First I would like to define self-regulation as a system of conscious personal management guiding thoughts, behaviors and feelings to reach goals. Second. I wish to stipulate to there being two types of self-regulation: autonomous self-regulation and controlled self-regulation. Autonomous self-regulation is the feeling that the behavior, the emotion, or the cognition being regulated is being affected for reasons a person values, finds meaningful, and wholly endorses. Controlled self-regulation, by contrast, is the feeling of internal or external pressure conflicting with what one would otherwise choose (e.g., avoiding shame or guilt, interpersonal rejection, or physical or verbal punishment). Conventional schooling and a good deal of unconventional schooling, I'd argue, relies almost exclusively on controlled self-regulation in students. As an educator I have had trouble being the controller, the disciplinarian who pressures students for behaviors convenient to the order of the customary classroom.
I was born to teach. Well, I was born to teachers, a father who taught high school English and a mother who taught high school Home Nursing, Nutrition and Biology after a career as a nurse. Both were in the New York City public school system. From them I inherited the deep seated impulse to help others to learn. However, while my parents somehow managed the deportment of their students so their classes were orderly. I, having no truck with ordering anyone around, found myself at odds with this part of classroom management: Discipline, as we use to say in the Sixties, was just not my bag.
Indeed, I can remember from sixth grade and all through high school really hating “playing sheriff”, that is making sure a balance was struck between every one of my friends having a good time in my family’s finished basement while it, they and me remained in an all-together fine condition. I would plead, beg, cajole but it was only the anticipated and sure visits from my mother which actually kept the friends in check and the basement in good repair. Still, I felt an obligation to monitor and manage my friends behavior. I carried the dreaded sheriff into the classroom.
However, I found a congenial environment in college classrooms as I started my teaching life in the fall of 1980. Here, I could concentrate on “real teaching and learning” as student conduct toward each other, the school property, the material under consideration and the learning goals I set was well self-regulated. However, as I discovered as I learned more about teaching and learning, these students as well as the others to come, mostly were controlled self-regulating. But in the early stage of my career I was happy enough not to have to be a sheriff.
Adjunct work wasn't paying bills. So, in mid-decade I looked to parochial school teaching and was appointed to instruct seventh grade science and social studies in a parish school close to where I was then living. These youngsters were well mannered, but holee, they just kept on talking! I would ask them for quiet and they would be silent, but for only a brief moment, then whispers followed by louder whispers followed by and followed by and followed by my getting angry. At one point I felt I needed to discipline the whole class and I piled on the homework thinking homework as a good punishment (which to each and every student it is so thought even at the best of times). But that didn’t dissuade them from talking so I gave them even more homework. That didn't work either. Now, it became clear to me that I had lost control of the class and having lost control I yelled at them using the most learned language a college professor could muster. Needless to say the principal wasn’t pleased and suggested I go back to college teaching, which I did. And I was happy to return to the college classroom even though it was still adjunct and student self-regulation was still from the internalization of external expectations.
However, adjunct still wasn’t paying bills. So, eventually in the very early 1990's, I followed my parents into the City public high schools first as a substitute teacher than as a fully appointed high school teacher of Social Studies. I mean, talking about playing sheriff! Still, my sub classes turned out just fine as I struck bargains with students: They didn’t bother each other or the school property and I wouldn’t insist they do any school work. I said they could talk at a loud whisper but if the volume of the talk got beyond a certain point I would ask them to lower their voices and I would expect that they would, which they did every time. I also said they could get up from their seats to visit friends but when visiting they needed to be seated. Additionally, I suggested they read, write, or even draw, if they wished. The bargain held strong with only a few minor exceptions.
Everything changed when I was appointed to a Brooklyn high school in 1992 and tasked to instruct! At the time behavioral contracts were a thing. These were behavioral stipulations students had, I repeat, had to agree to follow during all class periods. It included a graduated list of “consequences” for violations. No one, including this teacher, took it seriously. Still, I referred to it several times, but it didn’t matter a single bit. It took me three weeks of insistence to get my four ninth grader classes in an order acceptable for direct instruction. My fifth class was of super seniors and they fell in line from the first day. But then in one of the ninth grade classes was dropped a young man with definite emotional challenges, more than the rest. He so disrupted the class he destroyed the order I so deftly built. It took me another three weeks to get this class to an acceptable order. Then on the heels of this came report cards where all in the ninth grade classes were shown they were failing three or more of their subject classes and not a few were failing all of them! To say there was pandemonium in each class is an understatement. Somehow I had to calm them down to get on with instructing the syllabus I was given by my supervisor who, by the way, said I had to follow it to the letter. Obviously, the disruptions, eruptions and out-right verbal abuse coming close to blows among students and between students and this teacher continued until I just could not stand it. I resigned and began a search for a school where self-regulation was autonomous.
Actually, I had been in one since 1985, although it was not exactly a school but it was a learning organization: Scouting. When Scouting is done right it requires both youth and adults to engage an individual autonomous self-regulation. You see, a foundation of autonomous self-regulation is the compatible resonance in an individual among innate predispositions of nature and socialization, self-selected goals, available means of goal achievement and pleasing participation in the means of goal achievement. And Scouting from the youngest to the oldest when done right is premised on the presence of these elements and its compatible resonance in individuals. However, too often Scouting is not done right and when not done right it tends to replicate the environment comparable to conventional schooling inducing a controlled self-regulation. But it was my experience with the cub pack and the scout troop through which both my son and I coursed in our Brooklyn neighborhood, him as a scout and me as a scouter, as well as some of the other troops of my acquaintance and participation later in Queens that while the match between scout or adult and Scouting was not always compatible, those who voluntarily stayed the longest with a program as close to being done right as possible demonstrated the necessary compatible resonance among the present elements comprising an autonomous self-regulation setting and, indeed, at least within the context of the Scouting experience both youth and adults demonstrated what I could interpret as autonomous self-regulated behavior. It occurred to me on more than a few occasions that a school based on Scouting done right may just be the type of school for which I was searching. (The next blog post will explore characteristics of Scouting done right marking it a learning organization encouraging autonomous self-regulation and a possible template for the type of school for which I continue to search.)
Towards the end of my Scouting experience I joined another learning organization: scuba schools. I worked out of two shops one in Brooklyn and the other in Staten Island, both of which have been out of business for quite some time, as I too have hung up my fins for some time. The adults I was finding first as a student instructor and then as a full open water instructor had mellowed their regular education controlled self-regulation into a deeply internalized cooperation and voluntary agreement with the instructor on the goals and the paths toward skill development and eventual Open Water Certification. It is unclear to me, even in retrospect, that these adults were exhibiting an autonomous self-regulation. I lectured, explained, tested in class; they listened, read and studied the required material and passed the tests in class. I explained, demonstrated, guided, and supervised in the water; they listened, observed, tried, and practiced in the water. They accepted the conditions of instruction knowing what they were. They accepted the conditions of in class and open water testing/demonstration knowing what they were. They followed instruction increasing knowledge, acquiring skills, demonstrating both, becoming certified. The mere acceptance of direct instruction is not of itself an indicator of one type of self-regulation, I'd argue. But, the acceptance of the need for changed behavior and of its actual change might be. And, believe me, one needs to change all sorts of behavior to live without harm underwater. Just overcoming the survival impulse to hold ones breath underwater and to breath on scuba is one heck of a change. So, on balance in retrospect I am somewhat inclined to think the mellowing of the conventional schooling induced controlled self-regulation is toward an autonomous self-regulation with these adults. If my surmise is accurate to any degree, then it would follow that to move toward an autonomous self-regulation from a position of conventional school induced controlled self-regulation, if movement is possible, requires a certain maturity even undergraduates have yet to achieve. And it appears to require an honest voluntary, freely chosen acceptance of the conditions of instruction and with instruction some very basic behavioral change, a second order change in fact, which is largely unavailable to students within conventional schooling, possibly all the way through to professional graduation. Which ever way self-regulation breaks in scuba schools, though, it is Scouting done right which appears to me the better template for autonomous self-regulated schooling.
Eventually I returned to college teaching. It was adjunct, but that was all there was in the mid-oughts. The students I found in my courses were very well behaved and compliant in class as, they, I discovered, were soundly controlled self-regulated. But it would appear that thoroughly controlled self-regulated students become mightily confused when the external pressure is taken off and the internal pressure of external expectations is unconfirmed. Indeed, I found the students before me consistently incapable of adapting to my switching the locus of control for their self-regulation from me, the teacher, to them, the students, as to spark student complaints to others. Since this was the way of course after course and since I did not see this condition abating, I resumed my search for autonomous self-regulated schooling wondering if I had to actually start a school developing autonomous self-regulated students for me to find such a school.