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How to get discipline back in the classroom

By Kaila AllisonMarch 20, 2017

Hands Up
Hands Up Getty

I have and always will hate popcorn. In this case, I’m not talking about the popular movie theater snack, but the style of group discussion known as “Popcorn,” in which students must randomly speak up to share a point rather than raise their hands. It was a concept created to help reduce monotony and increase spontaneity in the classroom, catching snoozing students off guard and giving loudmouths liberty to take the spotlight. But for me, a shy and perpetually anxious wallflower, “popcorn” was just another word for “torture.”

But popcorn or not, I loved school. I was always listening to the discussion, taking meticulous notes, and jotting down my own would-be responses, albeit quietly. When called on, I was able to speak in what I thought to be a fairly coherent manner, but when left to nature, I was silent. I had plenty to say, of course, but my fear of interrupting someone or getting cut off by a louder, more experienced and eloquent talker, held me back. And in turn, it ruined my participation grade. 

I pleaded to the teacher with my eyes to understand my situation. I was listening; I had things to say! Couldn’t my essays speak for themselves? My test scores? But no, they couldn’t. If I was going to get a perfect participation grade, I would have to learn how to speak up, no excuses. 

I wasn’t the only of my peers that struggled throughout school, and public speaking remains to be just one category of skills that is lacking in today’s students. They also tend to be poor writers who rely on questionable Internet sources. They are not likely to be prepared to professionally communicate or efficiently manage time. Why? Students are getting off the hook way too easily in school. 


If I was going to get a perfect participation grade, I would have to learn how to speak up, no excuses. 

But it’s understandable why teachers need to invent rewards and bribes to deal with kids’ lack of discipline. They have standards to meet and their students are increasingly distracted and bored. A teacher’s antidote to these problems? Extra credit and grade inflation. But this doesn’t really solve anything, as teachers are hiding a critical truth from their students: they don’t work hard enough.

Overachievers will always be overachievers, but what about the rest of the student body? How do we turn them into disciplined, sophisticated citizens ready to take on the world? One place to look is outside of the United States to global education. Specifically, the model of the French system of Classes Préparatoires aux Grandes Écoles (CPGE) changes the whole meaning of discipline. Known commonly as “prépa,” the program is for high school graduates wishing to enter the most specialized universities in the country. It’s two years of ultra-intense study and testing, which equates to up to 45 hours a week, including written exams, oral exams, and plentiful homework. A French friend of mine told me a jolly tale of a prépa instructor's first-day warning: “If anyone has a significant other, expect to not see him or her for the next 2 years.” The work is, some would say, excessively strenuous, but it does teach one thing: obsession with competition and achievement. It’s a path that requires very rigorous study with blinders to the outside, which puts the stress not only on students, but their families. The controversy centers on whether all of this pain is worth it for a coveted spot among France’s elite. 

There must be some way to balance the extreme discipline of prépa with the lax nature of American public schools. Some teachers value positive feedback, while others value collective punishment for one student’s offense. Some teachers dock points for late work, and others accept it. While everyone’s teaching philosophy is different, teachers have a common goal of seeing their students succeed, by any means necessary. But can they?


Teachers are hiding a critical truth from their students: they don’t work hard enough.

According to George Leef in his 2013 article in Forbes, students’ incompetence has to do in part with the poor quality of education programs their teachers attended to earn their positions. But little progress is made to change these programs because teachers are “protected by state licensing laws that make it very hard for public school officials to hire anyone who doesn’t have the obligatory credentials.”

With outdated methods and “fuddy-duddy old rules about composition and English usage,” teachers are stunting students’ ability to think outside of the box. “Besides that,” he says, “most of the prospective teachers are not very good at writing themselves, having come through schools where they were taught by teachers who were told that it’s bad to fuss over writing. We are caught in a downward spiral of falling competence.”

On the contrary, in Japan, there is no such thing as an education major or an education school. Instead of enrolling in education programs in college, teachers should pursue the subject they wish to study and then get the appropriate certification later, he says.

Alexandra Starr of Slate claims the problem lies not in students’ incompetence, but in their attitudes. American students tend to be lazy, and are subject to what she describes as the “‘who cares?’ phenomenon,” otherwise known as “senioritis.” (Note: you don’t have to be a senior to experience senioritis.) What’s lacking here is proper motivation. In a series of studies, she saw that low-stakes testing was not effective for driving up test scores. However, for one exam in Texas back in 2004, “results counted toward graduation for the first time, and pass rates on both the math and English portions of the test leapt almost 20 points,” all other factors remaining equal. “What changed was students' motivation,” Starr says. “When their diplomas were hanging in the balance, they managed to give more correct answers.” But after school, bribes and punishments for failure are not enough to breed truly disciplined, engaged, and curious high school graduates.


Bribes and punishments for failure are not enough to breed truly disciplined, engaged, and curious high school graduates.

Throughout school, I always thought it was so unfair that an otherwise fine student would be taken down by so silly a thing as a participation grade. But it was only later that I realized the teachers were absolutely right for docking me the points. Constructive criticism is one of the aspects of my education for which I am the most thankful. I’m happy my teachers didn’t turn a blind eye to my silence, and didn’t take mercy on me for being painfully shy. It made me a stronger student to know where I had to improve, and to be forced to do so. 

Molding engaged students is not a lost cause to today’s education administrators. It starts with the teachers. My most memorable teachers did not let me get away with anything. They had meticulous eyes, pointing me to precise paths of improvement. It’s a difficult task, especially for public school teachers with hundreds of students. But taking that extra time to be honest and thoughtful can make a significant difference not in just one student, but in an entire student body. The best teachers can keep the bullies at bay, get the slackers to show up, and let the quiet kids speak. I may still hate popcorn, but I’m glad I had to do it.