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Bad Signs

By Alfie Kohn

Home > Archives > Volume 25 No.3 - Spring 2011

You can tell quite a lot about what goes on in a classroom or a school even if you visit after everyone has gone home. Just by looking at the walls—or, more precisely, what’s on the walls—it’s possible to get a feel for the educational priorities, the attitudes about children, even the assumptions about human nature of the people in charge.

A chart that I created more than a decade ago called “What to Look for in a Classroom” listed some Good Signs along with Possible Reasons to Worry (Kohn, 1999, appendix B). Among the latter: walls that are mostly bare, giving the building a stark, institutional feel; and posted displays that suggest either a focus on control (lists of rules or, even worse, punishments) or an emphasis on relative performance (charts that include grades or other evaluations of each student).

Because I’ve done so elsewhere, I won’t take time here to explain why such lists and charts make me shudder. Instead, I’d like to consider a few signs and posters that are generally regarded as innocuous or even inspiring.

No Whining’

This sign—which sometimes consists of the word “whining” with a diagonal red slash through it—sends a message to students that seems to be “I don’t want to hear your complaints about anything that you’re being made to do (or prevented from doing).” To be sure, this is not an unusual sentiment; in fact, it may be exactly what your boss would like to say to you. But that doesn’t mean it’s admirable to insist, perhaps with a bit of a smirk, that students should just do whatever they’re told regardless of whether it’s reasonable or how it makes them feel. If we might respond with frustration or resentment to receiving such a message, why would we treat students that way? “No whining” mostly underscores the fact that the person saying this has more power than the people to whom it’s said.

Of course, the sign could be read more literally. Perhaps it’s just a certain style of complaining, a wheedling tone, that’s being targeted. Frankly, I don’t love that sound either, but should someone’s tone of voice really take precedence over the content of whatever he or she is trying to say to us? I’m less annoyed by whining than I am by the disproportionate reaction to it on the part of adults. It’s fine to offer an occasional, matter-of-fact reminder to a child that people tend to be put off by certain ways of asking for something, but our priority should be to make sure that kids know we’re listening, that our relationship with them doesn’t depend on the way they talk to us. Besides, young children in particular need to have some way of expressing their frustration. We don’t let them hit, scream, or curse. Now we’re insisting that they can’t even use a tone of voice that’s, well, insistent?

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