Curriculum Opinion

New Arguments-and Arguers-in Bridging Differences

By Deborah Meier — January 22, 2013 5 min read
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Dear Readers, and Alfie,

Forty years ago Diane Ravitch and I wrote scathing reviews of each other’s written work. It would be nice to think that blogging together on Bridging Differences is what “bridged” the differences. (I was brought up in a near-mystical belief in the power of The Word to set us free.) But the truth is we’d come together on many things long before we blogged. And, as many of you know, she’s gone on to write more books while also blogging every hour, sometimes every half-hour, day after day after day. And spreading not only her words, but the words of so many others—including, bless you, Diane, classroom teachers.

Pedro Noguera and I were located in offices about 20 feet apart. He had windows, I had none. But we rarely had time to finish a sentence—so it seemed like it would be fun to blog back and forth. But, like Diane, he is off to engage in very valuable work and one hard for us to “bridge” unless I went along with him to South Africa. (Hint, hint, Pedro.)

So, now, I’m embarking on a new chapter for Bridging Differences and an experiment in blogging with a changing cast of co-bloggers. The plan is for me to debate different guest bloggers, starting today, each for a month or so. I think it’s going to be fun and stimulating, and my hope is to explore and reignite the “differences” side of this blog.

My first guest is Alfie Kohn, who is joining me for the next four weeks. Years back, we had the opportunity to go out for lunch or dinner in Boston at least once a month and, what did we do? We argued. Some of you may think we agree, so how could we argue so much? Of course, if you know me well, you know it’s not hard for me to find something to argue about. We do agree on 95 percent of all issues, and perhaps we’re closer than most on the other 5 percent.

But now that I don’t visit Boston often we’ve decided to take our arguments from the restaurant table to Bridging Differences. But, be warned, we are not likely to argue about the so-called Big Questions. But, in fact, what I miss now that I’m not in the classroom are those wonderful arguments about the details. So here’s my chance. We both hope you’ll find it interesting.

Of course, I’m assuming you know Alfie’s many books, essays, popular rebuttals, speeches, and other provocations. Imagine a book titled Punished by Rewards and you imagine what a delight all his work is. During the time we spent in Boston arguing, Alfie also became the parent of school-age kids, so that added a new topic. I think our last argument was about the words “play” and “work” as applied to schooling.

I realize there was a thread that ran through all our arguments. As with Diane, some of our differences related to the focus of our work—where we were coming from and where we were hoping to go. But there’s more to it ... that may even explain the choices we’ve made about our job lives.

Here are some of the topics we’ve argued about over the years:

  • Is punishment ever productive, or should we drop the whole idea?
  • Should young people be motivated by wanting to please adults with more power than they possess?
  • Is there a positive role for competition?
  • While parents who love unconditionally makes sense, should we expect that of our children’s teachers? Is it not merely foolish, but perhaps unwise? And more.

They all share some things in common, overlapping everywhere I suspect, and our disagreements may not always be “fundamental,” but rather “tactical” or “strategic.” But let’s start with some combination of the first and second questions above.

Actually, I was raised in a family that, as I recall, never used punishment and was short on praise. I probably raised my own children the same way, although I think I praised outright more than my parents did. Or at least I did so more directly rather than in my parents’ subtle, nuanced ways. (Or am I just hoping so? Alfie, you would have enjoyed my parents.)

But few of the young people I encountered in school, or adults I encountered outside of school, had that kind of childhood. I also don’t remember a lot of that kind of discipline in the schools I attended—independent, progressive New York City schools. As a result, unlike many others, it wasn’t until I substituted inside Chicago schools that I truly encountered a reward/punishment culture.

But two things made me accept the “need” for building one in my own classrooms and eventually in the schools I helped start in East Harlem and Boston. There was no way I could expect the parents, my fellow teachers, OR the kids themselves to understand my position. And there were many reasons for them to misread it—even to imagine that it was a sign of me not caring enough. And “explaining” didn’t get me too far. When we started Central Park East in 1974 I assumed, wrongly, that the colleagues who joined me agreed with me on EVERYTHING. But one thing we disagreed about was the need for imposed consequences: punishments. So we worked, with parents and kids, on a modified discipline code that tried to base itself on “natural consequences,” but we soon realized we were kidding ourselves. We were exercising our power.

We had very few clear “if you ... then” rules. It depended, we said, as does our judicial system, on circumstances, “excuses” if you will, not to mention our past experience, etc. If asked, “What happens if I ...,” we largely answered, “We’ll see if and when it happens.”

Underneath this wishy-washy stand was a very clear stand on the role of adult authority and adult judgment. We wanted kids to see us as people of authority whose judgments were respected by others for whom we were accountable. That was behind our strong stand on the teacher’s role in running the school itself, choosing subject matter, and assessing student work. Plus some assumptions that they’d want to please us.

I think, Alfie, that you’d see such exercise of authority and judgment as dangerous and unproductive in the long run—maybe that’s worth exploring. Maybe I think children are less dependent on adults as well as more dependent, in different ways?

I focused far more on building a community of equals with the staff, and with the children’s families rather than the children. Possibly because I was responsible for a public institution and felt I needed to build the trust that would over time allow us greater freedom, and in part ... I’m not sure.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.