Alfie Kohn on the next U.S. Secretary of Education

Alfie Kohn’s new article in The Nation comes out in print next week. You can read it early online and get his perspectives on the next U.S. Secretary of Education. Here’s a quote:

Almost never questioned … are the core elements of traditional schooling, such as lectures, worksheets, quizzes, grades, homework, punitive discipline and competition. That would require real reform, which of course is off the table.

I’m sure that many of you are unsurprised that Kohn is one of my favorite education writers. My all-time favorite education book is Beyond Discipline. I like how Kohn speaks truth to power and is willing to hold topics up to the light that are given little thought by most educators because they’re so deeply ingrained in the system.

Update: if the link at The Nation doesn't work for you, this one should.

16 Responses to “Alfie Kohn on the next U.S. Secretary of Education”

  1. I’ve been hooked on Alfie Kohn since The Homework Myth. Unfortunately, ideas such as swinging the pendulum far away from grades are not something one-person can do. Of course, one person can get the ball rolling, but I’m worrying about keeping my head above water in my first year as a teacher. I keep Kohn’s ideas close to my heart and relish any chance I get to “declare my allegiance.”

  2. It’s a good article and I tend to side with the LDH ideology, but I still hold that teacher accountability is important and needs to be addressed, at least to me, by the “progressivists”.

    If I were editing, I’d take out or request supportive evidence around this sentence:
    “Darling-Hammond, meanwhile, tends to be the choice of people who understand how children learn.”

  3. I nominate Alfie Kohn to head the Department of Education!

  4. Alfie is going to be speaking in Atlantic, IA on January 19. Not sure if it is open to the public or not, but I will be looking into that.

  5. Lance,
    Please let me know what you find out.
    Thanks!

  6. @Scott
    Thanks for the link to the article. I’ll be rooting for Darling-Hammond. Sometimes getting the business world to understand that educating a child is radically different than quality control in manufacturing widgets is a difficult task. They should have a national day where the CEO geniuses actually spend time in a classroom trying to teach. It would be eye opening.

  7. Kohn is a good reference for consciousness raising. But like many of the folks at the university level, he has the luxury of being outside the heat of accountability. Folks within the K-12 system who promote the same beliefs and values (about testing, rewards, discipline, standards, etc) — who are not university “experts”– are dismissed as whiners, afraid of real accountability. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is a lot of jockeying for this post as Sec. of Education… I don’t mind Darling-Hammond… but isn’t she just another university “expert” with limited real experience in the K-12 system she is supposed to lead?

  8. I am fond of many of Kohn’s ideas, but I fail to see how you lead by alienating those you are attempting to lead. Kohn is often quick to cite all of the things wrong with education today, but if he really wants to change some of the practices today, he needs to go back to the k-12 system and demonstrate how this change should occur. It is very easy to point out the flaws in a system and even to point out some necessary changes, but to get these changes to occur is the real trick. I think we need people like Kohn, Smoker and others who shed light on just how ludicrous many of our practices are, but I think we need to look at Senge, Kotter and practitioners like Mike Miles for how to successfully implement the changes needed. Kohn generates conversations that is for sure, but a leader doesn’t start a change initiative by pissing-off and totally alienating those he or she intends to lead.

  9. As someone at the university level who teaches many going on to be K-12 teachers, I can tell you there are good reasons why Kohn is not held in high regard by many in our field. Unlike most who truly want to make a difference, Kohn has done precious little research to test his claims. Nor has he supported others in tesing his claims. Education’s history is full of “iconoclasts” whose intuitively appealing ideas turned out to be wrong once they were actually tested. Most professors know that developing your theories is only the first step and actually do not want to see them implemented without proper empirical evaluation first. Remember the “self-esteem curriculum” fiasco?

    Another reason Kohn gets so little respect amongst his colleagues is that his presentation of what research has been done is so often wrong. Many have already commented on the straw men he set up and slayed when it came to discussing the problems with praise and rewards. He is also extremely selective as to which research he reports. It begs the question of whether he just doesn’t understand the research he is discussing or is he intentionally distorting it in service to his financially lucrative role as “iconoclast”? Either way, it does not garner much respect.

    I’m sorry to say I’ve seen first-hand the problems that arise from teachers who have tried to implement things they’ve read from Kohn. For those who are interested in perspectives that have actually been empirically tested, I would recommend looking elsewhere, such as the work of Carol Dweck from Stanford.

  10. Kohn’s not a researcher. That’s not his role in our society.

    Could he do a better job with the research that he does cite / analyze / dispute? Absolutely. But so could all of us. For example, I daresay that most so-called “researchers” are wide open to claims of research coverage selectivity.

    Like Jonathan Kozol, I see Kohn’s role as being one of social critic. Goodness knows there are a number of educational practices that deserve some serious reexamination rather than acceptance as status quo. Do we have to have “peer-reviewed data” behind those ideas before we start thinking about them and treating them seriously? I hope not ’cause otherwise we’re never going to get anywhere.

    I’m going to unapologetically stand behind most of Kohn’s writing. I think his writing performs a valuable function and, as long as we read him with a critical eye and questioning brain, believe that we’re better off with him than without him. If we’re going to get the change that we need in K-12 schools, we need ‘iconoclasts’ like Kohn who help us rethink current practice.

  11. As I stated earlier, I have read most if not all of Kohn’s work. I have much more respect for how Smoker deals with pointing out the flaws of today’s educational system. Although I have read most of what Kohn has written, I can not subscribe to many of the ideas. The idea that no extrinsic motivation is good is just proposterous. Why else would Kohn ask for the types of compensation he gets for speaking engagements. I agree that true gratification is intrinsic, but I will aurgue that a great deal is learned through competition. If not for the experiences I had in athletics, I find it hard to believe I would have survived some of the more formidable challenges I have faced in life. I learned that regardless of how hard you try, you may not be successful. You just have to understand that there will be other chances for success in the future. I can see challenging the status quo, but I think it needs to be done with civility. When you become a person people look to, you have a responsibility to lead them in a positive manner. And when you have a readership like his, you need to be responsible about where you are leading them. I am not saying that all ideas need to be peer reviewed by those in the ivory towers of education, but to just put down the existing system and spend most of your time focused on what we shouldn’t do is like a coach who just yells as his players telling them not to do this or not to do that. Most of the “players” know that what they are doing is causing them to loose the game, but the coaches should spend their time telling them what to do and not continously point out all of their shortcommings. When I watched film on Saturdays evaluating our previous night’s football game, I spent the majority of my time identifying needs, and then designing a new drill or practice activity to improve upon the team’s performance. I did not just document all of the missed tackles, the poor blocks or the failures to run an appropriate play. so that I could point it all out to the players and the fans on Monday.

  12. I’m sure Dave has read well on Alfie, but I would guess that he and I share a similar interpersonal feeling about our interactions with this particular leader.

    @ Scott
    Not long ago, you openly struggled on DI, “…between being a public intellectual and just being a pundit” at http://www.dangerouslyirrelevant.org/2008/06/a-fine-line.html. Is Alfie similarly lost then, not knowing if he really has something or if he is just stirring the pot to be sure we don’t burn the veggies.

    There’s that pundit side of me coming out.

  13. Scott,
    Of course we need people who call into question current practices. Most would heartily agree that the educational system needs to be seriously changed. If Kohn’s role is to be social critic, then he needs to be an *informed* social critic. Those of us who call for change need to be well-versed in what has been shown to work and not work. It is our responsibility when we call for change, whether we are researchers or not. I do not so easily dismiss Kohn’s ignorance and/or distortion of what is known. When you acknowledge his failings that need to be improved in this area, you say “we all” have such failings. I’m sorry, but knowledge of the field is one of the things that separates those who make valuable contributions. And it keeps Kohn from being taken seriously.

    Also, you ask whether an idea needs to go through the peer-reviewed system before being taken seriously and I would say of course not. But it should only be considered an untested hypothesis until it has. It may be worthy of consideration, but it would be foolish to call for *enacting and implementing* the idea until it has been tested. This is what Kohn does and the attitude actually feeds into one of education’s major problems. There continues to be a cycling through the fad (untested) curriculum of the moment, which will quickly be replaced with the next fad after its limitations are found in the classroom. It is no wonder so many teachers become cynical when told it is time to be trained in the “new, next big thing” yet again. Well-informed ideas and criticisms are welcome and necessary, but large-scale reforms must be guided by empirically-supported positions. Until education takes such a stance, it will continue to do a lot of wheel-spinning.

    Beware the education reformer…who doesn’t know the research. Education’s history is full of charismatic people with intuitively appealing ideas that turned out to be quite wrong. How do you know Kohn’s not one of them?

  14. @Mike: Well said. As a fellow researcher, I’m with you (mostly).

    The vast array of conflicting research doesn’t help us any. It’s not like there’s research unanimity on most of these educational issues.

    I’m not sure if we know whether Kohn’s ideas will turn out to be wrong or not. But he generally tends to favor respecting children and families and highlights educational and political actions that work against that. I’m willing to bet on that as a correct approach…

  15. Bravo to Mike’s comments. I also agree that Kohn could be cited as an advocate for an increase in respect needed for parents and children by the educational system. I think the conversations generated from his articles and books are ones that we need to occur. In other words, I think he serves a purpose, my point was I do not think I would classify him as a leader in school reform. I prefer the definition Dr. McLeod has offered in his most recent post.

  16. I would agree that there is much to like about Kohn’s messages regarding the need for respect for children and parents. The problem is when he proposes solutions that have been shown to be wrong (e.g., regarding praise) or that are untested but pushed as if they are “the truth.” And I also agree that there is much chaff amongst the educational research and it takes a discerning eye to be able to identify the wheat. As researchers we need to do whatever we can to make the research better and more useful. Still, there is a growing body of knowledge regarding some of the issues that he writes about and he would be much more effective at advocating for his stated values if he was aware of it and incorporated it into his message. Kohn is a very good communicator and his heart is most likely in the right place, so if he did this he could do a lot of good.

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