Wednesday, May 28, 2008

I love Alfie Kohn!!!!

There was a time when reading this would have had me pumping my fist in the air and yelling "YES!!!!" it just leaves me in tears, its still worth reading, but it just twists the knife in my back, y'know?

Alfie Kohn spoke at a teacher's conference in Halifax a few weeks ago, I'm really envious of those who got to go. He was speaking out against homework with board administrators.

This article lauds democratic schools ...


March 2003


What Does It Mean to Be Well-Educated?

By Alfie Kohn

No one should offer pronouncements about what it means to be well-educated without meeting my wife. When I met Alisa, she was at Harvard, putting the finishing touches on her doctoral dissertation in anthropology. A year later, having spent her entire life in school, she decided to do the only logical thing . . . and apply to medical school. Today she is a practicing physician -- and an excellent one at that, judging by feedback from her patients and colleagues.

She will, however, freeze up if you ask her what 8 times 7 is, because she never learned the multiplication table. And forget about grammar (“Me and him went over her house today” is fairly typical) or literature (“Who’s Faulkner?”). After a dozen years, I continue to be impressed on a regular basis by the agility of her mind as well as by how much she doesn’t know. (I’m also bowled over by what a wonderful person she is, but that’s beside the point.)

So what do you make of this paradox with whom I live? Is she a walking indictment of the system that let her get so far -- 29 years of schooling, not counting medical residency -- without acquiring the basics of English and math? Or does she offer an invitation to rethink what it means to be well-educated since what she lacks hasn’t prevented her from being a deep-thinking, high-functioning, multiply credentialed, professionally successful individual?

Of course, if those features describe what it means to be well-educated, then there is no dilemma to be resolved. She fits the bill. The problem arises only if your definition includes a list of facts and skills that one must have but that she lacks. In that case, though, my wife is not alone. Thanks to the internet, which allows writers and researchers to circulate rough drafts of their manuscripts, I’ve come to realize just how many truly brilliant people cannot spell or punctuate. Their insights and discoveries may be changing the shape of their respective fields, but they can’t use an apostrophe correctly to save their lives.

Or what about me (he suddenly inquired, relinquishing his comfortable perch from which issue all those judgments of other people)? I could embarrass myself pretty quickly by listing the number of classic works of literature I’ve never read. And I can multiply reasonably well, but everything mathematical I was taught after first-year algebra (and even some of that) is completely gone. How well-educated am I?


The issue is sufficiently complex that questions are easier to formulate than answers. So let’s at least be sure we’re asking the right questions and framing them well.

1. The Point of Schooling: Rather than attempting to define what it means to be well-educated, should we instead be asking about the purposes of education? The latter formulation invites us to look beyond academic goals. For example, Nel Noddings, professor emerita at Stanford University, urges us to reject “the deadly notion that the schools’ first priority should be intellectual development” and contends that “the main aim of education should be to produce competent, caring, loving, and lovable people.” Alternatively, we might wade into the dispute between those who see education as a means to creating or sustaining a democratic society and those who believe its primary role is economic, amounting to an “investment” in future workers and, ultimately, corporate profits. In short, perhaps the question “How do we know if education has been successful?” shouldn’t be posed until we have asked what it’s supposed to be successful at.

2. Evaluating People vs. Their Education: Does the phrase well-educated refer to a quality of the schooling you received, or to something about you? Does it denote what you were taught, or what you learned (and remember)? If the term applies to what you now know and can do, you could be poorly educated despite having received a top-notch education. However, if the term refers to the quality of your schooling, then we’d have to conclude that a lot of “well-educated” people sat through lessons that barely registered, or at least are hazy to the point of irrelevance a few years later.

3. An Absence of Consensus: Is it even possible to agree on a single definition of what every high school student should know or be able to do in order to be considered well-educated? Is such a definition expected to remain invariant across cultures (with a single standard for the U.S. and Somalia, for example), or even across subcultures (South-Central Los Angeles and Scarsdale; a Louisiana fishing community, the upper East side of Manhattan, and Pennsylvania Dutch country)? How about across historical eras: would anyone seriously argue that our criteria for “well-educated” today are exactly the same as those used a century ago – or that they should be?

To cast a skeptical eye on such claims is not necessarily to suggest that the term is purely relativistic: you like vanilla, I like chocolate; you favor knowledge about poetry, I prefer familiarity with the Gettysburg Address. Some criteria are more defensible than others. Nevertheless, we have to acknowledge a striking absence of consensus about what the term ought to mean. Furthermore, any consensus that does develop is ineluctably rooted in time and place. It is misleading and even dangerous to justify our own pedagogical values by pretending they are grounded in some objective, transcendent Truth, as though the quality of being well-educated is a Platonic form waiting to be discovered.

4. Some Poor Definitions: Should we instead try to stipulate which answers don’t make sense? I’d argue that certain attributes are either insufficient (possessing them isn’t enough to make one well-educated) or unnecessary (one can be well-educated without possessing them) -- or both. Let us therefore consider ruling out:

Seat time. Merely sitting in classrooms for x hours doesn’t make one well-educated.

Job skills. It would be a mistake to reduce schooling to vocational preparation, if only because we can easily imagine graduates who are well-prepared for the workplace (or at least for some workplaces) but whom we would not regard as well-educated. In any case, pressure to redesign secondary education so as to suit the demands of employers reflects little more than the financial interests -- and the political power -- of these corporations.

Test scores. To a disconcerting extent, high scores on standardized tests signify a facility with taking standardized tests. Most teachers can instantly name students who are talented thinkers but who just don’t do well on these exams – as well as students whose scores seem to overestimate their intellectual gifts. Indeed, researchers have found a statistically significant correlation between high scores on a range of standardized tests and a shallow approach to learning. In any case, no single test is sufficiently valid, reliable, or meaningful that it can be treated as a marker for academic success.

Memorization of a bunch o’ facts. Familiarity with a list of words, names, books, and ideas is a uniquely poor way to judge who is well-educated. As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead observed long ago, “A merely well-informed man is the most useless bore on God’s earth. . . . Scraps of information” are only worth something if they are put to use, or at least “thrown into fresh combinations.”

Look more carefully at the superficially plausible claim that you must be familiar with, say, King Lear in order to be considered well-educated. To be sure, it’s a classic meditation on mortality, greed, belated understanding, and other important themes. But how familiar with it must you be? Is it enough that you can name its author, or that you know it’s a play? Do you have to be able to recite the basic plot? What if you read it once but barely remember it now?

If you don’t like that example, pick another one. How much do you have to know about neutrinos, or the Boxer rebellion, or the side-angle-side theorem? If deep understanding is required, then (a) very few people could be considered well-educated (which raises serious doubts about the reasonableness of such a definition), and (b) the number of items about which anyone could have that level of knowledge is sharply limited because time is finite. On the other hand, how can we justify a cocktail-party level of familiarity with all these items – reminiscent of Woody Allen’s summary of War and Peace after taking a speed-reading course: “It’s about Russia.” What sense does it make to say that one person is well-educated for having a single sentence’s worth of knowledge about the Progressive Era or photosynthesis, while someone who has to look it up is not?

Knowing a lot of stuff may seem harmless, albeit insufficient, but the problem is that efforts to shape schooling around this goal, dressed up with pretentious labels like “cultural literacy,” have the effect of taking time away from more meaningful objectives, such as knowing how to think. If the Bunch o’ Facts model proves a poor foundation on which to decide who is properly educated, it makes no sense to peel off items from such a list and assign clusters of them to students at each grade level. It is as poor a basis for designing curriculum as it is for judging the success of schooling.

The number of people who do, in fact, confuse the possession of a storehouse of knowledge with being “smart” – the latter being a disconcertingly common designation for those who fare well on quiz shows -- is testament to the na├»ve appeal that such a model holds. But there are also political implications to be considered here. To emphasize the importance of absorbing a pile of information is to support a larger worldview that sees the primary purpose of education as reproducing our current culture. It is probably not a coincidence that a Core Knowledge model wins rave reviews from Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum (and other conservative Christian groups) as well as from the likes of Investor’s Business Daily. To be sure, not every individual who favors this approach is a right-winger, but defining the notion of educational mastery in terms of the number of facts one can recall is well-suited to the task of preserving the status quo. By contrast, consider Dewey’s suggestion that an educated person is one who has “gained the power of reflective attention, the power to hold problems, questions, before the mind.” Without this capability, he added, “the mind remains at the mercy of custom and external suggestions.”

5. Mandating a Single Definition: Who gets to decide what it means to be well-educated? Even assuming that you and I agree to include one criterion and exclude another, that doesn’t mean our definition should be imposed with the force of law – taking the form, for example, of requirements for a high school diploma. There are other considerations, such as the real suffering imposed on individuals who aren’t permitted to graduate from high school, the egregious disparities in resources and opportunities available in different neighborhoods, and so on.

More to the point, the fact that so many of us don’t agree suggests that a national (or, better yet, international) conversation should continue, that one definition may never fit all, and, therefore, that we should leave it up to local communities to decide who gets to graduate. But that is not what has happened. In about half the states, people sitting atop Mount Olympus have decreed that anyone who doesn’t pass a certain standardized test will be denied a diploma and, by implication, classified as inadequately educated. This example of accountability gone haywire violates not only common sense but the consensus of educational measurement specialists. And the consequences are entirely predictable: no high school graduation for a disproportionate number of students of color, from low-income neighborhoods, with learning disabilities, attending vocational schools, or not yet fluent in English.

Less obviously, the idea of making diplomas contingent on passing an exam answers by default the question of what it means to be well- (or sufficiently) educated: Rather than grappling with the messy issues involved, we simply declare that standardized tests will tell us the answer. This is disturbing not merely because of the inherent limits of the tests, but also because teaching becomes distorted when passing those tests becomes the paramount goal. Students arguably receive an inferior education when pressure is applied to raise their test scores, which means that high school exit exams may actually lower standards.

Beyond proclaiming “Pass this standardized test or you don’t graduate,” most states now issue long lists of curriculum standards, containing hundreds of facts, skills, and subskills that all students are expected to master at a given grade level and for a given subject. These standards are not guidelines but mandates (to which teachers are supposed to “align” their instruction). In effect, a Core Knowledge model, with its implication of students as interchangeable receptacles into which knowledge is poured, has become the law of the land in many places. Surely even defenders of this approach can appreciate the difference between arguing in its behalf and requiring that every school adopt it.

6. The Good School: Finally, instead of asking what it means to be well-educated, perhaps we should inquire into the qualities of a school likely to offer a good education. I’ve offered my own answer to that question at book length, as have other contributors to this issue. As I see it, the best sort of schooling is organized around problems, projects, and questions – as opposed to facts, skills, and disciplines. Knowledge is acquired, of course, but in a context and for a purpose. The emphasis is not only on depth rather than breadth, but also on discovering ideas rather than on covering a prescribed curriculum. Teachers are generalists first and specialists (in a given subject matter) second; they commonly collaborate to offer interdisciplinary courses that students play an active role in designing. All of this happens in small, democratic schools that are experienced as caring communities.

Notwithstanding the claims of traditionalists eager to offer – and then dismiss -- a touchy-feely caricature of progressive education, a substantial body of evidence exists to support the effectiveness of each of these components as well as the benefits of using them in combination. By contrast, it isn’t easy to find any data to justify the traditional (and still dominant) model of secondary education: large schools, short classes, huge student loads for each teacher, a fact-transmission kind of instruction that is the very antithesis of “student-centered,” the virtual absence of any attempt to integrate diverse areas of study, the rating and ranking of students, and so on. Such a system acts as a powerful obstacle to good teaching, and it thwarts the best efforts of many talented educators on a daily basis.

Low-quality instruction can be assessed with low-quality tests, including homegrown quizzes and standardized exams designed to measure (with faux objectivity) the number of facts and skills crammed into short-term memory. The effects of high-quality instruction are trickier, but not impossible, to assess. The most promising model turns on the notion of “exhibitions” of learning, in which students reveal their understanding by means of in-depth projects, portfolios of assignments, and other demonstrations – a model pioneered by Ted Sizer, Deborah Meier, and others affiliated with the Coalition of Essential Schools. By now we’re fortunate to have access not only to essays about how this might be done (such as Sizer’s invaluable Horace series) but to books about schools that are actually doing it: The Power of Their Ideas by Meier, about Central Park East Secondary School in New York City; Rethinking High School by Harvey Daniels and his colleagues, about Best Practice High School in Chicago; and One Kid at a Time by Eliot Levine, about the Met in Providence, RI.

The assessments in such schools are based on meaningful standards of excellence, standards that may collectively offer the best answer to our original question simply because to meet those criteria is as good a way as any to show that one is well-educated. The Met School focuses on social reasoning, empirical reasoning, quantitative reasoning, communication, and personal qualities (such as responsibility, capacity for leadership, and self-awareness). Meier has emphasized the importance of developing five “habits of mind”: the value of raising questions about evidence (“How do we know what we know?”), point of view (“Whose perspective does this represent?”), connections (“How is this related to that?”), supposition (“How might things have been otherwise?”), and relevance (“Why is this important?”).

It’s not only the ability to raise and answer those questions that matters, though, but also the disposition to do so. For that matter, any set of intellectual objectives, any description of what it means to think deeply and critically, should be accompanied by a reference to one’s interest or intrinsic motivation to do such thinking. Dewey reminded us that the goal of education is more education. To be well-educated, then, is to have the desire as well as the means to make sure that learning never ends.


Copyright © 2003 by Alfie Kohn. This article may be downloaded, reproduced, and distributed without permission as long as each copy includes this notice along with citation information (i.e., name of the periodical in which it originally appeared, date of publication, and author's name). Permission must be obtained in order to reprint this article in a published work or in order to offer it for sale in any form. Please write to the address indicated on the Contact Us page. -- © Alfie Kohn


La Canadienne said...

I've never heard of this person before, but he knows his shit. The best classes I've taken, and the ones where I feel I've learned the most have been the small ones with good teachers who support us in learning instead of forcing knowledge upon us. In my french class, we'd have very open projects where we were able to choose a subject "relating to french culture" and research it in depth and then discuss it with the class. I not only learned a lot about the life and poetry of an influential poet, but I spent time learning about his life, the time he lived in, and how these things affected him.
Unfortunately, many of the students in this class did classic, surface facts-style presentations that we were used to presenting. They weren't used to this style. But this is how education should be; students will be more excited about school if they are studying things they love. Teachers should suggest and guide. That is how students can become "well-educated", in my opinion.

KEM said...

Interesting - I taught elem/middle school for 7 years before having kids. Our principal was very supportive of the kind of Good School Kohn describes. We were hamstrung, however, by school district schedules and, most importantly IMO, by class-size.

It's excruciatingly hard (unless you're accustomed to working a 16 hour day) to run a child-centered, multi-disciplinary classroom with 32 kids in your class.

I've lost confidence in the public ed system (at least in the US) and we'll be homeschooling our kids unless something changes drastically in the next few years (unlikely).

Oma said...

I agree. Class size is the killer ... and large classes seem to be the norm now ... all about money, of course.

When the public school system kept their class sizes at a reasonable size, hired good teachers, and then trusted them to teach well, wonderful things happened in many classrooms.

Everywhere in the world where I have seen the public system squeezed by money concerns and/or backward examination systems that defeat even the best teaching, the private system has become much stronger.

This creates a two tier educational system that I believe is harmful to the whole country. The very rich can afford private schools. The very committed may be able to home school if there are two wage earners.

The rest of the population is stuck with second or third rate education, and the best teachers are leaving the profession because they cannot possibly teach well unless they are willing to put in 16 hour days.

We all pay the price when this happens.

Mud Mama said...

Private school and homeschooling are not options only open to the very wealthy.

We homeschooled with a single income of 24 000. Most homeschoolers I know are either self employed and not making a lot (and paying for all the things that go along with self employment) or are lower middle class.

Most, no scratch that, ALL the people I know personally who have their kids in private school are no more than middle class, many are single parents too! They sacrifice in other areas because their kids have ONE childhood and they won't let them be squashed in what public school is today.

How much in tax dollars goes into a public schooled child's education each year? Tuition at the school we'd have liked our kids at was 4500 *a year* and there are bursaries available, and they provide an education head and shoulders above what they'll get in the public system.

The other schools we've considered have tuitions that are 7-8000 a year and again, there are scholarships available.

Everyday ordinary people are making the decision to pull their kids from the public system, not to be elitist, but because they feel they have no choice but to.

If you think teachers feel beleagured by "the system" try being a parent in it right now.

XUP said...

What's that school in the valley in NS? Where kids do their own learning, work on projects that interest them, decide when they're ready to move on? All ages are mixed together, they help and mentor each other and there are no teachers per se, just some adult advisors they can go to with questions. I don't know why a model like this couldn't be used for the public school system. The whole institutionalization of our kids - teaching everyone the same thing, the same way and expecting uniform results is nuts. They never learn to learn or think this way and it just makes for a general mediocraty instead of bringing out the best in each child.

Anonymous said...

You're thinking of Fairfield - a democratic Sudbury Valley model school. It was in Wolfville, but had to close down because of enrollment issues that were exasperated by a custody dispute and the province not allowing the same tax breaks it have other private schools. People in the community want to keep it going as a cooperative though.

Why it couldn't be used as a model for the public school system?

Well I have been ordered to have my child in *public school* because of my intentions to enroll them at Fairfield. My ex - who supported the sudval model when we were together - used it as evidence I would endanger the kids education if I had custody. All he had to say was "I changed my mind".

They won't use it as a model for public education because our society doesn't have any faith in the intelligence or moral fortitude of children. The system, and those in charge, don't respect children enough to trust them to make good decisions regarding their education.

I met a naturopathic doctor last weekend who lost decisionmaking over her children's healthcare because her ex used her being a naturopath as evidence she would endanger the kids medically in a custody dispute. Didn't matter that she was a naturopath when they were together or that he utilized and supported alternative health care himself.

The system doesn't trust things outside the mainstream and regardless of what individuals want they'll squash it if they can.

Alfie Kohn, John Taylor Gatto, John Holt, there are so many educators speaking out against the educational system as it stands, and teachers can nod and agree, and principals can too, but the people decisionmaking don't want free thinkers.

XUP said...

Yes, Fairfield. Man, that sucks. It seemed like such a beautiful, sensible school. My daughter went to the Shambhala school in Halifax which was also a great environment, but if I'd had a way to get her into Fairfield that would have been even better. I don't know when or how parents lost complete control over their children. Their schooling, their health care -- don't even get me started on vaccinations. Nova Scotia isn't too bad about that, but Ontario? Rabid!

Mud Mama said...


I discovered Enki education through the Shambhala School it was always a hard pressed line between which school we'd like the kids in - Ideally I'd see my kids do primary and grades 1-3 in the Shambhala School and then attend a Sud Val school.

I think the democratic school model is head and shoulders above homeschooling.

We need to talk :-)

zoom said...

Off topic, but HB to NG!