I fought the law and the law won

There’s man all over for you, blaming on his boots the fault of his feet.

Samuel Beckett

Yesterday I attended a Speed Awareness Course. I wasn’t sure what to expect but was mainly relieved not to get another 3 points on my licence. At worst it would a dull four hours, at best I might learn something.

The course started with participants being asked about what excuses we might make for speeding. We came up with the usual suspects: hospital emergencies, first offences, “it’s perfectly safe on this stretch of road”, needing a clean licence in order to work, lack of clear signage etc. As we came up with this list we shared our stories of woe about how unfair it was that we had been caught speeding. One woman said she had never driven above the speed limit before in her life, another man claimed that a particular traffic camera was just there for entrapment. And so on.

The message from the course leaders was uncompromising. There are no valid excuses for breaking the law. Ignorance is no defence, neither is personal, subjective perceptions about whether the law is fair. The law is the law.

From there we went on to the discuss the reasons why we might exceed the speed limit and came up with impatience, lack of attention, peer pressure, lateness, tail-gating, confusion about the speed limit, the fact that it ‘feels safe’ to speed and pretty much everything else you might imagine. There are lots of reasons why you might speed, but no excuses. The right to drive depends on driving responsibly. If we fail to take responsibility for our actions then we must accept the consequence that we might lose the right to drive.

Of course, this isn’t the only consequence. it would be far worse if someone was killed or injured as a result of our choices. But, as the course leaders pointed, the biggest consequence is… nothing. The reason most people drive too fast is that nothing happens. Mostly we don’t get into accidents and we don’t get caught. We learn that we can get away with it. Lack of consequences becomes normal and as soon as a course of action becomes normal we default to it.

Once suitably softened up, we were told that change requires reason, desire and will. As well as having good reasons for obey the speed limit, I desire to do so. But will I?

You can see where I’m going with this, can’t you?

In many schools, students default behaviour is to get away with whatever they can. They know where the ‘speed cameras’ are and behave appropriately when the head or senior members are staff are around. They also know where they can get away with it. Because there are no consequences, low-level disruption, rudeness, lack of punctuality all become normalised; everyone else is doing it. Where students are challenged, they have learned that their excuses will be accepted. Often teachers are leaned on to back down over ‘minor’ infringements and to see certain behaviour as just boisterous high spirits. Students learn not to take responsibility for their behaviour. On numerous I’ve witnessed a student break a rule only to say, “It wasn’t me!” or, even more commonly, “It wasn’t my fault,” or, “I didn’t mean it.” Admittedly, there are occasions when we unintentionally break the rules or make mistakes, but we still have to take responsibility for our actions.

In schools where there is a ‘no excuses’ culture, students know that whatever the reason for their actions, there is no excuse for not taking responsibility. They know they will always be held accountable regardless of their intentions. This makes it far easier to do the right thing.

In this post I looked at how trust and accountability must be combined if teachers are to thrive and I think the same holds true for children. We should trust and expect them to follow the rules everywhere, not just where they deem it appropriate and not just because they might be caught. If we build a culture where the social norms are challenged and try to remove ‘nothing’ as the normal consequence for rule breaking then we might create a more positive default option where children see taking responsibility as positive and desirable.

One incident from my visit to Michaela School stands out in my mind. During lunch, a student came up to Joe Kirby in the playground to say that the teacher with whom he was meant to be serving detention with hadn’t shown up. Joe asked him what he thought he should do. The boy said, “I wanted to do the detention so I just waited there. Please could you let sir know that I’ve done it?” This is the sort of social norm that would benefit any school.

As for me, attending ‘speed school’ has changed (hopefully permanently) my default option. I no longer intend to break the speed limit. After over two decades of driving, I’ve picked up some bad habits which I need to break, but I now have the will to to break them. So far I’m doing alright.

Here are some other posts about ‘no excuses’:

‘No excuses’ is no excuse

What ‘no excuses’ means to me

15 Responses to I fought the law and the law won

  1. Alex says:

    “But, as the course leaders pointed, the biggest consequence is… nothing. The reason most people drive too fast is that nothing happens.”

    “We should trust and expect them to follow the rules everywhere, not just where they deem it appropriate and not just because they might be caught. ”

    In the first statement I get the impression that the reason people do things that we deem undesirable is because they can “get away” with it i.e. not get caught.

    In the other statement you would like see people do the right thing and not just because of fear they will be caught.

    Do you think that punishments or consequences, encourage people to get good at not getting caught or look for more excuses (so they can avoid the punishment ) i.e. hospital emergencies, first offences, “it’s perfectly safe on this stretch of road” etc.. ?

    and if so is there a way to be firm and no except excuses without invoking a punishment?

    It seems to me (and correct me if I’m wrong) but the punishment of 3 points on your license will have little to no effect on your driving habits ( you might just be more careful around speed cameras)
    but the reasons and thought that goes behind why we shouldn’t speed might convince you that speeding is a thing that you shouldn’t do (and therefore less likely to do regardless of cameras)

    • David Didau says:

      Pretty much, yes. Points were an insufficient deterrent to drive safely when there were no obvious consequences. Now, after a more useful form of punishment, I have internalised the desire to drive safely regardless of whether I might be caught. This is surely what we want, no?

  2. teachwell says:

    I think the point is that even when children can repeat back why certain behaviours are wrong or affect their learning, they still do not get into the habit of behaving well as there is never any consequence if they don’t do the right thing. Teachers are much put upon to accept low level disruption and often high level too. I wrote a comment on another post about how this may in fact be an example of cognitive disonance. We all know that children need boundaries (I would say we need boundaries full stop to be emotionally healthy) and at the same time many believe enforcing the boundary is inhumane in some way. This conflict is played out in schools these days and is not working.

    Not only does it take the responsibility away from the child (is this not a symbolic of the nature of adults at this point in time – wanting to be forever young and associating youth with lack of responsibility), it also undermines the relationship the pupil has with their teacher and puts them on a different path where lying and manipulating others works and is indeed an acceptable way to conduct oneself. I saw the extreme of this in one school I worked at – the children knew they could go to the head and she would believe them above a teacher. This open door policy may have seemed the very height of nuturing and caring but it was the most horrible environment and fake environment I have worked in. I spent some time as a recruitment consultant and found the so called sharks to be more humane than the head. That is saying something!!

    • Sounds like the head was just a horrible person who hated teachers as well as children. I’ve also encountered this. A psychiatrist would have a field day with these people.
      Perhaps we need to have psychological testing (and I’d also like Myers-Briggs testing) before teachers enter the profession.

  3. adam and hedgehog says:

    no excuses for the teacher who didnt turn up to supervise detention?

  4. mmiweb says:

    Discipline in school is always one of the key areas that raises concern, discussion and debate and the expectations on how children should behave vary from institution to institution. You make a number of claims of, “in many schools’ – is there evidence for this? Ofsted reports on behaviour in schools (one of the few wider data sources we have) is that behaviour is good or outstanding in 83% of schools – thought the report, “below the radar” has concerns about low level disruption this is from a much smaller sample.

    However, I would like to raise a different point and that is the nature of the rules that are set. In how many schools, I wonder, do children get any input into the rules that they are expected to follow? (I cannot find any data for this). If there are few then we have a dictatorial system where we expect children to follow rules set-up by others where there is no sense of consultation, democracy or reason, or I wonder again evidence that this makes a difference. If one of the purposes of school is to prepare children for adult like then is this the kind of adults we want to have – those that accept the rules as they are and accept that they should be punished if these rules are not followed? This is a crude behaviouristic view of the world.

    The obsession in many schools to adherence about uniform is one of these – there is little evidence that uniform has an impact on performance or achievement – there are fewer countries in the world that insist on a uniform than those that do not – yet we have reports of schools punishing children for the wrong colour socks, type of bag or even hair-clips.

    Aslo as the author of this blog as mentioned quiet compliance is not a necessary sign of productive learning. To coin a phrase – what if everything we know about behaviour is wrong?

    Finally on the speed awareness course – was the driver (no pun intended!) of attending the course a desire to change behaviour or a desire to avoid the punishment of points – and the subsequent financial punishment of increased insurance changes?

    • David Didau says:

      I have worked in schools where Ofsted has judged behaviour good or outstanding. In my view behaviour was deplorable. Of course if the behaviour in ‘many schools’ is bad, it will also be ‘good’ in many schools. I’m making this ‘claim’ based on my (no inconsiderable) experience of schools as well as correspondence with other teachers who lament the behaviour in their schools. You are welcome to dismiss this as unscientific, but to what end? Are you going to argue that the status quo is ‘good enough’?

      I’d argue that there is no evidence that uniform improves results. Of course behaviour can only ever be a proxy for learning. But that’s not why schools have uniforms (or if it is then I despair.) It seems reasonable to suggest that if you choose your battle lines on the small stuff, the big stuff is less likely to happen. I’d much rather have students trying to get away with uniform infractions than being rude or violent. What if everything we know about behaviour is wrong? What if it is? What then? How wold you know? Would you be prepared to accept the evidence? What would you do instead? As I’m sure you know, I’ve just written a book about this 🙂

      As to the speed awareness course, yes the motive for attending was absolutely about avoiding points (I say as much in the post) but it resulted in a desire to change behaviour. That’s win win.

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