alfie kohn, exploration, Passion, questions, Student-centered

School: The Killer of Curiosity

“What is that?”  “Where does this go?”  “Can I do this?”  All questions overheard during my school’s recent kindergarten visitation day.  There they were: fresh, eager, curious, asking questions about everything; where does this go, what does this do?  I marvel at their spirit.  And then I think of later years of students, despondent, going through the motions, routine focused and mostly okay, but not asking all of the questions.  Where did the questions go?

As teachers we do not set out to kill the joy of learning, at least , not anyone I know does.  We state in our missions that we want to change students’ lives, motivate them, inspire them, and keep them eager to learn.  And yet our mission seems to be at odds with our school system.  Classrooms are set up all facing the teacher so that the “sage on the stage” can be the center of attention.  The whole day is rigidly structured so that subjects do not overlap, routines are taught and mastered and hardly ever broken.  Punishment goes hand in hand with rewards and grades become the ultimate reward in the end.  An A will always be better than a B no matter what the teacher says.  We divide our students into winners and losers and hope they all have a nice journey through school. And then we wonder why students lose interest, lose relevance.  By the time we get to high school, the eyes are on the prize; graduation, where they will break free of the rigidity of school  Students count down until summer vacation so that they can be free.  Free.

As Alfie Kohn has stated, “School is not an institution of learning, it is an institution of listening and memorization.” (Said in in a LeanBlog Podcast 2/24/09).   And this I believe is killing our school system.  Test-obsessed and score driven, we no longer let children develop their curiosity to provide them with a real stake in learning.  We no longer offer them choice because we have too much curriculum to cover.  Our homework is not set up for meaningful exploration but rather to teach time management and study skills.  Time management?   Like our over-scheduled students need more time management?  When students fail to hand in their homework we assume that it is either because they are too lazy or because they didn’t feel like it.  We do not assume that perhaps it was uninteresting, irrelevant or perhaps even too hard or meaningless.  We almost always assume we know best.  And even if we know within our hearts that the piece of homework assigned probably wasn’t all that engaging, we assign it anyway, because we have to assign something and we were forced to do inane homework when we went to school so why should our students be exempt.  But the system is broken, we know it, and we have to change it.

There are exceptions, of course, thankfully.  There are pockets of teachers and schools that are taking a different approach. That are actively combating this curiosity-killing school system.  Those that let their students explore, those that weigh their options, assign meaningful homework, that question their practices rather than go with the status quo.  They provide inspiration for some and shudders for other.  Perhaps they are just too different for some to even recognize them as schools.  Yet they are part of the answer.  We must bring back exploration, we must give teachers time to fully engage their students.  We must spark teachers’ curiosity as well so that we all can love learning again.  They say that curiosity killed the cat, let’s not have the lack of curiosity kill our schools.

alfie kohn, classroom expectations, punishment, rewards, students

Peter, Sit Up and Listen – Or Why Using Student Names in Punishment only Backfires

Joe, you need to pay attention.  Sit up, Peter!  Lisa, what happened there?  All day and every day, we use our students names when they are off task, when they are fiddling, sleeping, or simply not performing to the high standard we have set for them.  We make snap decisions, judge them, and punish them as we continue on with our lesson.  We don’t always have the time to dig deep so we assume we know why they are fiddling, we assume we know why they are not paying attention, and so we correct, coerce, call out their names until they are with us again.  

Their names.  Something that is so intricately linked with who they are as a budding person.  Their names so linked with their identities.  And yet we use them to our advantage, simply to remain in control of the classroom.  One more tool to make sure all eyes are on me!

This week I asked my students to finish the sentence: “Being a good teacher means…” and what Nathan wrote really hit home: “Don’t yell out the kids name that does something wrong.”  At first, I scoffed at this notion, after all, what else are we supposed to do as teachers when our students are off task?  Calling out their names is one of the most efficient ways to re-direct them because that is really all we are doing, right? Wrong, calling out a student’s name in front of the whole class means that the whole class knows that the student is not doing what they ought to.  Calling out a name means that what one student is doing (or not doing) becomes the focus of the entire class.  Yes, you achieve your goal of attention redirection, but you also publicly humiliate that child.  It is time to stop with the name calling.

So what can one do instead, because we all know, there are times when even the most attentive student gets off-track

Well, I first re-evaluate myself, after all if they are spacing out, what am I doing to cause it? After all; if I was actually doing something interesting they might be well interested.  

If I find that I am indeed offering up something interesting, I wonder if they need a body break?  Even the most exciting topic becomes mundane after I have spoken about it for more than 10 minutes in my good “preacher” voice.

If this doesn’t seem to be the root of the problem, then perhaps, a gentle tap on the shoulder or a silent hand signal can help the student re-direct?  Often, I can do this from across the room, catching only the eye of the student in question and helping them re-focus.

When this fails, and sometimes it does, particularly if the student is quite engaged with the drawing or thing they seem to be doing, then I either walk in their direction and whisper in their ear, or I simply stop speaking.  Silence is one of the greatest tools a teacher has in their toolbox for attention; after all, students are not used to teachers being quiet!  

And sometimes all of this fails, and that is when I am reminded that my students live full lives that sometimes interfere with our school day.  This is when I take the time to stop and talk and ask if everything is alright, is there anything I need to know?  Sometimes they are just so excited about something happening that they cannot focus, other times it is lack of sleep, of food, or they are distracted by life situations.  Sometimes, they will just tell you they are having an off day.  That is alright too, after all, we all have off days.

This isn’t a perfect system, nor is it intended to be.  It is rather one more step in learning how to be a better teacher, one that doesn’t cause embarrassment for their students, one that takes the time to figure out the real reason behind distractions and then works with the student rather than just dolling out punishment.

So once again, my students teach me how to be a better teacher.  I should not be using their names to call attention to unsavory behavior unless they are in a dangerous situation.  Nathan taught me that and for that I am thankful.  He had enough courage to tell his teacher the wrong of her ways, and lead me to deeper reflection.  When we ask our students questions, we may not like the answer, but there is always a great reason for that answer.  A reason that should not be taken lightly, but rather explored, reflected upon and then acted upon.
alfie kohn, being a teacher, journey, No grades, students

So What Does a B+ Mean to You – Quitting Grades Does Not Mean You are Lazy

Quitting grades to some means to quit expectations. I used to think that if I didn’t meticulously grade everything, I was inefficient, ineffective, and certainly lazy. And yet I have come to happily realize that quitting grades as much as I am allowed to do has become one of the great liberations of my young teaching experience. By quitting grades, I simply become able to better evaluate work, to in the end better “grade” my students.

When I quit putting letter grades on my papers, I did not lower my expectations for an excellent product, in fact quite the opposite happened. By removing letter grades from the final product it ceased being exactly that; final. When my students hand in an assignment now, they know it is is not done. No longer just an end product, but instead another stepping stone in our learning journey. If a test is mediocre, then they get a chance to fix it. As simple as that seems, I cannot tell you how many times I have witnessed a student say “oh” only to then erase the incorrect answer and provide the right one.

So quitting letter grades did not make me weak, simpler or even more “granola.” I didn’t quit letter grades because I wanted to shelter all of my students from the “real” world. I quit letter grades on assignment because they did not work. A letter grade only ever sparked a discussion when it was below what a student or parent thought was deserved. If an A- was given, a student did not take the opportunity to ask what could be better or ask what was great about it in the first place. Instead the grade was received, glanced at and the product filed away, perhaps to be shared with a parent, at some point to be shared with a recycling bin. So I didn’t start to wear patchouli or run chants in my classroom, I didn’t let my students academics slide to fit in with my new philosophy. Instead I challenged myself to provide better feedback, a better pathway for my students to follow to academic success.

Giving letter grades would be less time consuming then the feedback I provide now. Sometimes on busy days I even yearn for those days of easy calculations, slap on of a grade, and done with it all. Now instead I ponder, I chart, I reflect back upon previous work and then I try to write meaningful, relatable feedback that is relevant to that student. No more “Nice try” comments, but instead “You are secure in paragraph setup but still developing in sentence fluency.” And that’s only after all of my students actually know what a paragraph and sentence fluency is. So call me weak, call me a rebel, but don’t call me a softie. Letter grades for my students has meant more work, more thought, and more academic challenge than ever before. And boy do I love my new, hippidippy ways.

alfie kohn, being a teacher, blogging, rewards

I am a Hypocrite

Today I had one of those great thought moments that can only happen during deep professional and personal reflection.  George Couros, a principal I admire, did some thinking out-loud on my latest blog post, a follow up to another post on behavior.  Part of his comment is shown below:

I am going to challenge you a bit on this post, but not necessarily on its content. I noticed that you listed some stats on how many hits you have had, retweets, etc.. I also noticed that you listed that “Alfie Kohn” commented on it (like it was some kind of award that he did that). You have also written how you were disappointed that you did not get an edublog award: (

With the listing of these stats (kind of like marks) and discussion of awards, are you somehow showing that you have a part of you driven by the same thing that you are saying we should take away from students in the classroom?

Just some food for thought. I think that your posting discussing the importance of intrinsic motivation and not extrinsic motivators is contradicted by use of the stats of your blog hits and retweets.

Is there room for both to drive us? I know I have a twitter counter on my own blog posts and love recognition.

Part of my response to George was this:

George, what a great comment that really made me think early this morning. I think your questions prove avery valid point for me; we as adults struggle for the same recognition as our students do. However, the reason why I listed those stats etc with this particular post was because it showed that somehow this particular post really struck something in people, which I had no idea it would. I never expect anyone to read my blog so the fact that that many people took the time to share or read shows that this a debate that many others are either thinking about or engaged in.

So all day I wondered; was I indeed a hypocrite (not that George implied it, I label myself that way)?  Had I published those statistics and name dropped because I too craved recognition and reward from my peers?  Could I possible be wanting the same thing that I despise so much in my own classroom?  The answer is not easy to come up with.  On one hand, I really do not seek out recognition but rather reflection, however, on the other hand, do I obsessively look at my blog counts to see if I matter?  Is that what it really comes down to?  

Perhaps when we look at our blog visits or comments received, we are really looking for some sort of validation that there are others like us out there.  That we are not alone in this educational ocean where the tide continuously shifts.  Perhaps, when a lot of people respond to a post we have found an island on which others seek refuge as well.  Perhaps, the need for recognition is so intrinsically ingrained in us that we can never truly escape it no matter how much we try.

I am not perfect, which thankfully no one has ever accused me of being.  I struggle publicly with many of my own teaching practices and choose to chronicle this struggle in order to give myself clarity from a distance.  I wish I could be 100% staunch anti-reward, but I am not, I still praise my students for great behavior, amazing work or just being all around fantastic kids.  Some would consider that a reward as well.  What I am opposed to, though, are the public reward ceremonies, the in-class recognition of only the best and brightest, rather than different categories where all children can be celebrated.  So perhaps I am a hypocrite, but at least I am a hypocrite who is willing to share their thoughts.

alfie kohn, being a teacher, punishment, rewards

After Publishing my Discipline Management System

About 3 weeks ago, I chronicled how I had gone from a checks, sticks, and names discipline system to one based in logic, respect, and communication instead.  Little did I know that it would hit such a nerve with so many people.  So now with 33 comments,  81 re-tweets (even one by the very smart Alfie Kohn!), and more than 10,000 views, I think it is time to answer some of the questions that were posed.

  • Don’t you think it is just because of your great group of students that this works?  This has been a popular one, especially as I discuss it with colleagues who happen to know firsthand what an amazing group of 4th graders we do have.  My answer, well maybe, and yet, I do know that there are students in my room that would not have flourished as much if they had been subjected to last year’s rules. These would have been my frequent fliers, often spending recess with me or the principal.  Through communication, I have only had to keep a couple of students in on two occasions as we discussed behavior expectations and how to fix reoccurring problems.   I know that I have 23 incredible students, but I did last year as well and the year prior.  So really, since these are the students that I do have, it appears to be a mute point.
  • How did you come up with this system?  I didn’t.  In fact, many commentators pointed out that it sounded a lot like The Responsive Classroom, Love and Logic, or various other programs.  I did not read any of these programs, instead I went with my own commonsense and sense of right and wrong.  I wanted a respectful classroom, which also meant I had to give a lot of respect.  I also knew that this would not be a one time thing of discussion, but something to revisit throughout the year whenever we had time.
  • Why should I care, listen, use what you are using?  That’s the wonderful part about the world of blogging, you don’t have to!  All I am doing is chronicling my own decision to get rid of a punitive system to one guided by communication.  This approach works for me, but by all means, I want people to use whatever works for them.  I just want to let people know, particularly first year teachers that there are other methods than punishment to create a strong classroom.  I wish I had known more about that in college.
  • Will you use it next year? Absolutely!  As with many changes on my journey this year, I could not imagine going back to my old ways.  I do not know what my classroom will consist of next year, but I do know that I am going to have some very eager new 4th graders ready to learn so my job is to provide them with the very best experience possible.  That includes a room where they feel safe, respected, and listened to, not just by me, but by their peers as well.  There may be changes, but fundamentally my philosophy will only expand and gain momentum rather than completely change.

So keep them coming.  It is only through dialogue that we continue to push our boundaries and learn together.  

alfie kohn, being a teacher, inspiration, no homework, students

So What’s My Problem with Homework?

I just read a frightening and excellent post by Mark Hansen discussing homework in a real-life example with his son and immediately I wanted to comment on it.  But then I realized that would be rather lengthy, so instead I offer this post.  What is my problem with homework?

I never use to hate homework until last year.  Something hit me when I told my husband that I knew exactly which kid would hand in the homework with “some” help from the parents, which kid would hand in something half-finished, and which kid would never hand it in but instead take my punishment.  And punish I did.  Oh, I used to be the queen of taking away privileges.  It was awful.  There we were, staring at each other every recess trying to figure out just how much help was needed versus how much effort needed to be exerted.  It was exhausting for me and the kids.

And guess what, I was right!

I knew exactly which kids would not be able to complete the homework no matter how much help I gave them in school; they simply did not have the skills or resources needed to finish it at home.  Over the summer, this was the point I kept returning to, wondering if I could be “radical” and get rid of homework almost altogether?  And so I did.  This year, there is very little homework in my room and here is why, in no particular order:

  • Homework is an excuse for the stuff we didn’t get to.  I stated this in my parent/student orientation and most parents nodded their heads.  We always have one more thing we just need to get to when the bell rings.  Well guess what?  Then we need to restructure our day and get to it, rather then slip it in to the backpack for the kids to deal with.  I know there is pressure with curriculum but if you know what your goal is for the lesson, then get to it!
  • Homework is practice – for some kids. Some kids will take 5 minutes to do homework because they already get it, some will take 30 minutes because they need parent help, others will never finish.  This is not fair.  If we do not equip students with the correct knowledge to complete the homework then we should not assign it.
  • Homework is not fair.  You know which kids will ace it and which kids will spend hours trying to solve a math page.  One sheet/assignment/report does not fit all.  If you already know how a kid will do on something then why are you bothering with the assignment, seems to me they have already shown you where their skills lie.
  • Homework steals away childhood.  Every minute of homework that you assign is an infringement of your students’ time spent experiencing the real world.  We say we want well-rounded students, but then have them spend an hour or more practicing school skills.  We already asked for 7+ hours of their time, let them have some free time to do the things that exposes them to the big world and in turn helps them become better people and students.  You will end up with kids that might just be excited about school, rather than exhausted.
  • Homework does not always fit the learning.  Worksheets are on the way out in many classrooms, and yet, we fall back on them all the time to check for understanding.  However, not all skills that we teach transfer onto paper very well.  I agree that math lends itself nicely to paper pages of problems, but why assign 3 pages if you can get away with just a couple of problems?  Before you assign think of the purpose of your homework; does it really give the students a way to show off their knowledge or will you just help you assign a percentage better?
  • Homework is maybe not just done by the student.  There are many helpful parents out there that really want their child to succeed.  As parents nothing gets us more than our child not understanding something.  How often do parents tell us that they had to help their child finish their work?  How often do we get projects turned in that required hours of craft work way outside of the range of your grade level?  The parents have already been to school, stop asking them to do work or in some cases, stop giving them a way to relive their school days through projects.
I know that there are times and situations where homework becomes a good extension such as sending kids out into the community to interview elders for heritage days, or continuing research on their own.  
I am not against all homework, what I am against, though, is the homework just for the sake of assigning homework.  I used to tell my parents to expect about 40 minutes of homework every night in 4th grade because I had been told it is about 10 minutes times the grade level.  40 minutes!  And then we ask students to read their books and do projects on top of that.  No wonder our students are exhausted when they come back the next day rather than eager to learn.
Think of what the purpose of homework is in your room, look really hard at your reasoning; why do you assign it?  Is it a meaningful learning experience that will help students become smarter, more knowledgeable, better people?  If yes, excellent.   But if no, not always, then stop, re-evaluate, clean it out, and then tell your students.  You will marvel at their response.
I was petrified to stop, worried that people would think I was skimping out on my job duties.  Almost all of my parents now rejoice in this year of calmness.  They know that if I assign something, there is a valid reason for it.  They also know that their child is learning as much as any other student in the 4th grade.  Stop the homework insanity and let these kids be kids.  We can accomplish the learning without the extra work.  You just have to believe in your own capabilities as en educate, so educate, don’t assign.