Discover more from Transforming Schools by Edpsychprof
Why are schools so controlling and unfriendly places for students?
Part 2 of my exclusive interview with Alfie Kohn.
This is @edpsychprof's newsletter for those interested in transforming schools to become places where children (and teachers) can thrive.
It’s been a hot minute since I’ve written a new Substack newsletter. I’m back, mostly because this conversation on school transformation is even more pressing to me. My youngest son is a freshman in high school, and I am appalled at how some of his teachers treat him and his peers. One of his teachers told me that my son had “special needs” because he didn’t write a long enough essay on an assignment. Another made fun of him for being late to class on the first day of school. Almost all the teachers assign extensive homework, and classwork consists of endless worksheets.
Given the extensive research on how autonomy-supportive schools* have a positive impact on students, I am even more frustrated by how most U.S. schools, particularly high schools, are doubling down on controlling kids. This made me think of my 2019 interview with Alfie Kohn, educational gadfly and prolific author on progressive education. I shared Part 1 of that interview here, and I didn’t hear much feedback about it, so I let it drop. But a few months ago, one of my readers asked for Part 2 of that interview, so on this rainy hurricane day, I decided to share it with you. If there’s interest, there may even be a Part 3 soon.
(We are discussing teachers being controlled by the current system and then controlling their students.)
Kohn: It's amazing how many people are controlled from above like that and then turn around and do the same thing to those directly below them. Principals with their teachers, teachers with their kids.
For me, the fork in the road is “Am I going to treat the people below me the way I'm being treated or the way I wish I was being treated?” Instead what you find are teachers who are understandably resentful for being second-guessed and micromanaged, and then turn around with behavior programs and so on with with the kids.
(We then discuss some model schools and the problem of test scores.)
But we also have to be clear on what we mean by work that we don't.
Me: You're right. Work doesn't mean doesn't mean [better] test scores.
Kohn: So if we look at meaningful indicators instead of….Well, it’s like classroom management [research]. What’s the outcome measure, the dependent variable for classroom management studies? It's mindless obedience.
And for academic studies, it's high scores on lousy tests, where in fact it's not only not a meaningful indicator, it's often a counter indicator. We have research showing that higher test scores are often a bad sign, not just a meaningless sign. If your school's scores go up beyond what you would expect, given your demographics, parents should go to the district office and say, “Oh no, what did you have to sacrifice from our children's education to make that happen?”
Kohn: The same thing is true of, you know, kids with those behavior management programs. It's not just that the method is (a) counterproductive and (b) be disrespectful. It's that the goal was never right. Class Dojo and charts and PBIS and all of that. It's not just the method that's wrong. This is something a lot of people, even thoughtful people, don't get. The objective of these programs is compliance. Even if they reached their goal, we should say, Stop it immediately! That's the opposite of what we want.
It's a terrible method married to an appalling outcome or objective. We have to be able to ask the question [of what constitutes success.] Not, “Well then if I can't use rewards and punishments, then how do I get a successful [outcome]? No! Your definition of success is the real problem.
So, dear readers, what do you think? Do schools have the outcome wrong? If so, what should it be? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
*Reeve, J., & Cheon, S. H. (2021). Autonomy-supportive teaching: Its malleability, benefits, and potential to improve educational practice. Educational Psychologist, 56(1), 54-77. https://doi.org/10.1080/00461520.2020.1862657
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