Article Review: How Not to Teach Values: A Critical Look at Character Education by Alfie Kohn

The purpose of Alfie Kohn’s (1997) article "How Not to Teach Values" is to critically look at the way that teachers and schools try to implement character education programs. Kohn (1998) scrutinizes these character education programs in order to heighten the reader’s awareness that there are other ways to nurture moral improvement in children. All people want children to become decent human beings but many people have not thought carefully of the ways that they are going about it. As I read this article, I became ashamed of the number of seemingly good projects that had been started by Netsilik staff that Kohn (1998) reveals not only to be ineffective but also to degenerate positive moral characteristics in children. The author’s goal is to encourage readers to question the techniques that are used to develop children’s social and moral character in schools.

Kohn (1998) explains how the two meanings of character education have become confused: the board sense of teaching students to be good people and the narrow sense of a particular way of moral training. Unfortunately, many educators who want to support the moral growth of students end up following a set program of morality training without thinking critically about the long term consequences of the program.

Kohn (1998) describes what is typically termed character education as " a collection of exhortations and extrinsic inducements designed to make children work harder and do what they’re told" (p. 429). He cites programs like Bonus Bucks (or at my school, Netsilik Notes), which teach children that they will get what they want by behaving in a certain way. Often students are drilled with behaviour expectations rather than encouraging students to reflect critically about their actions and appropriate ways of acting (Kohn, 1998).

Kohn (1998) focuses heavily on the many reward systems that have operated in schools: treats, certificates, plaques, and other tokens. These rewards are used to buy children’s compliance under the cloak of teaching values. Two teachers at are my school purchased cases of candy and treats for the just purpose of using them as rewards for behaviours that should naturally be expected from students at that age: finishing math work, sitting down quietly, having homework completed, helping one another and (ironically) for brushing their teeth. Events like Row Wars, which on the surface appear to promote teamwork between members, consequently teach students that other people are in the way of their success (Kohn, 1998).

These elaborate reward systems bring artificial results. Kohn (1998) states: "When people are rewarded for doing something, the more likely they are to lose interest in what they had to do to get the reward" (Kohn, 1998, p 430). Some children in my school will not even play an educational game without asking first about the type of prize to be awarded to the winner. So programmed are the students to receiving a reward that they no longer enjoy playing the game. Had these teachers critically examined their programs through the author’s glasses, they might would be willing to put more effort into gaining lasting results and less effort into purchasing rewards.

Unfortunately, the problems with character education are not just limited to the strategies themselves but are rooted deeper into the assumptions underlying these programs (Kohn, 1998). Many programs set out to correct children who are viewed as inherently self-centred or bad. On the contrary, many of the outward characteristics and behaviours of children are not dependent on an individual’s personality but is actually a product of the social environment (Kohn,1998). Many character programs stress self-control and imply that humans have natural desires to be ruthless and aggressive. It is a pity that this type of thinking is taken into the schools by teachers who result in teaching children through drill and memorization, ways that counter the child’s natural learning pathways. The author believes that the goal of these programs are to have students comply to adults "regardless of whether the rules are reasonable and to respect authority regardless of whether that respect has been earned" (Kohn, 1998, p. 433). Techniques of character education may temporarily buy a behaviour from students but they do not offer the lasting moral development and commitment that is so strongly needed in today’s society.

Kohn (1998) purposes that children be invited to reflect and question their behaviours. He suggests teaching values to students through rich, complex literature; this type of literature challenges students to think critically about moral issues and connect these issues to their personal lives. Children should be given more of a voice in the decisions that effect them so that they can see how their actions attribute to the outcome (Kohn, 1998). Never before has it been so important for children to be able to make sense of their own situations and be able to make appropriate decisions for themselves. Character education must go from habitual compliance to critical thinking and self-determination (Kohn, 1998).

Despite the obvious worthiness of this article by Kohn (1998), the author leaves one issue outstanding. How might teachers celebrate student success without giving rewards, certificates or tokens? Good leaders acknowledge the achievement of students but at what point does celebration become bribery? Some teachers use rewards as an extension of celebration but unfortunately too many teachers cross the line and use rewards as simple bribes for behaviour. Teachers reading this article need to examine their own methods of celebration and be cautioned over stepping over the line. The author might have strengthened his argument by discussing this issue in light of celebration.

Kohn (1998) believes that all teachers are teaching values or moral education whether or not they are following a program. As teachers, we become role models for students; we guide their learning in all areas with the choices we make about course content and discussion. Kohn (1998) has much to offer for teachers who are searching for authentic ways of teaching these values by strengthening intrinsic motivation, critical thinking and empathy. The article forces educators to evaluate their own approaches to teaching values to students. It provides teachers with alternate strategies that are easy to implement within standard school curriculums. Kohn (1998) stresses the importance that teachers do not confuse good behaviour for good character. This article is one that all teachers and parents would benefit from reading. If we fail to evaluate our programs appropriately, we do a giant disservice to our students and an injustice to the creation of a better society in the future.


Kohn, A. (1998). How not to teach values: A critical look at character education. Phi Delta Kappan. pp. 429 - 439.