Good Signs Possible Reasons to Worry


Chairs around tables to facilitate interaction

Comfortable areas for learning, including multiple "activity centers"

Open space for gathering

Chairs all facing forward or (even worse) desks in rows

On the Walls

Covered with students' projects

Evidence of student collaboration

Signs, exhibits, or lists obviously created by students rather than by the teacher

Information about, and personal mementos of, the people who spend time together in this classroom


Commercial posters

Students' assignments displayed, but they are (a) suspiciously flawless, (b) only from "the best" students, or (c) virtually all alike

List of rules created by an adult and/or list of punitive consequences for misbehavior

Sticker (or star) chart -- or other evidence that students are rewarded or ranked

Students' Faces Eager, engaged Blank, bored
Sounds Frequent hum of activity and ideas being exchanged Frequent periods of silence

The teacher's voice is the loudest or most often heard

Location of Teacher Typically working with students so it takes a few seconds to find her Typically front and center
Teacher's Voice Respectful, genuine, warm Controlling and imperious

Condescending and saccharine-sweet

Students' Reaction to Visitor Welcoming; eager to explain or demonstrate what they're doing or to use visitor as a resource Either unresponsive or hoping to be distracted from what they're doing
Class Discussion Students often address one another directly

Emphasis on thoughtful exploration of complicated issues

Students ask questions at least as often the teacher does

All exchanges involve (or are directed by) the teacher; students wait to be called on

Emphasis on facts and right answers

Students race to be first to answer teacher's "Who can tell me...?" queries

Stuff Room overflowing with good books, art supplies, animals and plants, science apparatus; "sense of purposeful clutter" Textbooks, worksheets, and other packaged instructional materials predominate; sense of enforced orderliness
Tasks Different activities often take place simultaneously

Activities frequently completed by pairs or groups of students

All students usually doing the same thing

When students aren't listening to the teacher, they're working alone

Around the School Appealing atmosphere: a place where people would want to spend time

Students' projects fill the hallways

Library well-stocked and comfortable

Bathrooms in good condition

Faculty lounge warm and inviting

Office staff welcoming toward visitors and students

Students helping in lunchroom, library, and with other school functions

Stark, institutional feel

Awards, trophies, and prizes displayed, suggesting an emphasis on triumph rather than community

Copyright © 1996 by Alfie Kohn. This article may be downloaded, reproduced, and distributed without permission as long as each copy includes this notice along with citation information (i.e., name of the periodical in which it originally appeared, date of publication, and author's name). Permission must be obtained in order to reprint this article in a published work or in order to offer it for sale in any form. Please write to the address indicated on the Contact Us page.

Copyright ©1996. Reprinted from "Educational Leadership" with the author's permission. For more information, please see