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The Big Answer


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Beyond Discipline

a book by Alfie Kohn

(our site's book review)

This is a great book for challenging the educational establishment to “get a clue.” Kohn gets the reader to examine the goals of schools and teachers. Are those goals to get compliance or are they to fill the needs of the kids for a real learning environment? Is classroom management for the students’ benefit or the teachers’ benefit? Are the schools working? If not, why do the teachers and administrators keep doing the same thing?

Kohn offers us a syllogism. Major premise: children misbehave when their needs have not been met. Minor premise: children have a need to experience themselves as origins of their own behavior as opposed to pawns. Conclusion: misbehavior will decrease when children feel less controlled. This is a key point in his book.

If obedience is the goal of schools and teachers, they need to wise up—obedience is the correct goal when teaching dogs, but not when teaching children
If obedience is the goal of schools and teachers, they need to wise up—obedience is the correct goal when teaching dogs, but not when teaching children

Kohn examines the assumptions behind traditional disciplinary approaches and finds them unacceptable. It’s assumed rewards and punishments work and are a good way to motivate kids, and that kids are to blame for all behavioral problems in schools. Kohn provides carefully selected evidence from research that these assumptions behind traditional discipline are wrong.

It’s wrongly assumed that rewards and punishments work and are a good way to motivate kids
It’s wrongly assumed that rewards and punishments work and are a good way to motivate kids

For instance, kids learn how to make good choices by making choices, not by following directions. And controlling kids is based upon “doing to” them, and it is a bad classroom management strategy. Kohn prescribes the same replacement for “doing to” that he suggests in his book Unconditional Parenting: “working with.” That’s why he wants classrooms to move from compliance to community. It gets kids working with teachers cooperatively (rather than fighting them via acting out—“misbehaving”) when teachers treat students as fellow citizens in a small community where everyone deserves respect—not just the teacher.

At the end of the book, Kohn supplies thoughtful answers to some of the questions that arise when one considers using Kohn’s ideas to revamp their classroom strategies. Kohn admits there are difficulties—especially at first. But once students feel the freedom, choices, and team context of this new approach to classroom discipline, they’ll be delighted to cooperate, we are told.

cooperative kids in school
Cooperative kids in school


Alfie Kohn wants classrooms to move from compliance to community, with kids working with teachers cooperatively and teachers treating students as fellow citizens in a small community where everyone deserves respect—not just the teacher
Alfie Kohn wants classrooms to move from compliance to community, with kids working with teachers cooperatively and teachers treating students as fellow citizens in a small community where everyone deserves respect—not just the teacher

This book is bold—as is Kohn himself. It challenges sacred cows right and left, all the while providing evidence that such heresy is warranted. This will thrill many liberals and give many rebels a shot in the arm. But, more than that, it will finally give some hope, some answers and some guidance to countless failing schools and the failing American education system as well. No teacher or administrator in the American educational system should fail to read and heed this book.

Kohn challenges sacred cows right and left, all the while providing evidence that such heresy is warranted
Kohn challenges sacred cows right and left, all the while providing evidence that such heresy is warranted


Teachers' normal obedience-based view of education is incorrect: 'working with' works but 'doing to' doesn't work
Teachers' normal obedience-based view of education is incorrect: 'working with' works but 'doing to' doesn't work