Harvard Educational Review
  1. Beyond Discipline

    From Compliance to Community

    By Alfie Kohn

    Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1996.

    Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community provides some food for thought for anyone interested in looking for alternatives to traditional classroom management approaches. It is also pertinent for those interested in moral development, teacher-student relationships, and the application of political and social theory to school contexts in general. It is particularly geared towards teachers, staff, and parents of elementary and secondary school students, with most of its examples taken from elementary school settings.

    Alfie Kohn, an educator turned writer, focuses his fifth book on an issue of central concern to any teacher or school administrator. He questions the entire premise upon which the field of classroom management bases itself, believing at the outset that educators should focus their time, energy, and attention on how to prevent the types of behavior that require management and discipline. As Kohn states in his introduction, the concept of "classroom management" assumes that teachers should "have a responsibility to get and maintain control of their classrooms" and to "secure children's compliance with adults' demands" (p. xii). He believes that classroom management and the extrinsic motivation it requires to change children's behavior is a "teacher-directed model" that is driven by a "remarkably negative set of beliefs about the nature of children" (p. xii). In this book he seeks to challenge some basic assumptions behind these notions, and to provide some concrete activities and questions with which teaching staff can engage in order to reflect upon their own student interactions and classroom practices.

    The first five chapters examine the assumptions behind traditional disciplinary approaches in general, using a few classroom discipline packages such as "Assertive Discipline" and "Cooperative Discipline" as targets of critique. In chapters one and two, Kohn argues convincingly that traditional disciplinary approaches begin from a negative view of children's nature (and human nature), and that these approaches tend to blame all behavioral problems on what is wrong with children rather than considering larger contextual issues such as curriculum and instruction that may be the source of behavior perceived as disruptive. In chapter three, he builds the case that the use of coercion, punishments, and rewards might result in students' temporary compliance but are not effective approaches for creating a warm, caring, and respectful learning community. In chapter four, Kohn makes the insightful point that what is often considered to be giving students a choice — either comply or suffer the consequences — is in fact another form of coercing students into obeying teachers' demands and requirements. He refers to this as a "pseudo-choice" that fails to teach children responsible behavior, and instead teaches them how to avoid punishment or win rewards.

    In chapter five, Kohn critiques behaviorism, which is the view of human nature that he attributes to traditional disciplinary strategies, and argues for a constructivist approach to teaching responsible and moral social behavior in students. He writes this chapter from the assumption that constructivist teaching is the desired approach toward fostering a caring, responsible classroom, arguing that children must experience opportunities to construct their understanding of what is morally right or wrong just as they construct their understanding of academic concepts.

    In the second part of Beyond Discipline, Kohn attempts to argue for this constructivist approach to teaching socially responsible behavior. In chapter six he asserts that students "learn how to make good choices by making choices, not by following directions" (p. 78). Much of this book, he claims, comes from his experiences with the Child Development Project in Oakland, California; in chapter seven he describes some of the factors that are necessary in a school or classroom for developing caring communities of learning. Finally, in the last chapter he provides some explicit suggestions for teachers and staff developers, including a case that he has used in workshops to generate discussion among teachers on ways to solve classroom problems.

    While Kohn avoids providing another packaged strategy as an alternative to traditional disciplinary strategies, he makes a strong argument against behaviorist "classroom management" packages and for supportive environments in which teachers can change their classroom environments and practices to include students as primary collaborators in solving classroom problems. His approach in the first part of the book is to consider very carefully all the assumptions behind traditional practices and to provide evidence from research that demonstrates that these assumptions are, in fact, faulty. Some of his examples of what these packages encourage are shocking if viewed from a constructivist standpoint. He provides an insightful analysis of what is sometimes implicit in classroom discipline. For example, in his discussion of punishments, he attributes a lack of willingness to move away from punishments in part to what he calls a false dichotomy: that if one does not punish, one is not doing anything (p. 31).

    For the reader already convinced that an alternative to traditional behaviorist disciplinary techniques is necessary, the first part of the book is somewhat repetitive and the second part not entirely satisfying. While Kohn advocates a constructivist approach to creating a caring classroom community, his approach with his readers is somewhat prescriptive. The latter part of the book, in which he suggests an alternative to "classroom management," lacks the same comprehensive, thoughtful analysis as his critique of traditional classroom discipline. In this part of the book, he tends to leave his opinions and those of the Child Development Project unchallenged rather than posing provocative questions and providing supporting evidence from research. For example, at the beginning of chapter six, he provides an "axiom" and "corollary" (p. 78) without providing evidence or rationale. Later in this chapter he provides a list of what is "good" and what is "better," a curiously patronizing rhetorical strategy for someone who seems to advocate respect for individual sense-making and self-determination.

    Despite this paradox in tone and content, Beyond Discipline provides some important questions to consider. Most importantly, Kohn encourages teachers to consider what their classroom learning goals are and how their disciplinary or management strategies might support or undermine them. In addition, in Appendix One, which is a list of Ten Questions that teachers might pose to him and his responses to clarify his position, he specifically provides some guiding questions for teachers who might wish to evaluate discipline packages on their own (p. 138). He also addresses some key questions that he leaves unanswered in the body of the book, such as what a teacher who chooses to abandon a reward/punishment system might expect, what to do in a school situation in which the teacher might be alone in his or her desire to change classroom practices, and how to reconcile differences between classroom expectations and parental discipline. Ultimately, what teachers do to help their students become responsible and caring members of a community cannot be examined fully and fairly without considering the constraints of the school administrative context and the expectations of the larger community.

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    Book Notes