19th Century Discipline in a 21st Century World

These days, everyone is talking about 21st century skills, 21st century curriculum.  It’s the 21st century after all, and we gotta get with the times! But what about 21st century discipline?  I’ve read a little about 21st century learning environments, but it generally focuses on the physical environment, not the place a school’s discipline plan holds in the social-emotional-behavioral aspect of that environment.  Come to think of it, school “discipline” doesn’t even sound like a 21st century word…

Fall in line.

Shudder.  To be honest, when listed together like that, that’s a set of words that kind of give me the heebie-jeebies (in a robot-human, 1984-esque dystopian kind of way).  I’ve started referring to these type of words as the “Command and Comply” approach to classroom management and even to school management (more to come in a future post on the connection between the ways we manage kids, the ways we manage adults, and the trickle-down effects that can occur).  “Command and Comply” is a common approach– dare I say even the most common or prevailing approach out there. It’s what most of us grew up with in both our homes and our schools, which leads many to the “…but I turned out fine” argument fallacy. It’s an approach that somehow got frozen in time and remains intact today, reminiscent of a bygone era while time continues to pass it by.

Unfortunately, that set of words listed above gets hurled around a lot– not only by education outsiders, but sadly insiders as well– when talking about what ”kids these days” lack and what we need to give them to teach them a lesson.  Our human nature leads us to fear what we don’t understand, and let’s be real– there’s a lot going on in the 21st century world that many of us just plain do not understand.

But do these words really represent what “kids these days” need?  Let’s take a look at the top 10 skills that the World Economic Forum (WEF)  indicates are most needed for the workforce of today and even tomorrow:

The skills the WEF cite from their research are not the kind born of a 19th-century “command and comply” norm.  That norm seemed to work out ok as a classroom management style back when we were preparing students for a future in an industrial era job.  Punch in, do rote tasks all day, punch out, repeat. The industrial revolution required a hard-skilled, compliant workforce. It was up to teachers and parents to make sure kids were prepared academically and behaviorally for the demands of their future jobs.  If there were one word we could use to sum up the goal of 19th century discipline it would be compliance.  

On the flipside, if there were one word we could use to sum up the goal of 21st century discipline, it would be autonomy.  The 21st century brings with it what the WEF calls a 4th industrial revolution, characterized by a “range of new technologies that combine the physical, digital and biological worlds. These new technologies will impact all disciplines, economies and industries, and even challenge our ideas about what it means to be human” (Forbes).

Now that the “4th revolution” is upon us, it’s time to update not only our curricula, our buildings, and our views on teaching and learning, but also our views on discipline and behavior.  A new era requires a new approach; new goals require new strategies. To butcher a wonderful quote by John Dewey, “If we [discipline] today’s students as we [disciplined] yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.”  Such is the case when we practice 19th century discipline in a 21st century world; it’s a classic square-peg-round-hole situation.

Based on the WEF list, the one skill that stands out most to me when I think about our ever-changing world is “cognitive flexibility,” which I would pair with resilience.  This pair of dispositions will become more and more critical over time since “65% of children entering primary schools today will ultimately work in new job types and functions that currently don’t yet exist.”  We are preparing students for a world that we can’t even visualize.  A “do as your told” approach to discipline isn’t sustainable when we don’t even know what to tell them to expect.

In the same vein as the WEF study above, a second study was conducted by nonprofit research group The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), which Forbes highlighted in 2013:

Again, skills like these are not the kind that thrive in a militant environment.  Compliance-based discipline is in direct conflict with the skills listed above because it is extrinsic rather than intrinsic.  No amount of forcing, telling, intimidating, or dictating will result in stronger decision-making skills, problem-solving abilities, information processing, creativity, or influence.  Externally imposed controls deny children the opportunity to develop internally moderated self-control.

Writing for the blog A Fine Parent, educator and parent Lisa Anderson elaborated on this concept from a parenting standpoint as well:

Did you ever hear, “Because I say so, that’s why!!” or “Do what I tell you, or else!!” at some point in your childhood? Intimidation was the tool of choice used in those days to create compliant children.

This may have worked then, and probably still does in some households, but at what cost? Fear-based parenting is one way to get children to cooperate, but there are other tools that are far more effective in the long run.

If you want to raise strong children who are able to make decisions, they need to practice actually making those decisions. Allowing children to make decisions about things that don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things will give them confidence, build your relationship and ultimately, lead to more cooperation at home.”

It is all interconnected– our approach to discipline has a striking effect on learning.  In the math classroom for instance, I’ve seen students freeze up entirely when asked to “choose flexibly from a range of strategies” and apply them to various problems. Similarly, at the conclusion of a science project, I’ve watched students stare holes through their shoes when asked to self-assess their level of critical thinking on a rubric.

Should any of this be surprising though when the environment in which these classes take place communicates to students around every turn that they cannot be trusted to think for themselves?  How could we expect sophisticated reasoning in a STEM context when we don’t even let students make decisions about meeting their own basic needs? Everything from their eating schedules to their bathroom breaks are heavily regulated and outside their control. If we want critical, reflective thinkers, we have to stop micromanaging their every move.


Sometimes complex ideas are best summed up in chart form.  Here are a few ways to give your 19th century discipline a 21st century makeover:


  • Punitive,
  • Based on punishment
  • Externally imposed
  • Teacher-centered
  • Fear-driven
  • Fixed mindset    
  • Power-wielding, suppressive
  • “Because I said so”
  • Single-faceted
  • Dehumanizing
  • Suspensions/ISS, expulsion, kicking out of class, demerits, detentions, office referrals, zero-tolerance policies, rigid codes of conduct, “move your clip” charts, copying lines
Vertical Divider


  • Preventative, proactive,
    ​responsive, restorative
  • Based on learning
  • Internally derived
  • Student-centered
  • Thought-driven
  • Growth mindset
  • Empowering
  • Because there is a sound reason
  • Multi-faceted
  • Humanizing
  • In-class breaksrestorative justice circles, natural consequences, early private redirections, social-emotional curricula, conflict mediations, student leadership opportunities, self-regulation and self-management strategies


Why change? How will we escape our addiction to “that’s the way we’ve always done it?”  What is going to be motivating enough for us to overcome our innate fear of change and do things differently?

Perhaps the economic reasons above have captured your attention.  The employment landscape is drastically changing as technology progresses, and schools must prepare the future workforce to further our economy and our society.

Or maybe you would consider the issue from the standpoint of moral development, as Kohlberg did in the 1950s.  We want students graduating to higher levels of moral reasoning to make their lives and the world a better place.  Imagining a society made up of individuals with intrinsic moral reasoning capabilities could be a convincing motivator to reconsider how we are designing and running our schools.

But if none of the above feel motivating enough, try equity.  We see time and time and time again that current practices are grossly inequitable, that they disproportionately target poor males students of color, and that they contribute heavily to the school-to-prison pipeline.

WEF sheds light on a stark realization:

In addition to being a key economic concern, inequality represents the greatest societal concern associated with the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The largest beneficiaries of innovation tend to be providers of intellectual and physical capital—the innovators, shareholders, and investors—which explains the rising gap in wealth between those dependent on capital versus labor. The demand for highly skilled workers has increased, while the demand for workers with less education and lower skills has decreased. The result is a job market with a strong demand at the high and low ends, but a hollowing out of the middle.

So we have a choice to make as educators.  Our practices demonstrate our choice to either widen or close the gap.  There is no ‘neutral’ in this matter.

Change is hard, and we get that. Updating a centuries-old model requires a serious investment of both time and money. As we’ve mentioned before, mindsets might be the hardest thing in the world to change. Concerns range from budget, to PR, to risk assessment, to district support, to parent education… the list of “why not”s could go on and on, but it’s the “why”s that we are interested in. We’re not saying it’s easy.  We’re saying it is worth it.

Take a self inventory:  is your school’s discipline system a relic of a bygone era, or on the cutting edge of tomorrow?  Is your classroom a 19th century or 21st century environment, or somewhere in between? Is your parenting style shaping compliant children or self-managing children?

And lastly, what do we do as Co-Creators to face these issues and make change happen? 

​We look forward to hearing from you!

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