Kohn is an educational provocateur and gadfly in the truest sense. The traditional criticism leveled at him is that he tears down the status quo without offering anything productive in its place. It’s a fair judgment–but it doesn’t make his points any less valid.
Chapter 2 of Beyond Discipline–“Blaming the Kids”–should come with a warning for teachers who subscribe to a very traditional model of classroom discipline: at best, it may make you rethink your entire approach to discipline. At worst, you may throw the book against the wall.
Kohn’s central point in this chapter is that traditional systems of discipline centralize the fault in any negative situation entirely within the child himself, and in doing so these systems enable educators to escape having to examine the reasonableness of their own systems and policies.
Pick a book on discipline from your shelf … or watch one of the countless videos on the subject … or sit in on a workshop. One way our another, you’ll be treated to a bushel of suggestions for how to get students to behave however you want them to–or for how to get them to act “appropriately,” which often amounts to the same thing. What you almost certainly will not find in any discipline program, however, is an invitation to reflect on what it is you want and whether it’s reasonable.
People who market discipline programs know that it is deeply unsettling for educators to have to reconsider their requests and demands, their expectations and rules.
His belief is that whenever a child does something “wrong” in school, our first instinct is too often to focus on immediately “righting” the situation, rather than examining the circumstances that led to the “wrong” to see how we as adults may have contributed to the creation of this situation.
- When a child is “off-task,” do we examine the task itself first for appropriateness before reprimanding the child?
- When a child breaks a “rule,” do we analyze whether or not the rule itself was reasonable and appropriate?
Are these reasonable questions to ask? Absolutely. Should we be asking these questions of ourselves? 100 percent. Do I agree with him? I do.
At the same time, my heart does go out to the first-year teachers I have worked with who are so stretched so thin cognitively by the demands of first-year teaching that expecting them to engage in this kind of rigorous self-analysis may simply not be reasonable (cognitive overload in the workplace is a real thing). After all, no teacher sets out to give kids an inappropriate task (although we’ve all done it) and no teacher sets out to make an unreasonable rule (although again, we’ve all done it at one point). For new teachers, working with a pre-established set of rules and endeavoring to create meaningful tasks is hard enough.
However, for veteran teachers, re-evaluating the appropriateness and reasonableness of rules and tasks should be a yearly (if not monthly/weekly/daily) pursuit. For me, integrating the principles of Universal Design for Learning into my tasks had as great of an impact on my classroom management as any of the books I read over the years.
Kohn’s points in this chapter may be unsettling (if I had been writing the book, I think I would have given teachers a little more of the benefit of the doubt…), but sometimes it’s the points we least want to consider that actually hold the most value.