My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’m predisposed to like this book because I have read a number of Alfie Kohn’s essays and blogs online and it’s good to have them collected all in one place. Kohn has an easy-to-read and witty writing style. None of these essays is very long, but they all build a cogent argument and pack a punch. I especially appreciate his ability to think beyond sound bites and to question the meaning of the latest education fads. His takedown of the widespread traditional interpretation of the famous “marshmallow test” (“What Waiting for a Second Marshmallow Doesn’t Prove“) is especially incisive. And while there isn’t anything particularly new in “Remember When We Had High Standards? Neither Do I,” there is even less that’s new or interesting about the widespread bogus nostalgia for a golden educational era that never was, which he convincingly debunks.
As a former classroom teacher himself, Kohn isn’t afraid to admit that he’s made mistakes (poignantly in “What We Don’t Know About Our Students–and Why”), and his respectful attitude towards teaching as a profession, and teachers as a group, is refreshing. While his point of view and policy prescriptions may sometimes be viewed as liberal, he is a bipartisan critic of national “school reform” policies, taking both the Obama and Bush administrations to task for an overemphasis on standardized tests and a misunderstanding of what learning is and what good teachers can do.
I especially loved the title of the essay called “Whoever Said There’s No Such Thing as a Stupid Question Never Looked Carefully at a Standardized Test.” Unfortunately that memorable title heads one of the weaker essays in the collection. Kohn’s analysis of a math question from a Massachusetts state exam is more muddled than the question itself. As far as I can tell, he didn’t understand the algorithm in the problem and got the answer wrong himself. The readers of this essay in “Psychology Today,” where it also appeared, make good points about the value of algorithms and mathematical language in the comments section: “Math is abstract, and it is primarily a language. Working fluently with that language, both in communicating and in being communicated to, is one of the primary ends of mathematical education.”
I am sympathetic to many of the policy suggestions in this book, but sometimes they strike me as just shouting into the wind. One of my favorite of these essays was Chapter 29, “‘Ready to Learn’ Means Easier to Educate.” Its point is that educational institutions, with their endless testing and selective admissions criteria, are effectively excluding those who most need the education they offer. It calls into question the entire purpose of education in our society: is it to improve the performance of students who are struggling–to actually educate people–or merely to select and rubber stamp applicants they think are “ready to succeed”? While I think Kohn’s interpretation is correct here, I don’t think this essay is going to change much about the admissions industry. A number of essays in this book, from “The Case Against Grades” to “Homework: An Unnecessary Evil,” to “Why the Best Teachers Don’t Give Tests” share this kind of impractical idealism.
And yet. A case against homework is making some small inroads in the culture at large, especially in elementary school. Angela Duckworth, who coined the term “grit,” has responded to critiques with a more nuanced and helpful view of the subject. Prestigious colleges from Reed College to Brown University are implementing unconventional assessment policies similar to those described here.
Kohn’s last two essays, “Change by Decree” (he is against it) and “Encouraging Courage” (he is for it), are both inspirational and humble. His last sentence of “Change by Decree,” while presented in the context of educational policy, could apply to almost any important societal issue: “People don’t resist change. They resist being changed.” This book provides examples of how education could change for the better, if we choose.