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Alfie Kohn speaks on Achievement vs. Learning April 8, 2009

Filed under: Education — Ms.M @ 8:41 am

I had the opportunity to see Alfie Kohn speak in person yesterday. I felt oddly elated by the whole thing. And those who do not know who Alfie Kohn is, or who do not agree with his educational philosophy, will frankly find that odd. I guess like listening to Jonathan Kozol a few years ago, there are certain individuals who you imagine you will never run into in real life, so when you do it feels as if you’ve become suddenly luckier than you once were. I know that’s not true though; in reality Alfie is just a man who writes very prolifically about education and educational psychology, as do many others. To mark him as special would frankly be a bit ironic. And Alfie, like Jonathan Kozol, has become a circuit speaker; they’re not hiding in their homes waiting to be found, they want to spread their message widely and freely and so will travel long distances to talk to strangers, especially a large crowd of teachers.

In the introduction to the talk it was made clear that Alfie Kohn’s message is not a new one, but it has just become suddenly more urgent and relevant than it once was in a educational world focused on high stakes testing. It’s a bit funny in a way. Alfie was once considered to have “radical” views on education, now he’s just one among many who share the same or similar thinking and are pretty widely accepted. But even still, the message hasn’t reached everyone, especially those who have a large impact on educational practices, so there was Kohn screaming and flailing on the stage, jumping down and up the few stairs, hoping to reignite the idea that education is about learning, not achievement. You would think that would be obvious, but it’s not, at least not to everyone.

If it were obvious, schools would be very different places in more ways than one. And the way we talked about schools and students would be very different. That was the main point of the whole talk…that and the fact that like it or not, every teacher, parent, school volunteer, etc. was directly and/or indirectly perpetuating the whole charade on a daily basis.

A few ideas that I jotted down from the talk:

  • Rewards are really “control through suduction” or “sugar-coated control”
  • It does not matter how motivated students are but HOW students are motivated
  • Intrinsic and Extrinsic motivation are inversely related…so the more you reward people for doing something the more they tend to loss interest in what they have to do to get the reward
  • Rewards, like punishment, only lead to temporary compliance
  • Schools that focus on student performance and achievement are setting the stage for anti-intellectual thinking
  • The best teachers, if they must grade, make grades invisible for as long as possible

And my personal favorites…

  • “The schools that want kids to be life-long learners don’t treat students like pets.”
  • “What’s worse than a reward? An award.”
  • Homework is like forcing kids to work second-shift
  • Any debate on education should be prefaced with the question: How does making this change affect students’ desire to learn

Also, since his talk was entitled Achievement vs. Learning, he spent a good amount of time listing, summarizing into bullet points, some of the research that has been done in the field about what happens to students when the focus is not on learning, but on achievement and performance.

  1. Students become less interested in what they are learning. It becomes something they HAVE to do, not something they WANT to do.
  2. Kids see achievement as innate intelligence; they don’t understand the reason for the reward (When asked why they’ll say one of four things most often: I have high ability, I studied hard, I got lucky, or the test was too easy)
  3. Kids will pick the easiest task/problem/question (His hypothetical student, if they had the guts, would tell the teacher “I’m not being lazy, I’m being rational. The easier the task, the more likely I can give you what you want)
  4. Kids who hit a bump in the road (ex. a lower grade) beat themselves up, and some are likely to lose all interest in school
  5. It is detrimental to social interaction (“Performance goals lead students to see their peers as obstacles to their own success”)
  6. Kids don’t learn as well, especially if the focus is on DEPTH of understanding (ex. Being able to transfer their learning to authentic tasks/problems or across subject areas)

It was a very interesting, and surprisingly entertaining talk…(not that I think educational pychologists can’t be funny and entertaining)

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4 Responses to “Alfie Kohn speaks on Achievement vs. Learning”

  1. Anne Says:

    I’m JEALOUS! I’ve read quite a bit of Alfie Kohn’s stuff. It’s so very challenging for us to resist the system of rewards and punishments, when it’s such an integral part of education lately. Frustrating because there’s definitely an imbalance between home and daycare for J. I will admit to having to resorted to sticker charts for potty training and bad behavior issues, and I hated it. HATED it…. it changed her into a “gimme gimme” kind of kid.

    I wish more teachers would read up on his style. Oh, to dream!

  2. Ms.M Says:

    That’s great that you’ve read his books! I can imagine that the imbalance between home and daycare can be very frustrating. Actually, in the older grades it kind of goes both ways. Some teachers really don’t want to do rewards, including grades, but it’s the parents that insist on it! In my little bit of experience I had to speak with a couple parents about grades…and I can tell you it was not fun!

    So yes, I do hope more teachers read about intrinsic motivation, and emphasizing learning in their classrooms, but I also hope parents take the initiative as well.

    Thanks for commenting!

  3. These are the things that make me want to homeschool my kids when it’s time. Schools SCARE me. If only more educators were in tune with what really works and not what’s fastest. It’s not an assembly line.

  4. Ms.M Says:

    Hmmm…yeah I guess some educators may see it that way…getting through the most content before the grading period, etc and testing has of course made this worse. I do think schools could be very different places, but I really don’t think we’re necessarily thinking about changing schools as much as “improving” them. In the meantime, homeschooling is definitely an option, though just because it takes place at home doesn’t mean it’s necessarily any better. It’s still the way you think about learning and how learning happens that makes the most difference in either case.


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