Feel-Bad Education: And Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling by Alfie Kohn

Unconditional Teaching

  • Unconditional acceptance is what kids require in order to flourish. Being accepted without conditions helps people develop a healthy confidence in themselves. Such beliefs allow people to take risks and try new things. Unconditional parenting is key and so is unconditional teaching. By this he means that we don’t have to accept every behavior, it’s that our concern and affection are not behavior dependent. Teachers need to let students know that they still care, even if they behave badly. Accepting students for who they are, as opposed to what they do, is related to teaching the whole child. Unconditional teachers also need to push for systemic change and for the demise of things such as the factory-like American high school model.

Safety from the Inside Out

  • Old-fashioned discipline models such as “zero tolerance” don’t serve to make schools safer. They model bullying as they add fuel to the fire by responding to signs of student distress with ever-harsher measures. Sheer force won’t make bad stuff go away. Skill-building behavioristic approaches that are ineffective for academics are also ineffective for character building. The pressure of standardized testing also reduces or eliminates time for programs to promote conflict resolution and reduce bullying. Focus on awards and honor rolls creates winners and losers as they focus more on results than on what is good for each child.

What’s On Your School’s Walls?

  • Alfie believes that bad things to put on the walls include signs that contain exhortations to stop whining, always be positive, and the sky’s the limit. He believes that students should be willing to challenge authority, which may sound like whining, come to grips with negative feelings, and realize that not everyone can be the valedictorian. Rather than commercial signs that promote the above, we should let the students decide what goes on the walls with a focus on things produced by the students themselves. If the walls are covered by posters made by distant corporations, the same is probably true for the curriculum.

Can You Have Fun and Learn at the Same Time?

  • Prefab, minutely scripted lessons aimed at increasing test scores force students to go from being subjects to objects and from being learners to workers. Kohn cites the Listerine Theory of education which would claim that if the students are enjoying school, they can’t be learning much. Learning isn’t supposed to be fun and self-denial is common. Redemption though suffering also makes it seem like we really haven’t taken religion out of schools. The opposite view supported by research is that students achieve more when they are interested. There are also many (e.g. Nel Noddings in Happiness and Education) who believe that children learn best when they are happy.

Competitive with 21st Century Skills?

  • Kohn warns about the use of these terms by educators. Competitions have winners and losers where goals aren’t excellence but victory. Just because we have crossed a century barrier doesn’t mean that something magical has changed. Alfie takes a tongue-in-cheek approach by saying we should shoot for 22nd century learning. In doing so he mixes humor with a valuable warning that we should focus on students and not on preparing people to win a global economic battle. (Doug: It think that if we do what’s best for students that it will also be what’s best for future employers.)
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