Friday, June 24, 2011

Beyond Discipline or Beyond Common Sense?

     I realize the title of this blog might be a little inflammatory and that's not the intent. I really enjoyed the first session of the #kohnbc book chat on Twitter last night (thanks @birklearns) and am looking forward to our conversations around the next chapters on Alfie Kohn's book "Beyond Discipline". The timing was excellent as I had just returned from a quick dash to Chicago where I had the chance to co-present with my good friend Charlie Coleman. I learn from him each time and enjoy the stories he shares from his classroom experiences. It provided a good counterpoint to some of what Kohn writes about and was part of the reason we chose to reference his work in our book.

     Some of the comments shared last night resonated with me and mixed in with the Chicago event prompted this post.
"Kohn is so good when reading but in practice sometimes hard to make practical."
Dave Meister (@phsprincipal) shared that thought and it reminded me that our classrooms are not test laboratories free of all of the frailties of society. They instead consist of a wide range of kids with a wide range of talents and abilities (and yes they ALL possess both) displayed under a wide range of circumstances. Some of these factors may require us to move into those areas Kohn sees as negative and labels as controlling.

"Behavior in school must be contextualized when taught."
Tom Schimmer (@tomschimmer) shared this gem and it provided the clarity that expectations vary from place to place in schools. You can't accurately describe expected behavior at the assembly which will be held in the gymnasium from your classroom seat. "Be Safe" looks markedly different in a kindergarten classroom than it does in a grade 12 classroom.
"Too often we hold students to higher standards than we hold ourselves."
Darcy Mullin (@darcymullin) gave the third prompter to me with his comment about expectations that often times seem to only be externally employed. If we don't model what we teach then we are teaching what we model. The rule that states "No food or drink in class" doesn't have fine print excluding adults from adherence but it seems to be employed in a tiered way.

     So how does this tie back to Charlie and Chicago? He shared a story that I won't do justice to in print but hope to provide enough details to connect the dots. Charlie spoke about an elementary class of his where Mikey was the student who misbehaved the most. This was widely known as Mikey had been the most challenging student in each of his previous years and his reputation was set. As the teacher Charlie was determined to make a change in that reputation and pass along a better Mikey than the one he inherited. Here's where it rubs Kohn the wrong way. He used a merit ticket as a method to try and change the behavior. Given how far to the negative the behavior had gone, it required some overt action to pull it back to acceptable and then beyond to expected. Charlie really honed in on Mikey and rewarded him more frequently than others. At the end of each week a draw was held for some other trinket or positive outcome. Mikey never won these draws and Charlie could not understand why as Mikey's odds were much higher than the other students based on the number of tickets he received. Finally on a day when Mikey was away, Charlie looked in his desk and saw, that despite the overall chaos, there was a neat pile of tickets sitting in one corner. He asked the students who sat near Mikey if they knew this was occurring and heard that Mikey proudly showed off his stack with the comment about how often Mr. Coleman had caught him being good. I cannot find a lot of problem with the approach or the outcome for the student. Would I expect to continue to have to do this? No. The approach would be to move away from the overt to more covert methods but the desired changes required something different. Here's one other outcome that I appreciated hearing from Charlie. He would start each day with 30 tickets in his pocket. If he still had lots left at the end of the day he knew that he had missed out on noticing a lot of wonderful things that happened in his class and he committed to not letting that happen often. Think about your classes. Could you really have 30 students for five hours a day and not see a myriad of great things happening?

     I appreciate the views that Alfie Kohn has brought to the education world and I believe in a lot of the approach. I also know after 28 years that there are many ways to move kids forward and I'm not prepared to toss out any that might be the first spark to the fire that burns within all of our students.


  1. Thank you for this post! I love Kohn's work, but often beat myself up when the methods he presents don't work for some of my most challenging students. I am so glad you shared the story of Mikey, he's been in my classroom before! : )

  2. Thanks Kim. I think we've all been there and every year produces at least one Mikey for whom we often represent the best hope. As an update Mikey is now a happy adult with a good job, playing men’s rugby on the side. This big, tough adult told his Mom to “Say hi to Mr. Coleman at the wedding. Tell him he’s still my favorite teacher”.