One of my favorite episodes of the Progressively Incorrect podcast is the one in which we discuss an opinion piece by Alfie Kohn on classroom management. Consistent with his past writing, Kohn takes issue with the idea that schools should concern themselves with externally regulating students’ behaviors, saying that classroom management is based on a faulty premise and a “dim view” of human nature.

As I said in the podcast, I see nothing positive nor helpful about encouraging teachers to abandon classroom management. In my experience, many teachers begin their careers with the same romantic views towards childhood as Kohn, but their views change the moment they are placed in schools that struggle to keep students safe and the classrooms conducive towards learning. It’s perfectly possible to continue believing that classroom management is evil or unnecessary if you have only worked in the exclusive independent schools ($$) that Kohn often writes op-eds for, but these beliefs are laughable (and, frankly, insulting) for teachers who have taught in schools where a structured approach to classroom management is the primary means of ensuring that every child has access to a world-class education, free from the tyranny of peer-to-peer abuse and low expectations.

What people with romantic ideas of human nature find deeply distasteful is the view that children are sometimes inclined to misbehave. But think back to when you were a child. Did you sometimes make the wrong choice, for no other reason than because you were a kid? Unless you are an outlier in terms of self-control (like my wife is), the answer is, of course you did! Was there some deep-seeded reason for why I stole that yo-yo from the school store in 5th grade, despite having plenty of money in my pocket to pay for it? Absolutely not. I took it because it was there, I wanted it, and maybe I thought I’d get away with it. Other people’s children, even those as well-adjusted as you and I, are exactly the same. Have you ever left your well-managed class to a “weaker” substitute, only to return the next day and find that your students tore him and the room apart? Have you ever been pulled from your classroom unexpectedly, leaving your students without supervision? What happened then?

What Kohn calls “a dim view of human nature” is what teachers in most schools call “reality”. Again, I say most schools because there are college prep schools like my present school that are teaming with rich and self-determined Hermione Grangers; under-aged scholars who want nothing more than to spend the school day pursuing knowledge for its own sake. The other 95 percent of schools have a different reality entirely. Do I wish that all schools could depend upon perfect compliance and behavior from their students without having to resort to classroom management tactics? Why, yes, but the world is just not so.

The sad fact is that no amount of relationship building and nurturing – the “solution” that Kohn repeatedly offers in his writing – will be able to replace a structured approach to classroom management. We need to set clear expectations and rules, and hold students accountable to these expectations and rules. We need to explicitly teach behaviors and routines, and praise good behavior and follow through with appropriate consequences when students misbehave. Kohn and his followers may say I have “a deficit mindset” when I say this, but it is their worldview that is dim, not mine. I believe that all students can succeed in the classroom, I just don’t assume that they already know how to by birth. I also believe that teachers use classroom management because students benefit from it and not because we are a profession of authoritarians who lust for power and control. Does Kohn believe, as I do, that teachers get into teaching to help children, and that most of us are nice people who care about what children think? The reason we explicitly teach behavior and use rules and routines is not because we think of kids as being circus animals, but because we want to build and nurture relationships in a space that is free of disruption, bullying, and physical violence.

Check out Kohn’s article and the podcast to see what you think.

11 thoughts on “Is Classroom Management Based on a “Dim View” of Human Nature?

  1. You raise some interesting points and I have wondered myself if he had ever tested his theories on low-performance and high-trauma students before- especially if you have 35 of them in your care.
    Yet I think classrooms are complex organisms that not only change from school to school but from year to year with the dynamic nature of the cohort that you work with. The age level also makes for a big difference. So I think that the approach varies greatly and can be structured or unstructured based upon all the variety of factors that you have in front of you. I do think that the work of Alfie Kohn is really for us to reflect on the ways that we share the locus of control within our classrooms. Who holds the power and the choices within the learning community? Also, when we do not give children some access to controlling their environment, it’s hard to develop autonomy and self direction. As someone who has taught in public schools with very challenging circumstances, I also feel that when teacher over manage their class, it amplifies a victimhood mentality and can be very disempowering.
    I think this is why the research highlights the importance of relationships. If we do not build compassionate relationships with our students, we will always be using sticker charts and earning points for that “pizza party” on Friday.
    What about classroom co-management? Maybe there should be a middle ground within this debate.

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  2. It’s sadly ironic that many proponents of the ‘Alfiean’ view of education tend to have authoritarian tendencies themselves, which is a contradiction that renders Kohn’s and his believers’ views illegitimate. I had the misfortune to work with such a principal at my last private international school in Germany. Within months of her arrival at the school her main project was to implement policies along the ‘Alfiean’ worldview. It did not bother her and her militant commitment to ‘the only way to teach, learn and exist in the world’ that many staff and parents – most of them highly successful, well-informed professionals from all walks of life did not agree with her and Kohn’s wishful thinking based on an idealized and indeed romantic view of how children learn. Her approach to ‘deal with’ staff and parents with sane, data-driven opposing views based in reality was to either wanting to ‘educate them’ in the ways of the Lord (Alfie) or suggest that they needed to find another school if they kept bringing up their uncomfortable views that proved her and Kohn wrong. Clearly, her ‘my way or the highway’ attitude was in direct contradiction with the very tenets of Kohn’s vision and lacked any semblance of accepting differing viewpoints and valuing and understand true collaboration. Sadly, her middle-school age child who she had seemingly brought up in a falsely progressive ‘anything goes’ parenting style which Kohn would gladly approve of had struggled in a major way academically and socially and the poor little girl was the worst advertisment for Alfie Kohn’s views of education…

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