Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Alfie Kohn, school reform …and taking the first steps

Alfie Kohn is an educator known for his iconoclastic attitude towards schools and educational systems. Much of his writing challenges conventional attitudes and practices in education. Often his statements are controversial as they challenge “the way we do things”. In his address at the MAAP conference (2011) Kohn revisits some of the key concepts that he suggests for educational reform often found in his writings.

Some of the key items that Kohn suggested include;
Schools should be more concerned with social and emotional education - not only for its own sake, but as an added bonus, it is also linked to higher academic achievement.
Rather than ask “How can I get the kids to do what I want” we should ask “What do these kids need?” He reminds the audience that we all need three things; autonomy, a sense of belonging and a feeling of competence - but that our school system often runs counter to these needs (especially at the high school level where they are perhaps most needed).
As a result, we should look for structural problems at the school level before we blame kids for behaviour.
It is not enough that we have to change schools to do good things - we also have to stop doing bad things. By “bad” Kohn includes anything that places emphasis on competition.
Schools should shift from being “doing to schools” (i.e. traditional schools where the structure of the school places emphasis on compliance to teacher authority which is used to dictate the lesson content required by an external curriculum authority) to “working with schools” where the motivations of the students inform the long term goals and help set the direction of their education).
Teachers should talk less and ask more.
Plus more.

Kohn’s engaging address is delivered with passion and confidence and is well worth watching and reflecting upon. View Alfie Kohn’s address here.

As with many of Kohn’s statements the difficulties arise when we try to visualise the processes by which we could implement his suggestions; for example, what do schools look like when they don’t recognise success via awards and certificates? What would a school look like that did not feature competition? (After some thought, it is simply stunning how much unintended competition there is in our schools.) How do we maintain discipline in an inclusive social institution such as a school if “punishment” destroys the relationships which students often desperately need?

Fortunately Kohn has some ideas and examples as well as brick bats. He has also been remarkably generous with his ideas on his website which features numerous essays on key issues free of charge. If his presentation piques interest it is well worth a visit here
It should be noted that not everyone agrees with Kohn - and not all counter arguments are based on self interest. Follow this link for an alternate view of his work - which also includes a defence by Kohn to the criticisms.

The best thing about Kohn’s work is that he asks questions that challenge our assumptions and often presents research findings that challenge what is commonly accepted as truth.

Practically the only universally accepted notion about “schooling” is that the process needs reforming. The divisions appear when we ask questions such as “What do we change and why?” Viewing Kohn in action or reading his essays is a fair place to begin the process.

The longest journey does not begin with the first step - it begins when we think about taking that first step.

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