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September 1, 1996
Vol. 54
No. 1

What to Look for in a Classroom

When you walk into a "working with" classroom, what aspects of school life are you—or are you not—likely to see?

In describing the climate of a classroom, we are often guided by a certain set of values, a vision of what school ought to be like. We might begin with the premise, for example, that an ideal climate is one that promotes deep understanding, excitement about learning, and social as well as intellectual growth.
In such a classroom, students play an active role in decisions, teachers work with students rather than doing things to them, and the learners' interests and questions drive much of the curriculum. The environment supports children's desire to find out about things, facilitates the process of discovery, and, in general, meets children's needs. A school with this mission has a climate very different from one in which educators are mostly thinking about how they can make students work harder or follow directions.
Put another way, in a "doing to" classroom or school, the adults tend to focus on students' behavior in order to elicit compliance; the preferred methods are punishments and rewards. In a "working with" environment, the focus is on students' underlying motives in order to help them develop positive values and a love of learning; the preferred methods include the creation of a caring community and a genuinely engaging curriculum.

What Do You See?

When I conduct a workshop, I like to present a conceptual framework that contrasts these two approaches to education. I then invite workshop participants to list familiar practices that exemplify each of them. Participants work in groups, categorizing—and in the process, scrutinizing—various aspects of school life. (For example, if the faculty object to students' clothing, a "working with" response would be to invite students to meet and reflect together on how this problem might be solved.
A "doing to" response would be to tell students what they may wear, or simply to force all of them to dress alike.) These lists tend to grow quickly because there is no limit to the number of examples. And the exercise makes an important point: It is one thing to talk about a learner-centered classroom, and something else again to specify exactly what such a place looks and sounds like. Here, then, is an abbreviated list—a crib sheet, if you will—that administrators, parents, and others can use to gauge the climate of a classroom and school.

Figure 1. Learner-Centered or Not?

What to Look for in a Classroom - table

Good Signs

Possible Reasons for Concern

FurnitureChairs around tables to facilitate interactionDesks in rows or chairs all facing forward
Comfortable areas for working
WallsCovered with students' workBare
Evidence of student collaborationDecorated with commercial posters
Signs, exhibits, or lists created by students rather than teacherList of consequences for misbehavior
Information about, and mementos of, those who spend time together in this classroomList of rules created by an adult
Sticker (or star) chart or other evidence that students are rewarded or ranked
Students' work displayed but it is (a) suspiciously flawless, or (b) only “the best” students' work, or (c) virtually all alike
SoundsFrequent hum of activity and ideas being exchangedFrequent periods of silence and/or teacher's voice the loudest or most often heard
Location of TeacherTypically working with students so that it takes a moment to find him or herTypically front and center
Teacher's VoiceRespectful, genuine, warmControlling and imperious
Condescending and saccharine-sweet
Students' Reaction to VisitorWelcoming; eager to explain or demonstrate what they're doing or to use visitor as a resourceEither unresponsive or hoping to be distracted from what they're doing
Class DiscussionStudents often address one another directlyAll exchanges involve (or directed by) teacher: students wait to be called on
Emphasis on thoughtful exploration of complicated issuesEmphasis on facts and right answers
Students ask questions at least as often as teacher doesStudents race to be first to answer teacher's “Who can tell me?” queries
TasksDifferent activities take place simultaneouslyAll students usually do the same thing
Around the SchoolInviting atmosphereStark, institutional feel
Students' work fills hallway wallsAwards, trophies, and prizes displayed, suggesting emphasis on triumph rather than community
Bathrooms in good conditionBathrooms in good condition
Faculty lounge warm and comfortableFaculty lounge warm and comfortable
Office staff welcoming toward visitors and studentsOffice staff welcoming toward visitors and students
Students helping in lunchroom, library, and with other school functionsStudents helping in lunchroom, library, and with other school functions
Copyright © 1996 by Alfie Kohn with contributions from Sylvia Kendzior, Rheta DeVries, and Jim Beane.

Alfie Kohn is a former teacher who now writes and speaks widely on human behavior, education, and parenting. His 11 books include Punished by Rewards (1993), The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and “Tougher Standards” (1999),
The Case Against Standardized Testing (2000), What Does It Mean to Be Well Educated? (2004), Unconditional Parenting (2005), and The Homework Myth (2006).

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