Tes talks to… Alfie Kohn

We need a radical rethink on the way we view classroom behaviour and how teachers manage it, the US expert tells Simon Creasey. In fact, he argues, we need to avoid talking about the very concept of ‘behaviour’ completely

Simon Creasey

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Everything you think you know about behaviour management in schools is wrong, according to Alfie Kohn. For example, if you believe that the use of rewards and punishment improves children’s behaviour, think again, he says. In fact, the American former teacher and author of books including Punished by Rewards and Beyond Discipline believes that using these traditional techniques only makes matters worse.

Even talking about a “behaviour issue” in schools is misguided, he argues.

“By using the word ‘behaviour’, we are only focusing on observable actions, thereby missing the motives, needs and values of the people engaging in the behaviour, so as soon as we involve that word I’m already worried because we are now in thrall to the ideology of behaviourism and we are missing most of what matters with respect to children,” he says.

“The other reason I’m concerned is that to say there is a behaviour problem says as much about the speaker as it does about that [behaviour] he or she is observing. When we say there is a behavioural problem with kids, we are taking advantage of the fact that we have more power than they do and we get to focus attention on what the children have done, rather than whether our expectations are reasonable.”


Such views have given Kohn a huge platform in the US over the past 30 years, with television appearances, university lectures and multiple book deals (he released his 14th book in 2015). But he believes that, during this time, little has changed in the way schools manage behaviour – both that of teachers and students.

He says that if we did a quick straw poll of teachers and asked the question, “Do you think the behaviour of children is worse today than it was in the past?”, a healthy majority would concur.

“That’s precisely what was said 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 50 years ago,” Kohn explains. “In my book The Myth of the Spoiled Child, I go back one decade at a time showing that the same claims were made at the very time that current commentators harken back to as the ‘golden age’. I don’t doubt that’s the perception of many people, but if the very same thing has been said of every generation, that should make us sit up straight and question the aggressive nostalgia that informs the belief that things today are worse than they used to be.”

The turning point

His awakening to the problems with common methods of behaviour management in schools came when he was teaching high-school children.

“At the time, had the headmaster asked me what I needed, I would have said some sort of classroom management programme because I felt that I wasn’t in control of the classroom,” he recalls. “This was back in the time when I thought the teacher should be in control of the classroom – a benighted view that I have since moved past.

“It took me quite a while to realise that these kids [who were misbehaving] were not trying to make my life miserable – they were trying to make the time pass faster. And when I look back on how I was teaching, what I was teaching, and the fact that I was excluding the kids themselves in making those decisions, I can’t say I blame them.”

Essentially, Kohn realised that the problem didn’t lie with the children – it was his teaching that was at fault. His over-reliance on textbooks, worksheets and a “diet of disconnected facts and skills” had caused them to switch off and act up.

The other major problem he identified was that he was part of a wider education system where the main aim of teachers was to get children to do what they were told.

“I don’t want my own children to attend the kind of schools where the adults are primarily focused on mindless obedience,” he says. “Mindless obedience is not a good thing; it’s merely more convenient for adults.”

For him, schools should be looking to create democratic communities. They should be “working-with” places, rather than “doing-to” places.

“A ‘doing-to’ place is where the people with more power use tactics such as punishment and rewards to make people with less power do what they are told,” Kohn explains. “In a ‘working-with’ place there is an emphasis on the needs of the children, the ideas that they have about ways of solving problems together and helping kids to become increasingly proficient and enthusiastic learners.”

He’s quick to point out that this isn’t about teachers standing back and allowing children to do whatever they want: “Rather, it’s about the adults figuring out how to help the kids acquire the disposition and the skills of problem-solving – individually as well as collectively – and it is breathtaking to watch that happen in a classroom.”

Kohn says the benefits of this approach include fewer pupils playing up and, more importantly, more children who are “authentically engaged” in answering questions that are meaningful to them. “The kids feel more trusted and respected and tend, in turn, to act the same way towards the adults that treated them that way,” he argues. “Much of the time when kids act disrespectfully, it’s because they don’t feel respected by the teacher – and for good reason.”

One of these reasons might be that the teacher has used the old-fashioned “rewards and punishment” approach to behaviour management. Kohn says the threat of making children suffer if they don’t do what they are told, which is at the heart of punishment, is particularly damaging because it leads them to focus relentlessly on self-interest.

“So either they will capitulate at the cost of their moral development or they will blindly lash out in resistance. In neither case will they become concerned about the effect of their actions on other people,” he explains.

Rewards are just the flip-side of the same process. “When you reward kids, when you dangle goodies in front of them for jumping through your hoops, the question they come to ask is, ‘What do they want me to do and what do I get for doing it?’ Rewards and punishments are both ways of controlling kids, and research overwhelmingly shows that both variations undermine children’s interest in, and commitment to, whatever they have been asked to do.”

‘Sugar-coated’ control

Kohn adds that academic studies have also shown that children who are frequently praised or rewarded tend to be less generous and caring than their peers.

“The effect is even more pronounced if they were rewarded, or praised, for being caring or concerned because each time we give them a patronising pat on the head or a sticker or a gold star for doing something nice, they’ve learned that the reason for doing something nice is because of some benefit they themselves will obtain,” he says. “And they become just a little more self-centred than they were before they heard the words ‘good job’.”

So, in Kohn’s view, the focus for schools and teachers should not be to devise ever more clever ways to bribe or threaten children, as they have in the past. Rather, they should move away from what he describes as the “sugar-coated” form of control that’s currently popular with adults whose goal is to produce compliant children – and move towards creating compassionate individuals and independent thinkers.

How can we achieve this? “The ideal situation is one in which the whole system facilitates a move towards a deep curriculum of understanding, a pedagogy of engagement, giving kids more say about their learning and solving problems together,” he says.

That could take some time, although Kohn thinks it is possible – based on first-hand experience – for teachers and individual schools to make meaningful changes, even as they simultaneously work to change the larger system.

“I have watched many, many classrooms where teachers do more asking than telling, and where the learning is project-based, interdisciplinary, collaborative and exciting, rather than being about memorising facts for exams and practising a series of disconnected skills,” Kohn says. “I’ve watched many teachers who are miles ahead of their colleagues and, indeed, spend their days actively resisting moronic mandates in order to do what’s best for their kids. They realise that what research has shown is that children learn to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions. Yet the current system is set up to make them follow directions and then the adults whine about ‘behaviour problems’ when the kids understandably resist this coercive environment.”

The teachers who “get it” are helping children to develop socially and morally, as well as intellectually, he argues.

“They realise that development happens only when the teacher is willing to share authority and to bring kids into the decision-making process,” explains Kohn.

To date, he says that his ideas have had a mixed reception from educators, but some schools and teachers seem to be slowly coming around to this way of thinking. However, he feels that more could be done to further improve matters.

“Although we’ve taken steps backwards from the harshest and most reactionary measures, that doesn’t mean that most schools recognise the need to use what I’m calling a ‘working-with’ approach,” Kohn says. “Rewards and punishments are still ubiquitous in the US, as they are in the UK. Our challenge is not to tweak these methods but to understand the need to move beyond them entirely.”

That’s Kohn’s ultimate goal. He doesn’t want to be merely thought-provoking, he wants to be “change-provoking”.

Simon Creasey is a freelance journalist based in Kent. He tweets @simoncreasey2

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