The Risks & Potential of Required Community Service
Alfie Kohn writes and speaks widely on human behavior, education, and parenting. The latest of his twelve books are FEEL-BAD EDUCATION...and Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling(2011), THE HOMEWORK MYTH: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing (2006) andUNCONDITIONAL PARENTING: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason (2005). Of his earlier titles, the best known are PUNISHED BY REWARDS: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes (1993), NO CONTEST: The Case Against Competition(1986), and THE SCHOOLS OUR CHILDREN DESERVE: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and "Tougher Standards" (1999).
Kohn has been described in Time magazine as "perhaps the country's most outspoken critic of education's fixation on grades [and] test scores." His criticisms of competition and rewards have helped to shape the thinking of educators -- as well as parents and managers -- across the country and abroad. Kohn has been featured on hundreds of TV and radio programs, including the "Today" show and two appearances on "Oprah"; he has been profiled in the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, while his work has been described and debated in many other leading publications.
Kohn lectures widely at universities and to school faculties, parent groups, and corporations. In addition to speaking at staff development seminars and keynoting national education conferences on a regular basis, he conducts workshops for teachers and administrators on various topics. Among them: "Motivation from the Inside Out: Rethinking Rewards, Assessment, and Learning" and "Beyond Bribes and Threats: Realistic Alternatives to Controlling Students' Behavior." The latter corresponds to his book BEYOND DISCIPLINE: From Compliance to Community (ASCD, 1996), which he describes as "a modest attempt to overthrow the entire field of classroom management."
Kohn's various books have been translated into Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, German, Italian, Swedish, Dutch, Bulgarian, Portuguese, Arabic, Hebrew, Thai, and Malaysian. He has also contributed to publications ranging from the Journal of Education to Ladies Home Journal, and from the Nation to the Harvard Business Review ("Why Incentive Plans Cannot Work"). His efforts to make research in human behavior accessible to a general audience have also been published in the Atlantic Monthly,Parents, and Psychology Today.
His many articles on education include a dozen widely reprinted essays in Phi Delta Kappan from 1991 to 2008. Among them: "Choices for Children: Why and How to Let Students Decide," "How Not to Teach Values: A Critical Look at Character Education," "Test Today, Privatize Tomorrow," and "Why Self-Discipline is Overrated."
Kohn, the father of two children, lives (actually) in the Boston area and (virtually) at www.alfiekohn.org.
Q. We are facing a proposal to require community service for all high school students. I am very concerned about the mixed message this will send to our students about freely giving of themselves in service to others. What are your thoughts on community service as a requirement for graduation?
A. I roll my eyes a bit when those up above reach for coercion to improve those down below: We'll just mandate community service (or character education, or tougher graduation requirements, or whatever) and watch students improve. But while a service requirement hardly guarantees any benefits -- which are contingent, among other things, on the extent to which your staff and the students themselves take the activities seriously -- neither does it preclude such benefits. Much depends on how (and by whom) the activities are designed.
First of all, I have some concerns about bland activities undertaken by individual students. If, however, you were to redefine "community service" as an opportunity for collective action, genuine democratic involvement, and work for social justice -- that would be as exciting as it is rare. (See Joseph Kahne & Joel Westheimer's article "Teaching Democracy: What Schools Need to Do" in the September 2003 issue of Phi Delta Kappan, as well as other writings by both of these authors.)
Second, for anything of value to come out of this, students need to be involved at all points -- in thinking about the rationale for doing some sort of service and in working together to plan every detail of the activities: deciding democratically how many options will be available to each student and discussing the rationale for each option, making contact with people in the community to set things up, making arrangements to evaluate the activities themselves as well as the students' experiences afterwards, and so on. The process probably ought to be framed as "How can we make our town/ our state / our country /the world a better place? What needs doing? Who requires our care and our help?" -- rather than "How can we fulfill this requirement?" Sandwiching the activity itself between planning (before) and reflection (after) -- and having the students play a key role in every stage (rather than just giving a menu of options to each student individually) -- could turn out to be as valuable, both intellectually and socially, as the activities themselves.
Finally, what one doesn't do can be as important as what one does. I hope it goes without saying that any benefit potentially derived from this activity would likely be wiped out by (1) rewarding students for their participation or (2) setting up some sort of competition between students (individuals or groups).
Some mandates are inherently useless, if not counterproductive, and should be actively resisted. (See under: NCLB.) But my hunch is that this lemon can be made into lemonade. For school administrators to treat students the same way the administrators are treated by policymakers would instead be to turn salmon into salmonella.
Alfie Kohn (www.alfiekohn.org) is the author of twelve books, including PUNISHED BY REWARDS, THE SCHOOLS OUR CHILDREN DESERVE, UNCONDITIONAL PARENTING, THE HOMEWORK MYTH, and, most recently, FEEL-BAD EDUCATION. He has been described by Time magazine as “perhaps the country’s most outspoken critic of education’s fixation on grades [and] test scores.”
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