Must we punish in order to teach?

The great appeal of “just say no” is that it is simple – straightforward. But that simplicity replaces a broad commitment to “education” with a narrow application of “social marketing” (the art of selling someone on an idea or behaviour that promotes the social good). Nothing wrong with social marketing, but it should never be all there is to drug education.

A similar narrowing process seems to have happened with our concept of discipline which has largely come to be seen as punishment. But discipline is from the root “disciple,” and a disciple is a student or apprentice – one who is learning. So how did discipline come to mean punishment? Well, because some ancient one discovered that humans do not like pain. And, if you induce pain and associate it with a particular behaviour, a person may learn to avoid the pain by avoiding the behaviour – a sort of hands-on social marketing. All of this is true – but it is not the whole truth.

imagesIt is too simple.

Life is more complex. Not everyone has had the same past experiences or holds the same beliefs or has the same personality. As a result, not everyone reacts the same way to any specific situation, including punishment or a social marketing message. In practice a social marketing campaign that works with some people may, in fact, have a negative impact on those most vulnerable to harm. The same is true for punishment.

So, for example, a zero-tolerance policy related to drug use may help students who are highly connected to the school and motivated to achieve high marks to make sure they do not get caught smoking weed at school. But the same policy might have a very different effect on a student who feels little connection to the school. The resulting suspension may actually be a “badge of achievement” rather than something to be avoided. That means, the punishment has little deterrent effect, but it is, nonetheless, harmful in that it lowers the student’s connection to school and the chance of successful completion. The evidence is mounting that punitive responses are doing more harm than good.

So what can schools do about drugs? The available evidence seems to suggest that multiple strategies are needed and that these various elements of a comprehensive approach need to work together. For example, clear policies that articulate acceptable behaviour can define a positive school culture. But, it is also important that the policies and practices engage all members of the community (including students and their families) in nurturing this positive physical and social environment. Well-trained and supported teachers will facilitate learning environments that engage students as active learners. Restorative approaches to discipline will contribute to, rather than interrupt, learning for students who get into trouble. And a continuum of school- and community-based services will support and promote student and staff health and well-being.

None of this, of course is simple, but then …

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong” (H. L. Mencken).

#4 Dan Reist Preferred

Author: Dan Reist, Assistant Director (Knowledge Exchange), Centre for Addictions Research of BC

**Please note that the material presented here does not necessarily imply endorsement or agreement by individuals at the Centre for Addictions Research of BC.

Nurturing a Healthy Relationship with Substances: A Teacher’s Perspective

Like many teachers, I suspect, I struggled to find engaging and effective learning resources which address substance use for my middle-school students. At first I tried some of the statistic-heavy, scare-based sorts of resources, but they did little to engage the crew I was teaching (or me for that matter!)

One day I had a conversation with a colleague who told me about the “iMinds” learning resources that he had been successfully using with his grade 7 class.  I was intrigued imindsby what I heard and decided to give them a try. Three years later, I’m continuing to use them and adapt them in a way that meets the needs of my classes and, better yet, address multiple learning outcome areas for Health, Science, Math, English and Socials – a bonus for a busy teacher and a packed curriculum! Here’s why I’m continuing to use “iMinds”:

Relationships! It is important to me that I do all that I can to help set a tone that creates a caring, supportive classroom culture. An honest, engaging approach to addressing the topic of substance helps.

Engaged learners! Let’s face it – if we can’t reach them, we can’t teach them! The constructivist approach that “iMinds” uses helps engage students in a far more meaningful manner, one that caters to deeper learning and understanding about substance use and the complex array of factors that influence human behaviour.

No expert required! Thankfully, I no longer feel the need to memorize random stats and facts about drugs and substance abuse. What I am good at – and what matters most for meaningful learning – is setting a context for inquiry and “iMinds” helps me do that with very little extra work on my part. Visiting presenters don’t know “my kids” like I do – and certainly aren’t as readily available to them should they need someone to talk with. As the consistent adult in the classroom throughout the year, I’m happy it’s me who is having the regular candid conversations we do.

Collaboration! Not only do the activities in “iMinds” feature plenty of collaborative learning experiences for my students, but for teachers too. This past year, my grade 8 teaching partner wasn’t very comfortable talking about substance use because she didn’t have any formal training and didn’t feel she was an “expert”. We decided to put our two classes together, so that I could lead the discussions. Once she saw how “unscary” it was she quickly gained confidence in her ability to get our students talking.

Let’s get them talking!  Our favorite part about our iMinds lessons was how our students led the discussions on their own without much prompting from us. Our kids loved selecting and developing their research topics and did an impressive job of presenting and discussing their findings with their peers. During and after the presentations, we got authentic questions, comments and discussions from our group.  My colleague and I could not have been more proud of how comfortable our gang was with talking about healthy life choices with their peers.

It’s “ready, set, go” and in French too! Everything I need is provided and in a format that I can teach from directly. No need to tweak or retype.  Its cross-curricular nature not only helps extend the learning across the subject areas, it helps me cover the learning outcomes that are provincial curriculum requirements.  The big bonus for me and my teaching partner is that we can do so en français.   We are excited to start this year’s health lessons and combine our various curricular areas so that our students have high engagement and no mindless busy work.  We will be able to devote even more time to our iMinds unit this year because we now know how we will combine the learning outcomes across the curriculum and focus on meaningful conversations in French.  For us, iMinds is a homerun!

Author: Jen Gibson teaches grade 8 at École John Stubbs Memorial School in Colwood BC. You can reach her at

**Please note that the material presented here does not necessarily imply endorsement or agreement by individuals at the Centre for Addictions Research of BC.