...a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.
— Jeremy Bentham

The Panopticon was a prison concept designed by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. It's goal was to make prisoners feel continuously watched (or seen) by the prison authority. If the prisoners felt constantly watched, he believed, they would be more inclined to control their own behavior. 

Though the idea wasn't a wild success in the penal system, it seems to have fit quite well into education. It feels like a great amount of energy is exerted by teachers and administrators to make children feel like they are always seen by authority. The way teachers walk their students through the halls, at the front of the line, facing backwards, is so the students see that the teacher sees them. A book on creating class literacy centers advises to not make eye contact with students who are having difficulty focusing during read-to-self, not mentioning their behavior in the moment but instead opting to make note of the behavior and conference with them later about it. This is so they would be given the impression that even though you aren't looking at them, you see them and know what they are doing. Give children this impression, the book states, and they will develop their own reading stamina. Another book on creating a classroom culture at the beginning of the year says that early on, the teacher should call out all student behavior, good or bad, to set the understanding that the teacher sees all so that students conform their behavior to the teacher's expectations without a reminder or explicit instruction to do so. 

I have to wonder if the impression of constant observation is the tool we want to use to conform student behavior. There is something that doesn't feel ideal about it. Some questions:

  • What happens when they realize they aren't being watched, or even better, they realize they aren't actually being watched when the teacher is pretending they are? Sounds kind of like ripping back the curtain to find the wizard is just a man. Would that break faith in the teacher? Do students need to trust their teacher?
  • What sort of people will children grow up to be if their "good" behavior is predicated on being seen, and by default, the fear of being punished. Is being seen effective in controlling behavior because it implies more consistent and sure punishment for wrong behavior? If thats true, do we want students behaving in accordance with authority out of a desire to avoid punishment?
  • Is there a more effective/more beneficial/more caring way to achieve positive student behavior than creating the perception of always being watched? How do we decide what positive behavior is? It feel like so many expectations we have of student's behavior is rooted in needing to control a large group of children, not because it is actually good for the individual.

I want to explore that last idea--what is "good behavior" and how did we come to agree on what it is? That feels like a big question that I don't have the resources to answer. But I see a problem when we tell children to tell the truth so that we as the teachers can have an easier job of figuring out "who done it" and therefore who needs to be punished. I asked a co-worker the other day to give me the reason we tell students stealing is wrong, and she couldn't come up with anything substantial (I couldn't either). But the point of that is that we ask students to demonstrate or suppress behaviors that we have agreed are "wrong" or "right" as a society for reasons that seem to often be merely self-serving. I don't want to have to mediate disagreements between students, so I insist that they not tattle and learn to resolve their own conflicts. I don't want to hear from parents or have my principal think I have a problem controlling my students, so I tell them stealing is wrong. 

Now, if the desired student behavior is there, does it matter what my motives as a teacher are for instilling it? I would argue yes. Yes because the way I present it, talk about it, and instruct it will be fundamentally different depending on my motivations. If my motivation for getting the students to resolve their own conflicts is so they grow up to be people that care for others, are able to express their emotions, and make peace so that they find greater happiness, rather than reconciling their own problems because it makes my job easier, I am going to have (what I believe) are good reasons when explaining the desired behavior to my students. I feel like students are able to distinguish between good reasons and bad ones. If not now, especially when they get older. 

Also, if students see that I believe something is inherently valuable, whether that is academic or social instruction, I have noticed that they are more likely to listen and receive it. 

But back to being watched. My biggest concern is whether the behavior actually sticks (is internalized) if it was created by extrinsic pressure rather than internal desire. Can we get children to internalize ethics? This is a question I am intent on exploring. I think though that it starts with figuring out exactly what ethics are and whether we agree on them socially. We talk like there is an implicit understanding, while that conversation hasn't really happened yet. Without that conversation, we find ourselves stumbling over words when a student looks up at us and asks, "Well why shouldn't I take his eraser?" I feel like I owe my students, real answers that I have arrived at through committed thought, answers that make sense to their reasoning. 

So maybe the question of "what is good behavior" isn't really a digression. Before we get into how to teach "good behavior," maybe that's where the conversation needs to start.