Sunday, September 19, 2010

Alfie Kohn: Yes and No

There's a new article by Alfie Kohn here.

I've read a lot of Kohn's work, and I agree with much of it. His The Homework Myth should be read by everyone involved in education. I appreciate his focus on how schooling is actually experienced by real kids.

But I part ways with Kohn when it come to traditional vs. progressive ed. Real progressive education is vanishingly rare. I've never experienced it myself and it's not available for my kids. One of the few places it's still going on is at the University of Chicago Lab School, where Sasha and Malia went before their father got elected President.

While real progressive ed is rare, badly implemented faux progressive ed is ubiquitous. All those dumb poster and coloring projects, and the group projects that feature the one smart kid doing all the work, were started by people who thought they were embracing progressivism. Hah!

In my opinion, progressive education is so rare, and so poorly understood, that it's a lost cause for most American schools. It won't be anything more than a boutique choice for a long time to come.

I don't think traditional education is necessarily a bad idea, either. A thoughtful, well-designed lecture can be more engaging than a dumb group project. And there are some things that I think all kids should learn whether they're deeply interested or not (basic math and history come to mind.) Of course, a good teacher will make the material as interesting as possible.

I've noticed that Kohn himself travels around and gives ... lectures! He doesn't seem to mind "sage on the stage" when he's the sage. His lectures are very well-received, but have no apparent effect on the audience. The principal at the public school that we left claims to be a big fan of Alfie Kohn, but you'd never know it by the way she ran the school.

In my opinion, the goal for most public schools should be a good traditional education. Pushing progressive ed is just a waste of time at this point. Your thoughts?


  1. Very interesting post. I'm not as ready as you are to give up on the idea of progressive education, but I agree that any attempt to impose it on schools is likely to end up in a pointless hash, just like every other fad that has its day.

    I keep coming back to the idea of autonomy, not just for kids but for teachers and communities. I think that giving small communities real autonomy over the educational philosophy and methods of their schools would result in more humane schools, if only because parents would have a larger say in the treatment of their kids.

    I also think that if teachers were given real autonomy over what goes on in their classrooms, they would do a better job of helping the kids learn than if they are micromanaged by some bureaucrat. I say this as someone who teaches at the professional school level, where that principle is univerally assumed to be true. (See my post here.) More autonomy in the classroom would also make the job more enjoyable, and thus attract more good people to it.

    And I like to think that those changes would lead to giving the kids more autonomy, too. The more the decisions get made by the people who are actually in the presence of the kids -- i.e., teachers and parents -- the harder it would be to treat the kids like objects to be manipulated instead of like human beings.

    Maybe these goals are no more realistic than Alfie Kohn's, and even if they were adopted I'm sure they would result in many classrooms that wouldn't seem very progressive. But it just seems a lot easier to imagine humane, worthwhile education occurring under that kind of approach.

    It's the project of trying to control the whole system from the top down -- whether with progressive ideas or today's reactionary ones -- that seems futile to me.

  2. @Chris said "It's the project of trying to control the whole system from the top down -- whether with progressive ideas or today's reactionary ones -- that seems futile to me."

    Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be futile at all from the administrators' perspective. They've been very successful at it, even if--as you point out--it has been in direct conflict with the purpose of schools: to educate students and prepare them for adulthood.

    I would really like to know what they teach in education degrees, because I am just baffled at how teachers teach and treat students the way they do and expect students to actually learn and develop (beyond standardized testing skills). I agree that most teachers mean well, but they seem ill-equipped to do their jobs and often are unaware of the fact. And they are poorly-served by administration, at least in my county's schools.

  3. If our local public schools offered a traditional education that was compatible with my kids enjoying their childhood and adolescence, we would still be there. But we left after my older daughter became profoundly depressed in the 5th grade, and I had every reason to believe that middle and high school would only be worse. Now we're paying through the nose for a traditional but child-supportive education at the private school.

    I guess my frustration with Kohn is that so much of what he talks about just doesn't seem relevant to the schools I see around me. (This is true for a lot of education writers, btw.) His advocacy of progressive ed just seems like pie in the sky. It's so far away from the reality on the ground that it's not useful. The fact that he can keep going on about it makes me think he's a little too fond of the sound of his own voice.

    Just call me equal-opportunity Fed Up!

  4. Oh, and @Chris -- your point about autonomy is very important. Where we live, the private schools pay lower wages than the public schools, but the private schools are still able to hire, and keep, good teachers. Why? Because the working conditions are so much better. Part of that is that the teachers have more autonomy in the classroom.

  5. Interesting discussion. I'm recovering from a week of birthday-party-planning hell, so if my comments seem a little confused, please forgive me in advance.

    FedUpMom and Chris,

    I agree with both of you (I think!). I haven't given up on the idea of progressive education, but the reality is that there is little of it around, even in so-called progressive schools. I think you're right, Chris, that the top-down approach to education is often what prevents a school from being truly progressive. In our school board, which is huge, and sees itself as generally progressive, there are many "alternative" schools that are alternative in name only. That said, there are also some that are truly progressive and alternative, such as one that I recently stumbled upon in my search for a more child-friendly middle school for my daughters. I was somewhat surprised to find both an elementary and a middle/high "free school" operating within the school board. At these schools there are no grades, no homework, and the curriculum is student-directed. Now, I'm not sure that's exactly what I want for my kids, but I'm pleasantly surprised that it exists as an alternative within our board. I do think alternative schools might be the answer, because, where I live at least, they can be parent-initiated and cooperatively-run, while still being funded by the provincial government and school board. Recently, an "Afrocentric" elementary school opened, as well as a Waldorf-inspired school. Both of these were brainchildren of groups of interested and motivated parents.

    But I also haven't given up on the idea that a traditional school--for instance, one with a traditional "liberal arts" orientation--could potentially be a child-friendly school. I just haven't encountered any that manage to be both.

  6. "At these schools there are no grades, no homework, and the curriculum is student-directed. Now, I'm not sure that's exactly what I want for my kids, but I'm pleasantly surprised that it exists as an alternative within our board."

    Oh, I'd go for it! I can see your reticence. These schools may seem goofy. In a case like this, homeschool wound up being best because we were in the driver's seat. What if we drove to that school for 45 minutes and found it was not to our liking? But I'd rather have progressive than stodgy militaristic any day of the week. At least most of the lesson isn't about last night's homework (not even going over it but penalizing the rebellious), tonight's homework, this week's quiz, next week's test, the midterm, final, ad nauseam.

    All things considered, I'd rather put my child in a school that is grades and homework free than one in which little is taught all day and all of it comes home. Either way, you're doing it. At least let it be on your terms. If there's no homework, we can supplement. And I don't mean just more school after school. In the best of all worlds, home should complement what school does. In other words, if in second grade my daughter is doing a unit on China, I take her the Asian museum for art and Chinatown for dinner. Studying Africa? Take her to the African museum. We would take long walks and talk about what she learned that day and then go to the library and continue the discussion and learning.

    In my mind, this is the best example of that so-called partnership. You do your job, I do mine. And I don't want my job to be legislated, mandated. I want to supplement at home as I see fit. The above example of no homework and no tests and grades would at least give me the chance to have the home learning we all craved.

    And what if the "free" school is too free and she isn't learning anything? Unless it's completely free wheeling, I think learning can and does take place in those environments. I was very impressed with a Montessori school we looked at years ago. But what if it's too free and she isn't learning? That's when I throw up my arms, say the hell with it and yank her out to homeschool. What else can you do when education has grown so muddy and backwards? Because then and only then, can I completely tailor a learning style that meets her needs.

  7. HomeworkBlues,

    My reticence with respect to these schools does not have to do with the lack of grades or homework. (Though, interestingly, the prospect of no grades seems to bother my daughters, who are used to being validated through grades.) I would love that aspect. It's the "free school" part of it that worries me because I think my girls, having spent so long in regular schools, are not as self-directed as they might be. I think I would definitely want them to learn some math, but I also believe that any program we or they could come up with for math would be at least as good, if not better, than what is taught in regular math classes. I also see the appeal of what you're describing above as a kind of "partnership" between the parents and the "free" school.

    Anyway, we have not ruled it out as an option for middle school, and will attend the open house. I think there is more resistance coming from our daughters than from us. Ideally, one would enroll one's child in such a school at a fairly young age, before they have become "indoctrinated" about what a "normal" school is. It never occurred to me when they were starting school to look into these options because we had a highly-rated community school within walking distance of our house. And I do believe there is something to be said for local, community's all so complicated!

  8. I apologize for the grammatical errors in the above post. . . it's been a long night (curriculum night at our school, etc.).

  9. Just goes to show you how tired I am too. I didn't catch any grammatical errors yet. Me, the avowed Eats, Shoots and Leaves person!

    Ah, there's one! The comma between local and community in your final sentence? :).

  10. (OK, one more comment, and then to bed!)

    Speaking of homework, at curriculum night, my daughters' teacher talked about his decision not to assign much of it this year. I was so pleased, I wrote a post about it over on my blog (

  11. Ah, how do you spell relief???!!! We had a similar situation in my daughter's private school. We were planning to take her out after 4th because of a serious teasing/bullying problem (she was the bullied). The school was lovely in one way, they really really wanted my daughter to stay. They asked, what can we do to make her come back? I replied, less homework. They said, you got it. Fifth grade teacher assigns relatively little, she doesn't believe in it. Music to my ears! I'd heard wonderful things about that teacher already. Experiental learning, exciting. Everyone loved her! She was legendary at the school.

    In the end, we just couldn't get around the bullying issue. So we pulled our child out and put her in the public school GT Center. My daughter got the most sour dire controlling teacher on earth. I've detailed those vignettes on StopHomework. We couldn't really go back to the other school, that bullying problem, you see. But I coudn't help marveling at our dumb luck.

  12. HomeworkBlues, You must be a night owl like me! (Doesn't mesh too well with parenthood, unfortunately.)

    Yes, I use too many commas, but I was thinking of this sentence:

    "I think I would definitely want them to learn some math, but I also believe that any program we or they could come up with for math would be at least as good, if not better, than what is taught in regular math classes."

    Shouldn't it be "as good as, if not better than"? (I forgot the second "as.") Also, I said:

    "Ideally, one would enroll one's child in such a school at a fairly young age, before they have become "indoctrinated" about what a "normal" school is." I believe the "they" should be "he/she," but I'm too exhausted to know for sure.

    I'm sorry to hear of the bullying issue, but I'm glad you had that one wonderful teacher. It makes such a huge difference, doesn't it?

    (Now, I'm really off to bed--no more checking my twitter page--I just started twittering and it's ridiculously addicting...)