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The 21st Century Classroom – Alfie Kohn


As a former administrator, I have had the good fortune to visit a significant number of classrooms over the years. Because I have been witness to bad or indifferent teaching, there has always been a special feeling of excitement during those times I was able to witness the talents of a true professional at work in the classroom. It also has encouraged me to be reflective on my years in the classroom.

Having begun teaching in the 1970’s at the high school level, my approach in the early years was very traditional. My classroom would have been best described as teacher-centered and my organizational skills combined with my ability to relate to students created a room that earned me high marks from my administrators.

In the early nineties though, it became increasingly clear that my methods were growing less popular with students. In addition, I found myself less and less successful on the most important element, student achievement. My classroom was well-managed and discipline issues seldom arose, but my students seemed to be losing interest in the subjects that I taught.


As I slowly tried to adjust, most of my colleagues initially insisted that I was wrong to make changes. Instead, they were firm in their resolve that the students needed to be held accountable. Most importantly, they insisted that if these students were one day to move on to post-secondary levels of education, they would find that college professors seldom featured anything but the teacher-centered model.

It was in the September 1996 issue of Educational Leadership that Alfie Kohn turned my thoughts full circle. It was at that time he released his version of “What to Look for in a Classroom.”

His summary was truly transformational for me and it has stood the test of time as the definitive model for those classrooms where teachers excel. Frequently appearing in a simple chart format, “What to Look for in a Classroom” features two contrasting columns: the ‘Good Signs’ versus ‘Possible Reasons to Worry.’

Parents and traditional educators will find a disturbing trend – to this day, most of the practices employed at the high school level fall into Kohn’s reasons to worry category.

The Traditional/Negative Approach

Under the possible reasons to worry, Kohn took exception to longstanding educational traditions. In simplest terms, Kohn insisted it was time to destroy the teacher-centered, control model that focused on classroom management and replace it with a version that is often equated with what one sees in elementary school, particularly at the youngest levels.

For example, under his possible reasons to worry, he offered the following:

  • Chairs all facing forward and worse yet, desks in rows.
  • Packaged instructional materials orderly and prominently displayed.
  • Classroom visuals featuring commercial posters, lists of rules, sticker and star charts or samples of flawless student work posted only from the best youngsters.
  • Periods of silence interrupted by only the voice of the teacher.
  • An in-control, authoritative and highly visible teacher typically front and center.
  • Students waiting quietly for the next set of teacher-initiated activities, responding to teacher-directed questioning.
  • All students focused on the same activity working on their individual skills.

The Modern/Positive Approach

In the Kohn classroom, the teacher is no longer the focus – instead everything centers upon the students and what it is they need to learn:

  • Multiple activity centers featuring various classroom structures including open spaces and large tables for group work.
  • Room overflowing with a variety of materials, apparatus and supplies.
  • Displays of student projects demonstrating student collaboration or personal memos initiated by the students.
  • A buzz or low-level hum of activity featuring students exchanging ideas.
  • A warm, respectful teacher mingling with students.
  • Students eager and excited about learning as they actively question one another.
  • Multiple activities taking place simultaneously with students working in pairs or groups.

Elementary vs. Secondary

As noted earlier, Kohn’s approach was far more consistent with that employed by elementary school teachers. It also features a significant change in focus for those administrators observing a classroom – instead of an emphasis on what it is that the teacher is doing, the shift is to assessing what it is that the students are doing. Most importantly, it is a shift from a quiet, well-managed classroom to one that is lively and features an emphasis on student learning.

It is interesting to note that for many children, middle school and high school becomes the place where school is no longer enjoyable. It is, of course, at that time that students traditionally have been subject to a shift from student-centered classroom to a teacher-centered, content-driven academic approach.

The result is that school, instead of being a place where students look forward to going each day because it features an exciting atmosphere where learning new things is enjoyable, becomes a chore at best, a problem at worst. At the very age when students most resist compliance and teacher-centered approaches, too many teachers, and, by default, too many schools insist on employing such a format.

Because of the sophistication needed educationally, there is no doubt that 21st century classrooms demand a shift from the ‘sage on the stage’ to the ‘guide on the side’ approach. That move is a requirement to produce the type of student that will excel in the creative, technologically-rich world we face.

But while technology demands such a shift and the student of the 21st century needs such a classroom to learn the skills needed for future employment, it is now clear that the Kohn approach is one that should have been employed long ago for a different reason.

It is, and in fact has always been, a better way for teachers to do business. And it has always been the model I associate with the true professionals I have had the good fortune to observe.

Author: Thomas, Source: Open Education blog