Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community

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David Moadel

  • Reviewed on Saturday, May 14, 2005
  • Grades Used: adult
  • Dates used: 1996
Book Review: Alfie Kohn's Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community
by David Moadel

Book Information:

Kohn, Alfie. (1996). Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Pp. xvi + 166
$17.95 ISBN 0-87120-270-0


In Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community, Alfie Kohn presents cogent criticism of the common strategies teachers use to control student behavior: rewards and punishment. Kohn made me question whether I ought to use such tactics, and made me hunger for a better way -- something not involving an insistence on control and compliance. Unfortunately, Beyond Discipline created a hunger without really satisfying it.

Kohn is right about rewards and penalties carrying a terrible price tag. They are both forms of manipulation, and leave little room for children to make authentic choices about what or how they will learn. Moreover, it is undoubtedly better for children to be motivated intrinsically to act kindly toward others, rather than just doing it to get praise and rewards and to avoid punishments. Getting compliance, in short, isn't much of an achievement.

So, the next logical question is, if a teacher jettisons rewards, penalties, and insisting on compliance, what will she replace them with? Obviously, doing nothing or letting the students do whatever they please would be unacceptable. We have to replace rules and bribes and threats with something, but what?

Kohn claims that traditional discipline methods are founded on the assumption that children are selfish and sinister, that children will act generously only when reinforced for doing so, that people are motivated exclusively by self-interest (page 8). Indeed, this assumption may be held by many traditional discipline programs. However, I personally don't use rewards and penalties as a result of any such assumption. In fact, like Kohn, I believe that children have a natural tendency toward empathy and generally want to help others. I use rewards and punishments because of a different assumption: Children often don't know what's best for them. Responsible adults often need to tell children what to do, simply because children often lack proper judgment. Children aren't naturally cruel or selfish, but they do lack knowledge and maturity. Think about it: Given their choice, would most children eat nutritious meals three times a day, or junk food? Would most children study a wide variety of academic subjects (math, history, science, grammar, etc.,), or would they only study whatever suits their momentary fancy? Would most children wait until they were at an appropriate age and maturity level operate drive a car, or would they operate (potentially deadly) vehicles much too soon?

I have rules in my classroom because I know that children often lack the maturity and knowledge to make choices that will benefit them in the long term. So, I'm not quite sold on the idea of getting rid of rules for children set by responsible adults. The students may have some input in the formation of the class rules, but ultimately it's the responsible adult who knows what's best for the students' long-term benefit, so it's not unreasonable for the adult in the classroom to veto any class rules that would not meet the students' needs (rules that are too vague to be understood, too punitive, too permissive, etc.)

What would Kohn use to replace rewards and consequences? In a very simplified form, he would replace them with:

* making tasks and lessons meaningful and interesting to the students. This could reduce the need for rule enforcement, but by itself won't eliminate it. Some students, some of the time, will still persist in infringing on others' right to learn or be safe.

* giving the students more choices about matters that affect them. I do agree with the idea of giving the students numerous choices throughout the school day. However, this doesn't mean that a teacher should allow students to decide what the curriculum will be (e.g., should we allow children to completely avoid math because they don't like it?), or what an acceptable noise level will be, or whether their work should be assessed, or whether they should be allowed to use put-downs and cuss words, etc.

* class meetings. But if, in the midst of a lesson, a student infringes on another student's right to learn or be safe. are we supposed to stop the lesson and solve this with a class meeting? What if the student persists in such behavior? More class meetings, I suppose? Class meetings can be a useful tool for certain purposes, but I don't imagine that they would dissuade persistently distracting or aggressive students. Furthermore, what if the students, during class meetings, make decisions that are likely to lead to chaos? They might decide that they should be allowed to shout out whenever they please, or run around the classroom whenever they please, or choose not to clean up the classroom, etc. Responding with, Well, let's give it a try - and then let's check back in a day or two to see how it's working (page 98) isn't much of a solution. Like it or not, there are just some basic rules of behavior that are non-negotiable and must sometimes be forced upon students. Kohn practically (and very regretfully) admits it himself: If a student persists in disrupting a class meeting, even after repeated reminders that he isn't being fair to everyone else, the teacher may decide to ask him to leave until he is ready to stop acting that way (page 128). But wouldn't exile be one of the most punitive things a teacher can do to a student?

* trying to build a sense of community among the students and adults. Kohn paints a nice picture of people getting along in harmony, with lots of class meetings and a heavy focus on empathy and interdependence. But how would an actual teacher in an actual modern classroom address a student (or students) who persists in violating the rights of other people? We know what Kohn wouldn't want teachers to do in such a situation, but exactly what would he have us do?

In the final chapter of the book, Kohn finds a nifty way to avoid answering such a question: [T]here is reason to be deeply suspicious of this kind of advice [i.e., specific prescriptions]. It's disrespectful to teachers when someone proposes to replace their judgment with a packaged response (page 122). That's quite a convenient time for Kohn to be so respectful of teachers' judgment, especially after spending the first half of the book calling their judgment into question. And: The infinite number of possible problems [and circumstances] make it impossible for a responsible author or consultant to offer anything more than general guidelines or considerations to keep in mind (page 122). So, I suppose a teacher should try to keep those general guidelines in mind while a student continues to violate the rights of others...

Ultimately, Kohn's point of departure is the premise that a teacher should not take away a child's freedom unless it's absolutely necessary. I don't disagree with that. However, I have another -- perhaps equally important -- premise: No child has the right to infringe on the rights of others. And this means that sometimes a teacher will find it necessary to limit a child's freedom. I suppose this is what we would call a necessary evil. Is there a better way? Beyond Discipline serves up some powerful questions. then leaves us starving for answers.


Review Author Information:

David Moadel teaches fifth grade at Park Trails Elementary School in Parkland, FL. He may be reached by e-mail at davidmoadel@hotmail.com .