In this series I’ll be exploring Alfie Kohn’s Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community.
Kohn’s first chapter–“The Nature of Children”–seeks to dispel what he believes are common myths about the “true nature” of children, and in doing so banish the systems on which these false beliefs are predicated.
There is no one better at tearing down educational dogma than Alfie Kohn, and he is at his best here.
Myth 1: If the teacher isn’t in control of the class, the most likely result is chaos.
Kohn is not suggesting that students can function without any adult-created structures; he is simply challenging the idea that there must always be a visible and significant external control operating on children at all times in order for them to exhibit adults’ preferred behaviors.
Myth 2: Children need to be told exactly what the adult expects of them, as well as what will happen if they don’t do what they’re told.
Kohn says that this belief implies that reasonable expectations cannot be met without threat of punishment. I don’t necessarily agree. While I wouldn’t say that children “need to be told” exactly what to do and what not to do, I do think we help kids when we show them what pro-social behavior does and doesn’t look like.
Myth 3: You need to give positive reinforcement to a child who does something nice if you want him to keep acting that way.
See my post on the problems with token economies for my thoughts here. Not only is myth 3 not true, I actually think giving external rewards for pro-social behavior makes that behavior less likely to happen in the long term.
Myth 4: At the heart of moral education is the need to help people control their impulses.
Here is the crux of Kohn’s argument in chapter 1: he believes that children are not fundamentally “selfish, aggressive, or otherwise unpleasant,” and he believes that any system predicated on this belief is doomed to fail (or even if it “works,” is not in the best interest of children).
Now here’s where it becomes easy to jump in and accuse Kohn of being a pie-in-the-sky idealist. He says that’s not the case. He also doesn’t believe that all children are fundamentally wonderful. Rather, he believes that operating from the premise that children can learn to “be good” in the absence of command and coercion is the first step toward helping them become responsible adults.