I imagine the beginnings of this book idea came about from a conversation between Thomas Newkirk, editor at Heinemann, and Alfie Kohn, frequent commentator on education, that sounded somewhat like the following:
Thomas Newkirk: Hey Alfie, what are your thoughts on writing another book for Heinemann?
Alfie Kohn: Hmm, I don’t know. I’m kind of busy with public speaking and posting my one tweet per day.
Newkirk: Yeah, I hear you. However, I have this idea where we would just reprint some of your more salient posts from your blog and your articles for Education Week.
Kohn: Really? You can book your blog?
Newkirk: Sure, why not?
I’m kidding! This jest highlights my one beef with this book, in that there is no new material included in the text. Kohn didn’t even write an introduction for his most recent offering.
However, if anyone’s previous work deserves a reprint, it would be Alfie Kohn’s. He has been the voice of reason for years, combating the negative influences of standardized tests, grades used as carrots and sticks, and classroom motivation tactics. With the current climate in education, Kohn’s book could not have been published at a better time.
Instead of a Reader’s Digest version of this book, I’d like to highlight five of the articles I found that most impacted me as an elementary principal in a high-poverty public school.
The Case Against Grades (Educational Leadership, November 2011)
This article should be required reading for any school or district committee revisiting their grading system. Kohn moves beyond the argument between A’s and B’s vs. standards-based grading, and highlights the problems with the system itself. Specifically, he finds that grades lower motivation for authentic tasks, creates a competitive learning culture, and misrepresents student success when teachers try to quantify achievement that should not be reduced to a number or letter.
While some might feel that lists are lazy, I couldn’t imagine a better format for identifying the compencies that all teachers and school leaders should be applying to their practice. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Thinking is messy; deep thinking is really messy. Therefore beware prescriptive standards and outcomes that are too specific and orderly.
- In outstanding classrooms, teachers do more listening than talking, and students do more talking than listening. Terrific teachers often have teeth marks on their tongues.
- The more that students are led to focus on how well they’re doing in school, the less engaged they’ll tend to be with what they’re doing in school.
What Waiting for a Second Marshmallow Doesn’t Prove (Education Week, 2014)
In this article, Kohn takes on the term “grit” and how it has been conflated with other concepts such as “resilience” and “engagement” in educational circles. Despite the research presented by Angela Duckworth and other proponents of grit in schools, the writer finds the results unconvincing. Kohn questions the benefits of delayed gratification, noting that sometimes taking advantage of an opportunity available immediately is the better decision. Also, the author wonders if the researchers took into account the home factors that may impact a young person’s ability to defer something rewarding for later.
The author starts this post with two personal beliefs:
- Children should have plenty of opportunities for play.
- Even young children have too few such opportunities these days, particularly in school settings.
Kohn goes on to support his argument by debunking multiple myths about play, evoking statements such as “Younger and older children should have a chance to play together.” and “The point of play is that it has no point.” The second statement really seems to run counter to how schools operate today, even though it shouldn’t. Kohn’s rationale rests on both current research as well as classic positions by John Dewey and other pioneers of public education.
Encouraging Courage (Education Week, September 18, 2013)
This article was perfectly positioned to end this anthology. Kohn provides a more positive outlook on the future of public education. He encourages educators to ask reflective questions about their own practice, take responsibility on behalf of the best interests of their classroom, and give ownership of the learning to their students. Kohn’s recommendations rest heavily on what we know to be most effective for students.
He ends his text with a powerful statement against the test-driven standardization of public education in America:
It takes courage to stand up to absurdity when all around you people remain comfortably seated. But if we need one more reason to do the right thing, consider this: The kids are watching us, deciding how to live their lives in part by how we’ve chosen to live ours.
Words to live by.