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Book Review

Belmont essayist Kohn puts education system to the test

By Chuck Leddy
April 21, 2011

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Alfie Kohn, an essayist on education who is often critical and always provocative, is a contrarian in the best sense of that time-honored tradition. Like a latter-day Socrates, Kohn looks around at those who think they know what they’re doing and dares to pose a few basic questions — what’s good and what’s bad, what values are we transmitting, and, most radical of all, what do the students themselves think of their own educations? There are probably a few advocates of standardized testing and “rigid’’ curricula, both anathema to Kohn’s progressive, child-centric vision, who would like to deal with Kohn the way ancient Athenians did with Socrates — hemlock, anyone?

In these 19 essays, Kohn’s passionate rejection of today’s top-down style of education, with standardized testing as its primary driver, couldn’t be expressed any clearer. In place of the “command and control’’ philosophy, he calls for progressive, bottom-up education that values children and the way they actually learn. Kohn, a Belmont resident, repeatedly bemoans the “regurgitation model’’ of education: Fill students’ heads with facts that can be spit out later on exams. Kohn describes the “wreckage’’: “Talented teachers have abandoned the profession after having been turned into glorified test-prep technicians. Low-income teenagers have been forced out of school by do-or-die graduation exams. Countless inventive learning activities have been eliminated in favor of prefabricated lessons pegged to numbingly specific state standards.’’

Kohn views many of today’s schools as joyless factories filled with student-drones who passively absorb data, places that “value product more than process, results more than discovery.’’ Kohn identifies the driving force behind this kind of “feel-bad education’’: a rigid, “suck-it-up-kids’’ mentality that equates pain with gain. “[T]here is a remarkable callousness lurking just under the surface here,’’ writes Kohn. “Your objections don’t count, your unhappiness doesn’t matter.’’ Most of all, Kohn sees a hostility to students or educators who would challenge the conventional methods or ask basic questions about the values being communicated to students (i.e., be passive, keep your questions to yourself, please).

In these essays, Kohn promotes a few crazy ideas of his own about education. Teachers should talk less and listen more in classrooms, for example. Students should learn to be more willing to appropriately question authority and analyze data for themselves. Students should be active participants in how their lessons are structured. “What matters is not what we teach; it’s what they learn,’’ writes Kohn, “and the probability of real learning is far higher when the students have a lot to say about both the content and the process.’’ Kohn acknowledges that opponents of this kind of progressive agenda have successfully caricatured it as “kids are free to do anything they please, the curriculum can consist of whatever is fun (and nothing that isn’t fun).’’

Citing loads of educational research over the decades, Kohn asserts that “[p]rogressive education isn’t just more appealing, it’s also more productive’’ in ensuring “long-term retention of what’s been taught, the capacity to understand ideas and apply them to new kinds of problems, [and] a desire to continue learning.’’ Today’s “no pain, no gain’’ education is producing lots of pain and not delivering the kind of “gains’’ we need. Kohn is clearly a gadfly, someone who asks annoyingly fundamental questions that go to the root of our education system and leave its defenders head-thwackingly off-balance. Whether this kind of critical questioning is a good thing or not depends on your attitudes about the status quo. Socrates, remember, was none too popular with the ancient Athenians. One can only hope there’s a place for someone as passionately dedicated to education as Alfie Kohn.

Chuck Leddy, a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester, can be reached at chuckleddy@comcast.net.

FEEL-BAD EDUCATION: And Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling By Alfie Kohn

Beacon, 196 pp., paperback, $15