Feel-Bad Education: And Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling Paperback – Apr 5 2011
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“Kohn cuts against the grain and takes on adversaries without fear, and yet with a mature and rational sophistication.” ―Jonathan Kozol
"[A] spirited and incisive probe of education today." —Publishers Weekly
“A philosophical, well-structured argument for viable progressive education from one of the movement's most prolific and well-regarded authors…A vital wake-up call to educators.”—Kirkus Reviews
“The reader will find much to reflect upon in Feel-Bad Education, and will be mindful of controversies that are still unexplored in this short but enjoyable volume.”—The School Administrator
About the Author
Alfie Kohn’s previous eleven books include Punished by Rewards, Unconditional Parenting, and What Does It Mean to Be Well Educated? (Beacon / 3267-1 / $16.00 pb). He speaks widely on education to teachers and parents, and lives in Belmont, Massachusetts.See all Product Description
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The tenor of this book could generally be described as progressive or anti-conservative. In essay after essay, Kohn turns conservative conventional wisdom that has tended to dominate national discussions on education, upside down. Some of the things he sees as being counterproductive are: homework, standardized testing, the use of rubrics, encouragement of self-discipline, the use of rewards and incentives, competition in the classroom, nationalized standards and the memorization of facts. If questioning some of these things sounds ridiculous to you, you might find this book interesting because he does a convincing job of calling into question these and more practices, some of which enjoy an almost unquestioned status in our society. One gets the impression after reading his book that the state of education in the US is dismal and getting worse, although I don't think that is necessarily his intent or even his own conclusion. I think the end goal of all of these essays is to go beyond questioning conventional wisdom to suggest ways of actually making education better for everyone involved. One of the undercurrents I noticed in this book is a serious concern about the encroachment of corporate activity or corporate ideas into education. Kohn seems to be genuinely worried that corporations are seeing education as a business opportunity and that business mindsets which are not always appropriate in educational settings are trumping actual educational research when it comes to policy-making.
For those who have already read many of Kohn's previous books and articles, this particular volume may seem more like a summary of his thoughts than something new. For those who have never read anything by him, this is an excellent introduction to some of his ideas and is a refreshing, thought-provoking, albeit contrarian look at some of the issues that are commonly discussed on the battlegrounds of public policy on education.
On a personal note, after reading one of Kohn's books suggesting that homework might be counterproductive in many ways, I decided to try it out for myself and banned homework from my classes. It was one of the best decision I have made as a teacher and has been highly successful for the most part. Sometimes things that seems counterintuitive are only that way because we have become so used to following particular practices without really questioning the validity of them. I have long held that if we really want to improve education all around, we should rely on educational research no matter how contrary the findings run to what seems to make sense based on conventional wisdom. This book by Alfie Kohn is a starting point for laypersons who are open to considering these kinds of possibilities.
Just for fun I'd like to lay out my own reading of Alfie's basic assumptions. If I'm right you should find evidence of each one in this book. And let's contrast his views with people who disagree with the author. I'll list Kohn's assumptions first. For the sake of brevity I will not deal with Kohn's ideas on families.
1. First and foremost children come to school with inherent virtue that can be nurtured (by stimulating lessons and caring teachers) or corrupted (by undemocratic teachers instilled in the beliefs of behaviorist rewards and punishments). Opponents say that kids come to school faced with choices between virtues and sin and are only prevented from making the wrong choices by controls used by the schools and by the family.
2. In school kids come loaded with intrinsic motivation to learn (after all learning is a natural process that we engage in nearly nonstop throughout our days). Opponents argue that kids come to school (remember they are there by fiat, not by choice) without motivation and it is the job of the school, particularly the classroom teacher, to steer them toward good decisions.
3. The knowledge we should be encouraging is discernment not information. Opponents argue that wisdom is derived only after information is amassed.
4. Knowledge cannot be measured. Opponents say that taxpayers (in public schools) and parents (in private schools) pay the bills and it would be irresponsible to deny them an objective measurement of whether their money is being squandered. The only viable measurement is a test of what kids have learned.
5. Grades and competition inevitably reduce intrinsic motivation. Opponents argue that captive students must be forced to try (work) in the classroom by extrinsic factors. Grades are a way of defining and recognizing virtue in our society.
6. A little revolution is a good thing. Children should learn to be wary of adult dictums because they are often based on what is good for the institutions at the expense of the child. Opponents live on the Slippery Slope. A child who questions one rule will learn to challenge many or all of them, leading to anarchy. It is assumed that the teacher will do nothing that is not in the best interests of the child.
7. The job of the school is to make the child's experience enjoyable. Dull tasks cause the child to ignore or resent education. Opponents want the school to be challenging since virtue can only be earned day by day with continuous good choices. Learning, they say, is difficult, and requires sacrifice and effort.
8. The school should address deeper motives and deeper concerns, rather than try to change behavior. Opponents say that the teacher must rely on his or her own wisdom--presumably gained through age--to model and enforce classroom morality. In the daily classroom there is no time to ferret out each child's inner motives. The teacher owes it to all the students to enforce obedience. There simply isn't time in a normal teacher's day for what Kohn suggests.
9. Never withdraw love or affection from a child. Opponents say, "love the sinner, not the sin" and advocate isolating misdoer's until they learn to follow the rules.
10. Happiness in the short term will lead children to a well-balanced personality in adulthood. Opponents say struggle, work, effort, and sacrifice lead to happiness in adulthood.
11. Rewards and punishments can produce short-term compliance but always lose out to intrinsic motivation over the long haul. Opponents say, "So what!", we teachers live for the moment and getting short term, quick compliance is the only way we can survive in the classroom.
12. The more democracy in the classroom, the better. Students should be involved in choosing the curriculum and in developing the classroom rules. Opponents say, in the classroom, children should be seen but not heard.