It is not the way teachers treat students; it is a certain way children learn to relate to the world. Dewey sees discipline as inextricably linked to a child’s interest.”

In the article, Covaleskie goes on to explain that discipline is what is necessary to stay on task until an end goal is reached. Order in a classroom can be imposed with theories like assertive discipline, but it can also be obtained by providing engaging tasks that students make sense of. When students are engaged in their own learning, they also learn self-discipline. In this learner-centred model of education, the teacher is a facilitator of learning and aids in students’ apprenticeship. In the imposed system, children do as they are told and they may be more, “prisoner than disciple.”

What does motivation have to do with it?

In theories like Assertive Discipline and Positive Discipline, students receive positive reinforcement in the form of extrinsic rewards. According to Alfie Kohn and others extrinsic rewards can in fact be a kind of punishment. Proponents of Cognitive Evaluation Theory believe that what is necessary is intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation comes from inside an individual. A person who enjoys doing a puzzle is motivated intrinsically. The task or activity itself is the reward. It is art for art’s sake. People will work hard on any task when they are interested or passionate.

Researchers Deci, Koestner & Ryan in “A Meta-Analytic Review of Experiments Examining the Effects of Extrinsic Rewards on Intrinsic Motivation” conclude that extrinsic rewards decrease intrinsic motivation.  If for example you enjoyed doing a favour for a friend, and then that friend insisted on paying you for that favour, you may be less likely to offer to help out again. So as teachers hand out rewards, what are they teaching children? When the emphasis is on “free time” or a toy rather than a task, what are children concentrating on? Is it the task or the reward? Will they ever want to do that task again if they do not receive a reward?

The key to motivation in education from this cognitive point of view is to provide authentic meaningful engaging materials so that learners can construct their own learning. By providing choice, collaboration, opportunities for skill building, and meaning, individuals learn self-discipline. These are at the heart of constructivist learning theory.

How do groups in my life use Assertive Discipline?

I am aware that I have danced a jig around this question. But the answer to the question is I wouldn’t consciously belong to a group that used assertive discipline. From my freedom loving position, assertive discipline goes against my beliefs in the importance of intrinsic motivation. If I were to go into my college tomorrow and someone told me from now on I would have to use assertive discipline, I’d run. It doesn’t seem to have a place in my adult functioning world. It is not that I do not see some fragments of salvageable bits and limited uses of behaviourism and discipline techniques in education. It is that what is important to me as an individual is to help to encourage meaningful authentic learning in a welcoming collaborative environment--an environment where the members of the group are a part of the process and together we think, and together we learn.

I’m a bit passionate about that.

Title “Assertive Discipline - How do I hate thee? Let me count the ways.” with apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning


Assertive discipline, WikiEd. Retrieved from

Bono, J. & Judge, T. (2003). Self concordance at work: Toward understanding the motivational effects of transformational leaders, Academy of Management Journal 46 (5), 554-571.

Canter, L., & Canter, M. (1992). Assertive discipline: Positive behavior management for today’s classroom. Santa Monica, CA: Lee Canter and Associates.

Covaleskie, J. (1994). Dewey, Discipline, and Democracy, Philosophy of Education. Retrieved from

Deci, E., Koestner, R., & Ryan, M. (1999). A Meta-Analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation, Psychological Bulletin 125 (6), 626-668.

Education and training: Teaching assertive discipline (Jan 4, 2009) hi10pro:YouTube. Retrieved from

Kizlik, R. (Dec 29, 2009). Assertive discipline information, Adprima. Retrieved from

Kohn, A. (2006). Beyond discipline: From compliance to community.( 2nd ed.) Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Langton, N., Robbins, S. & Judge, T. (2010). Organizational behaviour: concepts, controversies, applications, (5th Cdn Ed. ) Toronto, ON: Pearson Education.

Mayer, Richard. E. (2008). Learning and instruction. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education.

McGlynn, Angela Provitera. (Feb. 2008). Millennials in college: How do we motivate them?  Education Digest 73 (6) 19-22. 

Positive discipline, WikEd. Retrieved from

Sheldon, K., Elliot, A. & Ryan R., (2004) .Self concordance and subjective well-being in four cultures, Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 35 (2), 209-223.

Thomas, K. (2000). Intrinsic motivation at work: Building energy and commitment San Francisco, Ca: Berret-Koehler Publishers.

Wolfgang, Charles H. (2005). Solving discipline and classroom management problems: Methods and models for today’s teachers. (6th ed.) Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley And Sons, Inc.

1915 Rules for Teachers

    You will not marry during the term of your contract
    You are not to keep company with men.
    You must be home between the hours of 8pm and 6 am unless attending a school function
    You may not loiter downtown in ice cream stores
    You may nt travel beyond city limits unless you have permission from the chairman
    You may not travel in a carriage or automoblie with a man unless he is your father or brother
    You may not smoke cigarettes
    You may under no circumstances dye your hair
    You may not dress in bright colors
    You must wear at least two petticoats
    Your dresses must not be any shorter than two inches above the ankle
    To keep the school neat and clean, you must sweep the floor at least twice daily,scrub the floor
    at least once a week with hot soapy water, clean the blackboards at least once a day and
    start the fire at 7 am so the room will be warm by 8 am
    Thank goodness rules change!

I wonder how silly people in the future will find some of the rules and consequences imposed in schools today.

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