In this entry, I look into Alfie Cohn's concept of unconditional parenting, which has influenced my thinking about Unconditional Teaching.
In Tyll’s text on the concept of Unconditional Teaching, he discussed how the idea of the Universal Basic Income (‘Bedingungsloses Grundeinkommen’ in German, which actually translates to Unconditional Basic Income) provided a vector for his thinking about Unconditional Teaching.
My vector on Unconditional Teaching is a different one: Alfie Cohn’s concept of Unconditional Parenting.1 For Cohn, the way parenting usually works is highly conditional: parents grant their children love, approval and praise if they like their behaviour, and withhold those if they don’t. For children, this kind of parenting amounts to the existential understanding that they are only being worthy and loved when they act in ways their parents approve of.
“conditional parenting is based on the deeply cynical belief that accepting kids for who they are just frees them to be bad because, well, that’s who they are”
There are two crucial underlying assumptions of conditional parenting:
1) Children will only grow into ‘good’, social human beings when ‘good’ behaviour is encouraged and rewarded and bad behaviour is discouraged or punished, because they are inherently antisocial and troublesome, and without proper intervention they will stay that way. The ideology of conditional parenting is based on the premise that children (or rather, human beings in general) would inevitably choose to act in the most antisocial and destructive way possible if left to their own devices. As Alfie Cohn puts it: “conditional parenting is based on the deeply cynical belief that accepting kids for who they are just frees them to be bad because, well, that's who they are”. 2
2) Human interactions are fundamentally transactions, where the ‘goods’ of human relationships (love, affection, attention, care, affirmation) are only delivered in exchange for certain kinds of behaviours or actions; they must be earned.
Conditional teaching is based on the same premises: Without intervention, correction or incentivisation, students will inevitably choose to put in as little work as possible and to learn as little as possible. And teacher–student interactions are transactions: In exchange for their efforts, teachers expect students to learn specific things in specific ways. When teachers offer content, it comes with an obligation for students to retain it. If they offer feedback, it is in exchange for a commitment to improve in ways the teacher sees fit.
For learners, conditional teaching amounts to the understanding that the only learning that counts is one directed and approved by a teacher.
As opposed to that, Unconditional Teaching is based on the premise that learning is something learners do; therefore, it is always self-directed. If we pretend that it’s not, that the only learning that counts is one directed and approved by a teacher, we take away learning from the learners.
- Alfie Cohn. Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason. Atria Books, 2005.
- Alfie Cohn. Feel-Bad Education and Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling. Beacon Press, 2011.
- Alfie Cohn’s homepage, where you can find many of his articles (among them the one on “Unconditional Teaching”) and blog posts.
Not incidentally, after we chose the term Unconditional Teaching for our approach, we learned that the only published text that employs the term so far is an essay by Alfie Cohn (in Feel-Bad Education, see Further Reading). ↩
Alfie Cohn. Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason. Atria Books, 2005, p. 16. ↩