Have teachers and administrators become too dependent on rules to govern and inspire student behavior? Today, there is an attending loss of faith among educators, students and parents in the very ability of traditional school rules to motivate and manage student conduct. In practice, student transgressions often create a downward spiral of rule making to prevent further transgressions. This situation forces a foundational question: Is the paramount responsibility of educators in academic settings one of prescribing and controlling the behavior of others or teaching and modeling for students how to manage the Self: one’s character, ethics, temperament, words and actions? Moreover, does an emphasis on explicit rules in instructional settings undercut the development of core values such as integrity, trust, mutual respect, and personal responsibility?


Academic cultures characterized by a system of rewards and punishments place student governance outside the individual through sets of rules. In contrast, values-based self-governance places the structures of governance in the student’s hands. Thus, to betray one’s values is to betray one’s self. Because values-inspired conduct is internal, intrinsic and enduring, creating a culture of respectful engagement in a contemporary classroom begins with the individual student and then proceeds to the class as a whole. Thoughtful educators strive to create environments where individuals choose to be self-disciplined, in part by attaching meaning to instructional events through linguistic devices such as stories, metaphors and emotions, while also becoming adept at recognizing disruptive forces that divert student attention.

Exemplary educators sense the very essence of self-governing deeper learning: It occurs when intrinsically-motivated students embrace challenges by trying to produce something consequential, when they see purpose in what they are doing, when they have a choice involving what they are doing, when they have constructive feedback on their work, and when they are part of a community that not only supports them but also holds them to high objective standards.

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Richard F. Bowman lives in Fargo.

This letter does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.