Education Expert & Author
Alfie Kohn writes and speaks widely on human behavior, education, and parenting. He is the author of 12 books, including Punished by Rewards, The Schools Our Children Deserve, Beyond Discipline, Unconditional Parenting, The Homework Myth, and most recently, Feel-Bad Education and Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling. Read More >
Achievement vs. Learning
Educational researchers have discovered that there is a significant difference between getting students to think about their performance (that is, how well they are doing) and getting them to think about the learning itself (what they are doing). These orientations often pull in opposite directions, which means that too much emphasis on performance can reduce students’ interest in learning – and cause them to avoid challenging tasks. When the point is to prove how smart you are, to get a good grade or a high test score, there is less inclination to engage deeply w ith ideas, to explore and discover. Thus, as Alfie Kohn argues, the problem with standardized testing is not only how bad the tests themselves are, but also how much attention is paid to the results. Even new, "authentic" assessments may backfire if students are constantly led to ask, "How am I doing?" Getting students to become preoccupied with achievement may paradoxically undermine this very goal because of what happens to their motivation in the process.
We can't blame "human nature" when children act aggressively or selfishly. Extensive research has shown that these qualities are no more natural than the impulse toward empathy or generosity. But how do we nourish those positive inclinations and help children to act on their capacity to care? Alfie Kohn, author of The Brighter Side of Human Nature, discusses the roots of prosocial attitudes and actions, and invites educators to think about what promotes children's concern about others' well-being. He urges activities (and a curriculum) that enhance understanding of how others see the world, as well as a commitment to replace isolation and competition with a feeling of community in the classroom and school.
Our knowledge of how children learn – and how schools can help – has come a long way in the last few decades. Unfortunately, most schools have not: They're still more about memorizing facts and practicing isolated skills than understanding ideas from the inside out; they still exclude students from any meaningful decision-making role; and they still rely on grades, tests, homework, lectures, worksheets, competition, punishments, and rewards. Alfie Kohn explores the alternatives to each of these conventional practices, explaining why progressive education isn't just a realistic alternative but one that's far more likely to help kids become critical thinkers and lifelong learners.
Advice for raising children typically comes in two flavors: threats (known euphemistically as "consequences") and bribes ("positive reinforcement"). Either we make kids suffer to teach them a lesson, or we dangle goodies in front of them for doing as they're told. Rewards and punishments are two sides of the same coin, and unfortunately, neither can buy anything more than temporary obedience. Manipulating children’s behavior – by means of time-outs, contrived praise, privileges offered, and privileges taken away – can never help them to reflect on the kind of people they want to be. Instead of encouraging kids to take responsibility for their actions, it makes them dependent on rewards and punishments. Rather than promoting generosity and compassion, it leads them to focus on the consequence to themselves of pleasing the adult. Read More >
This presentation, by Alfie Kohn, the author of Unconditional Parenting, will show why carrots and sticks are not only ineffective but actually counterproductive over the long haul. To raise children who are good learners and good people requires us to abandon strategies that do things to kids, in favor of an approach in which we work with them. And underlying those "working with" strategies is the message that children do not have to earn our approval, that we love them not for what they do but just for who they are. Read Less ^
What does it mean to say we want our kids to be "successful"? In some neighborhoods, that word translates as making higher grades and test scores than other people's children – so they'll be accepted by elite colleges, so they'll get high-paying jobs, so they can… well, what? Erich Fromm once observed that "few parents have the courage to care more for their children's happiness than for their success." Indeed, research shows that affluent, high-achieving students are more likely to suffer from depression – and less likely to value learning for its own sake. Alfie Kohn invites us to rethink basic assumptions about competition, school achievement, and the relationship between how we're raising our kids and how we hope they'll turn out.