Intelligent Disobedience in school!

The challenge of “Intelligent Disobedience” might ruffle feathers

Best-selling author and thinker, Ira Chaleff is looking forward to his forthcoming appearance at the Asia-Pacific International Schools Conference (AISC) in Hong Kong this December. What he’s got to say is important, even though it might ruffle a few feathers . . .

What a school needs

Ira Chaleff thinks that organizations – including schools – work better if their members feel able to disagree with their leaders. This is especially true if the “disobedience” of the rank and file is expressed “intelligently” – in the right way, for the right reasons.

His master’s guide

guide-dogThe idea of Intelligent Disobedience has an interesting provenance – it was originally articulated to describe the way in which guide dogs will “disobey” their “master” if they sense danger and think it is better to sit down than to carry on walking. With greater awareness than the person who is at least nominally in charge, they express their “disobedience” by refusing to go any further along the chosen path of the person they are protecting.

Doing the right thing by disobeying

This is exactly the point that Chaleff is making about organisations and schools in his 2015 publication Intelligent Disobedience: doing right when you know what you are asked to do is wrong”

img_6870walkingtrainSome audiences might be uneasy about the idea, especially in Asia. Chaleff understands these misgivings and he seeks first to reassure:

“It would be meaningless to teach intelligent disobedience without first establishing a foundation of obedience. By the time a child is three or four years old, and even younger, they have learned how to obey walking in line, waiting to cross the street and many other skills”.

However he wants to cut children the slack to “disobey” as soon as it is reasonably possible:

“Once the principle of obedience is grounded, exceptions can be introduced. For example, a role play can be created where they are told it is safe to cross the street but they notice a car coming around the corner so they know not to obey. Intelligent Disobedience is simple: do not obey if obeying would produce harm to themselves or to others”

He rightly points out that parents already do this without a second thought in certain circumstances:

“They say listen to adults but don’t listen to a stranger who tells you to get into a car.

The importance of disobedience

All he really wants them to do is to take this idea to its logical conclusion. Why?

“When we support children thinking for themselves we help them develop their critical faculties. Currently, they are getting a meta message authority knows best, which inherently places low value on personal curiosity, exploration and discovery. In teaching Intelligent Disobedience we are saying authority often is right, but not always. We are returning accountability to the child for thinking about whether something is right or whether it may be wrong and, if it seems wrong, to question it and search for better answers. This is the very essence of developing the inquisitive mind and the responsible adult”

When put like that, the idea does not seem so unreasonable. According to Chaleff, this is important work:

“Virtually every institution shapes the child for socialization, conformity and obedience; I am advocating giving conscious attention to balancing this with the skills needed for rising above the social training when that is the right thing to do. On a more immediate level, these skills are needed for children to protect themselves against the rare but traumatizing abuse of authority by adults into whose care we trust them”

Comfortable ride?

20160712_webfront_ira-1If you are planning to attend Chaleff’s Hong Kong Keynote in December, don’t expect a comfortable time or an easy set of answers to all your problems. He will challenge you to think:

“If I, as the authority on “Intelligent Disobedience”, simply prescribed solutions I would be perpetuating the obedience to authority dilemma we are seeking to resolve . . . . I will point us to what we know are the crucial skills for making the right choice in the face of authority and to suggestions for how to explore what works best in your culture”

Teachers attending his keynote session at the AISC conference in Hong Kong in December will be expected to leave his sessions thinking about how this applies to their classrooms. Although the first goal of education, he argues “is for children to understand their culture and how to participate in it successfully”, the second is, “to develop each child’s individual capacity to think and act in it independently, creatively and ethically”.

If you disagree, come along to hear him speak. Not only will you be allowed to differ, you will be expected to speak up! Intelligent disobedience is good for the speaker as well as the listener.


ira_home_photoIra Chaleff was speaking to AISC’s Niann Lai.

He will be the AISC Keynote speaker at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre on 9th December 2016. 

About AISC

Date: 9th-10th December 2016

Venue: Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre

Ticket Details: HK$3,500 (special offer to International Teacher Magazine subscribers)  aisc_brochure-_download_v1-01

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