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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 09/17/2010

Schools would be great if it weren't for the kids

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.

By Alfie Kohn
Robert J. Samuelson, an economics writer, published a column about school reform in The Washington Post and Newsweek earlier this month that had me imagining a conversation as it would play out in a sitcom.

We hear Samuelson saying, “Few subjects inspire more intellectual dishonesty and political puffery than ‘school reform.’” Then we cut to his listener, smiling broadly and nodding rapidly, overcome with relief that someone in the mass media finally gets it.

Samuelson continues: It simply doesn’t make sense to try to “purge ‘ineffective’ teachers and principals.” His listener, almost giddy with gratitude now, prepares to chime in, as Samuelson, without pausing, delivers the punch line: That’s right, it’s time to stop blaming teachers and start . . . blaming students!

And in the classic comedic style of delayed response, his listener responds, “Exactly! It’s --. Wait. What?!” as the smile is replaced by a look of dismay and incredulity. CUE: laugh track.

But Samuelson isn’t kidding. In fact, he casts himself in the role of brave truth teller, describing as “almost unmentionable” his appraisal that those pesky students can’t seem to summon the motivation to work harder -- as if criticizing students were a taboo in our society rather than one of our favorite pastimes.

Blaming students is the next logical step after blaming teachers. In fact, the two reflect the same general perspective on education, one in which commentators look down from their aeries and inform us that the trouble lies with the people in the classrooms rather than with the policies imposed on them.

The solution consists of some combination of carrots and sticks: When they don’t perform up to expectations, we hurt the teachers (by publicly humiliating or firing them) or the students (by forcing them to repeat a grade or denying them a diploma). Or we try to buy compliance by dangling money in front of teachers (with some form of merit pay) or students (with rewards for good grades or high scores). It’s all of a piece, really.

But Samuelson has even more in common with other proponents of today’s version of school reform. His focus is not on students’ achievements (the intellectual accomplishments of individual kids) but only on “student achievement” (the aggregate results of standardized tests).

The rest of Samuelson’s argument about the problem of “meager progress,” which is framed exclusively in terms of test scores, will hold little interest for anyone who understands just how misleading the results of those tests really are.

Look beyond methods, though, and consider goals. What’s the point of educating students in the first place? Here is where it becomes relevant that Samuelson’s primary area of interest, like that of so many others who hold forth on the subject of education, is not education. His job is to write about economics, and he sees schooling through that lens. As I’ve noted elsewhere, we have reason to worry when schooling is discussed primarily in the context of “global competitiveness” rather than in terms of what children need or what contributes to a democratic culture -- and, indeed, when the children themselves are seen mostly as future workers who will someday do their part to increase the profitability of their employers. (No wonder New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman made approving mention of Samuelson’s column.)


Upon hearing someone castigate students for being insufficiently motivated, a noneconomist might be inclined to ask two questions. The first is: “Motivated to do what, exactly”? Anything they’re told, no matter how unengaging, inappropriate, or, well, demotivating?

Whenever I see students made to cram facts into their short-term memories for a test, practice a series of decontextualized skills on yet another worksheet, listen passively to a lecture, or inch their way through the insipid prose of a corporate-produced textbook, I find myself thinking of a comment made by Frederick Herzberg, a critic of traditional workplace management: “Idleness, indifference, and irresponsibility,” he said, “are healthy responses to absurd work.”

The second question, informed by decades of progress in the field of psychology, is: “What kind of motivation are we talking about here?” There is a critical difference between intrinsic motivation, which refers to interest in the task itself, and extrinsic motivation, in which people’s actions are driven by an inducement outside of the task, a reward or punishment.

It’s not just that intrinsic and extrinsic are different. Nor is it just that they’re unequal, with the former being far more powerful and enduring. The key point is that extrinsic motivators tend to undermine intrinsic motivation. The more you reward people for doing something, or for doing it well, the less interest they typically come to have in whatever they had to do to get the reward.

That’s why the bribes and threats at the heart of current school “reform,” like the use of positive reinforcement and punitive consequences in individual classrooms, are not just ineffective but counterproductive. (I’ve reviewed the copious supporting research, along with real-world examples, and of course so have others before me.)

Economists, including those in the sexy subfield of behavioral economics, have a built-in blind spot to this distinction. They talk about “motivation” as if it came in only one flavor, as if the only question were how much (rather than what kind). They see every social problem as a challenge to get the incentives right, oblivious to the limits of that worldview and the inherent problems of employing any incentives (which is to say, manipulating people with extrinsic motivators). The kind of psychology in which economics is rooted is a rusty Skinnerian behaviorism that most psychologists outgrew long ago.

Thus, Samuelson tells us that students’ motivation “comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a ‘good’ college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure.” Notice how he treats these as interchangeable, or at least as comparable instances of the same thing. To do so is to miss the qualitative differences between curiosity and most of those other factors, or between teachers who inspire and teachers who intimidate.

Samuelson continues: “Motivation is weak because more students . . . don’t like school, don’t work hard and don’t do well.” But why don’t they like school (which is the key to understanding why, assuming his premise is correct, they don’t succeed)? What has happened to their desire to figure out how things work, the hunger to make sense of things, with which all children start out?

Well, one thing that’s happened is a concatenation of rewards and punishments, including grades, which teach students that learning is just a means to an end. Another thing that’s happened is teaching that’s meant primarily to raise test scores. And inner-city kids get the worst of the sort of schooling that’s not about exploring and discovering and questioning but only about working hard (often at rote tasks) and being nice (read: obedient).

And so we find ourselves facing a painful paradox: People who blame students for not being “motivated” tend to think educational success means little more than higher scores on bad tests and they’re apt to see education itself as a means to making sure our corporations will beat their corporations. The sort of schooling that results is the type almost guaranteed to . . . kill students’ motivation.

What may look like simple apathy, laziness, or opposition on the part of kids often reflects a problem with what, and how, they’re being taught, or the extent to which they’ve been excluded from the process of making decisions about their own learning.

Conversely, if you want to see (intrinsically) motivated kids, you need to visit classrooms or schools that take a nontraditional approach to education, places where students are more likely to be absorbed and frequently delighted, where what they’re doing is not merely “rigorous” (a word often applied to very difficult busywork) but meaningful.

Those who presume to weigh in on problems with education should visit schools that look very different from the ones that most of us attended -- and even more different from the chillingly militaristic places that rich white people cheerfully recommend for poor black children. Read Dewey, Piaget, Bruner, and Montessori.

Read the contemporary giants: Meier, Sizer, Goodlad. Read other educators who are thoughtful about what great classrooms look like and how to create them: Lilian Katz, Eleanor Duckworth, Constance Kamii, Harvey Daniels, Nancie Atwell, Jackie and Marty Brooks, Jim Beane, Steven Wolk, and many more.

In the meantime, inspired by Samuelson, I’m going to get to work on my next column, which will provide an analysis of how currency devaluation affects the trade deficit -- a subject I know absolutely nothing about.
Copyright © 2010 by Alfie Kohn


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By Valerie Strauss  | September 17, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, School turnarounds/reform  | Tags:  alfie kohn, how to motivate students, motivated students, newsweek, robert samuelson, samuelson column, school reform, unmotivated students  
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The reliance upon external sticks and carrots is straight out of behavioralist psychology. Too bad it does not even work in business - a field about which Samuelson should certainly know. W. Edwards Deming, the great thinker on quality, was absolutely opposed to using merit pay to try to drive performance. Increasingly business leaders who run successful ongoing operations have moved away from such an approach. Our insistence upon applying it to education has in many cases been destructive of real learning, which happens most often when curiosity and passion are invoked.

Posted by: teacherken | September 17, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse

I agree with Mr. Kohn here about the sticks and carrot approach being foolish as a general reform policy or plan.

On the other hand, Samuelson does bring up something that has been missing from "reform", that study hear it mentioned that the students have some responsibility to learn and yet, that is the key to learning.
Teachers can do many things to reach "unmotivated" students. But, ultimately, it is the student who decides to learn, not the teacher.

Posted by: celestun100 | September 17, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

Sorry... my post should say,

...Samuelson does bring up student responsibility, something that is rarely heard about in the "reform" of today

Posted by: celestun100 | September 17, 2010 1:14 PM | Report abuse

Really enjoyed this article and whole-heartedly agree! Great companion piece to the thinking in Daniel Pink's latest book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

Posted by: Elaine61 | September 17, 2010 1:59 PM | Report abuse

It's all very interesting. But "carrot and stick" refers to the old practice of dangling a carrot from a stick in front of a balky mule. He'll keep walking toward the carrot even though he never gets any closer. Carrots as incentives and sticks as deterrents is a misinterpretation.

Posted by: berniehorn | September 17, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

I was a public school teacher for over 35 years and noted with pleasure that children are "learning machines" when faced with something they want to know or that touches their lives.( Few adolescents have to be nagged to study for the driver exam. ) The time expended on test prep and rote learning would be better used for exposing children to research skills at an early age and setting them off to learn in depth about subjects that are important to them and sharing this information with their classmates.

The Partnership for the 21st Century lists these essentials

Critical thinking/problem solving
Using Technology for:
Research and Inquiry
and essential personal/life skills:
Initiative and self-direction
Social and cross cultural skills
Productivity and accountability
Leadership and responsibility

Where is test prep?
I believe that few non educators are aware of the hours spent in both prep and in actual standardized testing.

Engage students with work that is important to them and it will be difficult to keep them from learning.

Katherine Douglas
co-author: Engaging Learners Through Artmaking

Posted by: KatherineDouglas | September 17, 2010 3:38 PM | Report abuse

I can't believe Alfie Kohn has a following.

Kids will learn if they're interested? Kids will also eat broccoli if it tastes like ice cream.

I wonder if Alfie would continue his writing, his DVDs, his lectures, if he didn't get paid. I'd like to see him do his schick purely for the love of it.

I always found it fascinating that he claimed to have been a teacher while avoiding specifying the discipline, age group, and duration of his teaching experience. I've since learned that he taught existentialism summers in some prep school. His teaching experience is so outside the norm that it's hardly counts as any teaching experience whatsoever. He's like someone who spends time studying some obscure creature in the Galapagos Islands and then passes himself off as an expert on livestock and farming.

Alfie Kohn lends support to the maxim that there's one born every minute.

Posted by: physicsteacher | September 17, 2010 4:31 PM | Report abuse

It's not surprising that the comment by "physicsteacher" was mostly an ad hominem attack on the writer - often a giveaway that the attacker doesn't have much of substance to offer. In this case, the only real response presented to the blog was to ridicule the idea that kids are motivated to learn when they get the chance to do it in an authentic way. This swipe tells us not about Kohn or about learning or about kids, but about physicsteacher's cynicism and ignorance. I've seen plenty of horrible teachers turn students off to learning and then blame the students for being unmotivated.

Posted by: HSteacher1 | September 17, 2010 5:41 PM | Report abuse

Physicsteacher, is there a reason you're so anti-Kohn? I know he can seem a little extreme, and in a traditional classroom (especially a traditional classroom in an urban district), it does seem a bit absurd to dispense with the sticker charts, etc. (Hey, even IMPACT likes sticker charts, so they MUST be an educational best practice, right?)

However, Montessori classrooms have intrinsically motivated students, who are not bored in the least, doing meaningful, rigorous work. And yes, this works not just with the children of the rich and well-educated who can afford private school tuition. Milwaukee City public schools have a very successful public Montessori system in place where some of their neediest students are thriving.

As a traditional classroom teacher (a science teacher in DCPS at that), it does seem delusional at first to think that Kohn could possibly be on to something. But he is. I wish he would mention Montessori more because it's a great model that proves his point. The way I see it, Kohn's philosophy is this: Kids do well when they feel good about themselves. We in schools however have it stuck in our heads that to get kids to do better (behaviorally, academically) we should make them feel worse. Think about the absurdity of that statement.

Posted by: uva007 | September 17, 2010 5:58 PM | Report abuse

@physicsteacher Broccoli prepared by a master chef taste much different than does ice cream but much better than the standard boil and eat fare most often served up. Like many in the math and science fields you must be a tough no nonsense do the drill listen to me teacher. I'm sure a small percent of your students like to challenge their short term memory to achieve the coveted "A". The rest of your class probably discovers they have no talent in physics and move to the easy courses. In fact they have no tolerance for a bully who demands they know 95% of the important facts he holds forth on in class. By the way would you teach for no pay?

Math and science are too important to let teachers decide how to teach them. How is it we still have no agreement what is the best way to teach? For the most part the textbook companies provide the raw facts and teachers wade through the five or six pounds selecting less than a 1/4 pound for the tests.

Posted by: yogisimo | September 17, 2010 6:04 PM | Report abuse

With all the authors you mentioned do you have a recommended reading list by the same? Any guidance would be appreciated...

Cannot wait to read your column on the trade deficit and currency devaluation...LOL

Posted by: knoxelcomcastnet | September 17, 2010 6:33 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Samuelson except for blaming kids. Kids are a product of our society, whatever they are it's of what we are.

Troubled and unmotivated kids are just a product of our society. As we as a society fix ourselves, we will help fix kids.

Posted by: educationlover54 | September 17, 2010 7:17 PM | Report abuse

By the way, this is a great article!

Posted by: educationlover54 | September 17, 2010 7:24 PM | Report abuse

Alfie's philosophies have been implemented in this country for years with the results that you see.

Before I became a teacher the last time I saw coloring books was in elementary school. I was amazed to see coloring books used in high schools by other teachers. The students, of course, are highly "motivated" to "engage" in such activities, except that they learn little of value apart from using crayons, glue guns, and Powerpoint.

Re Montessori: My son went to Montessori -- WHEN HE WAS THREE. That kind of free for all isn't going to work throughout high school and after. Most of your "progressive" education reformers attempt to shoehorn what they perceive to work in kindergarten into hs and beyond. If students are supposed to be motivated purely by interest throughout their formal education what is their life supposed to be like after? Is every employer out there supposed to start behaving like a pre-school teacher?

What would happen if your doctor suddenly decided that your case was BORING and walked out? What if he/she thought that maintaining and updating your medical record -- which is a boring activity -- was just too boring to do at all?

If a student is destined to be a doctor, then are his/her "needs/interests" the only elements in the equation even though others' lives will be affected by said student's knowledge or lack thereof?

The same can be said of almost every other profession, except perhaps that of professional existentialist.

I've had students who plan to be doctors, nurses, or physician assistants. It's quite possible that one of them may one day be sticking a needle in your arm and you better hope they know the difference between a milligram and a microgram and how the two relate. I can tell you that even the biggest physics geeks out there find this aspect of physical science boring and you basically havve to force people to learn it. By Alfie's reasoning we can just skip all that.

That you've driven over bridges and flown in planes and lived to tell about it is a testament to teachers like me who've identified what's important, boring or not, and taught it to those who will ultimately use that knowledge, even for the benefit of people like Kohn and his disciples.

I've had many students tell me that their math skills improved in my class. I've had math teachers tell me that my students are good at math. I have students in engineering programs in good colleges who tell me that they were prepared not only for their college physics classes, but for their chemistry classes as well, and that they had time to enjoy college because they didn't have to struggle. These students may not have liked me or my class while they were in it it.

Go ahead. Do what Kohn says. When more employers move jobs overseas under the guise of finding a better educated workforce and your children aspire to cleaning hotel rooms or dealing cards in a casino you can celebrate.

Posted by: physicsteacher | September 17, 2010 7:41 PM | Report abuse

While I like Kohn's general approach, there is something to what physics teacher says. For example, one of my children is not good at spelling. Last year her school did not teach spelling. Now she is in a new state, and she has to take spelling tests again. I would have preferred that our old state, Maryland, spend some time on spelling in 4th grade, but they didn't.

Maybe some kids "pick up" spelling quickly, (my son did), but my daughter didn't. Now she has to work doubly hard here to catch up. I can remember countless parents coming up to me on Back to School Night in Montgomery County and saying that it would be hard for their child to be able to spell words correctly in another language, because they had never learned to spell in English.

Sometimes skills like memorization are not taught or are undervalued because they are not "higher level". I understand that higher level thinking is important, but I know that many subjects require you to master basic information and there is really no way around some memorization.

Sometimes learning is work. It just is. It can be made to be fun like through games that help kids memorize, but other times kids just have to have time to concentrate and use their brains.

I have found that often students just want to "do the work" and they find games and other "motivators" to be distracting. I think this has to do with the subject I teach. I think literature might be different, or history.

Posted by: celestun100 | September 17, 2010 11:50 PM | Report abuse

Here are a few observations.

I've had many students who are athletes. This group includes some really good students, by the way. Even though a kid may really love football, for example, it's the game that the kids love and rarely the practices. I've seen many kids who love the game be happy when practice is canceled due to weather. Plus, all the sports coaches are examples of anti-Kohns in that I rarely see them try to make laps around the tracks 'engaging' or interesting.

Yet kids would rather be dropouts academically than be kicked off the team.

Same with part time jobs. Many, if not most, have after school jobs that they take very very seriously. Jobs like flipping burgers, making fries, and cleaning something. Hardly fun, and I don't think the managers of these places try to make them so.

Yet kids would rather be dropouts academically than lose their menial jobs. Why?

During my first year teaching we had a military fair. I found it surprisingly popular considering the Iraq war was going on. And the most popular were the Marines who promise kids little more than extreme hardship. One of my female students was drooling to join the Marines. When I asked her why she said "I want to be HARD".

I had a kid who wouldn't stay awake or attentive in my class. The following year he comes by in a military uniform looking as proud as a peacock. Why?

I'm convinced that the kids themselves are bored with the coddling they get in k12. Everyone "succeeds", so no one does.

Instead of writing books, making DVDs, and selling out lecture halls, Alfie Kohn and company should take a stab at actually teaching a subject where the right answer counts and not existentialism,

Posted by: physicsteacher | September 18, 2010 6:37 AM | Report abuse

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Posted by: shankartripathi85 | September 18, 2010 7:17 AM | Report abuse


There are some flaws with your approach to this issue.

First, all concepts are not and should not be taught in many different ways. Math and science in particular have portions of subject matter that demands a direct instruction approach and memorization of procedures. There's just no other way.

I know better than most about engaging and motivating difficult students. As an Autistic Support teacher, I have to motivate students to not only engage in academic tasks, but even perform routine self-care and communication skills. They have the ability but their minds are literally focused on other things. These things could be as random and disconnected as focusing on string or bits of shiny dust on the floor. My classroom has to be carefully prepared to weed out distractors and I have to work almost totally in a 1:1 or 2:1 format for my students to learn academic skills. In short, it's hard and demands resources.

In a regular classroom, one teacher has to engage 20-30+ students. These students may have emotional/behavioral problems, serious home issues and a lack of command over basic, foundation facts and skills. The teacher then has to remediate, teach to grade level and challenge those who need it. In inner-city schools where poverty is high, students bring in many more issues that can undermine their school performance. A child who is in fear, hungry or depressed needs more than just an interesting lesson plan and good classroom management. They need support, encouragement, patience, and hopefully, *help*.

Posted by: Nikki1231 | September 18, 2010 7:27 AM | Report abuse

@yogisimo: 'Math and science are too important to let teachers decide how to teach them.'

But apparently not important enough to avoid having Alfie Kohn and Friends to decie

@yogisimo: 'How is it we still have no agreement what is the best way to teach?'

When you get a bunch of physics teachers and science types in a room you get surprising agreement. The problem is that this group is powerless regarding k12 teaching. A non-science -non-math administrator will pop in the room and declare 'I have something here written by Alfie Kohn, and this is how we will teach physics from now on.' Been there.

Posted by: physicsteacher | September 18, 2010 9:38 AM | Report abuse

Go Alfie Go!

Posted by: lizwisniewski | September 18, 2010 10:33 AM | Report abuse

@physicsteacher: Those of us who are about to fly, salute you. Thank you for fighting the good fight agaainst the well-intentioned but ultimately short-sighted forces of ignorance.

Posted by: rpondiscio | September 18, 2010 11:16 AM | Report abuse

I am a teacher and have enjoyed Kohn's pieces and thoughts. That said, they're always just thoughts. Nice ideas, good philosophies, and not always applicable or practical.

The word "theorist" should be added to his name, like Alfie Kohn-Theorist. He hasn't been a public elementary teacher perhaps ever... or a long time. Note it says he's an AUTHOR!

Example. I instinctively regarded "intrinsic learning" important before I ever read Kohn, but frankly this motivation does not all students are engaged by this. Are you kidding?? I can give three or four fun activities and five motivating speeches and still some kids will only participate when I put marbles in the jar (leads to a treat).

My entire COHORT (25) read and studied Kohn along with other behaviorists and tried out some of his ideas, and came back to share. In a word, some of it is okay, but overall it was redonkuluss.

Kohn is a character. When I think of those days in my cohort, it makes me laugh inside.

I really wish he would preech more to the men in engineering and law and business, rather than the soft audience of public educators. We have enough preechers all around.

Posted by: bravobravo | September 18, 2010 12:49 PM | Report abuse

What we see in all these excellent posts is that education is a complex undertaking; after all, we're dealing with the mind of a human being.

Right now we're in a "stupid period" because people who have little or no knowledge of education are calling the shots. Consequently we have the worst possible education (militaristic practice and drill) being prescribed for our poorest children while the rich and the privileged still have discussions, arts, field trips, hands-on and whatever else grabs their interest.

The very best advice was given to educators and parents by Professor Frank Smith, the Canadian psycholinguist who wrote about learning and reading instruction. He advised teachers and parents to "respond to what the child is trying to do."

Professor Smith, and Alfie Kohn, understand that learning is a natural phenomenon in human beings. It's what makes us who we are. The infant is born with an intense desire to learn. In fact if he just lies quietly in his crib without making any demands to "know," that's often the first indication that something might be wrong.

Many wise parents instinctively know how to follow the interests of their child. These parents provide piano lessons for Junior when he expresses an interest in music and summer science workshops for Sis when she demonstrates a talent for chemistry. Go into many homes of enlightened parents and you'll see much interaction between parents and children with the adults challenging the child to go a little further in his pursuit of knowledge.

For the teacher with twenty to thirty students, following the interests of the children can be much more challenging and this is why the best private schools have one teacher for every ten students as well parent volunteers. At my grandchildren's school in affluent Poway CA, there is usually one well-educated volunteer for every five children. When you walk into a classroom you might see "Dr.Smith" sitting at a table and discussing a topic of interest with five little kids. Many capable public school teachers can also work their magic with large classes but sadly these are the very people who are now being forced to abandon their finely honed talents in order to prepare their students for tests.

What can be done? In a few years, people will begin to realize that the current emphasis on carrots and sticks is counterproductive.In the meantime parents need to ask themselves this question: Is my child's natural desire to learn being nourished at school? Is s/he excited about schoolwork? If the answer is no, do something about it today.

On a personal note, when my sons were little I was tempted to pull out the workbooks and drill them during the summer months but I gave in when they begged, "Please Mom, I just want to play." It was one of the best decisions I ever made as a parent because both my boys grew up to be avid, lifelong learners.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | September 18, 2010 2:56 PM | Report abuse

One more point:

Parents, while you are fighting to get a quality education for your own child, please advocate for other people's children. We'll all benefit.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | September 18, 2010 3:09 PM | Report abuse

Dear Physics Teacher,

I plagiarized the comment "math and science are too important to have teachers decide how to teach them". go to the 7 minute mark to hear what a 50 year calculus teacher has to say.

We need an education summit that leaves out the politicians, theorists and other well meaning dis-tractors. Do the research, find the best practices and put them into play.

Posted by: yogisimo | September 18, 2010 4:31 PM | Report abuse

also for progressive physics (whatever that is)

Posted by: yogisimo | September 18, 2010 4:40 PM | Report abuse

"What's it all about Alfie," was always the rhetorical question when this guy showed up at Harvard Graduate School of Education to give one of his insidious lectures. Talk about a blow hard.

Why am I not surprised Valerie Strauss has him as a guest presenter on her education blog.

Through people like Kohn the progressive agenda somehow continues on despite its apparent passing sometime during the last century. As Diane Ravitch so appropriately noted in her book, Left Back, the progressive education movement expired from intellectual exhaustion...its ideas were no longer fresh and exciting but hackneyed phrases grown stale from repetition.

How anyone could swallow anything this charlatan espouses is beyond any reasonable bounds of sanity.

Physicsteacher is to be commended for exposing this individual for the fraud that he is.

Posted by: phoss1 | September 18, 2010 4:44 PM | Report abuse

@rpondiscio Thanks a bunch.

Re: the idea that kids learn naturally. If this was remotely true then we wouldn't need any formal education of any kind and at any time, would we? Countries with students too poor to attend school at all would be the most educated. The Dark Ages would have to be re-named the Enlightened Ages since the lack of formal education would simply mean that the kids living then would not have been corrupted by the 'drill and kill' of traditional education, and Neanderthals would have mastered Mechanics during hunts when they bashed large animals in the head with rocks.

Apart from SPOKEN LANGUAGE where do you see anyone learning anything 'naturally'? Sure, people who are interested in something will learn it better but they don't necessarily learn it the Alfie way.

To use music as an example, I recently read a blog posting by someone who has a great interest in playing piano, but she never focused on good fingering, scales, or technique because she didn't find it interesting or useful. When she later applied for admission to a conservatory she then saw what she had missed and she was unable to play well enough for admission. By her own description she had 'screwed' herself out of the very future she sought.

Re: play. Sure, play is great, but sending your kids to school to play is just about as smart as going to a gym to eat dinner and take a nap. Eating and sleep are important, but what fool does it at an expensive gym? I saw my students for less than 4 hours per week, so why on earth would I waste that short sliver of time on activities that they've performed all their lives and are perfectly capable of doing without me?

Posted by: physicsteacher | September 18, 2010 4:54 PM | Report abuse

Of course most people can and do learn when they are forced to learn. What many of us are saying is that the child who loves learning and self-initiates usually learns so much more and retains it as well. In the book "Tested" by Linda Perlstein, she shows how poor students, who were drilled for months, did well on tests but exhibited very poor actual learning. Specifically they couldn't read or write very well when it was time to graduate to middle school.

Would you like proof of which way is better? Read the biographies of famous people in almost every field of endeavor. Almost without exception these people were self-starters who spent many hours reading, practicing, or studying their field of interest, often from a very early age. I know my scientist son spent many childhood hours "playing" with computers, "making stuff" and looking through telescopes; while my councilman son was fascinated by Washington DC and the presidents at a very early age.

Say what you want about Alfie Kohn but I'll bet his own children are very intelligent and well educated. Poking fun at him reminds me of the principal I had who seemed oblivious to the brilliant sons and daughters of some of his teachers. Instead of looking carefully at what these teachers were doing with their own students and children, he forced them to follow scripts and drill the kids on "facts" and "sight words." We all wanted to tell him to look at his own children who were failing in school and to relate it to his philosophy of education, but of course we didn't.

Progressive education is alive and well in the homes of academic stars.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | September 18, 2010 5:58 PM | Report abuse

Well, before I read the article, I read the comments. I graduated from PGCPS in June 2002.(Prince George's County Public Schools,in Maryland). I was a provisional Resource (Special Education) Teacher at a middle school in PGCPS from November 2007-June 2009, fresh out of college and no formal education training whatsoever.I learned a lot about the dire state of how "they" want us to teach and the curriculum smells like trash with maggots decaying the contents.

I really liked the posts by Linda/Retired Teacher and celestun/100. At celestun/100: I remember clearly being taught spelling from my elementary school days in PGCPS. I learned how to spell. Isn't it amazing how the curriculum guide creators never even thought about teaching spelling primary grade children? I cannot remember how I was taught how to spell, but I do remember at the beginning of a new week we had a list of words to learn how to spell, use in a sentence (fill-in-the-blank exercises from the textbook) and other exercises and the spelling test at the end of the week. Wow, Whatever happened to that? No wonder I had a student in my intensive science and math class who did not know how to spell fish. I felt so bad for this child, and then I got the pink slip--your not "highly qualified to teach our children", where "children come first" in PGCPS. I decided to pursue my STEM background.

Here's a solution to school reform--remove the politics, replace phonics and spelling lists, memorization of multiplication facts, allow students a real recess, and stop teaching to the test, among other things.

I majored in chemistry, I love math, I tutor math, and I am going back to school to pursue a doctorate in chemistry and I will make my own shampoo.

At Linda/Retired Teacher: You are one of the many great parents we have out there in the trenches. I love how you listened to your kids and you let them play during the summer. Now, we just need to let the "chief operating officers" know that adolescents need physical education everyday. It's been said that exercise is great for learning.

School reform does not equal throw money at the schools, teachers, and students when they perform on a standardized test.

Posted by: smartkid84 | September 18, 2010 7:21 PM | Report abuse

"What many of us are saying is that the child who loves learning and self-initiates usually learns so much more and retains it as well."


I know what you're saying. I can likewise say that heredtity allows some people to eat buckets of salt and maintain an abnormally low blood pressure (my wife's family) while others (like my family) have high blood pressure no matter what we eat or how much we exercise.

But we can't change our genes any more than we change our interests.

By your reasoning, and Kohn's, we should cure hypertension by relying on genes, the way my wife's family can.

Would you like proof of which way is better?

Would you like proof of how wonderful it is to cure hypertension through genes?1

Read the biographies of famous people in almost every field of endeavor. Almost without exception these people were self-starters who spent many hours reading, practicing, or studying their field of interest, often from a very early age. I know my scientist son spent many childhood hours "playing" with computers, "making stuff" and looking through telescopes; while my councilman son was fascinated by Washington DC and the presidents at a very early age.

Famous people usually have the luxury of portraying themselves as they'd like to be remembered. According to Nicola Tesla Edison wasted years pursuing dead ends because he was bad at math. Apparently it didn't interest him much. If it had he may have treated Tesla with the respect he deserved.

Re: Your son. Tell me something that DIDN'T INTEREST him, and how he faired. Then you may make your case.

How was I, a single subject teacher, to apply your grand ideas and Kohn's, when I had many students who were no only completely uninterested in physical science but completely unprepared as well?

Progressive education is alive and well in the homes of academic stars.

So explain why Americans fair so poorly in PISA and TIMMS?

Posted by: physicsteacher | September 18, 2010 8:52 PM | Report abuse

Here's the thing: it's certainly true that well-off schools have more field trips, drama classes, and opportunities for inquiry-based learning. But they also, somehow, help the kids memorize those multiplication tables, those Spanish verbs, those spelling words. Maybe, they do it so efficiently that there's time left over for the field trips. But no-one in their right mind thinks that wealthy parents would stand for their children not being taught the basic content that forms the basis of all higher learning.

Posted by: jane100000 | September 18, 2010 10:47 PM | Report abuse

I agree that wealthy parents won't stand for their kids not being taught basics. I also know that legislation is passed in many states dictating that more and more be taught. (like Wisconsin has financial literacy now as a requirement)So I know it is difficult for teachers to fit everything in.
I get the idea that Kohn is speaking in general about education. He is suggesting that teachers be allowed to be creative and allow students some choices. I generally agree with him. My daughter was offered a choice of books to read in her fifth grade class and that is very common in many schools for reading. I know offering my foreign language students a choice of final products was wildly popular with my eighth graders. But, it was triple work for me to come up with 3 different projects that assessed the same material.
I do think that parents who know what to do help out their kids with homework or hire tutors or whatever is necessary to help the kids.

Posted by: celestun100 | September 19, 2010 12:16 AM | Report abuse

"So explain why Americans fare so poorly in PISA and TIMMS"

We need to stop judging our educational system by looking at people under 25. Let's look at our adults. In almost every field of endeavor, Americans, most of whom attended public schools, do quite well. Look at the winners of the Nobel Prize and any other prize and you will see Americans. People from all over the world send their children to our best high schools, colleges and universities.

Where we fail are with the children of the poor. How do we successfully educate children who have little or no support at home? For the most part, these are the students that the system has failed.

Physics Teacher:

I am not saying that there is no need for the traditional style of teaching. When a child shows no interest or talent in an area that is important, some direct instruction is definitely needed. For example, when my scientist son still couldn't write very well in high school, we paid for private tutoring and the teacher had him write paragraphs over and over again until he showed improvement. What I am saying is that if you want someone who truly excels, you have to keep that natural curiosity alive. Today my son is good at writing technical stuff but I'm fairly certain he'd never write for entertainment or self expression.

As for genetics, I'm one who believes that almost every human being is born with exceptional intelligence that is either nurtured or lost. Even someone born with "average" ability can go very far with the right nurturing. The saddest thing is that so many children are turned off to learning by third grade. "A mind is a terrible thing to waste."

A great teacher looks for that spark and fans it until it becomes a flame.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | September 19, 2010 12:20 AM | Report abuse

I think all parents who value education try to impress upon their kids how important school is, but even this "help" is uneven.

A neighbor of mine got her husband and two children to volunteer in a food pantry. The husband, a manual laborer, was very impressed with vounteering. The kids had to carry food in and out and the work was physically tiring. The father said that the volunteer experience was important because it would teach the kids how much they had to be grateful for and it would motivate them to do well in school, becuase they would see how difficult physical labor was. He wanted them to do well in school so they didn't have to work so physically hard.

Another well off family hired me once to tutor their son in a foreign language. They knew he needed to do well in the course and that he wasn't paying attention. It worked, I tutored him and he figured out what to do.

Other parents help their kids study by quizzing them on basic facts, etc. or helping with other school subjects.

I just think it is interesting how much parents can help and how many ways they can show their kids that education matters.

I would also suggest that making negative remarks about the school or the teacher in front of the student is not very helpful in getting the student to learn. But, parents often do that. It is counterproductive.

Posted by: celestun100 | September 19, 2010 12:26 AM | Report abuse

If Americans do poorly on certain tests, I think it is in spite of the schools, not because of them.

Many American students put sports or activities ahead of schoolwork.

I didn't understand this until I started paying the fees for my kids to play on soccer teams.

School is free. Soccer, football, little league, gymnastics, etc., cost money and it is very hard (actually impossible if you don't like to "waste" money ) to say " No we will not go to practice today, you have to study." I find myself saying, "you are going to practice, I've paid for this."

I know if I do that, many other parents are worse.

Posted by: celestun100 | September 19, 2010 12:34 AM | Report abuse

physicsteacher states, "I can't believe Alfie Kohn has a following."

From Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back

[Yoda is training Luke Skywalker and directs him to lift his X-Wing Starfighter from the bog]

Luke: All right, I'll give it a try.
Yoda: No. Try not. Do... or do not. There is no try.

[Luke concentrates on the X-Wing, it rises and then falls back into the bog]

[Using the Force, Yoda effortlessly frees the X-Wing from the bog]

Luke: I don't, I don't believe it.
Yoda: That is why you fail.


My mother (education) and father (physics and chemistry) both had doctorates in their fields. I "tried to be become smart" when I was in elementary school, because I wanted my parents to be proud of me. But I did not succeed. Yes, I tried very hard, but I didn't understand the relevance of anything I was being taught, and I failed miserably. It hurt me terribly, and I lost interest. I tested so poorly that my parents friends spoke about the possibility that I was not capable of higher learning (mildly retarded). Not quite Forest Gump, but limited.

In fifth grade I had a math teacher (Mrs. Barron) who saw me struggling, and then helped me unlock the door.

I only began to learn in school when I stopped caring about grades, and began taking pieces of the lessons and breaking them down into the most fundamental parts that made sense. It was then that I came to understand the value of learning, because these pieces of knowledge became relevant.

And what I also learned about myself was that a large part of my difficulty in learning was not because I could not recognize basic facts, but that I actually recognized multiple factors that other students did not confuse themselves with. I did not have the capability or experience to understand the hierarchical importance or relationship between these factors, but all those details were actually very relevant; and very frustrating.

I am now a father of two very smart boys who sometimes suffer similar but less severe learning difficulties. We talk about the value of the curriculum and how it could potentially relate to other experiences and understanding. We use metaphorical examples that relate their personal experience to the lesson, and it works. Albert Einstein's thought experiments (Gedankenexperiment) and pattern recognition for kids. The process of discovery becomes intoxicating, when the power of understanding at the most fundamental levels leads to an integration of many other systems that a standardized test could never measure.

True understanding allows you find multiple paths to solutions that most textbooks teach us are the result of applying "the appropriate function or method." But which function, or which method? Hard to remember if it doesn't really mean anything to you.

So, when I read this article by Alfie Kohn, I understand exactly what he is saying. I find it difficult to understand how other educators don't.

Posted by: AGAAIA | September 19, 2010 5:08 AM | Report abuse

Education has been described as a cargo cult, and those of you who've been defending Kohn have lent support to that description.

Since my previous analogy missed its mark let me give the full version.

Suppose you are a primary care physician. Some subset of your patients have extreme genetic immunity to some disorders (hypertension, cholesterol, diabetes, etc) while some other subset have extreme inclinations toward getting those disorders.

One day, Alfie the Clone, Master of the Obvious but Irrelevant says:

"My extensive research indicates that people with a hereditary DISinclination to get some disease don't get it, yet the medical profession -- *chuckle* -- focuses its attention on diagnostic procedures, therapies, medications, and STATISTICS. The only reason doctors prescribe insulin to type-1 diabetics is to help make the pharmaceutical companies money. My research shows that people with with no family history of diabetes don't get diabetes. Trust me, I worked in the medical profession so I know what I'm talking about." (that the Clone spent some time volunteering as a candy striper isn't revealed, since he's found that people are more likely to jump to the conclusion that he's an ex-surgeon when he leaves his specific experience completely blank).

The Clone continues:
"Who cares that Japan has a higher life expectancy, or that Cuba has a lower infant mortality rate, or that some regions have higher cancer rates than others. Those are just numbers, and we should focus on individuals. Why to we insist on measuring everyone's blood pressure THE SAME WAY?.."

The Clone, of course has his defenders.

RetiredDoctor writes: "I bet the Clone's kids don't have diseases that don't run in his family!"

And all of this "research" has what implications for the practice of medicine?

A doctor, of any kind, has brief contact with a patient, with no ability to change the patient's genome and little ability to change the patient's behavior. This is why medicine, as a profession, focuses on the elements it CAN CONTROL. So do most professions, which is why they move forward.

Education, earning its cargo cult distinction, focuses on elements completely outside its control and neglects what is possible. This is why we see coloring books in HS, so student "interest" can be manufactured. The results speak for themselves.

Posted by: physicsteacher | September 19, 2010 9:40 AM | Report abuse

Like smartkid84, I remember the weekly lists of words and the spelling tests. I found them boring because, with an excellent eidetic memory, I simply pictured the words in my head and copied them down on the tests. My younger brother had the same routing of weekly spelling lists and tests; with a primarily auditory memory, he never learned to spell well. As an adult, he was an award-winning writer, but he admitted it would have been impossible without spell-check and a wife who didn't mind when he yelled down the hall, "Hey, which of these words is the one I want here?"

He wrote ten times better than I do--but I was considered brighter because my learning style coincided more closely with the school's learning style.

I didn't, however, fare so well in math--when you picture numbers in your head, add them from right to left, and then try to read the answer from left to right, the numbers go all over the place. My brother did fine in math.

Demanding that every student be taught the same thing is fine, and I agree there must be some dull practice to learning. But the schools need to stop insisting that every student has to be excellent in all areas. Let some of us be excellent writers with major problems spelling, and teach some of us enough math to balance our checkbooks and admit that we will never need the sort of math the future engineers need. (The future engineers would appreciate not having to sit in class with us, too!)

Posted by: sideswiththekids | September 19, 2010 11:15 AM | Report abuse

Physics Teacher:

All I'm saying is that a child who is intrinsically interested in a subject and self-initiates (i.e. chooses to read, practice, or study on his own) will probably learn more and retain more than the child who is forced to learn. Do you disagree with that?

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | September 19, 2010 12:10 PM | Report abuse

@Linda Of course I don't disagree. But it doesn't make Kohn any more relevant.

Here's something I've mentioned before. Teachers have no training whatsoever. I was supposedly "trained" to teach physics, yet I learned nothing of value during my masters whatsoever. I did get the opportunity, of course, to sit around in ed school discussing the latest and greatest garbage from Kohn. Kohn say 'no homework', so we all sit around rationalizing his "thinking".

Kohn, at best, is like internet spam. The fact that it's an "I love you" message from a botnet doesn't mitigate the time wasted.

Posted by: physicsteacher | September 19, 2010 12:19 PM | Report abuse

Linda, Thank you for your posts. For what it's worth, I think there's something else going on with physicsteacher and (his?) vehement postings. If he teaches in DCPS, I wouldn't be surprised if, for example, he wasn't beaten over then head one day with Kohn at a staff meeting and made by the admin to implement "research-based strategies" in (his?) classroom that bore no relevance to his subject or students. It happens all the time in DCPS.

Physicsteacher- Chill. I agree that physics is important, vitally so. But it doesn't have to be ALL number crunching and practice sets. My husband, now a successful engineer, didn't particularly love school, but he STILL talks about his AP Physics class when he and his classmates built trebuchets to launch water balloons at their teacher. Did they do the practice problems to build up to this point? Yes, of course. Did they spend hour calculating the best way to construct their trebuchet? Of course. Were they engaged? Of course. Did they learn? Of course. Would they have learned the same content through straight drill and kill? Of course. Would it have been meaningful, and would it have inspired as many students to pursue STEM careers like my husband did? Probably not.

School doesn't have to be "fun" as in entertaining they way that video games are entertaining. However, it should be "fun" in the sense that it is challenging and purposeful. This doesn't mean never doing practice problems or drills. It means having something meaningful that students are practicing toward. (In the previous example, it was constructing a trebuchet.) To use a sports analogy, far fewer children would want to play soccer if all they ever did was practice, never play games. Yet, often in schools we expect children to go through the hard work of practice without giving them any meaningful reason to do so. That, I think, is laziness.

Of course, there are students who are harder to reach than others, but it is our responsibility as educators to draw on what makes us passionate about our subject and share that with our students, to share its meaning with them. When I taught biology, I used the "Life Inside a Living Cell" video Harvard put out a few years ago. The beauty of it blew my mind when I saw it, and I made sure my students saw that. Simply asking them to memorize organelle structures and functions with no context and no meaning would have been far less successful. My point, long as this post is, is that you CAN teach rigorous content in an engaging way that includes drills and memorization when necessary. However, assigning drills and problem sets alone is not true teaching.

Posted by: uva007 | September 19, 2010 12:48 PM | Report abuse


Check out Clark Montessori (a Montessori high school) in Cincinnati, OH. Students have required classes and required work, but they have freedom and choices within those requirements.

I'm glad that you sent your son to a Montessori preschool, if that was the right choice for him, but I feel like you're very quick to dismiss anything outside of your narrow view of what "successful" education looks like. Kohn certainly is not all right, but he's not all wrong either (see reserach on motivation by Dan Pink, also cited by a previous poster). Montessori might not be all right, but there's a lot right with it (see research by Dr. Angeline Lillard).

Minds work best when they're open.

Posted by: uva007 | September 19, 2010 12:58 PM | Report abuse

I have never felt compelled to post any comment on this blog until I read the posts submitted by physicsteacher. I, too am a single subject high school teacher; however,
I was trained in Europe and I was taught to create an environment in my classroom that sets the stage for intrinsic motivation or at least for a reasonable approximation thereof. That was a long time ago, in a different country, and no one over there had ever heard of Alfie Kohn.
Motivating students to learn is not necessarily synonymous with “coddling.” While I have not used coloring books per se, I have created lessons that required my students to generate posters of Greek and Latin words, create “face book” pages for the characters in Beowulf, and fashion a video game based on Frankenstein. Each one of these activities was based on valid English standards, required many preliminary steps that involved analysis and synthesis, and engaged my students. My students leaned more than using glue, scissors, PowerPoint, FrontPage, Moviemaker, etc. They also learned more than facts. They interacted with the material on their terms. I hope I opened a door or two into the world of literature in the process.
The point Alfie Kohn wants to make does not deal as much with intrinsic motivation as it deals with the underlying purpose of the current "reform" movement. The “reformers” in the US perceive education only in economic terms and define “success” as college and career readiness.” They do not have the interest of the individual students in mind, but the interest of the United States’ economy. The US, so they say, needs to be competitive in the global market. In their minds, schools are only learning factories that will churn out the workforce of tomorrow. What a Brave New World they set out to create! If we continue on this course, American schools will produce many little Deltas that know just enough to push the right lever at the right time and go home and consume, consume, consume to fill the emptiness in their minds and souls.
The process reformers force on schools and teachers to accomplish this very materialistic goal makes schools places that have lost all meaning for the average student. For the average child, learning the times table is not exiting in and by itself, nor are the definitions of figures of speech. If I spend day after day and month after month drilling my students on these factoids and on testing strategies, if I believe for only one second that knowledge is finite and can be acquired in its entirety (and consequently tested!), than I strangle the very quality that has brought progress: the desire to know more, to experiment and to simply see what’s out there. Yes, a doctor needs to know how to convert grains to micrograms and milligrams, but she also needs to know how to ask “What if …?” That is the underlying drive of natural learning that we teachers are rarely allowed to promote in our classrooms because we must produce "data."

Posted by: pgerstner | September 20, 2010 10:38 AM | Report abuse

This is a very interesting and engaging discussion that I don’t want to miss the change to post a comment. As I lifelong learner in my 40s (I am 44 and have two bachelor degrees one in English) who happened to having learned a second language during my 30s when studying my second bachelor degree, I can only say that there is nothing wrong with Alfie Kohn approach and I don’t find him against memorization at all, since memory is simply part of learning and acquiring knowledge. In terms of vocabulary learning and second language acquisition (understanding that when having to learn chemistry, biology, and even any other social sciences, the learning of terminology fallows the same path that when having to learn another language because the learning of a second language implies the acquisition of new vocabulary) it has been demonstrated and well documented that the acquisition of vocabulary is better incidentally through extensive reading and not intentionally which is with list of words and teaching spelling rules. This is children may have problems spelling because they don’t read, and they don’t read because they may not have access to reading material or they may even lack intrinsic motivation to do so. It has also been well documented in the field of second language acquisition, for giving you an example, that those individuals who are good acquirers of a second language are those who have an intrinsic motivation and not really an extrinsic one. There is sometimes not even an extrinsic motivation, since one may not even be welcome into the culture of the second language preventing acquisition of that second language to take place.
It is important to mention that there is nothing like the so called “learning style approach,” this has already been proved by Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork, four cognitive psychologist, please see:, this is science and has nothing to do with existentialism, so I do consider a lack of respect when people who know nothing about education (economist, lawyers, business people) express opinions just because they have access to the media providing analysis that can even be misguided and misleading. The fact that someone like Alfie Konh does not have years teaching in a class a single subject does not mean he does not know what is going on in one minds when having to learn a single subject. I don’t need to be in Congo to know what is like having been born in Congo. I have long ago learned that “libraries are sometimes better than laboratories” (Stephen Krashen)
Jehovanna Arcia from Panama

Posted by: getfit25pa25pa | September 20, 2010 11:54 AM | Report abuse

PSSS Correction:
“As a lifelong learner in my 40s”

Please my apologies, it has also been demonstrated in the field of second language acquisition that when being a second learner like myself, there is always the chance to make those little typing errors, there nothing one can do just keep moving…But those typing errors should not prevent you from expressing your opinion like in my case. Try to learn a second language and you will understand me perfectly…
Jehovanna Arcia

Posted by: getfit25pa25pa | September 20, 2010 12:04 PM | Report abuse


not all math and science problems require direct instruction and practice. Many can be found using different ways than teachers will let on. For example, balancing equations in chemistry requires not only background knowledge of properties but also different chemical equations. Not all equations will yield the same result of properties and thus it's necessary for kids to do some practicing on their own rather than the teacher telling them or giving them the answer. In math, too, when adding or multiplying fractions, one could find the answer by converting them to decimal values rather than the flipping technique that is usually taught in math classrooms.

The point I'm trying to make is that some academic activities do require that kids find out the best way to solve the problem themselves and that you totally misrepresent what Kohn has to say. Progressive education has never had widespread appeal in this country and the idea that every school in this country is doing it doesn't make any sense because if they were, how do you explain the fact that this country has more scientists than the rest of the world combined?

For your information, Alfie Kohn also taught psychology at Tufts University and sociology and the Cambridge, Massachusetts Center For Adult Education AFTER his post at Andover Academy.

Kohn isn't saying that kids shouldn't practice math or science problems at all. He's pointing out that the reason why they don't do well is because many aren't allowed to have some time to be able to figure out how to do the problems themselves.This kills interest because if the teacher tells them how to do it through direct instruction all the time, a point will be reached where kids get bored with the material and have trouble mastering it since the teacher spent more time talikng rather than listening and helping. Some instruction is necessary, but only for certain subjects like math and foreign languages and only if the student is having trouble with a particular concept. It shouldn't be used as the default teaching method.

In addition, Kohn isn't mandating a certain teaching style. In The Schools Our Children Deserve and The Homework Myth, he simply points out that not all activities require practice. Does a child really need to practice brush strokes or knowing when the Civil War was fought? To assume that all activities require practice is to assume that all activities are transferable skills that require such practice. This is undoubtedly true for some sections of the natural sciences but mostly not true for the social science subjects like history, art, and literature which are more open and creatively oriented.

Posted by: AlexKB | September 20, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse

In Alfie Kohn's interpretation, Samuelson is guilty of 'blaming students'. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Let's check what Samuelson actually wrote:

"The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation. Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren't motivated, even capable teachers may fail.

"Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a "good" college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure. "

Of course, nowhere Samuelson is blaming any students. What Samuelson states, however, is that:

"Since the 1960s, waves of "reform" haven't produced meaningful achievement gains. The most reliable tests are given by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The reading and math tests, graded on a 0-500 scale, measure 9-year-olds, 13-year-olds and 17-year-olds. In 1971, the initial year for the reading test, the average score for 17-year-olds was 285; in 2008, the average score was 286. The math test started in 1973, when 17-year-olds averaged 304; in 2008, the average was 306. "

Other facts stated by Samuelson:

"From 1970 to 2008, the student population increased 8 percent and the number of teachers rose 61 percent. The student-teacher ratio has fallen sharply, from 27-to-1 in 1955 to 15-to-1 in 2007. Are teachers paid too little? Perhaps, but that's not obvious. In 2008, the average teacher earned $53,230; two full-time teachers married to each other and making average pay would belong in the richest 20 percent of households (2008 qualifying income: $100,240). Maybe more preschool would help. Yet, the share of 3- and 4-year-olds in preschool has rocketed from 11 percent in 1965 to 53 percent in 2008. "

Still, Alfie Kohn shows no concern about where this sinking ship that is K-12 education is heading. His theory boils down simply to 'more of the same'. More student freedom, more teacher freedom, more curriculum freedom. No standards, no school grades, no tests. Less math, less physics, chemistry, history, literature, less chemistry, less of anything that can be actually construed as 'an education'.

What's more aggravating is to see well-meaning teachers embracing with so much credulity all this snake oil. To paraphrase Samuelson, "with this sort of intellectual rigor, what school "reform" promises is more disillusion. "

Posted by: iubica2 | September 20, 2010 3:57 PM | Report abuse

For the record, my name is Andrei Radulescu-Banu, I am a parent living in Lexington MA, and I am upset as hell about the direction things are going in our nation's schools.

Posted by: iubica2 | September 20, 2010 4:04 PM | Report abuse

@AlexKB:"how do you explain the fact that this country has more scientists than the rest of the world combined?"

I don't know where you get this notion, but even if true, it's becoming less and less so.

China now publishes more scientific papers, at least in certain disciplines, than we do.

Not long ago the best and the brightest in India came here, and, interestingly, there were plenty of jobs for Americans as well. Now, the best and the brightest of India STAY THERE or return there, and the second rate minds come here. Interestingly, there are far fewer scientific/engineering jobs than we need for Americans. Now, people like Bill Gates are responsible but people like Kohn give Gates the ammunition he needs to make his case in Washington.

A Chinese scientist remarked that he was happy that he went to college HERE and happy that he got his elementary and hs eduation THERE.

I recently took an organic chemistry class at a local college. The professor, a researcher at Johns Hopkins, and Iranian, explained that what we were learning in college he had learned in HS. He then went on to say he knows about American k12 education because his daughter grew up here. "All you do here is have fun".

I have a graduate degree in a scientific discipline from a research university. I can assure you that few American born students get PHDs in science. Your implication that k12 education produces more scientists than all the world combined is laughable.

Posted by: physicsteacher | September 20, 2010 5:56 PM | Report abuse


I just want to say that your comments are excellent.

I taught middle school science for two years in the Kansas City, Missouri School District (through Teach For America, but don't hold that against me), and I was amazed at how that district's horrible educational philosophy, that teachers are really just entertainers expected to connect material to students' interests and make everything engaging.

Part of our evaluations depended on how well we engaged students. My principal graded me VERY poorly on that part when she came to observe an eighth grade science lesson on the periodic table. It was the first time any of those children had been exposed to it, and I had a great presentation on its purpose, how to read information, etc. It wasn't interactive, didn't have students find their own answers, and was little more than rote memorization. But it worked. Nonetheless, I was told that it was dull and that I talked too much.

For the life of me, I cannot understand how American students are supposed to be prepared for college when they are never expected to work hard in K-12. Good professors aren't going to engage in the rubbish we find in our schools: teaching to multiple "learning styles", differentiating based upon student interests, and using positive behavior supports to trick students into behaving. No, they're going to expect you to work hard.

I attended a very well-known university, and the first class of my freshman year was with Professor Adams, an old man who had hair like Einstein and was very demanding. He showed up right on time, talked for fifty minutes about world history with no notes or anything. He remembered dates, times, names, and every minute detail. The books we used had been written and/or edited by him. He'd call you out in front of everyone and attempt to engage you in the assigned readings. There were two quizzes, two tests, and that was it. I'll never forget what he told us that first day. He said that we must treat academics like we treat sports. The athlete practices to become better at his game, and the student must study, study, study.

Anyway, I just disagree with the notion that school has to be fun, exciting, and engaging. It's great when it is, and there are many topics that have those qualities, but there are many worthwhile things to learn that are NOT fun, exciting, or engaging. Your college professor was spot-on when he said that of American K-12 schooling "All you do here is have fun".

Posted by: william85 | September 20, 2010 8:16 PM | Report abuse

I just read my above post and apologize for the typos. I was in a hurry :)

Posted by: william85 | September 20, 2010 8:19 PM | Report abuse

There is something that is called the international division of the labor, the process of colonization, slavery, and servitude and now we have the phenomenon of outsourcing. By outsourcing jobs from rich countries like USA big companies relocate operations where labor is cheaper and the labor laws are weaker, this is the Capitalism System and Globalization you all defend so much. Larry Elliot from www.theguardian says we are seeing the twilight of the American economy…but at the same time Dr. Stephen Krashen in his blog talks about the math/science crisis in USA in one of his blogs, please read and see the sources…

Dr. krashen says:

“The US ranks at or near the top of the world on all categories related to science and math education, in availability of expertise, and in creativity, according to the World Economic Federation. We are, for example, third in the number of patents for new inventions per capita, slightly behind Taiwan and Japan and far ahead of China, in 50th place.

It has been argued that there no shortage of science and technology-trained professionals in the United States. In fact, some observers have concluded that there is a surplus. The late Gerald Bracey concluded that "… the impending shortage of scientists and engineers is one of the longest running hoaxes in the country."

Stephen Krashen
University of Southern California, Los Angeles

One of the real problems students in this post modern society especially in USA face is of course motivation, and yes, the wrong idea that there is a short cut of learning and acquiring meaningful knowledge. There must be a balance between rigorous curriculum and time to engage in meaningful thinking that can lead to new ideas and discoveries, understanding they may just be little steps that may simply lead to other paths and conclusions…
Jehovanna Arcia

Posted by: getfit25pa25pa | September 21, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse


Does the U.S even need more scientists? Data from the NSF indicates that the number of scientists and engineers grew by 983,000 between 2003 and 2006 from 21,947,000 to 22,930,000. The unemployment rate fell from 3.2 to 2.5 percent for these people during the same period.

If our educational system is so lousy at science and mathematics education, then how could our higher educational system be so lauded around the world since it gains students from this country as well as around the world?

Are you saying that the reason why our educational system does have some problems is because we try to educate everyone instead of the "best and brightest"?

Posted by: AlexKB | September 21, 2010 10:56 AM | Report abuse

In response to:

"If our educational system is so lousy at science and mathematics education, then how could our higher educational system be so lauded around the world..."

The US does have sufficient scientists and engineers. That's not the problem. (About half have completed their precollege study abroad.)

Issue 1 is that students coming out of our high schools are about two years behind their brethren in other advanced countries.

Issue 2 is that the well paid jobs require science education, and students coming from our high schools need to compete for jobs in the US with the students educated abroad who have moved to the US.

Issue 3 is that if science education is weak in our schools, then the students that tend to do better do so because of support at home. Thus schools do not act as a 'great equalizer' of opportunities, because students that come from intellectually rich families become richer, and students from intellectually poor families become poorer.

And issue 4 is that our college education is not free, whereas college education in virtually all places abroad is free. The first two years if US college are used at great expense to the students to make up the lost ground in school and science education.

Not every US college is lauded around the world. The top colleges in the US are doing very well; they are however a small minority, and they are mostly private schools. Their reputation rests more on the quality of their research and master/doctoral studies than on the quality of their bachelor's programs.

In general, college science professors are regularly griping about the quality of the science, literature and history education students are coming with from high schools.

Posted by: iubica2 | September 22, 2010 6:31 PM | Report abuse

In response to : iubica2
I didn’t want to point to this issue of the college education in USA not to be free, because as a foreigner from and underdeveloped country taking part in the discussion, I could be seem like a resented communist rather than like an awaken reasonable person who has simply had the opportunity to be enlightened by some American radical thinkers…I wonder what someone like Paul Marlor Sweezy (1910-2004) would say about your point regarding the college education not being free in USA and the impact this direction has in the current status of the college education itself and its accessibility, considering the economic stagnation seem during these days of depression…
For those who don’t know who Paul Sweezy was, please read:
USA is faring quite well when it is all about “Empire Building,” the problem is and has always been the domestic economy…Just look at the richest man on earth and you will see how many Americans are there…
Jehovanna Arcia

Posted by: getfit25pa25pa | September 24, 2010 9:56 AM | Report abuse

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