What to Look for in a Classroom: ...and Other Essays / Edition 1

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Overview

"Of the dozens of 'experts' on what's wrong (and right) in U.S. schools, only a handful are truly worth reading; Kohn has long been one of the soundest." —Booklist

From self-esteem to school uniforms, from grade inflation to character education, Alfie Kohn raises provocative questions about the status quo in this collection of incisive essays—challenging us to reconsider some of our most basic assumptions about children and education. Whether he is explaining why cooperative learning can be so threatening or why detracking is so fiercely opposed, Kohn offers a fresh, informed, and frequently disconcerting perspective on the major issues in education.

In the end, his critical examination of current practice is complemented by a vision of what schooling ought to be. Kohn argues for giving children more opportunity to participate in their own schooling, for transforming classrooms into caring communities, and for providing the kind of education that taps and nourishes children's curiosity. Through all these essays Kohn calls us back to our own ideals, showing us how we can be more effective at helping students to become good learners and good people.

"Kohn's message, if heeded, could inspire a productive revolution in America's fatigued regime of public education." —Publisher's Weekly

"This collection...reminds us that many schools have veered off course in their day-to-day business. And it's a primer that, if taken seriously, can put schools back on the right track." —Educational Leadership

"Informative, inspiring, and thought-provoking." —Library Journal

The Author
Alfie Kohn is the author of seven books on education, including Punished by Rewards and The Schools Our Children Deserve. He lectures widely and works with educators across the country and abroad.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Of the dozens of 'experts' on what's wrong (and right) in U.S. schools, only a handful are truly worth reading; Kohn has long been one of the soundest." —Booklist

"Kohn's message, if heeded, could inspire a productive revolution in America's fatigued regime of public education." —Publisher's Weekly

"This collection...reminds us that many schools have veered off course in their day-to-day business. And it's a primer that, if taken seriously, can put schools back on the right track." —Educational Leadership

"Informative, inspiring, and thought-provoking." —Library Journal

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780787952839
  • Publisher: Wiley
  • Publication date: 2/14/2000
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 712,959
  • Product dimensions: 5.94 (w) x 8.94 (h) x 0.79 (d)

Meet the Author

ALFIE KOHN is the author of seven books on education, including Punished by Rewards and The Schools Our Children Deserve. He lectures widely and works with educators across the country and abroad.

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Table of Contents

Part One: Classroom Mismanagement.

1. The Limits of Teaching Skills.

2. The Trouble with School Uniforms.

3. Beyond Discipline.

4. How Not to Teach Values: A Critical Look at Character Education.

Part Two: American Ideology Goes to School.

5. Resistance to Cooperative Learning: Making Sense of Its Deletion and Dilution.

6. "A Lot of Fat Kids Who Don't Like to Read": The Effects of Pizza Hut's Book It! Program and Other Reading Incentives.

7. Grading: The Issue is Not How But Why.

8. Grade Inflation and Other Red Herrings.

9. Only for My Kid: How Privileged Parents Undermine School Reform.

Part Three: Unquestioned Assumptions About Children.

10. Suffer the Restless Children: Unsettling Questions About the ADHD Label.

11. The Truth About Self-Esteem.

12. Television and Children: ReViewing the Evidence.

Part Four: Business as Usual.

13. The Five-Hundred-Pound Gorilla.

14. The False Premises of School Choice Plans.

15. Students Don't "Work"—They Learn.

16. The Littlest Customers: TQM Goes to School.

Part Five: Lessons Learned.

17. Caring Kids: The Role of the Schools.

18. Choices for Children: Why and How to Let Students Decide.

19. What to Look for in a Classroom.

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First Chapter

Chapter One

The Limits of Teaching Skills


               We are in love with skills. Not any specific skills, mind you, but the very idea that children's problems can be remedied by teaching them skills. The model is so simple and familiar to us that we do not even think of it as a model. It is just common sense that people who thrash about in the water need to work on their swimming skills. Likewise, we assume, if children do not pay attention to what someone else is saying, they could benefit from some remedial work in listening skills. If they fail to lend a hand to a fellow human being in distress, they need to hone their helping skills. If they are reluctant to stand up for themselves, they are candidates for assertiveness training.

    But along comes early childhood specialist Lilian Katz to remind us that most kids already know how to listen; what they sometimes lack is the inclination to do so. (In many classrooms, they have to do altogether too much listening, but that's another story.) Along comes Ervin Staub, an expert in altruism, to suggest that we should be less concerned with giving people instructions on how to help others and more concerned with fostering a "prosocial orientation"--that is, a disposition to help. And along comes Robert Deluty at the University of Maryland with research showing that submissive kids as well as aggressive kids are usually able to describe the appropriately assertive way to respond to any number of situations. In other words, they know how to be assertive; the question is why they aren't.

    None of this is meant to suggest that skills do not matter, or that many students might not derive some benefit from becoming more skillful in all sorts of endeavors. But even where this is most obviously true, such as in learning how to read and write, the question of motivation may still be decisive. Children who are excited about what they are doing tend to acquire the skills they need to do it well, even if the process takes a while. When interest is lacking, however, learning tends to be less permanent, less deeply rooted, less successful. Performance, we might say, is a by-product of motivation. (The implication is that we ought to be spending our time making sure classrooms preserve and enrich kids' desire to learn. The call for "higher standards" which typically skips over the question of how students feel about what they are doing, would thus seem to be fatally misguided.)

    Now consider attempts to promote respect and responsibility. Our first obligation is to think about how these words are being used. When some educators complain that children are "disrespectful," what they mean is that children talk back rather than doing what they are told. Similarly, it often turns out that a "responsible" student (or one who "takes responsibility") is one who unthinkingly complies with an adult's demand. Students are typically expected to follow the rules regardless of whether the rules are reasonable and to respect authority regardless of whether that respect has been earned. Given these connotations, I would argue that the most pressing question is not how we can make children more respectful or responsible, but whether these goals, as currently defined, are even legitimate.

    But let's assume we have in mind a more reasonable, less autocratic understanding of respect and responsibility. Once again, we find ourselves facing the limits of a skills-based approach. Most students know how to treat someone respectfully. What we want to find out is why they sometimes fail to do so. Apart from simple carelessness, one logical explanation is that they do not feel respected themselves. One is struck repeatedly by the number of adults who criticize children for acting disrespectfully--all the while setting an example of precisely what they are complaining about: they talk at students rather than listening, fail to take students' needs and points of view seriously, try to control students' behavior by dangling rewards in front of them or threatening them with punishments, and make little or no effort to involve them in decision making.

    It is widely understood that people learn by example. But adults who are respectful of children are not just modeling a skill or behavior; they are meeting the emotional needs of those children, thereby helping to create the psychological conditions for children to treat others respectfully. I once visited a kindergarten classroom where the teacher, about to begin a class meeting, paused to ask whether it was OK to erase a childish scrawl on the blackboard. It is the accumulation of such small gestures of respect that create a climate where kids are inclined to act likewise--with the teacher and with each other.

    Another example: a high school math teacher suggested that it might be time for a test on Friday, and the students objected that they were not ready. The teacher's response was to ask when they would be ready, and after some discussion they decided to take the test the following Wednesday. Many teachers would assume that asking their students to suggest a good time for a test would prompt a sarcastic response such as "Never!" But these students would not think of answering that way for the simple reason (as one of them explained to me) that their teacher respected them.

    By the same token, if we want students to act responsibly, we have to give them responsibilities. We have to provide them with a classroom where they are encouraged and helped to make decisions. If students are unable to weigh the arguments carefully, anticipate long-term consequences, or take others' needs into account, that may mean they need help figuring out how to do these things. They may have little experience making meaningful choices. Indeed, the same paradox appears: many of the teachers and parents who grumble that kids "just don't take responsibility" spend their days ordering kids around--as though children could learn how to make good decisions by following directions. Once again, though, the question is not just whether we have taught children a list of relevant skills, but whether we have worked with them to create an environment where their needs and preferences matter, where their voices are heard and valued.

    Why, then, is there such a disproportionate emphasis on teaching skills? First, this way of thinking implies that it is the students who need fixing. If something more complicated than a lack of know-how is involved, we might have to question our own practices and premises, which can be uncomfortable. Moreover, a focus on skills allows us to ignore the structural elements of a classroom (or school or family). If students insult each other, it is easier for us to try to make each student act more courteously than it is to ask which elements of the system might have contributed to the problem. Practices such as awards assemblies and spelling bees teach students that they must triumph over each other to be successful. Indifference to others' needs--or even active efforts to put each other down--may be rational responses to a dysfunctional system. But it is obviously more convenient for us to address each individual who says something insulting than it is to track down the structural contributors to such behaviors. (Likewise, it is less ambitious and more conservative to teach children the skills of "dealing with" competition than to figure out how to eliminate competitive practices. The status quo has no more reliable ally than the teacher of coping skills, because whatever is to be coped with is treated as something to be accepted rather than changed.)

    Second, a skills-based approach is compatible with behaviorism, whose influence over our schools (and indeed all of American society) is difficult to overstate. Behaviorism dismisses anything that cannot be reduced to a discrete set of observable and measurable behaviors. This dogma lies behind scope-and-sequence approaches to teaching reading as well as other segmented instructional techniques, but its footprints are also discernible in character education, classroom management, and virtually the entire field of special education.

    Consider two children in separate classrooms, each of whom gives away half his lunch to someone else. The two behaviors are identical; the two children are evidently both skilled at helping. But why did these kids share their food? The first one, let us imagine, was hoping the teacher would notice and shower him with praise. ("What a nice thing to do, Robert! I'm so proud of you for sharing like that!") The second child neither knew nor cared whether the teacher saw--he gave away some of his sandwich because he was worried that his classmate might go hungry. Virtually all of us are more impressed by the second child's motive, but a preoccupation with behavior--and, by extension, with skills--distracts us from attending to motives.

    Put these two factors together (an emphasis on fixing the child and a focus on behavior) and you have what might be called the transmission approach to learning. Here, academic instruction is construed as a matter of pouring facts into empty containers, while character education involves transmitting values to--or instilling them in--passive receptacles. The emphasis on skills is reassuringly consistent with this model. We know how to do something, and we transfer this knowledge to a student so he or she can do it, too. To some extent this transaction may be successful. We may be able to get students to replicate an action (making eye contact while speaking) or recite an algorithm ("To divide by a fraction, flip it upside-down and multiply"). But replication does not imply commitment, and recitation does not mean understanding.

    What's more, the student may be able to do something, but may not want to do it. And this brings us back to where we started. The management theorist Douglas McGregor once remarked that corporate executives like to dangle money in front of their employees because--well, because they can. They have control over how much people are paid, whereas they cannot control how people will feel about their work, and whether they will want to do it, and why. Likewise, we educators gravitate to the things we can do something about, things like teaching skills. Unfortunately, that process can be of only limited use when it comes to helping children become altruistic or assertive, responsible or respectful.


Chapter Two

The Trouble with
School Uniforms


              Satire became obsolete, Tom Lehrer remarked, on the day that Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. We might add that the redundancy of satire is confirmed every time people earnestly propose ideas like this one: the best way to help children learn--or to improve their character--is to force them to dress alike.

    The appeal of school uniforms is based less on the likelihood of realizing any long-term benefits than on the nostalgic yearning for a simpler and less dangerous age. To imagine that telling students what to wear will bring back those days is to engage in wishful, if not fuzzy, thinking.

    For some people, however, the good old days symbolized by uniforms were characterized not only by simplicity but by obedience: those were the days when kids did what they were told and kept their mouths shut. Here the question is not so much whether uniforms can make this happen but whether the goal itself is legitimate.

    If we want students to grow into critical thinkers and ethical people, then we have to aim higher than mere conformity. We have to join them in asking, "What kind of school do we want to create?" Thus, if T-shirts contain slogans that offend us, or gang colors threaten to be inflammatory, school administrators might invite students to participate in analyzing the problem and constructing a solution. Apart from being more respectful, this approach is also more effective over the long run (and better preparation for life in a democratic society) than issuing a decree ("Wear this").

    Just as the proponents of "school choice" never talk about how much choice students have about what happens in the classroom, so the advocates of uniformity assume that the only objection to dress codes is that kids want the freedom to wear whatever they wish. Overlooked is the more substantive argument, that kids don't learn much of value in an environment where they are excluded from decision making.

    A search for data supporting the use of uniforms turns up a single study finding that teachers and others believed students in uniforms were more successful than their peers. But this suggests nothing more than a prejudice on the part of these observers, analogous to attributing various qualities to students on the basis of race or gender.

    In the absence of real research, many news stories have cited anecdotal claims, notably from Long Beach, California, where school uniforms are alleged to have instantly produced positive results. However, as the district's superintendent acknowledged to the Harvard Education Letter this year, programs to promote conflict resolution, peer mediation, and parental involvement have also been implemented there recently and "it is really hard to know exactly what is producing the positive effect"--assuming that a meaningful effect really does exist, and persists.

    Is it even reasonable to expect uniforms to solve the problems for which they are recommended? Can violence be reduced by borrowing an idea from the military? Can class differences be smoothed over by making kids dress identically? (In any case, those very real differences ought to be addressed openly rather than camouflaged.)

    And what about the pressure some students feel to dress better than their friends, which can drive parents to distraction (if not bankruptcy)? This is just a symptom of a broader social disease called competition. If we were serious about dealing with the underlying pressure on students to triumph over their peers, we might begin by challenging school-sponsored practices such as awards assemblies and spelling bees.

    Complex problems will not disappear just because we demand that students wear what we tell them. Relying on power to induce conformity rarely produces lasting solutions. The alternative to uniforms is not merely to allow different styles; it is to work with students to transform schools into democratic communities where everyone's voice counts.


Chapter Three

Beyond Discipline


               A few years ago, I received a letter from a woman who was working on a book about a progressive educator. She said she was considering devoting a chapter of her manuscript to a discussion of a program called Assertive Discipline, which was at best only indirectly related to her subject. But she knew my stomach reacted the same way hers did to the sight of marbles in a jar, or a hierarchical list of punishments on a classroom wall, and she wanted to know whether I thought she should bother with this digression.

    It didn't seem a particularly complicated question, and yet the more I thought about it, the more I found my response shifting. At first, I was simply going to say, "Hell, yes! Help the hundreds of thousands of teachers who have been exposed to this program to reflect on how pernicious it really is." Assertive Discipline, after all, is essentially a collection of bribes and threats whose purpose is to enforce rules that the teacher alone devises and imposes. The point is to get the trains to run on time in the classroom, never mind whom they run over. Everything, including the feelings of students, must be sacrificed to the imperative of obedience: "Whenever possible, simply ignore the covert hostility of a student. By ignoring the behavior, you will diffuse [sic] the situation. Remember, what you really want is for the student to comply with your request. Whether or not the student does it in an angry manner is not the issue."

    As I prepared to write this to her, however, and as I recalled Lee Canter's disclaimer in the Teachers College Record several years ago that "there is nothing new about Assertive Discipline," that it is "simply a systematization" of common behavior-management strategies, I realized that it was too easy to single out one person as the Darth Vader of American education. At least Canter is candid about the authoritarian (and behaviorist) thrust of his methods. No one could possibly confuse his program for an attempt to engage students in ethical reflection, or to build caring relationships with them; teachers are urged simply to tell students "exactly what behavior is acceptable. ... No questions. No room for confusion."

    But the same cannot be said of many other programs on the market that wrap themselves in words like cooperative and dignity and even love. While rejecting the most blatant forms of coercion, they too are ultimately about getting students to comply, and they too rely on carrots and sticks. These programs unhesitatingly recommend that we dangle rewards in front of students when they act the way we want: praise and privileges, stickers and stars, and other examples of what has been called "control through seduction."


The groovier programs, following the lead of Rudolf Dreikurs, prefer not to talk about punishing students. Instead, punishment is repackaged as "logical consequences" The student is still forced to do something undesirable (or prevented from doing something desirable), but the tone of the interaction is supposed to be more reasonable and friendly, and the consequence itself must have some conceptual connection to the child's act: the punishment fits the crime. Thus:


* If a second grade student is guilty of "talking out of turn, squirming, and so on" he might be ordered not only to leave the room but also to spend time back in a kindergarten class. This is a "logical consequence" and therefore appropriate, as long as the teacher strikes the right tone by saying that she wonders whether the boy is "ready to continue in second grade" and suggesting that therefore "it might be better for [him] to try and go back to kindergarten for a while."
* If a student makes a spitball, the teacher should force him to make five hundred more spitballs so that his throat becomes "increasingly parched." If a student tips her chair back, "she can be asked to stand for the rest of the period."
* "Each student who violates a rule [must] write his own name on the blackboard"--or, in another approach, must have his name written there by an elected class "sheriff" who is "responsible for keeping the behavioral records."


    Is it more reasonable to make a child stand for the rest of the period than, say, for the rest of the week? Unquestionably. It is also more reasonable to paddle a child than to shoot him, but this does not offer much of an argument for paddling. Is there a connection between tipping back a chair and not being able to sit in it? Yes, but does it really matter to the child? The issue is not the specific features of the punitive response so much as the punishment itself: "You didn't do what I wanted, so now I'm going to make something unpleasant happen to you." We would not expect the child to be less resentful (or less likely to retaliate) just because the teacher used what amounts to Punishment Lite.

    In trying to answer the woman who was considering a chapter about Lee Canter, I came to conclude that the problem is not just with his program but with the use of rewards and punishments per se, regardless of what they are called or how they are embellished. Even when children are "successfully" reinforced or consequenced into compliance, they will likely feel no commitment to what they are doing, no deep understanding of the act and its rationale, no sense of themselves as the kind of people who would want to act this way in the future. They have been led to concentrate on the consequences of their actions to themselves, and someone with this frame of reference bears little resemblance to the kind of person we dream of seeing each of our students become.

    Gradually, though, I began to wonder whether even this was the last word. Rewards and punishments are instruments for controlling people, and the real problem, I began to suspect, was the belief that the teacher should be in control of the classroom. If all these discipline programs disappeared tomorrow, a new one would pop up like the next Kleenex in the box if teachers were determined (or pressured) to remain in control and needed methods for making sure that happened.


This recognition offered a fresh way of looking at my own experiences as a classroom teacher, and at what I had seen in countless classrooms over the last few years. Students are far less likely to act aggressively, intrusively, or obnoxiously in places where the teacher is not concerned with being in charge--and, indeed, is not particularly interested in classroom-management techniques. I realized that the discipline problems I had experienced with some of my own classes were not a function of children who were insufficiently controlled but of a curriculum that was insufficiently engaging. (The students weren't trying to make my life miserable; they were trying to make the time pass faster.) It occurred to me that books on discipline almost never raise the possibility that when a student doesn't do what he is told, the problem may be with what he has been told to do--or to learn.

    Of course, none of this would make sense to someone who believed the only alternative to control was chaos. Even if such a teacher found continuing problems in a strictly controlled classroom--especially when she was absent--that might lead her to blame the students and to answer with more discipline, tougher consequences, tighter regulation. And the worse things got, the more "unrealistic" it would seem to her to give up control, the less likely that she would consider bringing the students in on the process of thinking about the kind of classroom that they would like to have, and how to make that happen.

    No wonder the advice of Rudolf Dreikurs and his followers often seems interchangeable with that of Lee Canter. For example, if a student argues with anything we say, Dreikurs advises us to do the following: "First, you simply reply, `You may have a point.' Second, you do whatever you think is right." No wonder Canter recommends Dreikurs' work and quotes from it. Dreikurs may have talked about democracy, but what he apparently meant was the use of meetings and other "modern" techniques to get students to do what they are told: "It is autocratic to force, but democratic to induce compliance" he and his colleagues wrote.

    Classroom-management programs invariably urge teachers to begin the year by taking control and laying out their expectations for student behavior--along with what will be done to those who disobey. But no child ever became more likely to think for herself, or to care about others, in such an environment. To "manage" students' behavior, to make them do what we say, doesn't promote community or compassion, responsibility or reflection. The only way to reach those goals is to give up some control, to facilitate the tricky, noisy, maddening, unpredictable process whereby students work together to decide what respect means or how to be fair.

    To help students become ethical people, as opposed to people who merely do what they are told, we cannot merely tell them what to do. We have to help them figure out--for themselves and with each other--how one ought to act. That's why dropping the tools of traditional discipline, like rewards and consequences, is only the beginning. It's even more crucial that we overcome a preoccupation with getting compliance and instead involve students in devising and justifying ethical principles.

    And that's why I suggested to my correspondent that a critique of Assertive Discipline made a lot of sense--as long as it was more than a critique of Assertive Discipline.

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