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Almost, But Not Quite

As most of you know, I’ve been reading a collection of essays by Alfie Kohn in a book titled What Does It Mean to Be Well Educated? Tonight, I came across “Almost There, But Not Quite.” Something has been feeling “almost, but not quite” to me lately.

I’m not sure what it is. I’m excited that people have been requesting professional development, personal tutorials, and extra help with technological tools in their classrooms. I love that. I thought that was it. We’d get kids hooked. We’d amaze their parents with what and how students were learning. The kids passion and excitement to learn would be contagious. Educators wouldn’t be able to teach any other way because they would be blindly encouraged by the enthusiasm for learning.

Today, I don’t think that’s enough.

We’ve been debating 21st century skills, literacy, and necessary technologies. What is all of this? It’s not about who is right and who is wrong. Alfie Kohn, in “Almost There, But Not Quite,” talks about discipline plans and strategies for the classroom. He calls for a shift in our thinking about discipline. I think his six points actually address the whole of the spectrum that requires attention in our culture of education. When teachers approach their practice are they asking “What techniques can I learn to teach my students?” This sounds like a reasonable, even admirable, question to ask. But, shouldn’t the question be “What do these kids need — and how can we meet those needs?” At first reading, these questions might sound very similar. I think they are very, very different.

Alfie Kohn makes these six points about discipline. I want to look at how they reflect a needed shift in the larger spectrum of education.

1. “Blaming the Students”: If kids are not learning, who is to blame? This is not just about behavior. This is about pedagogy. If children are not learning, I believe that we are failing them. What are we doing about it? Don’t tell me you are teaching your butt off. If they aren’t learning, you aren’t teaching.

2. “Keeping Control of the Class”: We like to boast about how kids are empowered in our classes. Are they really? Who picks the topics? Who decides the curriculum? Saying “I want kids to think for themselves” sounds really great, but do we?

3. “Missing the Systemic Factors”: Kohn quotes Sylwester as saying “Misbehavior is to a classroom what pain is to a body — a useful status report that something isn’t working as it should.” I think the same is true for a lack of excitement about learning in our children. It’s a bit disheartening that a kid is a unlimited source of curiosity and questioning… until he/she goes to school. It should be a clue that we are doing something terribly wrong in our schools.

4. “Ignoring Problems with the Curriculum”: Let’s think about this. Consider what we are requiring children to learn. Is it valuable? Why? How do we know? We assess our students with a series of tests that many corporate professionals may not pass because it doesn’t address the information needed in the real-world. I do not think this is a positive reflection on what we are teaching and the ways we are teaching/assessing it.

5. “Settling for Self-Discipline”: In his essay, Kohn points out that “Accepting someone else’s expectations is very different from developing one’s own.” This is true for behavioral discipline, as well as developing one’s ownership of learning. Is our goal for students to accept the expectations of others or to learn to make their own value judgments and develop their own guiding compass?

6. “Manipulating with ‘Positive Reinforcement'”: This is what we do to teachers. This is where we feel tied by the system itself. I had a principal who told me that he liked my different approach to teaching; he liked how my students were stakeholders in their education. When it was time to nominate teachers for various activities or awards, who did he choose? He picked the classes with straight rows, the ones where the textbooks came out of the desks everyday, the ones where testing proficiency (ha!) was 100%. Is the positive reinforcement awards? Bonuses? Money? Recognition?

I realize this post may seem discouraged or frustrated. Trust me. I’m not. I am just trying to get a realistic view of where we are. Now to recruit to the army, gather the troops, and move out. Where do we go first? I think I’ll go plan my lessons for tomorrow. It sounds like a great place to start!

References: Kohn, Alfie. What Does It Mean to Be Well Educated? Beacon Press, Boston. 2004. p 151-158.

7 Responses

  1. Thank you for this post. You’ve peeled back a layer that I think needs to be peeled. I wonder if part of the problem is that many educators know the lingo and talk a good game, but when you walk into their classrooms or listen to them in the faculty lunchroom talking about their students, you see and hear all the poor practices you list here.

    I also agree with you that often administrators don’t know what to look for, so they reward the image of control rather than a vital atmosphere of learning.

    I know for a fact that I need to change my own mindset in order to become a more effective teacher. I talk about being student-focused, but I don’t always achieve that goal. Maybe once I make the shift, I can start helping other teachers and my principals make the adjustment.

  2. @Gerald Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Maybe in my own mind I’ve been making light of the complexity of this. It’s seemed so obvious to me. I look at my own practice. I admit that a lot of the things that I am doing are because I love what they are bringing to my classroom. I love how the kids are reacting. Am I actually looking at their learning? We, as those who believe we are fighting the good fight, have to take a hard look at our practices and our intentions. It will only make us stronger and our kids can only benefit.

  3. @GluLife Also thank you for the post. For more insights on 21st century learning you should look at Tony Wagner’s work at http://www.schoolchange.org/. He talks about the 7 key areas that kids need to learn about to be prepared for the world of tomorrow. His keynote video is awesome. It helps to address the curriculum problem.

  4. Great post to kick off the week!

    Most of our schools follow a model developed during the manufacturing boom of the early 1900’s. The classroom was meant to establish control and teach the norms of society and prepare the students for life in a factory, in large part. Our model has remained the same, but the needs for learning have changed.

    We must find meaningful ways to increase student engagement not centered around a standardized test that zaps the creativity and individualism out of students as we prepare for them for jobs that no longer exist.

    Alfie also has a short read titled, The Case Against Standardized Tests.

    If we agree there is a problem, what is the solution?

  5. Adam & Robert,
    Thank you for taking the time to respond to my post. There are so many things that should be done that it’s hard to even think of a good starting place. As we are traveling on this journey, I am excited and a bit overwhelmed. What is the solution? Isn’t that just the million dollar question!?🙂

  6. I was in a meeting this week where we shared a lesson. I shared a tech lesson from the winter wonderland collaborative project. Students created penguins according to a glyph using Power Point and then wrote about them. One question from another teacher was “What subjects does it cover? Why did you teach it” I was a bit stunned. I taught it because it was a wonderful project and great learning opportunity. I forgot to check off what parts of the curriculum it covered. (BTW here they are – tech, reading, writing, art, speaking to name a few.)

    Keep up your creative and real way of teaching. The kids are learning so much more than in the rows rooms. They are learning and loving it!

  7. Thanks for the comment Patti. I forget sometimes that it’s just not as obvious to others who aren’t of the same mind as we are. We need to work with them, too, huh?

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