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Discipline Is The Problem, Not The Solution

Written by Alfie Kohn   
Friday, 01 September 2006 00:00
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When things in my classroom hit bottom, there were days when I was convinced that the kids stayed up nights plotting ways to make my life miserable. It was only later that I realized their disruptions were basically just intended to make the time pass faster.

And it was later still before I could admit that I didn’t blame them. The problem wasn’t with the students—it was my curriculum and my reliance on textbooks, worksheets, and a diet of disconnected facts and skills. Did I really expect my students to be eager to learn about “Our Friend the Adverb”? Given these types of assignments, it would have been amazing if they hadn’t acted up.

Discipline is the ProblemOf course, most articles on disciplining students would brush aside such reflections. Instead, they’d remind me that it’s my right to demand that the students act “appropriately” —which is to say, do whatever I tell them. They’d offer an assortment of tricks to get the students to comply with my wishes. In fact, the whole field of classroom management amounts to techniques for manipulating students’ behavior.

This is awfully convenient for teachers because it takes for granted that the fault lies completely with the children. But consider:

  • Maybe when there’s a problem, we should focus not only on the child who doesn’t do what he’s asked, but also on what he’s being asked to do (and how reasonable it is).
  • Maybe when a student is off task, the right question to ask isn’t “How do I get him back on?” but “What’s the task?”
  • Maybe when a student does something inappropriate, we should look at the climate of the classroom that we have helped to create.

Working with students to build a safe, caring community takes time, patience, and skill. It’s no surprise, then, that discipline programs fall back on what’s easy: punishments (“consequences”) and rewards.

Do they work? Yes and no. Threats and bribes can buy a short-term change in behavior, but they can never help kids develop a commitment to positive values. In a consequence- based classroom, students are led to ask, “What does she want me to do, and what happens to me if I don’t do it?” In a reward-based classroom, they’re led to ask, “What does she want me to do, and what do I get for doing it?”

Notice how similar these two questions are. Rewards and punishments are really two sides of the same coin. And notice how different either one is from what we’d like children to be thinking about: “What kind of person do I want to be?” or “What kind of classroom do we want to have?”