Thursday, March 18, 2010

Choices for children: why and how to let students decide

Kohn, A. (1993). Choices for children: why and how to let students decide. Phi Delta Kappan, 75(1), 8-21.


In this article, Alfie Kohn writes about the idea of a democratic classroom and the ways in which teachers can incorporate a shared decision making process with students. Kohn argues that a major cause of disengagement and apathy among students is a result of “burnout” and general feelings of powerlessness in ones’ own education. In his discussion of the rationale in support of student choice, he focuses on how it effects five key areas of school:

-general well-being

-behavior and values

-academic achievement


-intrinsic value

Kohn discusses many possible ways in which teachers can create a democratic environment in the classroom. These suggestions range from sharing decisions in curriculum, allowing students to choose where they work and what they work on and determining the criteria by which their work will be judged. Kohn also points out that it is the fact that things are “discussable” not that everything will be discussed as the cornerstone of a democratic classroom.

Kohn concludes the article with a discussion of the “barriers” that many educators view as reasons for not sharing decisions. While these include issues of school structure and resistance by both teachers and students, he offers suggestions for how all of these challenges could be overcome.


The article offers both a philosophical and practical approach for incorporating democratic values in a classroom. Kohn offers small (and seemingly minor) ways students can be involved in the decision making process that seem relevant and meaningful for both students and teachers interested in this topic. He also suggests ways to balance the process, especially teachers working in very structured environments. For example, teacher and students taking turns at making decisions, providing parameters according to which decisions can be made and offering suggestions/guidance but leaving the final decision to the students. For teachers who are considering including some aspects of democracy in their classroom, it's a good article to start with for practical ideas and justification for doing them.

From The Text:

“The best predictor (for burnout) is not too much work, too little time, or too little compensation. Rather, it is powerlessness- a lack of control over what one is doing” (Kohn).

“Schooling is typically about doing things to children, not working with them. An array of punishments and rewards is used to enforce compliance with an agenda that students rarely have any opportunity to influence” (Kohn).

“Students should not only be trained to live in a democracy when they grow up; they should have the chance to live in one today” (Kohn).

“A democratic approach doesn’t demand that everything is actively chosen to debate, only that it can be” (Kohn).

“The astonishing fact is that so many of these teachers treat their students in exactly the way they themselves find so offensive” (Kohn).

“A teacher is convinced that children are egocentric little terrors who must be forced to attend to other people’s needs is likely to prefer a model of tight control. And control, in turn, produces exactly the sort of antisocial behavior that such a teacher expects, confirming the view that such tactics are needed” (Kohn).

“For decades, prescriptions have been offered to enhance student motivation and achievement. But these ideas are unlikely to make much of a difference so long as students are controlled and silenced” (Kohn).

Other Sources:

Kamii, C. (1991). Toward autonomy: The importance of critical thinking and choice making. School Psychology Review, 20(3), 382-388.

Wilford, A. (1942). The Story of the eight-year study: with conclusions and recommendations. New York: Harper&Brothers.

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