I went to a couple of talks by Alfie Kohn this week. I’ve been a big fan of his ever since I ran into an article of his in the Emacs distribution back when I was in college. His book No Contest was a big influence on my teaching when I was a grad student and postdoc. (I wish that Punished by Rewards could have been more of an influence, but it takes more bravery than I have to avoid giving grades at a school like Stanford, though I did at least spend time thinking about when I was doing so and what values I was demonstrating by the methods I used to assign grades.)
It’s been a little while since I’d read any of his books (though I had recently bought his next-to-last one, still sitting on my books-to-read stack): he’s mostly been concentrating on schools, while I’m out of teaching, and he’s saying things that, while quite sensible, aren’t opening up as much new mental ground for me as his earlier books did. But I was excited to see that he was giving a couple of talks locally, so of course I went to both.
He’s a very lively speaker, it turns out. Or perhaps I should say very lively: not gospel revival meeting lively, or anything, but he provides a quite entertaining theatrical experience. He makes just as much sense in person as he does in his books; takes a few more pot shots against people he disagrees with, but not so much as to be distasteful, especially since the evidence really is there in the footnotes in his books.
The first talk was on schooling (“Progressive Education”, I believe the title was); I didn’t see much there that I hadn’t seen in his books (though maybe that’s because I don’t think as intently about teaching now that I’ve been (quite happily) out of the teaching business for a couple of years), but it did get me thinking about ways in which Miranda’s classroom, while quite good, is less than ideal. (No disrespect intended towards Miranda’s classroom; if you know of an ideal classroom, good for you, and Miranda’s classroom does an awful lot of things right.) I sat next to one of the other parents from Miranda’s classroom; she’d recently discovered Alfie Kohn on her own, and I’d lent her my copy of Punished by Rewards; I think she’s planning to pass it on to Miranda’s teacher, with certain bits emphasized.
The second talk was on parenting; it turns out that he has a new book out on the subject, which I picked up a copy of. This talk struck closer to home: I may not be a teacher these days, but I’m certainly a parent! And it pointed out some areas where we could try to improve: we don’t use rewards a lot, for example, but we do use them a little. (And some things that are a bit borderline: from my point of view, the reason why we don’t let Miranda have dessert if she hasn’t eaten a reasonable amount for dinner is because we don’t want her to eat dessert food at the expense of a more balanced diet, but obviously one could analyze that as either a reward or a punishment as well.) Or there are areas where we tell Miranda she has to do things where we could certainly spend more time listening to Miranda and trying to find a solution where our desires (assuming they are reasonable) are met but where we do that in a way that meets her needs better as well. Good talk; I’m looking forward to reading his latest book.
I was hoping to be able to ask him what he thinks about homeschooling, especially the John Holt-inspired versions: it seems like he and John Holt would have agreed about a lot of things, but John Holt came to the conclusion that schools in general are harmful, while Alfie Kohn hasn’t come to that conclusion. Unfortunately, there was almost no time for questions at the end of his education talk, and he was too busy / jetlagged after the talk for me to feel comfortable asking him any questions. I’m e-mailing him the question, though; hopefully I’ll get a response.
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