Kohn's Educational Ideas

By: Neil Mufson
Mr. Mufson dissects the ideas of a former classmate and well-known education writer Alfie Kohn.
Over the years, I have followed with interest the career of Alfie Kohn, a quirky college classmate of mine, who has become a nationally-known education writer and speaker. Author of books such as The Homework Myth, Punished by Rewards, and No Contest, Kohn has earned his living critiquing American education in general and numerous “sacred cow” concepts specifically.  While he was actually a classroom teacher for a short time back in the early 80’s, in various books and speeches he has railed against praise, homework, grades, evaluation, standardized testing, discipline, and competition.  
While I agree with some of what Kohn says, most of his arguments take an idea or practice, tease out its inevitable flaws, and then make generalizations about the practice based either on a fundamental or exaggerated misreading of the idea or by carrying the practice to its illogical end. For instance, he sees no value in homework. He arrives at this conclusion by determining that most of what teachers ask students to do at home is meaningless, repetitive, unnecessary, mind-numbing, and thoughtless. I believe that homework can be meaningful and useful if a teacher designs it thoughtfully, it either reinforces what has been learned in class or extends students’ grasp of a related concept, and builds responsibility, organization, independence, and the development of key learning skills. I also believe that homework needs to be of reasonable length and complexity for a child’s developmental level — and that its completion shouldn’t overtake family life and a child’s ability to play outside. What we outline in our Parent Handbook about homework fleshes out our school’s philosophy on this topic.
I was interested to have the chance recently to read Kohn’s indictment of psychologist Carol Dweck’s seminal work on what she calls “mindsets.” Dweck’s research has led her to promote the theory that, as Kohn reasonably puts it, “Kids tend to fare better when they regard intelligence and other abilities not as fixed traits that they either have or lack, but as attributes that can be improved through effort.” In an article entitled “The ‘mindset’ mindset: What we miss by focusing on kids’ attitudes,” Kohn argues that by focusing on effort, educators place blame on students for poor learning outcomes rather than “the ‘bunch o’ facts’ traditionalism in schools” that “consists of making kids cram forgettable facts into short-term memory.” He bristles at the idea that by emphasizing hard work, educators are passing value judgements on their students rather than “bothering to ask whether the curriculum is meaningful, whether the pedagogy is thoughtful, or whether the assessment of students’ learning is authentic.”
Of course meaningless content, taught by thoughtless teachers, assessed by mechanical means would spell trouble! But effort does matter. So does grit (another concept that Kohn decries). So do committed, nurturing teachers who model and hold high standards. At The Country School, our dedicated, ace teachers design meaningful, engaging lessons that develop key skills and modes of thinking. In the process they develop within their students a passion for learning and reaching high. Our teachers’ assessments, and knowledge, of their students are deep and authentic. They create classroom environments that honor not just sound learning but also the development of strong character. 
It is easy to debunk a national education system that hopscotches from one fad to the next. What Country School teachers prove every day, though, is that when families support education and when teachers are given the freedom to bring life to curriculum in a way that makes sense for individual learners, powerful learning and achievement become the norm.

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