Classroom Management Theorists and Theories/Alfie Kohn

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Alfie Kohn[edit | edit source]

Overview[edit | edit source]

The theorist[edit | edit source]

Alfie Kohn is a contemporary academic who studies and writes about issues of education, parenting, and human behavior. He has published many books on these topics including Punished by Rewards (1993), No Contest (1986), and The Homework Myth (2006). Alfie Kohn lectures at Universities and groups with related interests and has been a guest on The Today Show and Oprah. He lives in the Boston area with his wife and two children.

The theories of Alfie Kohn[edit | edit source]

Because of the extensive list of published articles and books by Kohn, one could discuss his specific theories on a wide variety of topics. There is, however, an overarching theme throughout much of Kohn’s work. Kohn is very critical of the use of competition or any external factor as a motivator, whether that is in the home, the classroom, or the workplace. He believes that societies based on these extrinsic motives will inevitably be inefficient. Building on this critical view of competition, Kohn questions the effectiveness of hierarchical structures because they rely on the assumption that people will be competitive and want to move up the ladder and these structures make positions of authority unnaturally scarce. In the workplace, this overarching idea manifests itself in Kohn’s belief that workers should be given more autonomy over their own work. In the family, Kohn’s fundamental beliefs are visible as he argues that parent should utilize a “cooperative, loving, guiding form of parenting which places children on more equal footing with parents” (Wikipedia, 2007). These fundamental beliefs are also clear in his many discussions of education.

The ideal classroom, according to Alfie Kohn, is one in which curiosity and cooperation are emphasized above all else. This is true throughout Kohn’s discussions on standards, standardized testing, homework, and classroom management. Kohn believes that the students’ curiosity should govern what is taught inside the classroom; therefore, if standards are necessary at all, they should be kept very general. Because of this belief, Kohn is critical of standardized testing. This sort of testing is extrinsic to real learning and also enforces a strict curriculum that is not flexible to students’ interests and needs. Again, going back to Kohn’s focus on curiosity and intrinsic rewards of education, Kohn feels that most homework serves to undermine these two goals as opposed to reinforcing them. Kohn’s most recent book deals with this topic extensively. In addition to these ideas about curriculum, Kohn has made his thoughts clear on classroom management. Kohn believes that most traditional methods of classroom management foster extrinsic motivation rather than intrinsic. Because of this, he is a proponent of what could be termed a very “hands off” type of management approach. Kohn believes that if the classroom is run with cooperation in mind, and if the students’ curiosity is being nurtured, then students will act appropriately and neither rewards nor punishments will be necessary. Overall, curiosity and cooperation should govern the classroom.

In addition to understanding some of the basic foci of Kohn’s ideas, it is important to be able to place these ideas into a greater context. For example, one should consider the predecessor of this type of thinking and the time during which Kohn is writing. While there are divergences, Kohn’s beliefs are generally aligned with Critical Pedagogy, or the application of Marxist principles to the educational system. There are many other radical educational theorists, many of which have preceded Kohn, who would concur with many of his thoughts. Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, and Michael Apple are just a few who come to mind and have surely influenced Alfie Kohn. In addition to this piece of context, it is important to note that Alfie Kohn has been writing and publishing during a time when there is a strong movement to standardize education and create more accountability within the system. This has clearly influenced the focus of much of Kohn’s writing and is important to keep in mind when considering his contributions to the field of education.

Implementation[edit | edit source]

Practical ways to implement in a classroom[edit | edit source]

In order to implement the ways of Alfie Kohn in the classroom, teachers need to allow their students to explore the topics which interest them. Kohn insists that teaching to the standards or teaching to the test are not effective ways to help students learn. Instead, students “should be able to think and write and explore without worrying about how good they are” (Kohn, 2004, p. 37). Kohn believes that there is an overemphasis on achievement rather than on the process of learning. According to Kohn, students should not be working towards success or charting their progress on the wall. Alternatively, “students should be immersed in learning” (Kohn, 2004, p. 37). He does not support the idea of strict standards to ensure that all students are learning the same thing at the same time because not all students learn at the same pace, and “research has demonstrated the importance of making sure students are actively involved in their own learning, invited to play a role in formulating questions, creating projects, and so on” (Kohn, 2004, p. 48). Standards and alignment do not take into account the fact that students are different and have different interests. Kohn encourages teachers to help students to pursue their own interests.

Kohn also discourages the use of positive reinforcement, particularly the repetition of trite phrases like “good job.” As he explains, positive reinforcement may work for a while, “but it’s very different from working with kids – for example, by engaging them in a conversation about what makes a classroom (or family) function smoothly, or how other people are affected by what we have done – or failed to do” (Kohn, 2004, p. 107). He says that positive reinforcement does encourage students, but it only encourages them to seek out more positive reinforcement. After a student receives praise for an action, the point is no longer to repeat the action. Now, “the point is to get the goody” (Kohn, 2004, p. 109). Kohn encourages teachers to avoid positive reinforcement and instead to engage in discussion with the students about their actions.

How to Adapt It for Elementary School[edit | edit source]

There are several practical ways to implement the ideas of Kohn in the classroom at the elementary school. The teachers should avoid doing their favorite units of study, and they should adjust their units of study to fit their students. Although the teacher may have developed an excellent unit on dinosaurs and a dinosaur unit may be in the standards and on the test, if the students do not want to learn about dinosaurs, then they will not benefit from the study as much as they would had the unit been created to fit their interests. A more individualized learning plan will work better for the students. One student may want to do a project on dinosaurs, and the next student may be interested in a project on bears. A more successful classroom will have students learning about their personal interests.

In addition, the teacher should resist the urge to constantly provide positive reinforcement for his or her students. The teacher should meet with students individually to discuss their behavior, their successes, and their weaknesses. If a student understands the thinking behind a positive or negative behavior, then the student is more likely to act accordingly without needing the reassurance of praise.

How to Adapt It for Middle School and High School[edit | edit source]

One of the easiest ways to allow students to pursue their own individual interests in middle school and high school is through research. Research can be done in almost any content area. The students can research a virus that interests them in science or a culture that interests them in social studies. Just as a teacher creates the unit for the students in elementary school, the students can create their own units in high school. The teacher can guide his or her students through the research process, and by picking their own topics, the students will be immersed in the learning.

Again, teachers at the secondary level should also avoid using positive reinforcement with their students. They can offer their students more specific feedback that is not as general as “excellent work!” Teachers should make an effort to communicate with their students and discuss both positive and negative behavior with their students. This will help the students reflect on their own behavior and performance in a way that is more meaningful than if they just seek out the teacher’s praise. The students should learn to be responsible for their own behavior whether or not it is recognized or rewarded by somebody else.

Professional Critique[edit | edit source]

Kohn’s Place in Classroom Management Theory History[edit | edit source]

While many early classroom management theorists, like Redl and Wattenburg, Dreikurs, and Kounin, focused on the psychology behind misbehavior and how to control it, and many later 20th century theorists like Ginott, Canter, Jones, and Albert, looked at a mixture of reward, punishment, and environment, to create a certain controlled classroom setting, Alfie Kohn flies in the face of all of them with his theory of moving beyond discipline. There is much more to say about theorists who have or would have disagreed with Kohn than those who would agree. The same seems to apply for parents and fellow educators. However, like any theory, Kohn challenges people’s thinking leading to growth whether one agrees or disagrees with part or all of his ideas.

Kohn’s ideas, published mostly from the 1990’s on, seem very disconnected from earlier theories except that they provided a foundation for him to react against. As is summarized by Charles (1999), Kohn rejects all systems of reward and punishment in favor of community and student decision-making, saying that all systems of discipline assume students are troublemakers, learning occurs in quiet controlled places, and the teacher’s role “is to make students obedient, compliant, and above all quiet”(p. 229). With Kohn’s dramatic stance on dropping all previous discipline systems, it’s no wonder that Fried (1998) comments, “I SUSPECT that over the years Alfie Kohn has made a lot of people angry”(p. 264).

Coloroso, a Theorist Who Aligns with Kohn[edit | edit source]

There are many critical or radical theorists, modern and otherwise, who would agree with Kohn. Barbara Coloroso is one contemporary of Kohn's who shares many of his principles. Like Kohn, Coloroso gives students a lot of credit. Rather than approaching students as creatures capable of great destruction, needing to be controlled, she, according to Charles (1999), aims to treat students with respect and empower them with their own inner discipline (p. 217). She seems to view the teacher’s role as mentor and guide. This is a more authoritarian role than the title Kohn might give the teacher as a mere facilitator. Unlike Kohn, Coloroso also still has faith in “natural and reasonable” consequences and rewards. Charles (1999) states her principals as, “Natural consequences are events that happen naturally in the real world… [And] reasonable consequences are events imposed by the teacher that are related to a violation of rules” (p. 219). An example of the former would be receiving negative feedback from peers when you didn’t work cooperatively in a group and the latter, apologizing to a classmate you hurt or offended in some way.

Coloroso’s and Kohn’s greatest area of agreement is their faith in students’ capability to police themselves. However, they still disagree on how to encourage this and how directly the teacher should be involved. Kohn would say that challenging curriculum and classroom community are all that is necessary where Coloroso would call for teacher help in producing good student decision-making and would keep a set of rules and consequences at hand.

A Summary of Unsupportive Voices[edit | edit source]

It does not take too much imagination to guess what kind of feedback Kohn receives for his theories. Many people believe that without discipline policies there is chaos. Especially when Kohn’s classroom management theory is isolated from its placement in his total reform of the public education system, it appears radical and a bit preposterous. Rochester (1998) sums up many concerns with Kohn’s ideas in an article, “What’s It All About, Alfie? A parent/educator’s response to Alfie Kohn.” As Rochester (1998) voices, “In my judgment, the poor quality of the average student admitted to our colleges and universities today can be traced mainly to the trends of the past two decades in K-12 education, particularly to the emergence of the self-indulgent, nonjudgmental, nonhierarchical classroom that —in fusing a radical libertarianism with a radical egalitarianism — has resulted in the near total collapse of standards” (p. 168). Kohn encourages this trend by giving students the full responsibility of disciplining, or not disciplining, themselves and having the teacher in a non-authoritative position as producer of riveting material that will seduce the students into functioning well in their tight knit classroom community. Rochester is also arguing against the amount of voice the student has in Kohn’s model of classroom meetings, determining many decisions about the class. In a different conversation, Kohn presents a rebuttal to this issue as O’Neil (1999) captures him saying, “It’s hard to ask kids how we might solve a problem together because then we no longer have unilateral control over them. And that is frightening. It carries with it a whiff of something utterly unfamiliar and terrifying to most Americans: democracy” (p. 21). As seems to be usual, Kohn is a witty instigator.

Closing and Critical Thoughts[edit | edit source]

Alfie Kohn provides much fodder for thought about previous assumptions on discipline and classroom management. He has alternatives to a public school system of teacher authority and, what some would call, student subjugation that has not been totally successful. However, his prescription raises some challenges for the inexperienced teacher, if not teachers of any level. While a positive classroom environment and venues for student input and feedback are crucial, abolishing all traditional systems of rules and consequences seems brusque and frankly unsafe for the new teacher. Likewise, involving student reflection on consequences for their misbehavior sounds very reasonable but trusting all students’ ability to self-monitor seems risky. Kohn’s ideas could be crafted to work well for 80% of students but I wonder what his answer is to the students with chronic behavior problems stemming from emotional or physical triggers?

Alfie Kohn’s ideas about student respect and input are inspiring. I appreciate his willingness to not only test the waters of the traditional classroom management models but completely break them down and start fresh. He gives many ideas from which to glean and perhaps integrate with other models in order to create a personalized and effective classroom management plan.

Lingering Questions[edit | edit source]

What does Alfie Kohn think of positive reinforcement? What does Alfie Kohn think of negative reinforcement?

Answer: Alfie Kohn is strongly critical of both positive and negative reinforcement. He is anti-behaviorism, and does not believe in any type of reward or punishment; even praise is suspect. Rather than manipulating children to change their behavior, his focus is on helping children develop curiosity, love of learning, empathy, and internalized morality. Internalized morality comes from feeling good about yourself and wanting others to feel happy. This is true morality rather than obedience based on consequences. Children are not to be controlled, but guided and their learning facilitated.

Apply Alfie Kohn's thoughts about the ideal classroom to society. What would an ideal society look like to Kohn?

Answer: Alfie Kohn strongly disagrees with competition. His ideal society would likely be highly cooperative, but he also values freedom of expression and individuality. His ideal society would likely be libertarian left- either social democracy or Anarcho-syndicalism.

References[edit | edit source]

Charles, C. (1999). Building Classroom Discipline: Sixth Edition.. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc.

Fried, R (1998). Parent Anxiety and School Reform: When Interests Collide, Whose Needs Come First?. Phi Delta Kappan. 80, 264-271.

Kohn, Alfie (2004). What does it Mean to be Well Educated? Boston: Beacon Press.

O’Neil, J & Tell, C (1999).Why Students Lose When “Tougher Standards” Win: A Conversation with Alfie Kohn. Educational Leadership . 57, 18-22.

Rochester, J (1998). What’s It All About, Alfie? A parent/educator’s response to Alfie Kohn. Phi Delta Kappan. 80, 165-169.

Wikipedia (n.d.). Alfie Kohn. Retrieved June 15, 2007, from