In the final chapter of Alfie Kohn's Punished by Rewards book, Kohn also writes that educators have a role to play alongside parents in contributing to children's moral, social and behavioral development. Teachers are not only concerned with helping students to become good learners but also to become good people. Often social skills are those that cannot be explicitly taught, but positive attitudes and skills are developed by students through being part of a caring classroom community. In such an environment students will learn to listen to and respect others, will make fair decisions and will be aware of different viewpoints, so allowing them to express their opinions without hurting others. Students will learn to share by being members of cooperative groups, and will be able to make group decisions and resolve conflicts.
When I first started at my present school, I worked with another teacher to set up a student council. Each class nominated 2 representatives and we met together at lunchtimes to discuss various school issues (playground, lunch room, fund raising etc.) Before coming to the meetings the representatives held class meetings to find out what issues the students felt were "hot topics" and they also held class meetings after the student council meetings to feedback the discussions. One of our aims in setting up a student council was to empower students and to let them know that their decisions matter. We felt that this was a great forum for students to learn to listen to other students' points of view, to think through the problems that were identified and to come up with ways these problems could be solved.
Alfie Kohn writes about how we all need to feel a sense of control over our lives - our physical and emotional health is better if we experience a sense of self-determination. Depression is often triggered by feelings of helplessness. Just as we as teachers know that we do better when we are empowered and given responsibility for what we are doing, rather than being micro-managed, controlled and being held accountable, students also thrive in situations where they learn to make decisions, not just follow instructions. Kohn writes:
If we want children to take responsibility for their own behavior, we must first give them responsibility, and plenty of it ... an emphasis on following directions, respecting authority (regardless of whether that respect has been earned), and obeying the rules (regardless of whether they are reasonable) teachers a disturbing lesson.He also points out that "children who attend a school in which they are asked to take some responsibility for the curriculum and rules discover democracy" and that none of the attitudes that we want to promote can be fostered in the absence of choice.
In my last school we were concerned that the actions that students took as a result of their inquiries were authentic. We looked at Hart's Ladder of Participation where the bottom three rungs are not really participation at all, instead they are more like manipulation:
As I reflected on this, I started to think of these steps also in terms of adult participation too, for example teachers being involved in school-wide decision making. Over the years I've been in staff meetings where teachers were asked to give input into a decision, only to find out later that the decision had already been made and that the meeting was merely a token gesture - when this happens over and over again teachers come to realize that their voice is definitely not being listened to and that in some cases these meetings are just to manipulate people into accepting a poor decision. If these sorts of situations persist over time then teachers just give up. Silent staff meetings are one symptom of this, with people not wanting to (or not being bothered to) speak out. Last month I was lucky enough to be able to attend a staff meeting at my new school. I was struck by the "can-do" atmosphere that permeated the meeting. The teachers have all been involved in groups looking at different aspects of the new campus and were reporting back to the staff the results of their discussions. One group, for example, looked into the sort of artwork that would be on the walls, another looked at things like outdoor spaces. I was extremely happy to see that a participatory culture was very much encouraged, that decisions had not already been made but that input was valued. My new school also has working groups investigating and developing new teaching and learning environments for the 21st Century. Different groups are looking at issues such as green education, multi-age classrooms, project-based learning, online/blended learning, personalized learning, games-based learning and social technologies. As I listened to the various task force facilitators present their findings I was once again struck with a sense of profound gratitude: how wonderful it is going to be to be part of such an exciting new learning community. I'm counting the days until I'm there!
Photo Credit: Circle Time by Valentina Powers