Friday, 27 April 2018

Impressively wrong- why Alfie Kohn’s advice on running rooms is not great

Enough is enough- it's time to stop taking bad advice about behaviour when children's futures are at stake

Years ago I waited tables in TGI Fridays, where they used to run competitions for staff to see who could sell the most sticky, smoky meat and goldfish bowls of margaritas. Until one day the good times stopped rolling and the managers decreed there would be no more. The reason? One of them had read a book: ‘Punished by rewards’, and claimed that it described how people shouldn’t be incentivised by something so gaudy as an incentive. The author was Alfie Kohn. Years later when I became a teacher I discovered his advice was following me around like eyes on a painting in Scooby Doo. Kohn has become one of the most influential writers in education. His books have found homes in libraries from Beirut to Bearsden. Sadly, rarely have trees been so needlessly pulped.

I frequently hear him described as a behaviour expert. But I find this strange, because surely one of the defining qualities of expertise is to say something right about one’s field from time to time, and he is frequently, impressively not. Were I to connect a Speak and Spell to a ouija board it would produce paragraphs with greater classroom utility. A Magic 8 ball is wiser in these matters. When someone asks me for behaviour advice and I’m in a hurry, I sometimes just shout, ‘Do the opposite of what Alfie Kohn says!’ from my train window as it pulls away from the platform.

And surely the hallmark of expertise in classroom management is…well, some form of demonstrable ability to run classrooms that present frequent, challenging behaviour? This is apparently controversial in education, where a year or two in a private school is often all that is needed to build a career upon. If we ran the army like this, the Queen would speak Russian and live in a minaret.

Only in education. Maybe, also in tarot and homeopathy. This is one reason why I set my shoulder firmly and fiercely to the cause of improving our use of evidence. It isn’t enough, to imagine how wonderful it would be if children behaved one way, if reality disagrees. We mustn’t lounge lazily on our punts, scooping up turds from the river of fancy and calling them lilies. Noble falsehoods are still false. I wish children could reliably divine the right thing to do, and build curriculums inspired by passion and richness. But this is fantasy football teaching. Meanwhile in the real world, real children need guidance and love and boundaries. And it falls to us. There’s no one else.

What’s it all about, Alfie?

Kohn describes, in an interview in the TES, how he has a number of problems with behaviour management as it is commonly practised and understood. Even talking about a “behaviour issue” in schools is misguided, he argues.

By using the word ‘behaviour’, we are only focusing on observable actions, thereby missing the motives, needs and values of the people engaging in the behaviour, so as soon as we involve that word I’m already worried because we are now in thrall to the ideology of behaviourism and we are missing most of what matters with respect to children.

I don’t know any people interested in behaviour management who aren’t also interested in engagement, motivation, and the ocean of multiple factors that drive our actions hither and thither. But it is easier to attack a position when it is mischaracterised. Describing all other systems in such a desiccated manner is a rhetorical slight, not a serious objection. Actions flow from character, and desire, and goals, and habit, and a hundred other things. We know this. This is a familiar but reductionist counter argument to claim that many teachers are only interested in mindless compliance. Where are these teachers? The ones I see all the time genuinely care about the actions and the character of their students. Kohn’s charge, like that of many armchair educationalists, rests on enormous slights to the hard work and integrity of millions of teachers. Yet he is high-fived like a hero by some teachers. But when we do so as a profession, we high-five our own professional dissolution.

Vote for Christmas, says controversial new farmer mayor tells turkeys

‘It took me a while to realise that these kids [who were misbehaving] weren’t trying to make my life miserable- they were trying to make their time go faster. [An] over-reliance on textbooks, worksheets and a diet of disconnected fact and skills had caused them to switch off and act up.’ 

This summarises perhaps his most profound and damaging error: bad behaviour is somehow the fault of the teacher, not the pupil. This may be news to you. It is certainly news to me. When I started, I  planned for hours, I endured awful insults and behaviour, I tried games and jokes and VAK activities and everything I could think of and through it all I cared so awfully much about the children that it nearly broke me. I loved them as much as any teacher could; I wanted the world for them. But all of that was dashed against the cliffs of their indifference when they didn’t want to behave. Children are people. They have their own baggage and aspirations and desires and hinterlands. It is rarely the teacher’s fault if they misbehave.  Sure, a poorly planned lesson can make things worse- poor pace, badly pitched challenge, confusing tasks etc. But none of that makes anyone misbehave. For the most part children misbehave because it amuses or distracts them. And sometimes there is a deep need or difficulty being expressed, But in a mainstream class, the majority of misbehaviour is intentional and merely mischievous. It doesn’t represent an pathology, and certainly not a pathology of the teacher’s inadequacy as he suggests. This is teacher-blaming, pure and simple. Hoorah for Alfie Kohn- we’re rubbish!

Down with the evil oppressors 

His second complaint revolves around the power dynamics of classrooms:

‘The other reason I’m concerned is that to say there is a behaviour problem says as much about the speaker as it does about that [behaviour] he or she is observing. When we say there is a behavioural problem with kids, we are taking advantage of the fact that we have more power than they do and we get to focus attention on what the children have done, rather than whether our expectations are reasonable.’

This is a common theme in his work, and one of the ones I find most problematic. There is a perfectly natural (and very human) tendency to doubt one’s right to direct another. Good; without that reservation we would be unfettered egotists and tyrants. I see many teachers- especially new ones- wracked with this doubt, unable to inhabit the idea that they are needed to guide another’s actions.

A teacher, yesterday
But direct we must. Only the most naive of educational tourists (and here we do lay our scene) would see the  classroom as requiring anything less than structure, common values and shared standards of common conduct. Such things do not develop spontaneously, or unconsciously. Communities do not self-regulate without shared values and behaviour that are often described explicitly. Routines, rules and conventions are the glue that bind society; in fact, they define and embody the society, and its culture. Without rules and conventions, societies cannot endure. History provides us with a neat tableaux of ‘no examples’ of successful societies with no rules, and the enforcement of those rules. Only the most optimistic anarchist believes otherwise, and evidence is not on their side. Nobody sensible would claim that communities can flourish in the absence of direction, authority and boundaries.

You’re going home in a 21st century ambulance

There isn’t a public space that doesn’t run on the invisible rails of rules. We accept them without a squeak in circumstances where it would be impossible to function without them: swimming pools, libraries, football stadia. Agreed conventions is the difference between a successful traffic system and The Cannonball Run. It doesn’t depend on everyone agreeing to agree- the law is the law. Only in education do we see this odd belief that these rules should be co-constructed, democratic, child-driven, adult-faciltated. Why on earth? The intelligence that lands rockets on comets wasn’t obtained from a vox-pop at circle time. And raising children is far more important than astronomy, so why leave it to children? We guide them towards maturity and autonomy; we don’t boot them over the cliff of responsibility and tell them to grow feathers and start flapping. We don’t ask drivers what side of the road they’d prefer.

Kohn’s insistence that formal, undemocratic, institutional authority is intrinsically unjust falls short on this very practical principle: that, while all authority can be abused- and we can easily think of multiple examples- the claim that the solution is to divest ourselves of authority, leads to further injustice. Without rules, and some form of leadership, societies descend into quarrels; quarrels provide opportunities for strength and cunning to dominate; and inequity is exacerbated, not ameliorated. Kohn promotes the rudderless classroom, the democratic classroom where children freely choose wisely. I invite him to try this full time with a group of year 9s on a sunny day when a wasp flies in the room.

These theories are no harmless and abstract hypotheticals; his ideas have impact. Many find solace and comfort in the values that Kohn expounds; many well-meaning educators, eager to multiply liberty, and dignity and agency, are tempted to design classrooms on this model. But the results can be disastrous. Children of lack; children on the fringes of society; children with nothing; children who desperately need the life boat of a free education, as a parachute and safety net, are being deprived of the natural assets of this social contract, and left to heartless fortune. Without safe and calm classrooms, the education of countless children is robbed from them, their opportunities stillborn, never realised, never imagined.

Punished by Reading these Words

‘I don't want to send my kids to school where the adults are primarily focussed on mindless obedience. Mindless obedience is not a good thing; it’s merely more convenient for adults…Schools should be looking to create ‘working with’ not 'doing to’ places.’

Good conduct is much more than convenient; it’s essential, and not just for the teacher, but for the pupils. A well-behaved class spurs everyone on to greater heights. More is possible, better lessons become manageable. This doesn’t have to mean monastic silence, but it does mean a collectively understood appreciation of how they should behave at different times. It’s hard work. But what in life that we value is achieved without effort?

Picture a football match. Without a shared understanding of what the rules of the game are, the match simply doesn’t exist. When everyone participates, everyone benefits. The rules are not arbitrary, but essential to the practice of the game. And look beyond that, to the terraces. See the thousands of supporters, all bound by rules and regulations that keep them safe. These rules of conduct are not arbitrary, but utilitarian, often moral. And they aren’t decided democratically. The rules are there for everyone’s benefit. There isn’t a huge amount of room for discussion because they’re fairly obvious what they need to be. Extend that to a classroom. I happily- necessarily in fact- take great pains to discuss with pupils why the class needs rules, and what they are, and why. But I waste little time discussing if we should have them or what they should be. I know what they need to be. I’m an adult and a teacher. What can they tell me about it that will surprise, thrill or confound me? The idea that children should co-construct their own boundaries is the most impressive trick the devil ever pulled off.

Some kids are perfectly conversant what he rules of civil conduct need to be, because they have already absorbed them at home. Other kids aren’t so lucky. Classrooms aren’t democracies, and to pretend otherwise is simply a lie. We don’t take a vote when we’re crossing the road. ‘Who wants to look first, and who wants to run across screaming Moana songs?’ We don’t vote on bed time. We’re adults. And children need us to act like adults.

The opposite of ‘do as you please’ isn’t ‘Arbeit macht frei’. You can set firm boundaries with love. You can be on their backs 24/7 and still show them you care about their thoughts and efforts. In fact I think its essential to do so. Kohn’s work is full of false binaries and straw men; invented monsters and dummy foes.

‘This is not about teachers standing back and allowing children to do whatever they want.’

But that’s where this leads. What happens if they don’t agree that it is rational to be good? What then?

Kohn say it is ‘breath taking to watch this work in the classroom, with fewer kids playing up, and more pupils authentically engaged in answering questions that are meaningful to them…Most of the time that kids act disrespectfully, its because they don’t feel respected by the teacher.’

I cannot stress how corrosive this is. I’ve been coaching teachers in challenging schools for almost a decade, and I can assure you that telling them the reason kids are acting up is because they aren’t displaying enough respect is kryptonite to their mental wellbeing. Teachers self immolate in blame games already; they don’t need more reasons to hate themselves. Why do we persist on deifying these false prophets? Why is it that education is the sole sector where we suffer these platitudes, and put them on posters?

A punch or a pony?

He has a particular bee in his bonnet about sanctions and rewards because they encourage an extrinsic attitude to good behaviour, ie it is only done to avoid penalty or reap reward. But this is a massive oversimplification of how we nudge and encourage people to behave well. We don’t offer children a punch or a pony and ask them to get back to us. We create environments where it become rational to behave well, where the reasons for that behaviour are explicit and students learn to make the right decision. Sometimes that decision is directed by adding some sanctions as a deterrent but that should be accompanied by great teaching, a warm and positive environment, and lots of patient reminders that a) the student is valued and crucially b) so is everyone else.

The Punch and Judy pinball he describes is a far cry from how most schools actually try to implement sanctions and rewards. Remember that such things include telling a pupil off for racism, taking away their privileges because they bully others etc. And it includes the most powerful reward of all: sincere and proportionate, targeted praise. Are we to avoid all such common and powerful interventions? If so, then Kohn advocates a naive view of human nature that is so fragile as to be ruined by challenge or compliments.

We don’t only behave because we get a cookie and avoid the cutter. But one of the fastest and most useful ways we can internalise our expectations of conduct is by attaching a pleasant outcome for the agent. Neither altruism nor egoism is our natural or permanent state. We are social animals, but we are also capable of selfishness. The job of an adult, a teacher and a school culture is to tease out the former and redirect the latter.

He admits his ideas have had a ‘mixed reception.’ Fancy that! I would love children to respond to nothing but encouragement and reason, but their own aptitudes in this area are still developing. This is maturation, the long walk from infancy to adulthood. It is neither easy nor simple, and it is not automatic. It must be assisted, ushered; we are the midwifes and sculptors of that process. We do not wait for David to carve himself from a block of marble. There is no statue until we help to carve it. Of course all children have ‘potential’, but such aphorisms are meaningless. The question is what potential will they realise? And that depends, on a large part, on their sculptors as they get older, until their agency and independence blossoms to such an extent that we can do no more for them.

Kohnan the Librarian

There is no room for something as impressibly wrong as Kohn’s hot take fairy tales, because children cannot afford them, and children from disadvantaged circumstances especially. This may sound harsh on someone who obviously cares a great deal, but be Kent unmannerly when Lear is mad. These ideas hurt children. They rob them of education by substituting challenging content with self guided strolls through one’s own interests, guided by one’s own horizons. They substitute calm, safe classrooms where dignity, kindness and endeavour are not merely valued but realised, for classrooms where children are left to their own devices, and misbehaviour flourishes in the name of independence. Where the strong willed thrive at the expense of the mild-mannered. I’ve seen classes in challenging schools run on these principles, and they are universally a disaster. I’ve seen classes where children already possessed of enormous cultural capital and self regulation behave well in these circumstances, but they probably would have anyway.

The schools that need structure most, the children that need and cry out for structure and safety, need help; the need well-designed systems that maximise the common good of all. They need challenge. They need to experience high expectations. They need boundaries, guided and implemented with compassion and a hunger for the real (not merely the perceived) good of each student and staff member. They don’t need these diaphanous platitudes.

It’s like a blind man describing a burglar. It’s almost as if a couple of years working in a private school may have been insufficient to form a broad enough perspective.  So here we are, in a world where a man with no track record of successfully running challenging classes can tell you you’re doing it wrong; where someone who has enjoyed the benefits of an tertiary education that required competitive grade entry tells you that grades don’t matter; where someone with no need and little experience to motivate a room full of hyper year 10s to study trigonometry, tells you that they should be doing as they please. It takes moxie like Cagney to talk like this. Say something like this in a medical school and they’ll throw you out and lock you up. Try it in a faculty of education and they’ll carry you out in a sedan chair. Next week: Douglas Bader teaches tap dance.

The only punishment here is reading one of Kohn’s books and following its advice; the only reward is putting it down and reading something more useful, like a Spider-man comic.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

How is the evidence revolution going? Some reflections on 4 years of researchED

At the recent researchED in Haninge Sweden, I closed the conference with a speech that tried to understand where we had got to in evidence informed education, and what the landscape looked like. The following is a summary of that speech:

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, at least it does in education, where we see teaching full of myths, and poorly evidenced practices and strategies. Why have we succumbed so much to Learning Styles and worse, and why have we found ourselves basing our vital practice on gut feelings, hunches and intuition? I think it’s because misconceptions creep into the spaces where:
  • we don’t know much about the topic, 
  • we like the answers junk science provides, or 
  • we’re too busy to find out the facts.
How did we get here? Let’s reframe that question. Where did you acquire your ideas about teaching, learning, pedagogy etc? Chances are your answer revolves around: teacher training; memories of your own school experience; your mentor; your early class experiences.

Up to a point that’s fine. Teaching is to a great extent a craft. But craft without structured evidence to interrogate its biases and misconceptions can lead to folk teaching, where we reproduce the mistakes of our predecessors as easily as we do their successes.

So what? Because merely ‘folk teaching’ leaves us at the mercy of snake oil, fads, fashions, ideology, bias. We can think of an ocean of cargo cult voodoo that often dominated educational discourse in the past: Shift Happens; TED talks; the great Interactive Whiteboard con; most links you see shared on Facebook. We recall the training days hosted by inexpert experts; the books by charismatic gurus; the often quoted rentagobs that fill TV, radio and print who seem to know so much about classrooms despite never having worked in one, know nothings, elevated by other know nothings.

In this landscape, discussions about teaching becomes a battle of prejudices- Pokemon debates where we simply hurl one unprovable claim against another until someone blinks.

A new hope?

My naive ambition in 2013 when I began researchED was simple: we should lean on evidence where it exists, we should try to become more research literate as a profession, and crucially we should ask for evidence at every turn. That was as far as I had gotten, strategy-wise. But surprisingly, amazingly, researchED took off, despite its lack of blueprint or funding. It was a movement that wanted to happen, and we started to respond to demand by hosting events across the UK and quickly, around the world. Since then we have been to 9 countries, 4 continents, and seen 15,000 unique visitors to our events. researchED has 22,000 followers on twitter, and we have been graced with 1000 speakers, none of whom are paid. It is a humbling testimony to what can be achieved for next to nothing if love and altruism and mutual benefit are all you want to achieve. And it reminds me of the best in people, always.

The dangers of research

But it is important to always retain a sense a caution alongside the enthusiasm. The sleep of reason produces monsters, even with good intentions. There have been some reasonable responses and criticisms of this new age of evidence enquiry:

I’m busy- Good point. Teachers rarely have the time to read research, practice it, translate it. Which is why I rarely recommend teachers become researchers. Often, in-class research is of little use anyway. Research takes time and training. I want teachers to be bad researchers about as much as I want researchers to pretend they are teachers. So we need to become more evidence facing collectively, in partnership with other institutions.
You don’t need to know anything at all about research to be a good teacher. Also true. But we now live in an ecosystem where we need to be able to respond to people who claim evidence is on their side.
Research can prove anything you want to. No it can’t. Not all research is equal; there is worse evidence and better evidence, and discerning which is which is heart of the task we face.
Teaching is practical, research is abstract/ Teaching isn’t a science: no indeed, not entirely. But it isn’t wholly an art form either. It is amenable to structured investigation. It works in the material as well as the mental world. There are many aspects of it which can, must be analysed

Less reasonable responses: you must be funded by HYDRA; this is a neoliberal conspiracy; evidence is just another way to deprofessionalise teachers/ make them robots. At these I can only roll my eyes so hard they threaten to detach from their nervous tethers. Customers of tin-foil milliners will believe what they choose despite an absence of any evidence because they want to. No one makes a button from this, and no one funds it with any control. No one gets a say about speakers or content, and we are guided by the desire to seek the truth and fuelled by altruism. Strangely, I see popular snake oil salespeople paid for by Unilever and governments who escape this approbation, often because what they say pleases the conspiracists. Fancy that!

Evidence in the wild

Bad research- the ‘not even wrong’ categories like Learning Styles- aren’t the only problem. What happens to evidence in the wild is crucial. One thing this has taught me is that high quality research is, by itself not enough. If it doesn’t reach the classroom in a useful state then it may as well not have happened. And often good research gets lost in translation. I call this the Magic Mirror. Sometimes research goes through the mirror and schools turn it into something else. Research translation is as important as research generation. Poor old Assessment for Learning drops into the Black Box and becomes levelled homework and termly tests, weird mutant versions of what it was meant to be. And some research is simply misunderstood: project based learning, homework, collaborative learning all have utility in the right contexts. But how many teachers know the nuance of their evidence bases? Homework , for example, has variable utility depending on circumstances. Grasping the when and the how of ‘what works’ is essential, otherwise we over simplify.

A brave new world that hath such teachers in it

I think researchED is a symptom of a new age of evidence interest. Perhaps also a catalyst- one of many that now exist, from the Deans for Impact to the Learning Scientists to the Five for Five program and many more. This is indicative of an appetite that was always there. We now host more conferences, visit more countries every year. We have more first timers, both attendees and speakers. Like the can of worms opened, the worms cannot now go back in the can. This car has no reverse gear. Successful innovations, once perceived, cannot be unseen.

Policy makers

I once asked Tony Blair what research he relied on when making education decisions. He replied that there ‘wasn’t any useful evidence at the time.’ This attitude still dominates the biggest lever-pullers. We still see at a policy level multiple factors driving decisions away from evidence bases:
  • Budgets
  • Policy/ ministerial churn
  • Lack of insider representation
  • Reliance on personal experiences
But the more the profession talks the language of evidence, the more they will have to listen to it. And I have always believed that we should reward policy makers when they participate in evidence driven discussions. That’s why I’m proud we try to engage rather than barrack our political representatives. And why every year we invite minsters of every party to our party.


Leadership is still the biggest lever in driving evidence adoption. One evidence literate school leader cascades far more than one teacher.  Some schools are now embracing the research lead role, and devoting staff resources to this area. There is a moral and a practical duty for leadership to attend to evidence, because an era of dwindling resources demands better, more efficient decisions- less waste, more impact, from training to workload to tech. Let us abandon the days we tried to buy our way out of our problems, as if a chequebook was a magic lamp. And I sometimes wonder if raising budgets isn’t by itself insufficient, because what we do with the money we have is more important than the act of sending it unwisely.


In the absence of a coherent, evidence informed system it is necessary for teachers to drive their own research articulacy. It is necessary. Teachers should not be pseudo-researchers, but they should become literate; share, disseminate and interpret high quality research, and help us to develop a herd immunity, where enough of us are learned enough to recognise the zombie learning and junk pedagogy when it rises- as it always does- from the grave.

Embrace ambiguity

We have one more duty to observe. Teachers must become active participants in the research ecosystem rather than massive recipients.  But teaching is driven by practice, and the data is more subtle than we suspect. We often seek definite answers where none exist. Research often unpacks ambiguity, and we need to embrace nuance, uncertainty and probability rather than dress high quality research up as eternal and immutable fact.  We should avoid universals and certainty- and seek always remember that context is frequently king. Otherwise we perpetuate dogma, and become that which we seek to surpass.

The Gate Keepers 

One thing I didn’t expect- but should have- is that the existing system objects to its own reinvention. Whenever power shifts, former custodians of power seek to preserve privilege, and this new age of evidence adoption has frequently been dismissed by some academics, some education faculties, commercial interests, some teaching bodies. But the habit of command dies slowly. Education has relied on arguments from authority for decades. Evidence challenges their dominance like mystics challenge the Church. I have faith that evidence and truth will win, but it will not be because it was easy. Arguments must be made; evidence bases must be made transparent.

Evidence doesn't obliterate professionalism  it liberates it.  

We enter a new age of evidence. Once seen it cannot be unseen, and science cannot be uninvented, although ideas can change. Fears that evidence makes us slaves to research are no more rational than the fear that understanding how to cook makes you a worse chef. It empowers. If you object to where evidence takes us, then find better evidence. Otherwise, ask yourself if your opinion is dogma, or something more animates your objections.

Caveat Emptor. In a complex field we need interpreters and brokers of research, but we must also take care not to create a new priesthood- the neo-Shamans of evidence, who act as irrefutable guardians of divine truth.  The OECD, for example, in some ways has become the new international inspectorate, blessing or banishing entire countries on the basis of their data. Is this healthy? I don’t think so. Beware also the New Generation of Consultants selling ‘Snake Oil 2.0’ who have updated their absurdities by simply stapling the phrase ‘evidence based’ onto their bags of magic beans. And don’t think I’m ignoring the danger of researchED succumbing to this, like mortal ring bearers corrupted by Sauron. Which is why we curate events to include challenge and debate, like the grit in the oyster that helps to make the pearl.

The future

We begin to see new models of professional groupings emerge- digital collaborations, conference communities that no longer require permission to exist, and precious little capital. Self propelled, self sustaining, self regulating, they exist only as long as people want to go. These fluid, accessible, dynamic, virtual colleges are needed until they are no longer needed because the profession will have reinvented itself. We’re not there yet. Which is why we commit to cheap, accessible events that are democratic, inclusive and most of all, directed at discovering what works- and when, and why, and how.

My ambition is that we start to drive this voluntary professional development, which then cascades back into schools and starts conversations that starts sparks in classrooms that catch fire and burn down dogma. That initial teacher training makes evidence its foundation (where it does not do so already), platforming the best of what we know rather than perpetuating  the best of what we prefer. For new teachers to be given skills to discern good evidence from bad. For that to bleed eventually into leadership and from there into the structures that govern us.

I’m reminded of the story about the eternal battle between darkness and light in the night sky. A pessimist could look up and think that darkness was nearly everywhere. But the optimist doesn’t see that. The optimist knows that, once there was only darkness.

If you ask me, the light’s winning.