Active Participants in a Democratic Society or Effective Corporate Employees?

Alfie Kohn, What Does It Mean to be Well Educated?
And More Essays on Standards, Grading, and Other Follies

You only learn things and learn how to think if there’s some purpose for learning, some motivation that’s coming out of you somehow. In fact, all the methodology in education isn’t really much more than that—getting the students to want to learn. Once they want to learn, they’ll do it.

The point is, it doesn’t matter what you read, what matters is how you read.… You only learn if the material is integrated into your own creative processes somehow, otherwise it just passes through your mind and disappears. And there’s nothing valuable about that –it basically has the effect of learning the catechism, or memorizing the Constitution or something like that.
—Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power


After finishing my 23rd year of teaching, I do breathing gathas and slowly reconnect in the days ahead with the clarity of Alfie Kohn…


Nel Noddings: “the main aim of education should be to produce competent, caring, loving, and lovable people.” 2

The best sort of schooling is organized around problems, projects, and questions—as opposed to facts, skills, and disciplines. Knowledge is acquired, of course, but in a context and for a purpose. The emphasis is not only on depth rather than breadth, but also on discovering ideas rather than on covering of prescribed curriculum. Teachers are generalists first and specialists (in a given subject matter) second; they commonly collaborate to offer interdisciplinary courses that students play an active role in designing. All of this happens in small, democratic schools that are experienced as caring communities.

Critique of Education: Aims: quantifiable results, standardized procedures to improve performance, on order and discipline and obedience to authority.

Privatizing education: [an] ideological underpinning: a pronounced individualism in which there is no us, just you and her and him and me. 15

Business groups commonly characterize students as competitors—as people who do, or will, or should spend their lives trying to beat other people.

When you watch students slogging through textbooks, memorizing lists, being lectured at, and working on isolated skills, you begin to realize that nothing bears greater responsibility for undermining excellence than the continued dominance of traditional instruction.

Howard Gardner: “The greatest enemy of understanding is ‘coverage.’”

In my experience, the most impressive teachers are those who despise the whole process of giving grades.

You want kids to be excited about what they’re learning, and the research strongly suggests that that’s less likely to happen when students are led to focus on getting’s A’s.

Helping students forget about grades is the single best piece of advice for those who want to create a learning-oriented classroom.
[Students] should be able to think and write and explore without worrying about how good they are.

Five disturbing consequences likely to accompany an obsession with standards and achievement: students come to regard learning as a chore; students try to avoid challenging tasks; students tend to think less deeply; students may fall apart when they fail.

The attempt to bask in the reflected glory of the hard sciences helps to explain why many professors refuse to profess. After all, values are tantamount to biases, something to be excluded or denied. The scientist’s job is simply to discover.

Grades aren’t valid, reliable, or objective. Grades distort the curriculum. Grades waste a lot of time that could be spent on learning. Grades spoil teachers’ relationships with students. Grades spoil students’ relationships with one another.

The point is not just to fill students with facts and skills but to nourish their curiosity and disposition to learn.

Is school preparing you to be critical thinkers, lifelong intellectual explorers, active participants in a democratic society, or effective corporate employees?

… and look with keen interest in the next month’s classes–Writing Our Own Histories, Hope’s Beautiful Daughters, and _______________ [TBA].

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