THE SEAT OF LEARNING (tm)
By Thomas Wm. HAMILTON
The teacher smiled, and said, "Good Morning, class." Most of the children responded, "Good Morning, Ms. Rasmussen." Eddie Fenim stood up and hit the boy sitting in front of him on top of his head. The boy ended his "Good morning" with a shrill cry. Eddie sat down with an innocent look on his face. Ms. Rasmussen was not fooled.
"Eddie, if you can't behave, you'll have to have a time out in the corner."
Eddie assured her he was a good boy, as he worked a rubber band over his fingers. The teacher looked down at her lesson plan for the first period of the day, and he let the rubber band fly. It hit a girl sitting several rows away on her shoulder. Without even having seen it fly, she turned and stuck her tongue out at Eddie. The teacher caught this, and reprimanded her. Eddie grinned and got out of his seat. He punched two children and kicked a third before getting to the girl, whom he started to give a noogie. She cried out, and when the teacher told him to stop and get back to his seat, Eddie explained he was just trying to help control an unruly student. Before heading back to his seat, he gave her hair a yank.
The class was quiet for a while after hearing that the morning's lesson would be devoted to the exploits of the current Mars expedition. Even Eddie quieted down briefly.
But when Ms. Rasmussen said, "Can anyone tell the class why the astronauts landed inside Hellas Basin?", Eddie jumped from his seat, and ran around the room chanting "Hell is, Hell is, Hell is a basin, ha ha ha!"
Ms. Rasmussen had had it! For the third time this week (and it was only Tuesday) she sent Eddie out for the Principal to deal with. The Principal had no choice but to send Eddie to a restricted room with a few other incorrigibles, supervised by a special teacher and two assistants. She also sent an urgent e-mail to Eddie's parents, demanding an immediate conference. Meanwhile, Eddie disrupted the restricted room, despite having a smaller audience before which to perform.
Two days later, Eddie's parents appeared together in the Principal's office. They were reasonably typical parents, to the Principal's viewpoint, dressed conservatively, although the mother had a rather garish amount of make up.
"Mr. and Mrs. Fenim, I'm personally deeply sorry and very much regret having to tell you that your son is a serious behavior problem and disruptive influence in the classroom. He is depriving the other children of their opportunity to learn."
Mrs. Fenim immediately spoke up. "That's not true. He's being picked on by the other children. Why, he told me that just the other day a girl stuck out her tongue at him, and when he complained to the teacher, she sent him to your office."
The principal sighed. "We sometimes have children go home and tell their parents very distorted versions of what happened in the classroom. In fact, sometimes they even
come in and tell me very fanciful stories. I remember several years ago a fourth grade girl claimed a science teacher had told her class to go outdoors and take off their clothing while looking at the sky. Fortunately, for the past ten years all classrooms are recorded on video. We only look at them when a problem comes up. In the case of the fourth grader,
our science teacher had said to do naked-eye observing of the Moon and planets--perhaps a reasonable misunderstanding from a child. The teacher was told to be certain his classes
knew what 'naked eye' means. Anyhow, would you like to see the video of what happened in Eddie's class this past Tuesday?"
Mrs. Fenim replied quickly, "Of course we do. I'm sure that will clear up any questions." Her husband said nothing, but he took a deep breath.
The video was already set for playing. Eddie's parents were totally horrified. His mother said, "Where did he learn to use such language? I'm certain he never heard anyone say
'Hell' at home." Her husband winced, but kept his mouth shut.
"The language is less a problem than the continuous disruptions," the Principal told them. "We have to take serious steps to end the problem."
"What sort of steps?"
"I can outline the various possibilities for you. As Eddie's parents, you'll make the final choice, but I must warn you, if you refuse to choose, or if your choice fails, Eddie may wind up in a special institution for seriously disturbed children."
Mrs. Fenim took major offence at the phrase "seriously disturbed", and started to let the Principal know how she felt about the phrase as a mother. However, the Principal just sat
quietly until she was finished, and then resumed. "The first choice is the special institution. Your second possibility would be one of the Ritalin type drugs. Several are available and could be tried. There are also drugs which suppress the pleasure center in the brain. If Eddie is disrupting the class because it gives him pleasure, this might end the negative behavior. The disadvantage, of course, is that he will not gain pleasure from any other activities, either, including those that are allowed. Another
possibility would be professional psychological help. You would, however, be required to pay for that yourselves, and the school system would carefully monitor Eddie's progress, if any. Finally, we could apply for funding to provide him with a Seat of Learning."
Both parents were quick to dismiss drugging their son as a desirable possibility. "What about this professional psychologist?"
"The school system would give you a list of approved professionals you could choose from. You should be aware this would appear on Eddie's permanent record."
The notion of psychological aid appearing on their son's permanent record was totally unacceptable to both parents, and they were both quick and vocal in letting the Principal know it. Mr. Fenim said in a tight voice, "Anyway, we took him to be examined by a psychologist about eight months ago." Mrs. Fenim gave her husband a dirty look, as if to imply he was saying too much.
The principal was clearly surprised. "What did your psychologist say about Eddie?"
"First he considered the possibility of ADHD, but he said he found no real evidence for that. Then he wanted to know if Eddie was experiencing any major sources of tension or anxiety in his life, but we honestly could not think of any. His final decision was that he could not find a determinate source for Eddie's behavior. The kid's just simply a brat." The Principal's expression suggested she did not quite accept that as a professional judgment, but it might not be too far off the mark.
"What is a Seat of Learning," Mrs. Fenim asked.
The Principal took a deep breath. Explaining technical things in the education field to lay persons in general and parents in particular was part of her job. That did not mean she enjoyed it or found it easy. "The Seat of Learning is a recently developed adaptation from AI, Artificial Intelligence, used to monitor, and to some extent control behavior. It was originally developed to control recalcitrant prisoners. A potentially disruptive student sits in this Seat, and is monitored by the AI, which also monitors what the teacher is doing. For example, if the teacher asks the class to respond to a question, the Seat of
Learning will permit the student to raise his hand. If the teacher recognizes the student, it permits him to answer. It will not, however, permit him to shout out a response spontaneously. Neither can the student leave the Seat without permission, throw things, or otherwise behave in an inappropriate manner."
Mr. Fenim, who had taken an intro psych course in college as an elective, asked suspiciously, "Does this Seat of Learning apply negative reinforcements? We definitely would not approve of some gadget being able to get punitive with Eddie."
"Oh, no," she responded quickly. "I would never allow such a thing, and I'm certain the School Board would never permit use of punitive measures. This just aids the student in developing self control. Students find that they cannot shout out, so they stop
trying. They find that raising their hands is rewarded with recognition, so they learn proper classroom decorum."
"And," said Mr. Fenim, "this would not cost us anything extra?"
"No, government funds will cover this. The Seat of Learning is quite new, so our school does not have one, but we would be delighted to apply for the funding, and have it available in the future for other students. The literature suggests that very few students need it for more than a month."
"How soon," Mr. Fenim asked, "will you need an answer?"
"Within a week," the Principal said grimly. "We cannot continue to tolerate Eddie's constant disruptions and attacks on other students."
With that, the Fenims left. Once away from the school, Mrs. Fenim shuddered, and came close to tears. "I had such hopes for our son, and now we're told he is something close to a criminal. I can't understand. What should we do?"
"That remark about a criminal gives me one idea. Let's check this out with our lawyer."
They dialled the lawyer's number, and in moments heard, "Garnisch and Hylven, attorneys at law. How may we help you?"
Mr. Fenim quickly explained that his son was in trouble at school, and the family needed legal advice. They set up an appointment for two days later.
At the meeting with their lawyer, Hylven explained that under current law, schools had the power to require a wide range of therapies and controls. He recommended accepting the Seat of Learning as much more desirable than some of the alternatives the school could apply.
Mrs. Fenim questioned whether it was safe. Hylven turned to his computer and punched in a search. After a moment he looked up. "The Seat of Learning seems to have wide support, and almost nothing negative. Certainly no successful lawsuits against it."
The following day the Fenims with some reluctance returned to the Principal's office and signed the request and authorization for their son to use the Seat of Learning whenever in his classroom. Then Eddie was called into the office and given the news. Eddie seemed to be more interested in surreptitiously opening a file cabinet drawer, and using it to climb atop the cabinet, where he marched in place while loudly singing the current number one pop hit.
With a completely disgusted expression, the Principal directed Eddie be escorted back to the incorrigibles' classroom until he could be put into the Seat of Learning.
The wait for the Seat of Learning was but a few days, as the Principal had anticipated the Fenims' choice, and started the paperwork early. Eddie was escorted back to Ms. Rasmussen's classroom once it was installed. He was directed to sit in "your
new seat with the nice shiny desk". With a suspicious expression, Eddie did as requested. The Seat extruded straps which trapped his arms and legs. A metallic cap attached itself to his head. Another strap poised near his mouth, without blocking it.
"Hey! Wh..." Eddie's mouth was blocked by the strap that had been poised near it. He started to wiggle in protest, and the straps around his arms and legs tightened. Even his head was held in place by the cap.
Mrs. Rasmussen said, "Now, Eddie, you will be able to participate in class just like all the other children. But you will not be permitted to call out, leave your seat, throw things, or be disruptive in any way. Do you understand?"
Eddie glared at her. The strap covering his mouth moved away, and Eddie took a deep breath, and started to yell. Not enough got out before the strap again covered his mouth for anyone to guess what, if anything, he had intended to say.
"The Seat of Learning will not permit you to answer my question in any manner except by saying 'yes', and if you change your mind, or lie, and again act disruptive, the Seat will restrain you."
Eddie sat quietly for a moment, and then tried to jerk his right arm free. Nothing happened, except for a look of first strain, and then fear on Eddie's face. Ms. Rasmussen appeared satisfied, and went to her desk. The class day proceeded more peacefully
than at any previous time the entire school year. Eddie sat quietly until lunch time. Several children started to tease him at lunch, and Eddie wasted no time pounding on them. This led to Eddie being advised that he would be left in the Seat during lunch if he could not behave. The Seat was quite capable of making him feed himself while allowing no other freedom of motion. Not only were his protestations of self-defense against teasing ignored, but he was advised to be quiet, or the Seat would be used to silence him. By the end of the school day, Eddie was very unhappy.
The next morning Eddie claimed an illness sufficiently severe to keep him home from school. This did not work. When he arrived at school, he vigorously objected to being placed in the Seat. This did not work, either, as several school aides were called in to force him into the Seat.. He got a bit of respite at lunch, because the other children avoided him. After lunch he was again confined by the Seat.
On the third day Eddie hid a screwdriver in his pocket. Upon sitting in the Seat, he tried to slip it out and use it to "adjust" the Seat's arms and straps. The Seat simply slapped the screwdriver out of his hand.
The fourth day Eddie tried to spit bubble gum into some of the workings of the Seat. Before he had the gum chewed to a proper consistency, the Seat had pried the gum out of his mouth and disposed of it.
Eddie's attempt on the fifth day involved trying to jam his pencil into any part of the Seat he could reach, but the Seat simply tightened its control of his arm, and he could only guide the pencil to the paper he was supposed to be writing on. That same day Eddie's mother called the Principal to ask what was happening. She was assured that while Eddie was still resentful of the Seat, splendid progress was being made. Privately, the Principal thought Eddie would have to be removed to a different school.
Day after day, Eddie's efforts to circumvent the Seat were foiled, until he came in one day with a smirk on his face. He sat down without being forced, surprising the waiting school aides. The Seat wrapped its straps around him without his squirming. His teacher dared hope that Eddie was beginning to adjust, but ten minutes into class time, Eddie's voice rang loudly through the room, singing and declaiming how dumb the Seat and the school
were. The Seat swung a pad across Eddie's mouth, but his voice continued to be heard. The Seat brought additional extensions across his face, to no avail. Eddie had prepared his efforts at home, and carried a recorder into class.
Mrs. Rasmussen signalled for help. With the child still tightly held by the Seat, they frisked him, finding nothing. Finally someone realized he had left the recorder in his book bag, reached in, and turned it off.
Eddie tried to smuggle another recorder in the next day, but the school anticipated this, and grabbed it before he entered the classroom. He sat in the Seat, glowering, all day. He failed to find any classmates who would take the recorder into class for him, so Eddie next tried hiding the recorder in the school playground before class, and retrieving it at lunch. This also worked just once. Day after day, Eddie was bound into the Seat of Learning. There he was forced to remain silent, unable even to raise his hand unless the teacher authorized the Seat to permit it. Finally the day came when Eddie realized that he had no choice and no ability to resist further. A tear ran down his cheek. The Seat sent an arm to flick it off.