The room is full of students. And they are all silent. Absolutely
silent. Waiting for the instructions they are about to receive. They don't do
anything until they are told to. They follow every instruction as it is given.
Of course, the instructions are given by a teacher… me. I am
reading a script. I read it verbatim, as instructed. Because my job and
teaching certificate depend on it. The entire room is being controlled by a
outside authorities, the state of Florida Department of Education and a testing
company, authorities that are not physically in the room, but which controls
everything that is going on there as surely as if they were the puppet masters
and we the marionettes.
How indoctrinated are we all into the cult of silent testing? I
have had a student throw up – loudly – during a writing test, and everyone just
kept working. During this year’s testing a student’s dog got hit by a car
outside the media center where I was testing; much drama and blue police car
lights. The kids kept right on testing.
For all the talk that floats around that kids are disobedient, in
certain circumstances, they are incredibly obedient. They have been conditioned
from early in their schooling to be obedient during standardized testing.
Ironically, they are less obedient in class, where (at least in my view) what
is going on has actual value.
Of course, I feel that what I’m doing in
class has actual value mainly because, in many ways, I am being disobedient to
what the System of school tells me I should be doing. I have been disobedient
to edicts to follow scripted curriculum, to follow curriculum maps with “fidelity,”
to not question “the test” in front of students, to use rubrics and data to
track students’ progress, to make my teaching all about the test.
I have always been a good, compliant kid, even as an adult. I was
rewarded for my style of teaching as district Teacher of the Year, and this
helped reinforce my “good kid” psyche. Do good things, get rewarded. Within
three years after winning, though, I discovered that the very things I was
awarded for were no longer valued by the teaching profession. So I had a choice
to make that caused me levels of stress that nearly drove me out of the
profession: obey, and give up everything that makes teaching worth doing, thus
shortchanging yourself and your students, or disobey and teach according to
I chose the latter, but it wasn’t easy, even with the support of a
great principal. Over the course of the past 12 years, I have grown a lot. I am
much more comfortable being disobedient.
I might have saved myself a lot of stress and depression, however,
if I could have traveled to the future and gotten myself a copy of the book I
recently read from the library, the 2015 book Intelligent Disobedience by Ira Chaleff.
Although many lament the lack of obedience
in our society, and feel that if everyone just “followed the rules” it would
solve everything, Chaleff warns of the dangers of that approach. He is not against
obedience, by any means. He asserts that in the majority of organizations, most
of the time, obedience and following instructions is the only way an
organization can function. So obedience, Chaleff says, is the best choice when
the system is “fair and functioning,” the authority figure has legitimate
authority and is competent, and when the order itself is “reasonably
But he makes a very strong case that, appearances to the contrary,
we are conditioning our citizens to be obedient to a fault. He gives examples
of companies where those in power ordered criminal acts and the employees followed.
He recounts the harrowing story of a phone call to a McDonald’s by a man posing
as a police officer that resulted in a restaurant employee being confined and
abused for hours by her supervisor and others—because they were just doing what
they were told. The victim said she had always been to told that when someone
in authority says to do something, you do it, without question.
He also reviews the famous (though perhaps not famous enough) 1960’s
Milgram experiments in obedience to authority, wherein subjects were told by
the “scientist” figure to give a person behind a window in another room
electrical shocks, up to a fatal shock. The person in the other room was only
an actor pretending to be shocked, of course, but the subject giving the shocks
didn’t know this. Two thirds of subjects kept administering shocks up to a
potentially lethal level because the “authority figure” kept telling them to do
so. They were just “following orders.”
Add to this the history of “I was just following orders” excuses
given by the perpetrators of atrocities, and the incidents of adult child
molesters using their authority as a adults to keep their victims in fearful,
silent compliance, and the need for “intelligent disobedience” becomes even
more pronounced. Note the title of the book is not Disobedience for Its Own Sake; it is Intelligent Disobedience. The phrase comes from the
training of guide dogs, who must be trained to be intelligently disobedient
lest they follow orders from their master that get them both killed.
Chaleff gives examples of intelligent disobedience saving the day
and transforming systems, including the Florida teacher who refused to give the
FAIR test to her young elementary school students and ended up having the test
removed as a requirement in those grade levels. He also critiques the realm of “classroom
management” as being focused completely on absolute obedience and compliance to
the teacher’s authority, of never, ever questioning what you are told to do.
This can indeed go too far. I have often tried to point out to adults, and,
more successfully, to students, that we are holding students to the very lowest
level of Kohlberg’s Levels of Moral Development: I don’t want to get in trouble.
Chaleff makes the case that intelligent disobedience must be
taught in schools. Not being part of the school system himself, though, I don’t
think he realizes two things. One, that questioning things should be at the
very heart of the educational mission, and two, that teachers can’t give away
what they don’t have, and they are being told being told to not question
orders, to do what they are told, to not speak up. You can’t get students to
question and learn intelligent disobedience if you, yourself, are not allowed
For around ten years, our district Language Arts “used” the
College Board’s SpringBoard program, a workbook that we were encouraged to use
unquestioningly, day by day, page by page. I was intelligently disobedient
about it, and have many reasons to believe that I was more successful than many
of the teachers who followed it “with fidelity.”
Late into the “SpringBoard years,” as Common Core was being
introduced, I sat at a Department Contacts meeting full of the lead Language
Arts teachers at various schools, and when some of the teachers saw what the
standards were demanding of students, some of these teacher leaders actually
said, “How can we teach these standards if they are not in SpringBoard?” My
goal here is not to debate the standards, but to note that obedience to the
system was producing teacher leaders incapable of thinking about and making
decisions about curriculum on their own.
Lots of people talk about the need to teach “critical thinking
skills” (whatever they are), but we have set up a system where absolute
obedience for teachers reinforces absolute obedience for students. Critical
thinking involves questioning, and questioning can involve intelligent
Chaleff laments the fact that intelligent disobedience is not
being taught in schools and needs to be. As I finished the book and was talking
to my wife – also an English teacher – about it, I had an epiphany. We English
teachers are teaching intelligent
disobedience – by teaching fiction. It makes me wonder if one of the main
functions of fiction is, in fact, to teach intelligent disobedience. Think about
how many novels are about characters standing up to authority. I am currently
teaching The Giver to one class and Fahrenheit 451 to another (though Guy
Montag isn’t always intelligent about the how
of his disobedience, his why is right
on the money). I just went to see Captain America: Civil War yesterday.
Intelligent disobedience again. Story after story, from Antigone to Star Wars to Harry Potter, is about the tension
between authority and freedom, about characters being intelligently
When I pointed this out to my wife, she said, “And what does
Common Core want us to de-emphasize? Fiction.”
As I write this, I have just taken her thought a step further.
When fiction is taught we are taught to “close-read” with students for literal
meanings and “non-trivial” inferences. The standards do not encourage teachers
or their students to connect fiction to their lives. That might encourage us
all to emulate the intelligently disobedient characters we find there.
Every so often you read a book that seems to know you, to explain
you to yourself, that helps you make
sense of things in a new way. Intelligent Disobedience is one of those books
for me. I highly recommend it.
After I return it to the library I’m going to need to buy my own