Monday, September 14, 2009

Excerpts from Alfie Kohn's "Unconditional Teaching"

I am a fan of Alfie Kohn, whom I discovered when my mother was in education school. I purchased his The Schools Our Children Deserve as a junior in high school, and it was my first encounter with education as a discipline. I often disagree with his views, but I always find them challenging and provocative.

Here are a few excerpts from Kohn's wonderful article "Unconditional Teaching":

The current version of school reform is changing what we value. If the sole goal is to raise achievement (in the narrowest sense of that word), then we may end up ignoring other kinds of learning beyond the academic. It’s exceedingly difficult to teach the whole child when people are held accountable only for raising reading and math scores.

Moreover, when some capabilities are privileged over others, and a broader approach to education is sacrificed, we begin to look at students differently. We come to lose sight of children “except as they distribute themselves across deciles” (Hogan, 1974, p. iii). That means that some kids – namely, the high scorers – are prized more than others by the adults. One Florida superintendent observed that “when a low-performing child walks into a classroom, instead of being seen as a challenge, or an opportunity for improvement, for the first time since I’ve been in education, teachers are seeing [him or her] as a liability” (Wilgoren, 2000).
A diminution in what we value, then, may affect whom we value. But the damage isn’t limited to those students who fail to measure up – that is, by conventional standards. If some children matter more to us than others, then all children are valued only conditionally.
Psychological theorists and researchers (e.g., Deci and Ryan, 1995; Kernis, 2003) are coming to realize that the best predictor to mental health may not be one’s level of self-esteem but the extent to which it fluctuates. The real problem isn’t self-esteem that’s too low (“I don’t like myself very much”) so much as self-esteem that’s too contingent (“I like myself only when…”). Conversely, kids who have an underlying sense of their own value are more likely to see failure as a temporary set-back, a problem to be solved. They’re also less likely to be anxious or depressed (Chamberlain and Haaga, 2001).
When children receive affection with strings attached, they do indeed tend to accept themselves only with strings attached.
If “You are the best!” just means “You can do A.P. calculus,” then this suggests that only those who master differential equations are “the best.” Surely, says (Nel) Noddings, “a student should not have to succeed at A.P. calculus to gain a math teacher’s respect.”
Unconditional teachers are not afraid to be themselves with students – to act like real human beings rather than crisply controlling authority figures. Their classrooms have an appealing informality about them. They may bring in occasional treats for their students – all their students – for no particular reason. They may write notes to children, have lunch with them, respond from the heart to their journal entries. Such teachers listen carefully to what kids say and remember details about their lives: “Hey, Joanie. You said on Friday that your Mom might take you to the fair over the weekend. Did you go? Was it fun?”
Imagine that your students are invited to respond to a questionnaire several years after leaving the school. They’re asked to indicate whether they agree or disagree – and how strongly – with statements such as: “Even when I wasn’t proud of how I acted, even when I didn’t do the homework, even when I got low test scores or didn’t seem interested in what was being taught, I knew that [insert your name here] still cared about me.”

How would you like your students to answer that sort of question? How do you think they will answer it?

Alfie Kohn
--"Unconditional Teaching," in Educational Leadership, 9/05.