A question of discipline

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Image credit: A. Kazhigaliyeva, A. Tazhiyeva, A. Chsherbakov.

The picture above illustrates the results of a survey my fellow students at NUGSE and I have conducted as part of our Linguistics class.  We asked the participants to give their free associations to a particular word in Russian, and then, a few days later, to the same word, but in Kazakh.  The word clouds show the associations given to the word education: the left one in Kazakh and the right in Russian.  Have you spotted the difference?  Clearly, the Russian associations are much more varied.  But, what is more interesting, if you look at the actual words, you will see that they reveal completely different views on the concept of education.  The one on the left focus on the institutional aspects: teacher and school, while the other one favours a personal development orientation expressed through more abstract terms: knowledge and learn.  The purpose of the exercise was to identify a Whorfian effect in Kazakh-Russian bilinguals.  It is unlikely that we have done that, but I think we have still found something interesting here.

In an article I have recently read in Esquire Kazakhstan, Gulzhan Bazhkenova, the author, strongly criticises the educational methods in Kazakh-language schools: “Requirements to behaviour are extremely strict: no objections to the teacher, not even a hint on self-expression in clothes or thoughts.”  This somewhat explains the findings of our survey; the associative fields that we gathered reflect the educational cultures in which the two languages are dominant: cultivation of discipline and obedience in the Kazakh-medium environment, and a more liberal approach to education in the Russian-medium one.

I must say the article, whose title, by the way, is “Too obedient to succeed”, paints such a dire picture of the Kazakh-medium education that it makes you suspicious of its sweeping claims, the central of which is that Kazakh schools, which emphasise traditionalism, discipline, and conformity, produce graduates who are not competitive in the modern job market because they lack initiative and creativity.  But all the same characteristics are typical of education in most Asian countries.  Nobody, however, would argue that graduates of Singapore’s schools are not fit for jobs at Singapore’s highly successful corporations, or that Japanese education stifles creativity in a country leading the world in technological innovation.

So, is the traditionalist approach of Kazakh schools really that bad?  Or is it just another Western value assumption misapplied in a culture that is essentially different?  I went to school in the mid-90s, when authority was not a very popular concept, and am quite grateful for that.  But what do the younger generation think?  To discipline or not to discipline?

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10 thoughts on “A question of discipline

  1. Dear Andrey,

    You raised a quite sensitive but a vital topic.
    It is sensitive in a way that it touches some issues of the Kazakh culture; and it is vital because these issues may tremendously affect lives of young people.
    Personally, I’m convinced that discipline is always good. However, we should bear in mind that discipline may vary from an istitution to an institution, from a person to a person.
    Some may discipline by screaming loudly, while others can make use of their single look and have the same effect. In my view, discipline is not about picking on students, inhibiting their personality or uniqueness, or intimidating with absolute authority. On the contrary, it is about using non-negative and non-violent approach and achieving the desired result.
    This task is a laborious one; however, it is real to complete.

    Kind regards,

    Lenera.

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    1. Lenera,

      It seems that you believe that, if applied properly, discipline does not inhibit creativity. I am not so sure about that. Here’s what MacMillan dictionary says about discipline: “the practice of making people obey rules of behaviour and punishing them if they do not”. Maybe it’s just my own preconception, but this sounds to me pretty stifling and not conducive to develping free and critical thinking.

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      1. Dear @chsherbakov I’m sorry for the late response, I didn’t have a chance to response.
        Yes, in my opinion discipline does not inhibit creativity. I believe there should be a certain level of discipline which both prevents children from “walking on their heads in the classroom” and providing space for expressing themselves. Maybe my vision of discipline is an idealistic and is yet non-existent, however, I do believe it is viable and doable.

        Kind regards,

        Lenera.

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  2. Dear chsherbakov, the survey conducted with your fellow student at NUGSE is very interesting one. My suggestion is that the survey should definitely have a continuation. Although I never had an experience of studying in purely Kazakh MOI school I anticipate that the traditionalist approach of Kazakh schools is really that bad. You can see a result of that approach in our society today. What would you offer to change in Kazakh schools in order to change the focus towards more competitive direction? Or is this change just require s some time as the older generation teachers from the USSR will still insist on their strict teaching approaches?

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    1. Hmm, but if today’s schools do not foster creativity and smother children’s imagination, where will these new free-thinking teachers come from to replace the old disciplinarians?

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      1. This is a very interesting question, I am quite sure that in the future (perhaps in about 20 years!) the change will happen, as the majority of teachers will not be formed by Soviet legacy teachers, who stay stubborn on their approaches. Moreover as a graduate of pedagogical institute i witnessed an eagerness and enthusiasm from “new wave teachers” towards changes in teaching approaches. They, I believe, will replace the old disciplinarians and foster creativity and smother children’s imagination. Thanks for your reply.

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  3. The key words in the definition of discipline are rule and punishment. On one hand, if there is no rules then, like any process, classroom interaction is at risk of being a сhoes, on the other hand, austere practices of unreasonable punishment and unfairness in classroom discipline stemming from teachers, whether “screaming loudly” or “using a single look”, reduce student’s self esteem. The later is my biggest concern, the worry of a parent whose kids attend a school with Kazakh medium of instruction. “Extremely strict discipline” and “cultivation of obedience”, you raised @chsherbakov, are the constant and biggest battles of mine. However, complaining and criticizing are not wise decisions either. That’s why adverting the future equity of the three languages, at the same time ignoring the need for support of the most vulnerable one, seem to me careless, because history puts everything and everybody on its place. I am afraid that in half a century or more we will be in peril to be recognized as an ignorant generation.

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  4. Dear Andrey,
    I agree with Lenera that this is a very sensitive topic that touches the sense of dignity of Kazakh people. I am afraid my opinion contradicts yours. It is not the matter of only management methods of Kazakh medium schools’ teachers, but also parents tend to be strict and I don’t see bad about that. The discipline is needed everywhere, without it no knowledge is received. Look at Asian countries as China, South Korea, Japan, Singapore etc. where discipline is kept and creativity is developed, new technology is booming; without their products we cannot imagine our lives. My father who lived in the period when parents sent their children to teachers saying “My child’s flesh is mine, bones are yours” and he is the author many books now. Therefore I would appreciate if you will be careful with your argument.

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  5. The fact that the topic is “sensitive and touches the dignity of Kazakh people” does not mean the problem does not existst. @chsherbakov‘s and others’ project proves the effect of ungrounded conforminty and discipline in Kazakh schools (in a way). We need to recognize the present reality. @bayanassylbek, you are lucky to have such a great father, and he probably had reasons to trust the school. For me, as a parent, the situation is much more complicated.

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  6. Thank you @chsherbakov and all those who chimed in on this post (5/5). I would like to highlight first the things that make this post so strong, and then address some interesting things happening in the comment section:
    1) The post presents results of a small-scale study, which the audience is already aware of, and which some of the audience actually participated in. This, as well as the personal nature of cognitive linguistics and cultural values, makes the topic a juicy one for debate and discussion (as evidenced by the emphatic comments afterward).
    2) The argument presented in the post is careful NOT to overreach in one direction or the other. There is a lot to process in the results, the Esquire article, and cultural values that surround the concept of “discipline.” It would be tempting to point to the data, or to the article and boldly claim: “Aha! See, I found the answer to why Kazakh language speakers think differently than their Russian language counterparts!” By clarifying that the findings were “unlikely” to prove anything and that the article only “somewhat explains” some results, the claim is balanced and cautious.
    3) The examples of Asian culture that seem to support a disciplinarian view of education further complicate (instead of simplify) the discussion, leading to the conclusion that a lot is still unknown, but that a traditionalist approach cannot be easily categorized as “good” or “bad”. All of these 3 points make the post a worthwhile and thought-provoking read.
    4) @lenerakezlevli‘s comment raised an important question: Does discipline have to be considered bad? She then raises contradictory points to develop this line of reasoning, to which the author can disagree, based on his definition of that difficult concept “discipline”
    5) @yasawi859 brings up an optimistic view of the future, which the author is still skeptical of, and which Yasawi can counter with personal examples
    6) @aigulazhigaliyeva enters the conversation with a perspective of a teacher caught in between the spectrum in the debate.
    7) @bayanassylbek joins to defend the side of discipline, and involve the idea of parenting. It seems she took some offense to the claim that discipline is bad and pushes for a more positive view of parenting and teachers who share the role of raising children.
    8) @aigulazhigaliyeva reminds us that not everyone had that experience and that the question remains a complicated one.
    To summarize this unnecessarily long comment, you all have just demonstrated the need for careful argumentation and thoughtful analysis through your written words, and shown that you can respectfully debate and disagree about complex issues!

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