This concept really is borne of the NZ scene where the educational theme of ‘student-centred learning’ has been gaining momentum for some time. To firstly discuss SCL – this is the notion (strongly supported by research) that teachers being at the centre of a student’s learning is actually an impediment to the learning processes required by a fully functioning member of the 21st century. This movement is probably one of the foundations for the increasing call towards co-operative learning strategies in NZ classrooms.
By the teacher re-roling himself/herself as a guide towards knowledge acquisition, rather than the dispenser of knowledge the student becomes the centre of his/her own learning process. There can be no arguing with the suggestion that the sooner young people take responsibility for their own mental growth and development, the more confident, happy and resourceful they are likely to be as adults/parents/employers/employees, etc.
Now, moving back to this idea of ‘student-centred discipline’. The behavioural analogue to SCL is surely a process where students become the central figures in the resolution of their own conflicts. Staff re-role themselves in the secondary (but extremely important) roles of environment providers. By this I mean that staff provide policies, procedure, support, encouragement, resources (rooms, etc.) that will allow every possibility for students to join together peaceably to sort out their disagreements.
Probably the single biggest resource that schools can provide for student-centred discipline (SCD) is a school culture that values people, values peace, and clearly makes the connection between peace and academic achievement. As you can imagine, a philosophy such as RJ/RP will be at the heart of such an environment.
The Guidance/Discipline Dichotomy
Some months ago I came across an article by Wendy Drewery (Waikato University) and John Winslade (ex-Waikato University, currently in US) that I believe deserves mention and more consideration by the school restorative practices community.
From memory, in this article (which has since become lost in my generally reliable filing system) Wendy and John question the division that has steadily formed between the discipline and guidance functions within a school. They acknowledge the well-intentioned beginnings of guidance within schools and the then useful distance that was planned from discipline functions – giving students a facility within their own school that could advocate freely for them.
But I believe that RPs put a new light upon this distinction between ‘guidance’ and ‘discipline’ and it is probably best explained by reference to Wachtel and McCold’s Social Control matrix. The discipline functions within most schools currently operate from within the high control/low support and the guidance from the high support/low control. But I am highly aware that when I am facilitating a conference (more so than a circle), I have moved out of both these windows. What is maybe more revolutionary (and wonderful to witness) is that when staff with traditional ‘discipline’ roles facilitate restorative events, he or she also is in that same window (sometimes to their unease and discomfort – for some time). This therefore is probably what Wendy and John are suggesting – the melding and moulding of roles within a schools so that there is no real distinction between the people who dispense guidance and discipline within a school.
This brings me naturally to another key concept which fits perfectly with the above discussion of SCD. The acknowledgment is often given that integrative shaming experiences are really what healthily functioning families provide, hence the term that RJ is the ‘family model’. And is it not true that the mother or father who dispenses consequences is also the person who dispenses guidance? This then is the challenge for schools – for us to use the model of the healthy family. Schools like Salisbury High School (Adelaide) and North Ainslie Primary School (Canberra – their ‘enrichment’ programme) are probably the closest that I have seen yet as the ‘family model’ at work within a school (in Australia, at least) – well done.
I remember Howard Zehr bring up this issue at an Auckland RJ conference (‘New Frontiers – 2001?). Maybe one of the biggest threats to the development and success of restorative practices is not narrow-mindedness, bigotry, vengefulness or egoism – it is the gradual ‘creep’ of RJ standards, moving steadily away from base foundations such as empowerment, hope, faith, and accountability. It is the law of nature that things will move from an area of high concentration to an area of low concentration, purity being tainted with impurities. If we leave a bowl of clean water outside, how long does it take before it becomes impure?
In one of the schools that I recently visited (but I can’t remember which), the staff member said that one of her concerns was the slipping of standards towards RPs being RPs in name only. At another school, someone mentioned that he/she had already witnessed (not within his/her own school) RP’s being used in a punitive mode. Once RPs move from being an inherently respectful process of affirmation and accountability, it will only be days before the critics expose these events to the cry, “See, I told you so – Restorative Justice doesn’t work”.
Schools only have limited resources to do anything, including RPs – so how should the limited resources be spent so that standards are kept high? Does this mean that instead of spending time/money all staff to a moderate level, resources are distributed so that a core group of people are undoubtedly operating at a level of quality – that approach certainly has dangers attached. Should there be an accreditation process for schools or staff? – if so, who will accredit? – and who is going to decide who is worthy of accrediting (who accredits the accreditors?). It is probably clear that there are more questions than answers at the moment but unless we start asking these questions, we will never find the answers.