Re: Alfie Kohn radio interview
- Subject: Re: Alfie Kohn radio interview
- From: Jeri Pollock <jeri@ALTAVISTA.NET>
- Date: Sun, 12 Sep 1999 07:43:03 -0700
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And here is the text of a recent article by Kohn addressing the issue of
Volume 57 Number 1 September 1999
Why Students Lose When "Tougher Standards" Win: A Conversation with Alfie
John O'Neil and Carol Tell
If students are to help design their own learning experiences and if
teachers are to be free to develop a curriculum on the basis of their
students' needs, schools must buck the "Tougher Standards" movement, author
Alfie Kohn says.
This issue of Educational Leadership focuses on how teachers can shape
instruction to meet the unique needs of learners. At present, though, there
is an even stronger trend toward creating common standards for all students.
Are these common standards incompatible with the ideals of personalized
The current approach taken by the proponents of Tougher Standards is
incompatible with personalized learning and with the interests of kids at
the margins, and, ultimately, I think it is incompatible with excellence.
The content standards begin, "All students will be able to . . ." so that
even before you look at the expectations, you notice that the standards are
uniform. The message here seems to be that individual differences either
don't exist or are illegitimate and should be ignored. This wording
willfully disregards the fact that not all kids learn at the same pace or
should be expected to do so.
Most standards are highly specific. Often they consist of hundreds of
detailed items, facts, and subskills that students have to know. Harold Howe
II, the former U.S. Commissioner of Education, was once asked what national
standards should be like if they had to be issued. He summarized half a
century's worth of wisdom in four words: "As vague as possible." The more
narrow and rigid the requirements are, the less responsive educators can be
to what distinguishes one circumstance from another, or your child from
Does that mean that you would only support content standards if they weren't
precise about common outcomes for all students?
We need to make several distinctions here. "Horizontal" standards offer
guidelines for shifting how teaching and learning happen in classrooms. All
students deserve the chance to do meaningful problem solving in math class
rather than to be turned into human calculators, and to learn to read and
write by doing real reading and writing rather than to be forced to plod
through skills devoid of context. Standards that move instruction in those
directions are terrific-as long as they're not just shoved down teachers'
throats, of course.
What I object to are "vertical" standards: the mindless, macho talk about
"raising the bar" in which the pedagogy remains the same but we do it longer
or harder or give more tests.
Another distinction has to do with the student's age. Some specificity is
appropriate if we're talking about what we can expect from students by the
time they graduate from high school. But it's entirely different to talk
about what all kids must know before leaving the 2nd grade. That is
outrageous from a developmental perspective. Even at the high school level,
though, broad guidelines of intellectual competence are more helpful than
the list of facts and skills that are showing up on high-stakes exams: You
recite the right details about the Industrial Revolution, or distinguish
correctly between xylem and phloem, or else you can't graduate.
The primary effect of requirements like these won't be to make schools
excellent but to force a whole lot of kids to drop out. We'll end up denying
diplomas to those who can't or won't commit to temporary memory a bunch of
facts that very few adults know by heart. And the Tougher Standards
contingent is applying the same thinking to elementary schools by forcing
more and more kids to repeat a grade if they don't pass a test-never mind
whether the test is reasonable, never mind why they're having trouble, and
never mind research that shows retention to be a disaster for the students.
A lot of horrible practices are justified in the name of "rigor" or
"challenge." People talk about "rigorous" but often what they really mean is
"onerous," with schools turned into fact factories. This doesn't help kids
become critical, creative thinkers or lifelong learners. In fact, the more
we cave in to demands for Tougher Standards, the less schools are able to
reach those more ambitious goals.
But plenty of good teachers are innovative, yet their students score well on
whatever test you can point to.
The extent to which that happens depends on the nature of the test. The more
we define "raising standards" as raising scores on norm-referenced,
skills-based, multiple-choice tests, the more we try to fill passive vessels
full of facts instead of helping kids engage with ideas. If we use more
meaningful, open-ended performance-based exams, then we can maintain some
decent teaching in the classroom. However, we may still be increasing the
test designers' authority to decide what gets taught. The worst possible
combination is a basic-skills, fill-in-the-blank test and a high-stakes
environment where people are pressured into raising the scores.
Only someone who knows nothing about teaching and learning could support
such practices. The best teachers understand the need to involve students in
designing their own projects, allowing them to develop a style of, and a
proficiency at, intellectual exploration. Teachers need the flexibility to
take unexpected detours. In one math class I visited, for example, students
ended up taking an entire period to debate the definition of a pyramid.
Fortunately, that teacher could be flexible enough to allow this sort of
student-driven, in-depth learning because those kids didn't have to take a
That's why I say that the Tougher Standards and accountability movement is
squeezing the life out of schools. I'm finding example after example of
teachers who, at best, have to carve out portions of their week to prep kids
for horrible tests before they can get back to the real learning. And
sometimes the real learning never happens. Kids are being deprived of
recess, are having to stay longer at school during the day, are having more
and more homework piled on them. The result isn't a deeper understanding of
ideas or a commitment to continue pursuing learning. Quite the opposite.
What is an appropriate role for testing in schools and in classrooms?
It's legitimate to collect information-carefully and only occasionally-about
a student's level of understanding and improvement, using meaningful
measures. The purpose is to enhance the quality of students'
learning-without undermining their interest in learning.
For starters, any test must be open-ended so that students can generate
options and explain their answers, as opposed to filling in ovals. And the
content of the examination has to reflect what we value, what we honor in
our society-the kinds of things that we think people really need to know.
This is obviously not the case right now because very few of us as adults
could pass a lot of these high school proficiency tests.
Learning doesn't take place at a district or state level; it takes place in
a classroom. Therefore, the assessment should be focused on students'
learning over time by the person in the best position to judge the quality
of that learning. There's an inherent problem with any one-shot test that's
designed and then scored by somebody far away.
So you see quite a bit of usefulness for assessment constructed by teachers
to meet their needs, but very little usefulness for district-mandated tests,
state tests, nationally normed tests, and so on?
Right, although I would add that a teacher-designed-and perhaps externally
validated-assessment doesn't meet only the teacher's needs. If it's done
right, it also meets the needs of parents and citizens to make sure that the
teachers and schools are doing a decent job. Parents want to be reassured
that the teacher's judgment is reasonable and that, in the face of largely
exaggerated press reports about the failure of our schools, our kids are
being well educated.
Of course, the best way to find out what's going on in the school is to
visit and look around: watch whether kids are grappling with complex ideas,
as opposed to being hunched over worksheets. If kids come home babbling
excitedly about something they've been doing in class and just figured out,
that's a powerful signal that something is going right.
What do you see when you visit classrooms where teachers are personalizing
The kind of teaching that responds to different interests, talents, and
proclivities of different children rarely takes place in a classroom where
the teacher is in the front of the room disgorging information and covering
a preset curriculum. In many traditional classrooms, the only difference
between one kid and another is how fast each moves up a single,
adult-constructed ladder. Real responsiveness to individual differences
entails maximizing kids' participation in deciding-not just alone, but with
one another-what they're going to explore and how and when and with whom and
why. And then the students will play a big role in figuring out how to
assess the success of what they've been up to.
Personalization itself looks different in different settings and for
different ages, but roughly speaking, the strategies described as
constructivist, holistic, collaborative, and learner-centered provide the
possibility of learning that is responsive to what distinguishes one kid
from another. It doesn't guarantee it, however. One can imagine a version of
cooperative learning, or a hands-on lesson, that was "one-size-fits-all."
Traditionalists have indignantly insisted that all kids don't necessarily
learn best with a given progressive method. My response is, first, that a
lot more kids learn better by doing something than by listening, by having
some choice rather than none. Second, many of these critics seem to be
born-again supporters of specialized instruction. They've long supported
classrooms that are the opposite of responsive to individual differences.
You've been quite critical of traditional classrooms. Many commentators,
though, feel that schools are too interested in nontraditional techniques,
that educators tend to pick up every fad.
It's interesting that only progressive practices are labeled fads even
though that epithet would seem to be at least as appropriate for the latest
version of, say, explicit phonics-based instruction, where kids can read
only stories that match the skills lesson.
For my new book, I combed the literature to see what's really going on in
schools, to see whether there's any truth to the conservative claim that a
monolithic "educationist" establishment is driving good old traditional
practice underground and turning our schools into progressive experiments.
My conclusion, based on research and my own visits to schools all over the
country, is that this claim is so audacious as to be downright comical.
Across the grade levels and the disciplines, American schools are
stultifyingly traditional, far more similar to what they were like 30 years
ago than they are different.
Most students still spend the day with kids their own age. Most schools
still use awards assemblies and letter or number grades. Most classes,
especially in high school, continue to use textbooks. Most kids still have
little to say about what they're being taught. Most math teaching is still
about skills more than about understanding. Whole Language remains the
exception rather than the rule; a recent survey found that most
primary-grade teachers, despite paying lip service to a balanced approach,
continue to teach discrete phonics skills to all kids, even to the majority
who could learn in other ways. In short, progressive practice, despite its
powerful research backing, con- tinues to be present in only a tiny minority
of classrooms around the country.
This assessment, by the way, comports with that of most serious scholars,
including John Goodlad and Larry Cuban. But notice its significance. If
traditionalists are right that our schools are in trouble, it's hard to
argue that progressive practices are responsible if those practices are
actually quite rare. In fact, the argument is turned on its head. If
students aren't achieving the way we'd like, if they lack a disposition to
learn, it may be precisely because schools continue to be so traditional.
Indeed, that's exactly what the latest international mathematics comparisons
suggest: Our kids are at a comparative disadvantage because the "back to
basics" folks have won.
Have you rethought your theory of motivation, discussed in Punished by
Rewards, now that you're a parent?
The research demonstrates that people who do something to get a reward tend
to do it less well and typically lose interest in the task itself.
Everything I've seen in my own house is consistent with those data. I will
admit that as a dad, I have a fresh appreciation of how tempting it is to
use carrots, stickers, and other implements of control on children who just
won't go to bed when you want them to. But my view hasn't changed at all
about the wisdom of trying to resist that temptation. It takes a lot less
time and skill and courage to promise a child a sticker if she brushes her
teeth or to give her a "time out" if she acts up or to tell her, "Because I
said so." But my wife and I are constantly finding reasons to reaffirm that,
ultimately, it makes more sense to work with our daughter than to do things
That also includes resisting the temptation to constantly fling judgments at
her, including positive judgments. If anything, now that I'm a parent it's
even harder for me to listen to what has become a verbal tic for a lot of
adults: "Good job!" Every time parents and teachers praise kids, they're
telling them how to feel about what they did, stealing from them the
opportunity to reflect on what they've done themselves and take genuine
pride in it. My experience as a parent confirms that what kids really need
from us is unconditional support, acknowledgment, encouragement, and,
occasionally, informational feedback. What they do not need is an adult
following them around saying, in effect, "You've met my standards, and I
will dole out approval based on your continuing to do so."
In Beyond Discipline, you write that the more we manage students, the more
difficult it is for them to become sophisticated thinkers. Although teachers
often fear losing control in a classroom, the opposite of control is not
Exactly: This false dichotomy is routinely used to justify unnecessary
control over students. After I wrote Punished by Rewards, it became
increasingly clear to me that underlying the particulars of grades or praise
or timeouts is the fundamental issue of how willing we are as adults to
share some of our authority with students. It's hard to ask kids how we
might solve a problem together because then we no longer have unilateral
control over them. And that is frightening. It carries with it a whiff of
something utterly unfamiliar and terrifying to most Americans: democracy.
I'm talking here about letting people-even small people-learn to make
decisions about their own lives. Kids who are told what to do all day aren't
developing socially or ethically the way they could be, just as kids are not
developing intellectually in a classroom driven backward by demands for
Over the years, you've articulated a very coherent view of what schools
could be. Through the course of your own education, how did you come to the
views about things like control in the classroom, appropriate curriculum,
and so on?
Well, there's no single cause. My education was an uninterrupted exercise in
low-level control with relatively few opportunities to experience real
quality learning until I got to college.
In elementary school, I was a good student, but I was also a rebel. Once, in
5th grade, when a teacher gave us some busywork to do, I thought I might as
well call it what it was, so I neatly headed my paper with my name, the
date, and the word "busywork." This did not go over well. In a way, I've
been rebelling against that stuff ever since.
But that doesn't mean I had a clear sense of how learning happens or what
teaching could be like-even when I became a teacher. I did stuff that makes
me cringe in retrospect. What I've learned about teaching and learning has
been from watching teachers more talented than I, from reading the work of
thoughtful educators, and from reviewing and thinking about research. I test
these ideas out in various ways, and people are often kind enough to
challenge my thinking. Which is only fair, considering that's what I'm doing
for them. *
Alfie Kohn is the author of The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond
Traditional Classrooms and "Tougher Standards" (Boston: Houghton Mifflin,
1999). He is currently setting up a grassroots network of people opposed to
the Tougher Standards movement (Web site: www.alfiekohn.org). John O'Neil
(e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) is Contributing Editor of Educational Leadership.
Carol Tell (e-mail: email@example.com) is Associate Editor of Educational
Copyright © 1999 by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum
Development. All rights reserved.
From: Assessment Reform Network Mailing List
Behalf Of Brian LeCloux
Sent: Saturday, September 11, 1999 10:06 PM
Subject: Alfie Kohn radio interview
Alfie Kohn did a radio call-in on Wisconsin Public Radio, Tuesday,
from 10-11. I taped the program and have listened to it several times.
Here are some highlights of the points he made with the host, Jean Feraca
as well as the callers (my comments or notes are parentheses):
*Traditional schools get in the way of kids getting excited and becoming
enthusiastic, effective learners.
*"This absolutely insane race to raise test scores" has resulted in
classrooms being turned into rooms "with less opportunity to make decisions"
and "learn with the kind of projects and questions that lead to
understanding." It is out of step with the best research on learning.
*He praised Deborah Meier for her approach to starting a high school,
which he formulated into a question: what's the most effective way to start?
Like a kindergarten classroom where kids follow their interests and
questions under the guidance of the teacher, instead of using rigid, rote,
skills oriented learning.
*The back to basic movement is dumbing down kids. Memorizing lists is
unpleasant and ineffective.
*Research is "virtually uniform" that kids having trouble do worse when
they are held back a grade. The research is "absolutely clear" that holding
them back is worse than moving them on to the next grade.
*Some 300 colleges and universities have made the SAT/ACT optional for
For those that require it he recommends that you play the game but get
back to real learning as soon as possible. The fact that you can be coached
to score better is devastating to the credibility of these tests. Using
standardized multiple choice tests so much is the real problem. The scores
used to stand for aptitutde but now the College Board says it stands for
nothing. Kids who do well don't always know why the answer is right. The
more teachers teach to these type of tests the more awful schools become.
* The first caller wanted to know what he thought of phonics. Whole
language does teach phonics. You should ask, Are you going to teach kids to
read in the context of what's worth reading? Using this approach they not
only test better but have better understanding. The purpose of reading
and writing is to make sense. It's not whether we teach phonics but how we
*Raising the bar approaches are insane notions which don't make schooling
more rigorous but more onerous
*He's really delighted that the Wisconsin State Legislature (me too!)
refused to fund the state high school graduation exam (it's still in law for
2002/3; but no funding to write it).
He recognizes that some legislators voted against it only because of the
amount of funding needed (10 million).
*He commented how one really good middle school teacher commented at a
talk he gave that he used to be a good teacher but now he just assigns the
text chapters and teaches the standards and isn't any good any more.
*Caller no. 4 was impressed with Kohn's No Contest: How we lose in our
race to win
book (rev. ed. 1992) and she cited research by Theresa Amabile on
competition and creativity. Kohn commented that her research shows that
competition gets in the way of creativity and so do rewards.
*80 Arrowhead H.S. (Wis.) sophomores boycotted a standardized test to make
the point that standardized tests are dumbing them down.
*Parents need to set up mass actions until people realize that these tests
are antithetical to learning.
*The standards movement reflects how corporations are permitted to design
our teaching or how we teach. They're interested in what helps their
The administrator should respond to this movement with the question, Are
you kidding me? and That won't produce the kind of student needed for a
democracy. Corporations say they want teamwork but its often in the
context of competition. They say they want more creative thinkers and
problem solvers. But they don't want people who question why the CEO got a
huge raise and thousands of workers got fired.
*When parents in Denver were shown the alternatives to standardized tests
they preferred them.
That's about it. If any one wants a copy of the program WPR sells them
1-800-747-7444. Kohn has been on WPR many times. For my part he was
preaching to the converted, as I have all his books and many of his
I pass them around at school and we discuss his ideas and read his
my Psychology classes at Richland Center High School (WI). The students
respond very favorably to his attacks on rewards and punishments and his
criticisms of the high stakes testing agenda.
Brian LeCloux, High School Social Studies, Richland Center, WI
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