Mapping Classroom Culture – Dignity and Humiliation

The Dignity-Achievement Grid:

Dignity Culture Grid

The dignity culture grid is a simple tool for discussing key components of classroom culture. Each axis is a continuum measuring two variables: Achievement and Dignity.

We use this grid as a vehicle to:

  • Illustrate the relationship between a community’s culture and its successes and struggles.
  • Offer real-world narratives that can help students understand the obstacles they face and strategies that can help them adapt and flourish.
  • Share past experiences that have shaped our expectations of a classroom.
  • Generate goals for our classroom and community.

How the Grid Works
The horizontal axis represents a continuum ranging from a healthy, supportive culture of dignity on the right to a toxic, combative culture of humiliation on the left. I’ll unpack examples of each below.

The vertical axis represents a continuum of achievement. It can be applied to academics, athletics, the arts, or any other field that requires the mastery of skill and community cooperation.

The quadrants of the grid represent four distinct cultures. I’ll sketch out extreme versions here to illustrate the difference between them. In reality groups are dynamic and variable and rarely exemplify any one quadrant exclusively, but a community develops habits and norms over time that belong more in one quadrant than another. When presenting this in class, I offer a few personal stories to anchor each quadrant.

1. High Achievement/Culture of Humiliation
This culture is a highly competitive, sometimes combative, environment that can produce great skill and ability. Professional sports are full of supporting examples. The desire to outperform rivals fuels intense focus and dedication, and an enduring rivalry can produce sustained growth for all involved.

The problem is that not everyone has the time, confidence, or resources to stay involved. The field then becomes exclusive territory, contested by fewer and fewer participants. This culture offers great rewards and high status to a few winners and very little to everyone else. Over an extended timeline, most people have little to show for their effort, so they quit. The competition is no longer worth the hassle or the humiliations of defeat. This is not a significant issue in the small worlds of football or competitive chess; our larger society will continue to function smoothly if most participants eventually quit. But it’s a grave problem in education where the skills in question are basic academic competencies.

Goals in this culture are often framed in terms of glory and dominance. Representative adages include: “Second place is the first loser,” “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing,” and Nike’s “Think training is hard? Try losing.” Winning is the ultimate satisfaction, and at least some part of the pleasure comes from witnessing the humbled looks on vanquished faces. They were trying to beat you, and they lost. Ha!

Participants in this culture regularly jab at one another to assess strengths and weaknesses and establish a pecking order. These small and constant reminders of ability and status tend to dominate interactions and dictate the power dynamics of many relationships. Many potential friends eye each other warily.

This competitive/combative culture is widespread amongst young people, fuelled by countless cultural models and primal prerogatives to dominate competition and gain widespread admiration. If you look around most classrooms, many students have long given up. They may have tried their hardest at the outset. They may have picked themselves up and dusted themselves off a time or two. But eventually the costs outweighed the benefits. The glory has drifted away and belongs to others, and it feels okay to just sit back and watch. Of course, the real reward for mastering academic skills has nothing to do with glory or dominance. The lasting prize is the possession of a set of skills that help us understand the world, that empower us to explore and question and analyze complex problems, that help us find fulfilling work. But in this intensely competitive culture, the view of these true rewards is obscured by incessant jabs and unrelenting jockeying for prime position. This is not a culture likely to sustain a passion for life-long learning.

2. Low Achievement/Culture of Humiliation
Whereas the competitive/combative culture above produces a minority of winners, this purely combative culture has lost sight of any genuine reward. This is a culture in which basic trust has broken down, and most mental resources are dedicated to threat assessment rather than skill-building. Students sacrifice academic achievement for the relative safety of social stability, however temporary that safety may be. Participants are trapped in a vicious cycle in which they lash out at one another to protect themselves. Small misunderstandings escalate into all-out brawls, and jabs become wild punches.

While everyone would like the culture to improve and be more supportive, no one can publicly say as much. Such an admission would expose a need, and any need could be interpreted as weakness, thus opening them to ridicule. Despite the universal desire to escape this culture, no one seems to have the right combination of tools and power to intercede and pull the group out of the mire.

This culture is extraordinarily frustrating to deal with, and it’s easy for teachers and parents to grow exasperated. Conflicts regularly derail instruction, and most disciplinary systems fail to make a meaningful impact. A significant motivation for the development of this dignity curriculum has been to empower students stuck in this culture to recognize the dignity of others in the room, to forgive past assaults, and to begin a virtuous cycle of building trust.

3. Low Achievement/Culture of Dignity
Not all low achievement is rooted in the fear of humiliation. Students regularly fail to master skills because they are already quite comfortable where they are, thank you, and the skills themselves don’t seem to have any real significance or meaning. The obstacle to success is comfort rather than fear. Some classrooms err on the side of comfort, fearing that the stressors of a rigorous curriculum will push students away from the content forever and that any negative feedback will irreparably damage their self-confidence. (These are real concerns that we address in the “Recognizing Profound Potential” portion of this curriculum).

Teachers and parents have three general strategies to push and motivate students. The first is simple coercion: Do your work or I’ll make your life miserable. The second is to create reliable habits and routines: Work is simply what we do all day, so it would be weird if you just sat here and did nothing. And the third is persuasion, which can focus on either the beauty and wonder of the content (making it really interesting) or establishing long term goals that give the content real-world relevance: First of all, Caesar was a status-crazed maniac, and second, if you want to be president, you’ll have to learn how he succeeded and why his best friends eventually decided to stab him. In a low-achieving culture of comfort, none of these strategies are employed, and students drift into class relaxed and happy, enjoy the positive vibes, and wander out having learned nothing. 

4. High Achievement/Culture of Dignity
Finally we arrive at the quadrant we hope to create in our classrooms. This vibrant culture has clear goals, rigorous instruction, and regular vehicles to recognize students for their hard work and individual obstacles. Trust is high amongst students, and they support one another as they navigate challenging material. Competition often develops, but it remains good-natured and healthy. Participants root for another and recognize that their kindness and support has helped others flourish. Everyone can take credit in the group’s collective achievement.

The air is charged with a sense of excellence and exceptionalism: We have created a special, enlightened environment. Those struggling with specific skills can count on others for help and advice. Participants feel free to ask one another for help without fear of being mocked or laughed at. Once a network of trust is established, everyone becomes an ally. Individual obstacles are still difficult and frustrating, but the support of the group allows everyone the time and space to try a wide range of strategies until they find one that works. Everyone’s dignity is acknowledged, and the cognitive load normally dedicated to self-preservation is redirected towards exploration and growth.

Once this vibrant culture is established in a classroom, the teacher is able to trust students with more independent tasks and projects, spend more time helping students individually, and develop more fun and engaging content modules. Coercion becomes an unnecessary tool as the students successfully regulate and reinforce positive habits and routines on their own. Drama and conflict will still occur; dignity is not harmony, but the students will seek to understand the issues and solve the problem rather than seek revenge or punish the presumed transgressors.

How We Use the Grid
This grid helps us identify parts of our culture that we’d like to change, and it provides a vehicle to discuss specific models that we’d like to emulate. Once the grid has been discussed, it provides the teacher with a backdrop to frame class activities (I have to give you hard feedback on your writing. Otherwise, we might as well just be eating popcorn and watching dumb youtube videos), to redirect escalating conflict (I’m sure you didn’t mean to hurt each other’s feelings, so I’d rather spend a little time unpacking the issue than let you fall into a culture of humiliation), and to address the small jabs that deteriorate trust (Whoa! My ears are sensitive, but do I perceive a little culture of humiliation seeping in to our Shangri-la?)

When we initially introduce the grid, we go around the room sharing stories that connect our experiences to each quadrant. I especially enjoy telling stories of my high-achieving/highly-humiliating years playing high school football. With a little prompting, students offer their own stories. Many are funny. Some are not. By sharing our histories and analyzing the stories through the lens of dignity and achievement, we add substance to the words and build a sense of community with one another as being subject to the same set of powerful forces.

Roughly every six weeks or so, we create time in class for a student discussion assessing where they’re living on the grid. They can self-assess how they have individually contributed to the class culture, what good and bad habits the group has developed, and what they can do to improve. I’ve been incredibly impressed with students’ ability to diagnose their issues and to take concrete steps to improve. Often they only need the space to talk about it how they’re feeling, and the framework of the grid simply helps start the discussion.

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