A Dozen Basic Guidelines for Educators from Alfie Kohn

Alfie Kohn is well known in many circles of education. He has written numerous book on topics ranging from parenting to human behavior. However, his texts almost always can be boiled down to center on the importance of education. In an article published in the Washington Post earlier this year, Kohn outlines twelve fundamental guidelines that teachers should follow. He frames his twelve guidelines around the question of how much federal, state, and local educational policy should permeate the walls of the average classroom. Here are his suggestions and my immediate responses:

  1. Learning should be organized around problems, projects, and (students’) questions – not around lists of facts or skills, or separate disciplines. Education is all about preparing students to live successful lives once they leave the confines of the classroom. The buzz words often associated with this preparation are “21st century skills,” but I would argue those skills should be central to students’ education. When students are engaged in complex problems, projects, and their own questions, they are emulating what their lives will be like once they are on their own.
  2. Thinking is messy; deep thinking is really messy. Therefore beware prescriptive standards and outcomes that are too specific and orderly. Now that the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) have been published and the Common Core State Standards are continuing to be implemented, I am optimistic about the future of our schools. Analyzing the NGSS specifically, the standards are structured around essential concepts to ensure all students are receiving instruction while also remaining relatively open-ended to allow for states, districts, and classroom teachers to cater the materials to their specific populations.
  3. The primary criterion for what we do in schools: How will this affect kids’ interest in the topic (and their excitement about learning more generally)? This point is connected to the first. Our mission as educators should be to engrain 21st Century skills such as critical thinking, in-depth analysis, and appreciation of diverse perspectives. It is impossible to emphasize these skills without varying instruction.
  4. If students are ‘off task,” the problem may be with the task, not with the kids. Building directly off of the momentum of point number 3, teachers must differentiate their instruction. Not every student learns in the same way. The most beautiful thing I find in our profession is the innate ability of quality teachers to know how best to reach their students. Differentiation does not mean that each student learns different material. Rather, differentiation means that students are exposed to a variety of “hooks,” or formats to ensure every student can access the material.
  5. In outstanding classrooms, teachers do more listening than talking, and students do more talking than listening. Terrific teachers often have teeth marks on their tongues. The “light-bulb moment” when students’ thinking finally clicks often occurs when teachers are silent and students are crafting their own connections in their brains.
  6. Children learn how to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions. Structuring your classroom to align with the national standards, differentiate your instruction, and encourage student-led discussion allows for students to personalize their learning and encourages student decision making.
  7. When we aren’t sure how to solve a problem relating to the curriculum, pedagogy, or classroom conflict, the best response is often to ask the kids. One of my cooperating teachers early in my college career told me a story that exemplifies this point: She happened to run into one of her students in the supermarket one afternoon and the student asked her, “Why aren’t you at school?” My cooperating teacher responded that she didn’t live at school, and her little Kindergartner was left speechless. The point is, teachers are human too but not always in the eyes of our students. Making mistakes and asking for student input can help to show our “human side.”
  8. The more focused we are on kids’ “behaviors,” the more we end up missing the kids themselves – along with the needs, motives, and reasons that underline their actions. I read an article in the New York Times recently about our nation’s obsession with “Zero Tolerance,” the devastating impacts this approach has on our nation’s youth, and the recent change in attitude in some of our country’s largest urban districts. A student’s behavior is the result of a multitude of complex experiences, interactions, and relationships. Judging a student solely on their observable behavior is completely disregarding any underlying wounds or cries for help.
  9. If students are rewarded or praised for doing something (e.g., reading, solving problems, being kind), they’ll likely lose interest in whatever they had to do to get that reward. Growing up my mother used to always tell me, “I can see you’re working really hard on that (whatever I was working on).” But she never said, “Wow what an excellent (whatever I was working on).” She was reinforcing the effort it takes to learn not the eventual outcome of my learning. By valuing the process over the product learning is modeled as a never-ending cycle, not a series of mini-projects.
  10. The more that students are led to focus on how well they’re doing in school, the less engaged they’ll tend to be with what they’re doing in school. Again, valuing the process over the product is essential in today’s education. If the only expectation of students is to get the best grade possible, their learning is confined to safe and limiting set of outcomes. Students who aim for grades avoid risks yet risks often lead to the greatest growth. Focusing on outcomes completely disregards the critically important process that occur beforehand.
  11. All learning can be assessed, but the most important kinds of learning are very difficult to measure – and the quality of that learning may diminish if we try to reduce it to numbers. Just as focusing on observable behaviors ignores everything else going on in a student’s life, so too does focusing on numbers. Measuring student success only by their test results fails to account for the 9vast majority of students’ experiences in school. Standardized test provide a snapshot of a student on a particular day and therefore cannot be used as an interpretation of a student as a whole. Again, focusing on the numbers and the outcomes alone invalidates everything else.
  12. Standardized tests assess the proficiencies that matter least. Such test serve mostly to make unimpressive forms of instruction appear successful. One of my greatest concerns with our education system is our obsession with results. As a nation, we are obsessed with grades. We “teach to the test.” However, our international report card has come back with an enormous “F” stamped on top. Our obsession with standardized testing is failing our students and falling short when it comes to fueling intrinsic motivations for life-long learning.
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