Season 2, Episode 4: Alfie Kohn

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Michael Payne 0:09

Hello, and welcome everyone to Things Fall Apar,t our podcast here at the Human Restoration Project. I am Michael.

Chris McNutt 0:16

And I'm Chris.

Michael Payne 0:17

And per usual, we're going to intro here with a little bit of sort of background info of what is currently going on.

Chris McNutt 0:24

So today we're going to be joined by Alfie Kohn here shortly. Alfie Kohn probably is one of the lead inspirations for the Human Restoration Project in terms of what we talk about. Many of his ideas are in line with the exact things that we believe are important. So putting research into practice, getting rid of the competitive nature of schooling and focusing on children with love and support, and just overall humanizing education - stop focusing on competitive grading and pitting our kids against each other and ranking them and averaging them, and instead focus on them as individuals and engaging their passions and learning to gather a love of learning. So we're super looking forward to talking to him about that.

Michael Payne 1:08


Chris McNutt 1:09

Some things coming up as a part of the Human Restoration Project, we do offer materials in addition to our discussions. Next month, we're introducing a progressive guidebook, if you will, it's not an end all be all guide to progressive education, but rather a summary of different things that we think are worth thinking about. That's what I'm thinking.

Michael Payne 1:29


Chris McNutt 1:30

The progressive guidebook will be just kind of an overview of what progressive education is, and a huge documented list of all the different possible things you could look at in order to learn more about them. Also, we have some resources already available, which will probably relate to what we're talking about today, such as a reflective development piece over the subjectivity of grading to learn more about how grading practices can have negative effects on children, as well as different projects such as the QUEST project, which is is a fairly large booklet, surrounding activities, reflections, and discussion that you can have with your students surrounding recognizing their passions and why it might be difficult to find them. So check those out,

Michael Payne 2:14

Which is all free, by the way on the website.

Chris McNutt 2:17

Yep, it's all free. Thanks to our Patreon supporters. So special shout out to Skylar Primm, and Aaron Flanagan for helping us out. And if you want to contribute to our Patreon page, you could do so for as little as $1 a month. You can check us out on to find research, and resources, thoughts, podcasts, all sorts of different stuff pertaining to progressive education.

Today, we're joined by Alfie Kohn, a renowned educator who has authored over 100 articles on the importance of progressive practice, including his collection of works, The Myth of [the] Spoiled Child, Feel Bad Schooling, Beyond Measure, Punished by Rewards and The Homework Myth. You can find almost all of Alfie's lectures, blogs and thoughts on his website for free at Kohn is well known for his views on eliminating competition such as grading in schools, eliminating standardized testing, and truly having a relevant, authentic, caring system that focuses on education [sic].

You're focused a lot on educational reform movements, getting away from buzzwords such as growth, mindset and grit. And you talk a lot about changing systemic issues in education, so removing competitive grading, removing standardized testing. You're trying to find ways to reinvigorate education rather than making the old system slightly more functional. So how do you think we can effectively communicate your message to the majority of educators who care about students, but are instead focusing on improving a system that needs more radical change?

Alfie Kohn 3:50

Well, I think there's two issues that should be teased apart there. One is how radical or moderate the changes that we make inviting people to ask the root questions, not "how do you tweak grading?", for example, to include fashionable new variations like standards based grading, but instead ask the question, "why are we giving grades at all?", given what the research finds is the effect of grades. And so on for other issues as well: homework or the way the classroom is arranged. All of that could be categorized as pushing deeper with the scope and depth of the questions we ask.

But that should be distinguished from the other issue that you raised briefly, which is the tendency to avoid structural causes of problems all together and focus instead on fixing the kid. So for example, when we talk about making kids more persistent, giving them more self discipline, making them acquire a growth, we're not even asking moderate level questions about the system. We're saying the kid - the problem is in the student's head, and we need to change their mindset or attitude or orientation, so they can, well persist longer and be more successful and whatever crap we're throwing at them. And that's not just a matter of turning up the dial, with respect to the radicalism of the fixes that we provide, but shifting our gaze from student to structure. And the way to bring educators in on that is to say exactly that. Invite them to share their experiences. Once they have this schema, this sort of mental model, that may help them to understand what they've experiencing it and doing in a new way.

Chris McNutt 6:02

So based off of that, and I love that answer, you have all these sources that backup your statements. I mean, there's hundreds, thousands of research articles that showcase that progressive educational practice is so important. And ending grading and homework, as you just mentioned. Even things like misguided obsession with STEM. So why do you think it is that teachers, administration, parents, community members, teaching training programs, anything like that is not really embracing these ideas, at least at a national wide scale level?

Alfie Kohn 6:32

Well, when I do a presentation, I almost always ask that question or a version of it, to see what the parents and teachers there come up with. And I get a range of answers, though they predictably fall into several kind of categories. One is that real progressive education, which is not just about ending traditional practices, but about a number of other related shifts, including helping students to create meaning, rather than just memorize facts and practice skills, giving students more say about what it is they're doing, having an educational environment that is more about collaboration than about competition, or even self sufficiency. All of these things, challenge basic assumptions, not just in schools, but in our culture. And they are fundamentally viewed, as well subversive, as unsettling to us based on what we've been raised to assume. And so there's a strong undercurrent toward conservative beliefs that have been accepted as mainstream wisdom in our culture. That's one answer.

Another one is that there's a lot of fear. There's fear on the part of teachers about whether they'll get to keep their jobs, about whether they're going to be attacked by their administrators, or by parents and so on. And so they tend to play it safe, understandably. And in turn, the administrators have their own fears there and so do the parents.

Another kind of answer is that it takes time, and talent, and care, and courage to do the kind of teaching that we're talking about here. And so there's apart from what's unsettling about the ideological components of traditional education. It's just harder to do. I mean, basically, any idiot can stay a chapter ahead of students in a textbook, and just march through to cover a curriculum that's already set or handed down from above. It takes a much more skilled and experienced educator to help students discover that, because that requires a deeper understanding of the content being taught.And a deep in the bone proficiency at teaching itself. Not just the curriculum, but pedagogy, what it means to focus less on what you're doing and teaching, then on what it means to learn and to facilitate learning.

So all of these may help to explain why we seem to be trapped. And then of course, there are larger political and economic explanations for this persistence of dysfunctional teaching approaches. That shouldn't be, I guess, waved away. The people who have most of the power to impose mandates on teachers are often those who know the least about how children learn. You know, if you're a billionaire like Bill Gates, you don't have to know a damn thing about education, you can buy the Common Core Curriculum, and make sure that that's imposed from above, which is pretty much what happened. If you if you're a politician, you get to decide whether there's high stakes standardized testing, you know, you know nothing about the best way to teach or to assess, and so on.

And then there's the, I guess, larger question I always think about, which is, if progressive education helps students to acquire not only the capacity, but the disposition, the desire to think critically about systems in which they find themselves to be true, active thinkers in a democratic culture. Is that really what the people in charge want? Do they...I mean, that's why when politicians and corporate executives make speeches about education reform, they almost never talk about democracy in a meaningful sense, or what's in the best interest of children. They talk about education as an investment, they talk about the competitive, global economy in the 21st century, they talk about schooling as if it's nothing more than a means to an end. And the end is about beating people who live in other countries. So if that's what's driving education, is thinking about dollars and cents, thinking about winning and losing...Well, then you're going to have exactly the kind of traditional approach to education that we have.

Michael Payne 11:57

That idea of fear is something that Chris and I just talked about recently, which I agree with, completely, I don't think anyone wouldn't. One of the biggest impediments that stand in the way of I think many administrators, many teachers, and even many parents is most certainly fear of progressive education, what that could look like. As you mentioned, it's kind of that axiom of, "it was good enough for me, or that's not the "blank" that I know." And that, you know, that connects to so much...even music is what comes to mind immediately how many times I've heard older generations telling me that, you know, music isn't the same or whatever, it's not the same as it was for them. And there's always a fear of change.

The idea [that] you brought it up this money. And that's something that I think... we were just talking yesterday to Ted Dintersmith, we had a podcast. And that's something that I thought was very prominent in the lack of people choosing progressive education in their schools, such as teachers, administrators, etc, I think it's money has a lot to do with it. You mentioning Bill Gates, and the Common Core and how I remember when he when that got rolled out, it was incredible how many textbooks that he owned. So the Pearson company was of course, was already ready to roll out all of their DVDs and books regarding Common Core, even though you know, it just came out.

But even more so I do feel like that there are and I don't mean to sound shrewd, I guess or flippant. But I do feel like when it comes to growth mindset or "insert the blank" mindset. There are a lot of people who can make a decent payroll off of not inviting progressive education into the classroom, but instead kind of gussying up standard education or very traditional education by introducing games or fun ways to're doing the same thing! But you're trying to disguise it as much as possible, in turn making a profit off of silly books or pamphlets or worksheets and things of that nature. In many ways, I think that your philosophy of offering the good news for free, like on your website, I mean, pretty much everything is there for free. I think it's very valuable and very important.

Alfie Kohn 14:03

Sure. I mean, for growth mindset and other things, I'm not sure that's the best explanation. Yeah, there's a program you can buy. But I think that deals more with sort of ideological assumptions. But there are certainly other realms where you want to follow the money say, the direction of reading instruction, where as Dick Allington and others have pointed out. The best approach to teaching kids to read, according to the research, is to have them make choices among a rich literacy curriculum that features real books of the kind you find in libraries and bookstores. But there aren't... publishers make a lot more money with... primers and textbooks, and so on, that contain a very different kind of skills based curriculum with little, little snippets of prose that the kids don't care about, didn't choose and so on. And so there's a big push toward that way of teaching reading, because nobody gets gets rich off the way that's more authentic and more effective.

Chris McNutt 15:14

So based off of what you've written, and kind of based off this discussion so far, obviously, there's a lot of pressure that's placed on educators that want to incorporate these ideas. But I mean, there's a lot of factors that work against taking those steps. So what do you feel like then is one step maybe teachers could take tomorrow that would revolutionize their classroom? Is there anything that they could just do, and it could just start helping?

Alfie Kohn 15:42

They could ask students, what interests them, what questions they have about themselves and the world, and then slowly construct a curriculum with students, not just for them, that is centered on the students own questions about the world... Which would tend to be interdisciplinary, that if you draw from different fields, in trying to find answers to those questions, to create projects that make sense of the world, as opposed to offering a list of facts, a bunch of knowledge to cram into them sequentially, or to divide up social studies from English and English from math, in the more traditional way. To shift from a "doing to" classroom to a "working with" classroom. To shift from a bunch-o-facts, to a quest for meaning is to be... I mean, it sounds sounds easy when I reduce it to catch phrases. But in fact, it's terribly hard to do if you haven't done it before. And sometimes even if you have.

And so your classroom can get better in other respects, from having moved in that more substantive direction. Rather than starting out by saying, "Oh, I read a book that rewards and punishments aren't good. Let's get rid of them." Which may make sense, but now you because of the way you're teaching and what you're teaching, if you're a traditionalist, which most teachers are, even if they wouldn't describe themselves that way. Because of what you're teaching and how you're teaching, the kids have very little intrinsic motivation to do what you're giving them. So now if you take away the extrinsic motivators, the artificial inducements, the carrots and sticks, they got nothing. That's why you have to start with the more fundamental questions: the teaching and learning.

But if the teacher’s mantra is talk less, ask more, with the sense that we're going to try to create a curriculum that's meaningful, then you're able to make other related changes and and to do away with a lot of stuff that's propping up the old system. You know, for example, if you give me a diet, if I'm a student, you give me a diet of worksheets, and textbooks, and quizzes, and homework and grades. And I've had nothing to say about what I'm learning or with whom, or how, then I'm not going to be particularly interested in this. And so then you're going to accuse me of not being motivated or having the right attitude. And you'll then award me points for doing something or stickers or grades, or punish me in various ways, ways for it up doing what I'm supposed to do and being on task. And then you'll claim that these bribes and threats are necessary, and that it's utopian or unrealistic to think we can do without them given the way kids are today. But in fact, if you start within it, you know, an authentically engaging curriculum that begins by eliciting the questions and interests that students already come in with, then you don't have to treat them like pets with grades and various other rewards and punishments.

Chris McNutt 19:34

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I don't want to sound too cynical. But I feel like that the question almost begs itself to be asked, which is this reform movement towards experiential learning or more passion, a passion based classrooms or inquiry based classrooms has been around for mean over 100 years now you have like Dewey, and Montessori and Holt, who have you. And it seems like since then, really, what we've done is just double down on the traditional norms that kind of started all this with with Thorndike, or whoever you know is preaching this, this Prussian system, to kind of get kids-in-line. So where you feel like is going to be the point that this really sees a drastic shift, because Donald Trump is president, you've written about kind of how that reflects the culture that we live in. And arguably, the standardized testing system is bigger than it ever has been. Is it going to take a catastrophe, one singular event in order to change all this? Or where do you feel like change will occur?

Alfie Kohn 20:56

I don't know. I'm not very good at predictions. And prediction type questions, sort of assume that history plays itself out like a movie, we're sitting there passively and watching, and you're asking you to guess what's coming next in the second reel. I don't know, I'm not good at guessing what's going to happen, but I also kind of reject the model that assumes that things will happen on their own accord. I think it depends on what we do. Not to be too simplistic about it, I hope. Whether 10 years from now, we are still beating kids to death with standardized tests, depends on us. It depends on us, as educators as parents, and as citizens, if we're able to build a movement and opt out movement for parents, to to boycott the test, and to follow the lead of courageous teachers who have declined to give them and certainly to teach to them. Then history will point...and to the answer your question - will be very different than if we shrug our shoulders and say, "Well, this is just life. This is the way things are, that train has left the station, etc." You know, that will point in a different direction.

The same thing is true of what teacher educators do and universities. Are they preparing young teachers to fit in and mindlessly capitulate to moronic mandates? Or are they preparing young teachers to be reflective rebels? You know, that's true with respect to any number of these things. Are teachers going to first look at a bunch of demands? You know, you got to get this much homework a night? And it even though research fails to find any benefits to any kind of homework before high school. And newer research is calling into question the value of homework even in high school. So making kids work, what amounts to a second shift doesn't help academically and it does nothing but harm in terms of their attitudes about learning. So are teachers going to take a mandate to give homework and shrug and say, "Oh, well, that's what's expected of me, I'm going to do it" or are they going to respond by saying, "this doesn't make sense!" So my first impulse is going to be to reach out to my colleagues, to organize, to mobilize, to provide the administrators and parents with the relevant arguments and evidence and to insist on doing what makes sense. You know, we could we could repeat variations of that same question, that same fork in the road, this or that, with regard to any number of aspects of education. And that will determine the answer to your original question of what all things look like "x years" from now,

Michael Payne 24:00

Essentially, it's an extremely open ended "if, then" and it sounds like and your prediction is the best "non prediction", I think that that you could probably go for in that regard. That said, to switch the topic a bit here, you are, most certainly at least, Chris and I would agree are one of the most abundant creators of resources. Your website is just full of articles, blogs, and then your books, your essays, it's extremely overwhelming, in a sense. But it's just not much more needs to be said, so without trying to say what would you suggest from yourself? I'm curious, aside from your own work, which is I know it's going to be tough to do in a way, what maybe books or resources might you recommend to educators and administrators looking to change their paradigm or change their mindset. Looking to try to think differently about the fear they currently have?

Alfie Kohn 24:53

Oh, I, I wondered where that question was going to end - with respect to what being the answer, you know, if somebody says, "what should I read?" I say well it depends, you know, I love being to the extent I can be a human bibliography, but I need some guidance here. You want to talk about what great primary grade math teaching looks like? You know, I got one answer for you. How to hold democratic class meetings, I got another one. Why homework doesn't make sense? And so on each question, each topic calls for its own set of resources. So I can point you to the writers who have influenced me, but around fear? Gosh, I don't know. I'm not sure there's a simple... I wouldn't know how to write a book that just says here's how to deal with your fear.

Because it depends what are you afraid of? And why? Two very important questions. Some teachers are just, I think temperamentally fearful, reticent, and inclined, by the way to censor themselves, so that they can't even point to, if I started having class meetings in place of, you know, using god awful, manipulative management programs like PBIS or various discipline approaches that treat kids like pets. You'll be fired, everybody's got to be on board with that. In many cases, they could get away, certainly within their own classrooms, of doing things that were much more respectful of kids, much more constructive, and productive, useful, and nice. But they don't, because they're afraid of everything. And so that self censorship is probably reflects a, a temperament that existed before they set foot in a classroom.

Others are appropriately concerned based on the history of what's happened in their schools. And so the question is, if you're right, that you can't get away with "x", then here's how you might be able to do a version - a diluted version of "x." And so there's not going to be one source, one reference that says, "Here's why that's happening. And here's what to do about it." It will depend on the particular kind of change, you're considering and are afraid of implementing. And even more, it will depend on the particular individuals and situation you work with, and for, and the environment and the situation you find yourself in. I mean, I get emails through my website all the time, you know, what do I do about this? And I have to say, I don't know, I don't know what your tolerance for risk is. And I don't know what your principal is like. Whether your principal was secretly on your side, would like to help you or not, I don't know, if you've got 20 other teachers in the building who feel the way you are. And if you march yourselves into the principal's office together, politely, but pointedly, you might be able to, to say, let's get rid of Accelerated Reader, which is killing kids interested in reading. And here's why, and here's the research, and here's what we propose to replace it with. That might work. So I can't give a single simple answer to the question. Although asking a question that deals with overcoming our fears, I think make sense because that's a good door to open. Or to put a, use a, different metaphor, it's a good lens through which to look to understand how to make change.

Chris McNutt 28:43

Exactly, exactly, that's a good point. This is going to refer back to something we were talking about earlier. And I realized all these questions kind of have a similar guise to them, if you will. But I think it's important to hit this point. So in one of your most recent blogs, and something that you talk about a lot on on your Twitter page is about Donald Trump's presidency, and how it correlates to our obsession with competition and rivalry, success. Success being defined as being rich and famous. Could you go into further detail about how our society reflects this narrative that traditional education imposes on our children? And is having cooperation and love in the classroom, you think going to be enough to change those cultural norms?

Alfie Kohn 29:28

I can answer the last question quickly. No, it's not enough. It's necessary but not sufficient, we have to look at the structural barriers to adopting a climate of cooperation and love, as well as what else needs to happen once people try to move in that direction. S,o think about cooperation or collaboration, as two steps beyond where we are, in many respects, one step beyond would be not be particularly cooperative, but at least not to try to defeat one another.

We're in a situation now that isn't just not cooperative, it's not even individualistic in some respects. It doesn't say, "you do your thing and I do mine." It says, "my success comes with the price of your failure." It's worse than the than the absence of cooperation. It sets the game up as mutually exclusive goal attainment. So it's bad enough that we give rewards to kids for doing well, which undermines interest in the learning itself. We give something worse than rewards, we give awards - an award is a reward that has been made artificially scarce. So if I get one you can't. And the existence of things like spelling bees, and publicly posted grades, or grading on a curve, or ranking high school students, or awards, assemblies, and the like. All of these are set up to teach kids other people are obstacles to your own success. And that you would naturally wish them ill. Hope they'll screw up. Not because you're a neurotic or sadistic person, but because adults have set up a structure that's not about succeeding, it's about winning. Which means succeeding at the price of other people's failure.

So we have to understand that when we have competitive games, indoor and outdoor games, when we have spelling bees and geography bees, when we take any activity and painting or, or singing in a chorus, whatever it is, and turn it into a contest where the goal is to make other people fail - when it's now about victory, not about success - everyone ultimately loses. Even the winners. And that was the very first book I wrote a very long time ago a book called No Contest: The Case Against Competition. And I moved on to other topics, but this this keeps haunting me. It keeps following me around because the toxicly competitive aspect of our culture and including our schooling, the way we raised and teach, socialize our children, threads its way through almost every other topic that we come across. I mean, Donald Trump is just an ideal type, a perfect representation of the logical conclusion that ridicule ad absurdum of this, where cooperation is viewed as weakness. Where the goal in life is this desperate, neurotic need to prove your superiority over everyone you come across. He is like a funhouse mirror, a distorted exaggerated version of the culture that raised him, which... I was using Trump as an example long before he thought, "hey, how about if I run for president?" back when we just knew him as a, you know, a grifter, an ...absurd clown.

Chris McNutt 33:36

You know that must be nightmarish for you.

Alfie Kohn 33:39

Yeah. But back then, even back then, it was where was clear where he was just trying to pull a con job on the latest casino or whatever he was doing, that here is proof that you can be rich and famous without being a successful human beings in any moral or psychological sense. So he's a good example of what I call negative learning, which is where you pay careful attention to folks doing horrendous things and say, "I need to take notes here, so I can be exactly the opposite." And raise our kids. I even had this idea last year to write a book called Raising an un-Trump for Parents. You know, just make a list of every aspect of his personality. And that's exactly the opposite of what we want for our children. So how do we go about helping them to be otherwise? And part of it, but not all of it deals with the issue you raised. How do we move away from this pathological fixation on defeating the people around us. And ideally, move that next step as well toward seeing others as potential allies and collaborators.

Chris McNutt 35:05

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