Alfie Kohn on Self-Discipline

Thanks to a tweet this morning by Will Richardson (@willrich45), I came upon the article "Why Self-Discipline is Overrated" written by Alfie Kohn and published in the Phi Beta Kappan in November, 2008.

5 bullet summary

Self-discipline is a trait that generally gets high praise from both progressive and traditional educators. However, Kohn points out that:

  • extreme self-discipline is as much of a disorder as extreme lack of self-control, yet we usually attempt to prevent the latter and praise the former.
  • all internal motivation isn't good. Students can be wrecked by always worrying about what they "should" be doing.
  • our pervasive cultural emphasis on self-discipline seems to be based upon conservative religious philosophies.
  • emphasizing self-discipline ensures that the fault lies with the students instead of the structure that the students find themselves in.
  • obviously not all self-discipline is bad. Just our total systemic bias towards it is.

Go Alfie!

What resonates most with me in this article is Kohn's point that focusing on self-discipline is a method of being sure the status quo remains unchallenged. Our educational system explains away student "lack of slef-control" as the students fault. Instead of examining why students have little desire to complete the tasks we set before them and questioning our current practices, we just pass students off as immature and lacking in some way.

This general theme also pops up between any groups that have authority over each other. Districts where teachers are "causing problems" according to administration often are simply challenging the status quo.

Psychologically (to the extent that I know psychology), I agree that simply because students are sitting quietly in class and focused on their work doesn't mean they'll be better prepared than their classmates who are often loud and disruptive. Anecdotally, I've known many friends, family members, aquantainces, and ex-students who were a handful in school and yet managed to go on to live happy and successful lives.

Yeah, but...

How do you teach students to lose control? Further, how do you teach students who are overly self-disciplined to loosen up while at the same time help students who really do need to learn some self-control? Kohn doesn't drop any hints towards that end. As a teacher, I can actively strive to provide lessons and activities which students want to work on, but how can I help a student who has become overly self-disciplined? Is there anything I can do?

I've always been frustrated that while I might really like most of Kohn's ideas, many of his writings don't offer practical examples. "What does that look like in action?" is question that keeps coming up as I read. I can hypothesize to some extent, but seeing a few real-life examples to benchmark would be wonderful.

Unfettered quotes

  • "Learning, after all, depends not on what students do so much as on how they regard and construe what they do."
  • "What counts is the capacity to choose whether and when to persevere, to control oneself, to follow the rules – rather than the simple tendency to do these things in every situation."
  • "There is no reason to work for social change if we assume that people just need to buckle down and try harder.  Thus, the attention paid to self-discipline is not only philosophically conservative in its premises, but also politically conservative in its consequences."
  • " identify a lack of self-discipline as the problem is to focus our efforts on making children conform to a status quo that is left unexamined and is unlikely to change."
  • "Some children who look like every adult’s dream of a dedicated student may in reality be anxious, driven, and motivated by a perpetual need to feel better about themselves, rather than by anything resembling curiosity.  In a word, they are workaholics in training."

Best quote taken totally out of context

  • "...children are self-centered little beasts that need to be tamed..."


Image Credits