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.

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‘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.