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With Winston C. Thompson and John Tillson

Carrie Welsh  00:05

You’re listening to Ethics & Education. I’m Carrie Welsh.

Winston Thompson  00:08

When, if at all, are children liable for punishment in schools?

Carrie Welsh  00:13

This episode is about the ethics of school discipline

John Tillson  00:17

Sometimes, hold off on the question of what we’re going to punish. And start with the question of what we’re going to require.

Carrie Welsh  00:34

What do you think about when you think about school punishment? Maybe you think about the spectrum of school disciplinarians. Like in Matilda, with Miss Trunchbull on one end and Miss Honey on the other. Or maybe you’re a parent or a teacher, or principal. Or maybe you remember something that happened to you when you were a kid, and you got punished in school. John Tillson and Winston Thompson are the co-PIs of pedagogies of punishment, which is about how we should be thinking about school discipline.

John Tillson  01:06

The sort of most overarching ambition of the project is ultimately to promote just school discipline, to make school discipline more just.

Carrie Welsh  01:16

That’s John Tillson. He’s a senior lecturer in philosophy of education at Liverpool Hope University. Pedagogies of Punishment is based on a set of questions about school discipline. This is Winston Thompson, an Associate Professor of Educational Studies at The Ohio State University.

Winston Thompson  01:35

But we began asking ourselves, you know, when, if at all, are children liable for punishment in schools? What punishments, if any, are appropriate in those contexts? What justifications if any exists, make these punishments appropriate? We also were interested in asking, to what extent are teachers as they’re the individuals who are largely sort of involved in administering these punishments? So to what extent are teachers reliable judges in meeting out these proportionate and equitable sanctions, that are punishments? To what extent can just expectations be codified? So you know, if you’ve got some expectations here, regarding student behavior, to what extent can these actually become codified into something of a program upon which you can rely in allocating punishments to students? You know, from here, the questions that we had just really began to multiply.

Carrie Welsh  02:36

John and Winston work with people from different disciplines to get at the contours of the different issues at stake. So what do philosophers have to bring to the discussion about school discipline? Well, according to John, three things: first, they figure out what everybody’s thinking about the issue. Then they ask, what are the questions we need to be thinking about here?

John Tillson  02:57

Philosophers like Winston and I, like distinctions and like non-repetition and concision. And so, what we aim to do is, is try to work out when people are saying different things, and when people are saying the same things, so that we can get a nice neat map of the sorts of reasons that people give, the sorts of positions there are. And so we do a bit of bookkeeping really, to try and keep these things separate. And I think that’s something that tends to be missing when we enter conversations. We find that this work has yet to be done. And that feels a little bit, in a way, unproductive, it feels in a way it feels like ‘Well, we’ve not really answered the questions yet.’ But it’s sort of essential work, to before getting to answer the questions, to work out what the rival positions are, what can be said for and against them. And to begin to decide, you know, which one seemed most compelling to us. And another thing is to work out what the different questions are. When we started the project, and we staked out the the questions that Winston indicated at the outset. I think that was a contribution to the discussion. Those concepts, those questions haven’t been clearly disentangled and articulated. And it’s kind of hard, right, for Winston, just to rattle off the questions. You need to look at the text because we’re not going to do better than the way in which we phrased those questions at that time with a lot of deliberate thought. So I think that’s the kind of thing that philosophers like Winston and I bring to these discussions.

Carrie Welsh  05:00

And, they bring not knowing. They’re willing to do the slow thinking.

John Tillson  05:04

The other thing we bring is a kind of humility that we don’t have all the relevant facts and insights and that and say, we’re really ready to look to others and bring people into the conversation and have a certain degree of patience that we don’t need to jump to conclusions right away and stick to them and defend them, come what may, we can let our ideas evolve quite slowly, while kind of holding off the sort of pressure to have a view we will defend to the end.

Carrie Welsh  05:38

Education is one of these things that everyone has an opinion about. I think that makes sense–I think everyone should have an opinion about it. And I think it’s because everyone is affected by schooling in some way. It’s the same with school discipline.

Winston Thompson  05:52

It’s the case that we all have an opinion about punishment in schools. Now. Many of us have opinions about punishment schools, because we have been the recipients of punishment in schools ourselves, you know, early on in the project, or maybe sort of not early on, but at some point in the project, you know, I shared with john that as a as a school child, you know, I was excluded from the classroom, a number of occasions, suspended, never expelled, but suspended from school for some some act of wrongdoing. You know, I looking back right, feel that I was I was wronged. Right, the, the act of wrongdoing that I was accused of, you know, should not have, I think should not have received that sort of a response. And I think that there are many, you know, persons in the world who are looking back at their, at their own childhoods, particularly the time spent in schools. For a time I attended a religious school. And I know that I’ve got colleagues, you know, classmates who were punished in the religious schooling context. And, you know, you return to those memories in those moments. And you ask yourself, right, should they have been punished for that thing? Right, that sort of an action or perhaps a statement of belief that ran counter to the religious, educational institution’s dogma, right? I mean, is that the sort of thing that we should be punishing students for?

Carrie Welsh  07:21

John has a personal story about this. When he was in primary school, he got punished for something.

John Tillson  07:28

Here’s a story that’s personal. So I went to a Catholic primary school. And we didn’t get taught about contraception. But I’d heard of it, I was kind of interested in it. And a friend of mine mentioned that there were condoms in their house. So I was like, “oh, that’s interesting, do you think you could bring one in to school?” and they said, “yeah, okay.” And they brought it in. And actually, they charged me money to bring it in. So they sold it to me. And so I sort of took it, was in the playground, opened the packet, took it out, looked at it, unwrapped it, thought, ‘that’s weird. What is this thing? What is what is its purpose?’ And then, um, and then I, I threw it away. And then a student went through a bin and took it out, and like, went over and handed it up to a teacher. And I got told off for this, like, they got so badly told off. I think I made up a story that that I’d been pressured into doing it, something like that. And then I was up all night crying about this, that I had lied. And I couldn’t I couldn’t sleep. And I was worried about what the teachers would say, you know, when it when it came to light that I’d lied about this.

Carrie Welsh  09:01

What John felt bad about, what he felt he’d done wrong, was lying. But that’s not what he was punished for. And it was confusing for him.

John Tillson  09:10

So I lost out on some learning. I spent a lot of time like waiting around in corridors staring at walls. I was told off for giving “risk money” to the student. It was like, oh my god, there’s such such a level of premeditation that he gives risk money to buy it from this kid. And who’s in charge? Was it you, John, this is your idea. You’re instigating it. What have I done wrong? Really like, what requirement did I violate? And it wasn’t one like, don’t disrupt the class. I didn’t. I didn’t disrupt anyone else’s learning. As far as I saw at the time, actually, this is a private transaction between individuals that you somehow think is your business to get involved with and had a student not gone forward and flagged this, it wouldn’t have been on anyone’s radar. I mean, one of the things that might have been motivating it was that Catholic school, this is a condom, it’s against Catholic teaching. That was never really brought up. Because I guess it kind of confused me.

Carrie Welsh  10:23

I asked John what questions he would ask the administrators at that school.

John Tillson  10:27

Where’s John going now? Looks like you’re taking john out of his lesson. Why? And, and they might go, ‘well, to punish him.’ Okay. Now you understand that he’s losing learning now. John has a claim to learning, right? It’s good for John. And you’re depriving him of that. Why? Like, who is this going to serve? Who’s whose needs is this going to further? And it’s not like John’s setback, anyone’s interests, right. Something like john made anyone worse off. It’s like taking someone out of their lesson. And you need to reason for that. What is that reason? And I didn’t think they had one. Suppose they had one. Suppose it was. Oh, okay. Well, we’re very clear about this. It’s that contraception is wrong. All right. Why is it not happening in the lesson? We’re taking him out less than punishing him for bringing it in? Why don’t you have a lesson on the wrong of contraception? It’s not like john used contraception wrongfully. Right. So John didn’t do the thing that Catholic Church forbids, which is using contraception, not in the way that they forbid us. So it’s not like punishing him for bringing it in is going to curtail him using it in that way. What are you doing and why? What do you think you’re doing? Do you have a clear rationale? And I don’t think, I think the answer’s no, if they’d thought about it, they did not have a clear rationale.

Carrie Welsh  12:21

I actually recorded this interview remotely from the public library in my hometown, I was there visiting family and right before I went to the library, and met my sister for lunch. And at the restaurant, we saw the principal of our high school, who had just become the superintendent, having lunch with the former superintendent and a couple other principals, like a transition of power meeting. I actually didn’t go up and introduce myself. I thought about it, but I just got too nervous. I remembered him being kind of punitive and strict. But this encounter was on my mind during the interview. And I asked John and Winston, how should principals be thinking about school discipline?

John Tillson  12:58

One thing that it’s very helpful to do for principals–for anyone deciding a code of conduct and trying to enforce it–is to sometimes hold off on the question of what we’re going to punish. And start with the question of what we’re going to require. And think about whether those are fair requirements, whether those are things that one’s permitted to require of others, and start to think a little bit more reflectively about, ‘wait, is that a fair request? Or stronger than a request, a requirement? And is that the kind of thing that I can require and insist on and enforce with sanctions if people don’t live up to it?’ I think that’s just a great, very important central question. And, of course, people are going to come to quite different answers. But people, when they ask themselves question, they might come to do something different than they would have done, had they not thought of that question to begin with.

Carrie Welsh  14:08

So what kinds of requirements can schools make?

John Tillson  14:11

And then you might think, as a teacher, well, what can I require of people? Can I make ethical requirements of people? Can I expect people to behave in ways that I think conduce to their well being, as I conceive of their well being? For instance, if I’m a really devout Catholic, I might think that one of the most central things to their prudential behavior is that they develop a really good relationship with God. And am I allowed to require that they develop that relationship, and that they do the things that they have to do in order to enrich that relationship? Our thought is, no. That this impinges on people’s legitimate freedom to form conceptions of the good and pursue them. But you don’t violate people freedoms by just insisting that they treat each other with more dignity, for instance, that they do not harm each other. So we think that this is a really fundamental distinction for working out what schools should be able to require of their students.

Carrie Welsh  15:16

These aren’t easy questions, and there’s no perfect decision tree that will always get you to the ideal outcome. What Winston and John want is to invite teachers and administrators to see their actions in a systemic or structural way. Here’s how Winston puts it.

Winston Thompson  15:32

So we might imagine that you can kind of break down or sort of think about whether things are sort of self regarding or other regarding Additionally, we might imagine that even if you find yourself as an educator standing on solid justificatory grounds for punishing a student, right, that is to say, the requirement of the behavior is behavior that you can fairly require of the student. Right? And somehow, and we haven’t really talked about this, but somehow, a harsh response is the appropriate response to the student not living up to that requirement or expectation, there might still be moments in which the teachers should pause, right, recognizing systemic or structural issues. The picture is is a complicated one, right? Not only do we have to think about the requirements that we’re placing on on persons, not only do we have to think about the degree to which punishing or harsh response is sort of inappropriate response to that fair requirement. But we’ve also got to think about what we might consider sort of byproducts if you will, of being a particular person standing in particular relationship to other particular persons issuing that harsh treatment, to hopefully, their benefit, or some collective benefit, right? These questions aren’t easily answered. And unfortunately, we find ourselves in a world in which we have very, very much fodder cases to consider and to mull over, as we see these sort of patterns recurring in the US, as well as the UK and in other places in which punishment happens in schools.

Carrie Welsh  17:14

Think about the stereotypically stern headmaster from literature or the movies, like Gradgrind in Dickens, or like Miss Trunchbull in Matilda. I was a kid when that movie came out, and Miss Trunchbull terrified me. She is a shame and corporal punishment, and she’s really menacing and basically a bully. She’s obviously the villain in the movie. And her justification for this type of punishment is basically that she hates kids, she thinks kids should just grow up and be adults. Well, that’s obviously not an ethical justification for punishment. But it made me think, how do we think about an ethical justification for punishment? Winston says we should be asking that old philosophy question, what do we owe to one another? And in this case especially, what do we owe to children?

Winston Thompson  18:04

Often it’s the case, unfortunately, that many people haven’t given much thought or attention to the justifications for punishment in schools, right? It’s not the case that people sort of, you know, arrive in the school setting, and then think, okay, so you know, can I justify punishing this student for this behavior? I think I can, and then they encounter our work, and then they begin to rethink their reasons. Right? Rather, it’s the case that people enter the school, right? They’ve been punished. They’re expected to punish, they punished, maybe something goes wrong that causes them to then reflect on the punishing that they’ve done or perhaps that they’ve received themselves, as I mentioned earlier, right. But most people who are going to encounter our work, the questions that we’re posing are going to be questions that might catch them somewhat off guard, right? I mean, what do we owe to one another? Right? What do we owe to children? Right? Is it the case that in our relationship to children, that we can be paternalistic to a degree that causes them to cry? Right? Are those tears justified tears, right? Maybe if we’re giving them medicine, that’s life saving? Right? Maybe not if we’re spanking them, right? The the range, right, the degree to which parents perhaps thinking about the family structure, but but teachers in schools that the degree to which they are often placed in positions and expected to enact certain practices without having the space to step back and think about the justifications for their particular actions. And then the structure, the system in which they’re acting around these questions, is far too scarce. I mean, I don’t want to imply that it never happens. It certainly happens on a daily basis. But it ought to happen far more than it does. And so to some extent, that’s one of the goals of the project: it’s to produce work. Yes, that’s interesting to the philosopher. Yes, that’s interesting to the developmental psychologists. Y that’s interesting to the legal theorists. But also, work that’s going to be of interest to the classroom teacher, to the assistant principal, the principal, the superintendent, the parent, and perhaps the former students, right? The prospective parent right in thinking about what it is that we owe to young children, as students in schools, and what we can require of them, and how we can appropriately respond when they don’t live up to the requirements that we’ve placed on.

Carrie Welsh  20:31

John and Winston hope that by engaging with some of the work of pedagogies of punishment, educators might shift their disciplinary dispositions. What about praise, for example, when students do meet requirements, and maybe doing nothing when they don’t? It’s a matter of interrogating why we’re using punishment in the first place–and whether or not it’s justified.

Carrie Welsh  20:59

John says he would be a totally different teacher now.

John Tillson  21:02

You see young people, and you get to, like, educate them, right. And by putting signposts in the right places, to get them to do the right thing, this is still part of the ongoing educative process. Whereas I think I had a kind of retributivist position before. I was kind of like, look, you’re going to get what you deserve. And it’s not going to be what you truly deserve if, you know, you’re only doing it because I’ve reminded you it was the right thing, or the like. So I try to take a kind of guiding backseat ahead of misdemeanors, and then come in heavy afterwards. When I say heavy, this isn’t like paddling heavy. But we come in ready to point out the areas of her character or something afterwards. And I really regret that, and would be a very different teacher today I think, because of the kinds of conversations I’ve had with my wonderful colleagues on this project.

Carrie Welsh  21:58

Winston also says the project surprised him in a personal way.

Winston Thompson  22:02

You know, I grew up in a culture in which spanking was a sort of a common practice. I recall us in one of our early workshops, you know, with some other folks, I recall us observing a conversation between between two of the experts, you know, one of whom was a psychologist who knew this literature, the other person was a very thoughtful philosopher. And, you know, in that conversation, I remember thinking, well, surely, this philosopher who is putting forward the view that that spanking must surely curb undesirable behavior–surely that’s right. And the psychologist saying no, if you look at the data, that’s not the case, right. I mean, that was to me, probably one of the early and, yeah, really meaningful sort of discoveries, which, you know, justified, then, my own decision to sort of move away from the spanking that was a part of my own sort of cultural upbringing. But to have this additional source of justification, I thought was, was quite, quite meaningful.

Carrie Welsh  23:13

It seems like a lot of our justifications for punishment are because we think that’s how it’s always been done.

Winston Thompson  23:20

You know, one thing that’s been that’s been really nice is having historical context, right? I mean, so much of what happens to my mind, in many educational discussions or discussions about educational policies and practices is criminally ahistorical, right. We have these conversations as though these questions are sort of questions that emerged last week, right? But having a historical context allows us to recognize that there are forms of punishment that are no longer practiced in schools, that seem to us in this present contemporary moment as patently unjustified. Right. These might include, you know, forms of corporal punishment, in school context, right, spanking paddling. And like, you know, in the US, these were practiced relatively, you know, regularly and are still legal in some jurisdictions. But, you know, we we can reflect on this historical context and recognize, just as John was earlier, alluding to, that, you know, there is not a sort of natural law here, right. We’ve made choices in the past about forms of punishment that we were no longer going to continue to endorse in school settings. And we can make those choices again. As we now turn our attention to the practices and the policies, we might find that many of the forms and patterns of punishment simply aren’t justified and are in need of careful and thoughtful revision.

Carrie Welsh  24:58

To interrupt that idea of well, this is how it’s always been done, we can ask, what are we really trying to do here?

Winston Thompson  25:06

If it’s a bad thing, right, to cause people harm and pain and some unpleasantness with intentionality, then perhaps it is not justified to visit that harm upon people if there are even if there’s some, you know, strong reason to do so. If there are other processes by which alluded to, there could have been an educational response, right? There could have been an informed an informational response, rather than a punitive response. And so recalling again, that it’s often the case that punishment in schools occurs because sort of people say that this is how we’ve always done it, right. One way of disrupting that is asking, what is it that you’re truly after? What are you trying to accomplish or achieve via punishment? And is there something else that you could do that would be less unpleasant, that wouldn’t contain this hard, harsh treatment, that wouldn’t cause pain to this to this child or wouldn’t cause harm to this school child, why not choose that thing instead?

Carrie Welsh  26:21

Thanks for listening. To learn more about the Pedagogies of Punishment project, you can visit their website,, which is also linked in our show notes.