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Posted at 1:43 PM ET, 11/19/2010

Kohn: What 'ready to learn' really means

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Alfie Kohn, the author of 12 books about education and human behavior, including "The Schools Our Children Deserve," "The Homework Myth," and the forthcoming "Feel-Bad Education . . . And Other Contrarian Essays on Children & Schooling." He lives (actually) in the Boston area and (virtually) at www.alfiekohn. This post appeared on Kohn's Huffington Post page.

By Alfie Kohn
The phrase “ready to learn,” frequently applied to young children, is rather odd when you stop to think about it, because the implication is that some kids aren’t. Have you ever met a child who wasn’t ready to learn -- or, for that matter, already learning like crazy? The term must mean something much more specific -- namely, that some children aren’t yet able (or willing) to learn certain things or learn them in a certain way.

Specifically, it seems to be code for “prepared for traditional instruction.” And yes, we’d have to concede that some kids are not ready to memorize their letters, numbers, and colors, or to practice academic skills on command. In fact, some children continue to resist for years since they’d rather be doing other kinds of learning. Can you blame them?

Then there’s the question of when we expect children to be ready. Even if we narrow the notion of readiness to the acquisition of “phonemic awareness” as a prerequisite to reading in kindergarten or first grade, the concept is still iffy, but for different reasons.

For one thing, researcher Stephen Krashen points out that “about three-quarters of children who test low in P.A. [phonemic awareness] appear to have no serious problems in learning to read.”[1] For another thing, the premise that one must be ready to start by a certain age is contradicted by evidence that children who don’t learn to read until age seven or even later tend to make rapid progress and are soon indistinguishable from those who learned earlier.[2]

Thus, “readiness to learn” may have more to do with a schedule that’s convenient for others -- or, worse, with preparation for standardized testing -- than with what is necessary or even desirable for a given child. Perhaps the phrase is an attempt to put a positive spin on what is really just developmentally inappropriate practice. In any case, I fear the effect is to set up children (or their parents) for blame when certain goals aren’t reached. “Well, what did you expect? This child arrived in our classroom not ready to learn.”

Sometimes, though, readiness is invoked not as a justification for premature instruction but as a criterion for admission to a selective school or program. Only those certified as “ready to learn” are deemed eligible. For the moment, let’s ignore the moral implications of making four- or five-year-olds compete for access to an elite educational setting. When the demand exceeds the (artificially scarce) supply, the decision is usually made to choose the most advanced children, the “smartest,” the readiest.

But why?

Presumably because they will be the easiest to teach.

Martin Haberman, who coined the phrase “pedagogy of poverty,” related a conversation he had with his grandson’s kindergarten teacher at a selective school.

“Wouldn’t it make more sense to admit the children who don’t know their shapes and colors, and teach them these things?” he asked.

The teacher looked at him as if he were “leftover mashed potatoes,” but he persisted:

"Next year my grandson, who is already testing in your top half, will have had the added benefit of being in your class for a whole year. Won’t he learn a lot more and be even further ahead of the four-year-olds who failed your admission exam and who have to spend this year at home, or in day care, without the benefit of your kindergarten? Will the four-year-old rejects ever catch up?"

This question did even less to endear him to the teacher, but Haberman by now had realized what was going on more generally, and he summarized his epiphany as follows: “The children we teach best are those who need us least.”[3]

As it happens, I had stumbled across this truth while thinking about education for a very different age group. Some years ago I was weighing the relative predictive power of high school grade-point average against that of the SAT or ACT. Some critics emphasize (correctly) that these exams are much less useful than grades at predicting college performance, but I was at pains to point out that grades have their own problems and in any case it would be more sensible to lump them together into a compound variable called gradesandtests, which fails to predict anything other than future gradesandtests; it tells us nothing about who will be creative or a deep thinker or excited about learning or happy or successful in his or her career.

But even this reframing of the discussion failed to challenge the premise that I, too, seemed to share with more conventional participants in the colloquy about college admission.

The eminent psychologist David McLelland, known for his theory of achievement motivation, delivered a public lecture at the Educational Testing Service in 1971. This talk was devoted primarily to raising pointed questions about the value of intelligence tests (Do such tests predict “who will get ahead in a number of prestige jobs where credentials are important”? he asked rhetorically. Sure. And so does “white skin.”)

In an almost offhand way, McClelland then issued what struck me as a truly provocative and profound challenge. Why, he asked, do we spend time trying to figure out which criteria best predict success in higher education? Why are colleges looking for the most qualified students?

“One would think that the purpose of education is precisely to improve the performance of those who are not doing very well,” he mused. “If the colleges were interested in proving that they could educate people, high-scoring students might be poor bets because they would be less likely to show improvement in performance.”[4]

Of course that’s not how most colleges see the purpose of education. Like other institutions that get to choose whom to admit, they’re looking for the applicants they think are ready to succeed. When you boil it down, that means excluding those who most need what they have to offer.

It’s one thing to admit this guiltily, and something else again to build an admissions industry -- from kindergarten to graduate school -- around an unapologetic attempt to find the students who will be easiest to educate.
1. Stephen Krashen, “Low P.A. Can Read O.K.,” Practically Primary, vol. 6, no. 3, 2001: 17-20.
2. Stephen Krashen and Jeff McQuillan, “The Case for Late Intervention,” Educational Leadership, October 2007: 68-73.
3. Martin Haberman, Star Teachers of Children in Poverty (W. Lafayette, IN: Kappa Delta Pi, 1995), p. 80.
4. David C. McClelland, “Testing for Competence Rather Than for ‘Intelligence,’” American Psychologist, January 1973, pp. 6, 2.


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By Valerie Strauss  | November 19, 2010; 1:43 PM ET
Categories:  Alfie Kohn, Early Childhood, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  David McLelland, alfie kohn, early childhood education, martin haberman, readiness to learn, ready to learn  
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Next: The Matthew Effect, Plinko, and the achievement gap


Nah, you're full of crap.

Ready to learn means knowing enough and being able to do enough to handle what students willl be asked to do in school.

Lots of kids begin school not knowing enough or being able to do enough to keep up with their peers.

"Like other institutions that get to choose whom to admit, they’re looking for the applicants they think are ready to succeed. When you boil it down, that means excluding those who most need what they have to offer."

So, you're arguing that we should invest educational time and resources to those individuals who are the least likely to succeed? How do you write this crap with a straight face?

OF COURSE higher eduation is looking for individuals who are most likely to succeed. Higher education is NOT a right - it is a privilege.

Given limited resources, we SHOULD invest them in those who will give us the biggest bang for our buck.

Only in Alfie Kohn's world of entitlement and thumb sucking would we view universities as being responsible to focus on the least educated and least likely to succeed.

Posted by: AJGuzzaldo | November 19, 2010 3:39 PM | Report abuse

Alfie Kohn always raises thought-provoking issues. I particularly like this comment in his article, ... “The children we teach best are those who need us least.” Now it is time to reflect on what the nationalized testing climate and data mania is doing to the children who do need teachers the most! The sad reality is that there is more focus on passing these tests than actual learning.

Posted by: teachermd | November 19, 2010 5:27 PM | Report abuse

So let's look at this a bit more specifically. Let's say we have a kid, "kidA", who is very musically talented and accomplished, and "kidB", who is neither of those things. By Alfie's reasoning, kidB "needs" musical training more. So, it seems that schools like Julliard should favor students like kidB over KidA.

Now let's take Alfie's idea to it's logical conclusion. Let's have flight schools favor would-be pilots with no aptitude for flying over those who do. Acting schools will favor talentless actors over the talented. Ditto for every school and every discipline.

Now ask yourself what the world would be like if this were actually to happen, because it seems to me that Alfie and his fans never do.

Alfie, it seems, has the gift for gab, but he doesn't strike me as someone who would have made much of a welder. But, in defiance of Alfie's present philosophy, the University of Chicago accepted him as a student helping him polish his natural inclinations and rhetorical flair even though I don't think he really "needed" the training. Wouldn't it have been better if he'd been accepted to welding school to learn a skill that I suspect he "needs" more? (I confess, however, that I'd be wary of driving over any bridges that Alfie would have welded; I'd prefer that someone who didn't "need" welding training as much as Alfie did the welding.

Posted by: physicsteacher | November 19, 2010 9:00 PM | Report abuse

First, I've been to welding school. Anyone with reasonably steady hands can learn to weld.

Second, the expressed goal of the U.S. education system is to have every student graduate high school ready for college. That means the schools filled with students who started out less "ready to learn" have a tremendous amount of catching up to do, and they are routinely penalized for not catching up fast enough.

Last, take a look at the outrageous disparity in the facilities and opportunities offered to low-income vs. wealthy students in the D.C. Public Schools, and you'll find a system designed to boost the kids who start out ahead and further handicap the kids who start out behind.

Posted by: bhorn1 | November 20, 2010 12:50 AM | Report abuse

Some children are prepared to learn each day and some require lots of tweaking. Which brings me to IMPACT and its "one-sized fits all" approach. Why are the designers of this program largely shielded from scrutiny? Rhee has received her share, but what about the other individuals on her team. I'm speaking primarily of Jason Kamras, the so-called "architect" of the IMPACT evaluation. At a certain point, the impact of his involvement in the policy-level decisions of DCPS needs to be scrutinized. Winning awards in the classroom does not necessarily qualify him to have influence over internal cultures and pedagogical approaches in each DCPS school. I would argue that, in fact, he has a poor understanding of the needs of highly functioning schools in DCPS that do not require his "architectural" expertise in order to drive positive results. Insider sources say that they achieve excellence despite IMPACT not because of it.

Posted by: thetensionmakesitwork | November 20, 2010 5:22 AM | Report abuse

"Second, the expressed goal of the U.S. education system is to have every student graduate high school ready for college."

You're absolutely 100% correct. In fact, this is precisely what I was told by my AP the very first day I started teaching. But implicit in this argument is that bottom half of our HS students "need" to go to college (whether they want to or not) and that our efforts should be focussed primarily on this bottom half so they go out and win some Nobel prizes while the top half are left to fend for themselves. This is precisely why there's been a dumbing down of education system to accommodate this kind of thinking. So, in fact, our k12 education system is living the Kohn dream and if he has his way so will our post HS system.

Imagine if your welding teachers ignored you and focussed their attentions on students with tremors who would never have continued with welding.

Posted by: physicsteacher | November 20, 2010 6:04 AM | Report abuse

bhorn1 says, "take a look at the outrageous disparity in the facilities and opportunities offered to low-income vs. wealthy students in the D.C. Public Schools, and you'll find a system designed to boost the kids who start out ahead and further handicap the kids who start out behind."

Do you live in DC, Bhorn, or are you going by what you read in the paper? It's true wealthy DCPS students have more opportunities, but those are provided by their families. DC school buildings are undergoing a system-wide renovation now, so you are likely to find excellent facilities in all parts of the city. You will also find lots of low income kids in out-of-boundary schools in the wealthy parts of town because many parents there send their kids to private schools.

So please refrain from your generalization. It's simply not true.

The "system" is not designed to boost wealthy kids, their parents are boosting them. And there are plenty of non-wealthy DC parents who are seeking and finding opportunities for their kids, either in their own neighborhoods, in charter schools or in neighborhoods where the wealthy parents choose to avoid public schools.

Posted by: efavorite | November 20, 2010 8:08 AM | Report abuse

As a teacher, in my opinion, "ready to learn" means they come to school with basic needs having been met: clothed properly, bathed, clean, well-fed, well-rested and living in adequate shelter. I could care less whether they come not knowing shapes and colors already. We can teach that. What people don't get is that when a child is lacking one or more of the above basic needs then they are not "ready to learn." It doesn't matter how dynamic you are. A kid could care less about triangles and trapezoids if they are hungry, unkempt and don't know where they are sleeping that night. And even though they may have the above needs being met, they may be living in conditions so deplorable and in such a dysfunctional situation that they are clinically depressed.

Poverty people...poverty! Michelle Rhee doesn't get it, Jason Kamras doesn't get it and this new wave of education reformers don't get it. If a child's basic needs aren't met it doesn't matter how much teaching takes place, there won't be much learning going on.

Poverty is NOT an excuse but it is a MAJOR factor. I see it every day. Why in the world were most of the "highly effective" teachers under IMPACT in Ward 3--the most affluent ward in the city? It certainly doesn't take a rocked scientist to figure it out.

Let's work on reducing the number of children living in poverty in this country and we'll see an rise in test scores and, more importantly, students who are critical thinkers.

Posted by: UrbanDweller | November 20, 2010 8:18 AM | Report abuse

One simply cannot make this stuff up without a screw being lose in one's mind.

The fact this guy has a following is testimony to the misguided direction of many from the educational establishment. And people actually wonder why our schools are doing as poorly as they are?

Beyond any of these convoluted arguments he makes, what publisher in their right mind publishes any of this drivel?

Posted by: phoss1 | November 20, 2010 8:22 AM | Report abuse

Education experts continually link poverty to education outcomes because it gets them, the "experts", off the hook. Since they're powerless to do anything about poverty they can pretend that their "theories" were never at fault.

It would be like your doctor ignoring your blood pressure, and blaming your age for your stroke.

Posted by: physicsteacher | November 20, 2010 9:54 AM | Report abuse

"It would be like your doctor ignoring your blood pressure, and blaming your age for your stroke."

No, I would be like your doctor diagnosing your high blood pressure and thinking that telling you abut its dangers and giving you the right prescription would lower your blood pressure. And then being fired if your blood pressure didn't drop.

Doctors know that compliance is needed. In education, that's being "ready to learn."

Posted by: efavorite | November 20, 2010 10:02 AM | Report abuse

In education school this is how a typical discussion goes:

Topic: why is American math education lagging that of Singapore. Discuss.

"We're not throwing enough money at the problem"

"We're throwing less money at poor kids than we are at rich kids"

"But to throw more money at poor kids we'd have to raise taxes"

"People don't want to pay more taxes"

Conclusion: problem unsolvable.

No one will even entertain the thought that we're using crappy math programs.

Posted by: physicsteacher | November 20, 2010 10:10 AM | Report abuse


No, IT would be like your doctor diagnosing your high blood pressure and thinking that telling you ABOUT its dangers and giving you the right prescription would lower your blood pressure. And then being BLAMED if your blood pressure didn't drop.

Posted by: efavorite | November 20, 2010 10:26 AM | Report abuse

Alfie Kohn, though he is driven by concern for low-income children, is blinded by an arrogant assumption that no-one else shares that concern. He thinks that the educational system is to blame for children's learning gaps. But he does make a good point about readiness -- we are too concerned with shoehorning all children into a grade-based curriculum and evaluation system when they may need extra time. A continuous development K-3 system would avoid this problem, allow us to get individual children truly ready before pushing them into reading (or math), and make sure that we do not push children along with social promotion, which guarantees later failure. How we would deal with the fact that some groups would finish the K-3 curriculum sooner than others is a different issue.

Posted by: jane100000 | November 20, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

Urban Dweller's comment is right on target in my opinion!

Let's work on reducing the number of children living in poverty in this country and we'll see an rise in test scores and, more importantly, students who are critical thinkers.

One blogger efavorite suggested that it is parents (not schools) that set the kids up to maximize learning.."The "system" is not designed to boost wealthy kids, their parents are boosting them".

So Urban Dweller's comments ring true. Poverty wreaks havoc on healthy components of family life and certainly has a negative impact on a child's learning experience at school.

Wake up... Alfie Kohn points out the ironies in order to get thought provoking dialogue rolling.

Posted by: teachermd | November 20, 2010 11:01 AM | Report abuse

A friend of mine teaches elementary school in a very, very poor area, yet he's been very successful at teaching his students math. Why? Because he teaches them math the way he was taught (the way most of us who are good at math were taught) instead of the boneheaded ed school ways.

You can teach kids of all economic backgrounds more than what they're learning without waiting for poverty to disappear.

This "let's wait for poverty to disappear" strategy is just a smokescreen for crappy education ideas.

Posted by: physicsteacher | November 20, 2010 11:11 AM | Report abuse

Physicsteacher says, "This 'let's wait for poverty to disappear' strategy...."

I've never heard of such a strategy - probably because it is so crappy.

I think any successful educational strategy should consider all learning impediments and advantages. Thus, any strategy that ignores poverty and still expects education to improve is pretty crappy.

Please, please, physicsteacher, when you hear people commenting on the effects of poverty, consider that they are not making excuses or being dismissive. They might be trying to approach and solve a problem that is actually more complex than you and some reformers think it is.

Despite some reformers' good intentions, they might be on the wrong track because they will not factor in issues like poverty and then dismiss people who do as making excuses.

Please at least consider that.

Posted by: efavorite | November 20, 2010 1:04 PM | Report abuse

I agree with some of physics teachers comments. The curricula in DCPS and probably most public school jurisdictions are terrible. They are more interested in "entertaining" kids than actually teaching them. It seems most curricula is intent on requiring less for children to memorize. We think memorization is passe. Believe me, it's not.

I came through Fairfax Co. Public Schools in the '70's and early '80's. Back then we memorized information--from foreign languages to physics to art--and we were tested to see if we remembered the information and could apply it. I still remember quite a bit of French, math, English (yes, I had to diagram sentences), some science, history and other electives I took.

In 8th grade, we were given 10 new vocabulary words on a Monday in addition to 10 from the previous week. We had to look them up in a dictionary, write the definition and then use each in a sentence. On Fridays we were given a vocabulary test. A year of that built my vocabulary like nothing else I've ever done in life. I still remember those words, use them and and thankful for Mrs. Rigby for making us do that. I hated it then but I'm thankful we had to do it.

In a nutshell, let's get rid of the fancy curricula, the latest fads in education, etc. Learning is hard work--learning that will last a life-time that is. It requires memorization and application. There's no easy around it.

I'd love to teach the way I learned lo those many years ago! The problem is, IMPACT doesn't allow it and principals don't allow it.

Sometimes when my students just don't get it, I tell them not to worry about it. Just memorized it and the understanding will come later. Life works that way. There's lots of things we experience in life that we don't understand when we're going through them but do much later on.

In approaching teaching like I do, I hope (and I think) I'm teaching them some skills on how to navigate life as well as how to read and write and think.

Posted by: UrbanDweller | November 20, 2010 1:53 PM | Report abuse

"I've never heard of such a strategy"

I wasted nearly 3 years of my life taking education classes and every explanation for every deficit always boiled down to "we're not throwing enough money at the kids, especially the poor ones." Never, never was the possibility that the educrap they were selling being the problem ever on the table.

Saying that education will improve when poverty ends is like saying that heart disease will end when aging ends. They're both pointless statements.

Yet this it what seems to occupy our education experts and would be teachers.

Posted by: physicsteacher | November 20, 2010 2:51 PM | Report abuse

physicsteacher - you are the only one I've heard that strategy from. Maybe the education profs you had said something that you took that way, but I've never, never heard any educational expert publicly state that we should just "wait for poverty to disappear".

There does seem to be a desire to throw more money at problems, but it's from the reformers with schemes to raise scores without addressing underlying problems.

The schemes seem to involve more money for consultants, less money for teachers and who cares abut the kids.

Posted by: efavorite | November 20, 2010 3:03 PM | Report abuse

"Let's work on reducing the number of children living in poverty in this country and we'll see an rise in test scores and, more importantly, students who are critical thinkers"

How are we to interpret the above? Unless someone can snap their fingers and make poverty disappear, the are, in fact, waiting for it to do so. Whether you call this "wishful thinking", "idealism", "truth", or "strategy", is irrelevant. Solutions based upon events that will never are just pissing into the wind.

Posted by: physicsteacher | November 20, 2010 3:18 PM | Report abuse

This is consistent with Kohn's aversion to rewards and punishments. Readiness to learn imposes an incentive on society to get kids to learn basic skills before they enter school. That means parents have the responsibility to teach their children ABCs and such. It's not that difficult but some parents think having their kids do this for 10 minutes a day will scar them for life (because Kohn has them scared).

Reality also says that if you have a class with too much variation in skills it is tougher to teach. Differentiated instruction only goes so far. So we want all children to have the basics so we can avoid these discrepancies.

It is utopian to think colleges should not select based on ability. Come on, if you are super smart you want to be surrounded by thinkers that can challenge you. That is obvious and Kohn does not want to acknowledge that this is one of the main underlaying reasons behind selective admissions.

Posted by: Kronosaurus | November 20, 2010 5:02 PM | Report abuse

really, physicsteacher - you think that reducing poverty in the US is something that can never happen?

Sounds like you've given up on the kids.

You'd rather continue doing things that haven't worked than try to do the one thing that has proven to work.

You know the definition of insanity, right - repeating the same acivities and expecting a different outcome.

Posted by: efavorite | November 21, 2010 9:00 AM | Report abuse

Money spend for education would do a whole lot more good if it ever made it down to the classroom level. Our Regents and our union in New York State sold us out to get the Race to the Top money. Once each level of bureaucracy has been paid off, there is none left for students and classroom teachers. Not one teaching position will be protected or saved by RttT money. It is a total scam.

Posted by: buckbuck11 | November 21, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

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