- Paperback: 212 pages
- Publisher: Beacon Press; 1St Edition edition (May 15, 2004)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0807032670
- ISBN-13: 978-0807032671
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.5 x 8.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 19 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #442,742 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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What Does it Mean to Be Well Educated? And Other Essays on Standards, Grading, and Other Follies 1St Edition Edition
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From Publishers Weekly
If general readers recognize Kohn's name, it's thanks to his campaign against standardized testing (The Case Against Standardized Testing). Educational professionals will recall Kohn's insights into classroom management (Punished by Rewards) and school reform (The Schools Our Children Deserve). This collection of essays, written from 1999 to 2003, proves the author is one of America's most astute critics of current educational policies. Kohn revisits the standards and testing mania, but also takes on other controversial issues: grade inflation, school violence and how educators can deal with the aftermath of 9/11. "Turning Learning into a Business" is an informative and incisive critique of the many ways in which Kohn sees the corporate world exploiting kids and profiting from schools through the marketing of tests, advertising in schools and textbooks, and turning schools into for-profit businesses. Kohn carefully links these issues to larger social concerns: "one of the most crucial tasks in a democratic society" is "the act of limiting the power that corporations have in determining what happens in, and to, our schools." Kohn is unapologetic and articulate about the advantages of a progressive approach to education that values students' interests, focuses on understanding (rather than the acquisition of isolated facts) and assesses student work authentically (rather than by single, standardized measures). True to his educational philosophy, he asks readers to consider big questions, such as: What's important to know? What are the qualities of a good school? And perhaps most vital, Who gets to decide and who benefits?
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The most energetic and charismatic figure standing in the way of a major federal effort to make standardized curriculums and tests a fact of life in every U.S. school. --Washington Post
"Of the dozens of 'experts' on what's wrong (and right) in U.S. schools, only a handful are truly worth reading; Kohn has long been one of the soundest. His willingness not simply to challenge conventional answers but also examine whether we're asking the right questions gives his work a genuinely eye-opening quality." --Booklist
"Kohn cuts against the grain and takes on adversaries without fear, and yet with a mature and rational sophistication. He draws upon a rich tradition, citing the work of Dewey, Bruner, Piaget, and Holt, among others, but he now takes his proper place within their ranks." --Jonathan Kozol
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For example, emphasis on passing standardized test does not necessarily improve learning and knowledge but only helps students become good at cracking a specific type of test. Learning often takes back seat compared to learning tricks to crack the test. It may even become a measure of resources to join courses to help crack such tests, which does not necessarily measure knowledge or intelligence.
There are sugestions like making work at schools more project, problem solving and discovery oriented, where students have to cooperate, show initiative and think logically to solve problems rather than simply learning tricks to solve certain type of questions.
I only found the section on capitalistic conspiracy theory a bit distractive from main idea. However, I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in education.
The title article of the book, as you might expect, explores what we mean by the phrase “well-educated”. Is it something about the person or about the quality of his schools? Is it being able to spout a bunch of facts? Is it being able to perform one’s job? Does it vary depending on what job one does? And how can “well-educated” be assessed, or does it even need to be? If you know Alfie Kohn, you won’t be surprised to hear that the answer is a resounding, “well, it depends”.
The second essay is basically a polemic against turning education into a “business” and using business terminology, which then sets the stage for the following several chapters about “standards” and testing. “Standards”, of course, suffer from the same problems as defining “well-educated” – few people can agree on what all students need to know to be “educated” or “college and career ready” or whatever term du jour we’re using these days. And testing is designed to “measure” how students are performing on the “standards” which we can’t agree on, so it’s a little murky what standardized tests even “measure”, except perhaps family socio-economic status. And Kohn devotes one chapter to the (premature) celebration of the demise of the SAT.
Given Kohn’s criticisms of testing – that they reduce students to a number, that they rate and rank students against each other, that they take the focus off of learning itself – it’s no surprise that Kohn is no fan of grades either, which is the subject of the third section of the book. Kohn instead argues for more authentic means of assessment that can actually communicate more information than a simple letter grade. But, in fact, Kohn isn’t really keen on the whole concept of evaluation, at least not external evaluation. In the essay “Five Reasons to Stop Saying “Good Job”, Kohn returns once again to one of his primary themes throughout his work – the difference between intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. The problem with any external evaluation is that it tends to shift the focus to the evaluation itself, and away from the activity being evaluated. Even (especially) positive external evaluation can decrease intrinsic motivation – kids will do what they need to do to get an A or a “good job” rather than focusing on their own internal sense of satisfaction in doing the activity for its own sake.
The next three essays are lumped together under “Moral, Social and Psychological Questions”. The first two are bound to be controversial as the explore school shootings and September 11 in a context that tries to make sense of why the perpetrators might have done what they did. Kohn is careful to distinguish between understanding and justifying, but nonetheless these two are bound to upset the “personal responsibility” crowd who don’t accept that social forces may play any causal role individual behavior.
The final essay in this section was a piece that I thought made the book as a whole worthwhile, even for one who has read a great deal of Kohn’s work. It’s an exploration – and a critique – of the work of Abraham Maslow and a musing on whether humans are inherently “good” or inherently “bad”. Based on the body of Kohn’s work, I would have placed him squarely in the “good” camp, but this is one of the most subtle and nuanced articles I’ve seen from Kohn, and one which suggests that the answer isn’t that easy – for either side. This is an essay well worth reading multiple times, as well as an encouragement to look more deeply at Maslow’s work.
The final section of the book deals with education “reform”. The first essay is about behavioral management of the classroom and the underlying rationale therefore. In typical Kohnian style, we’re challenged to look beyond the “what” and see the “why”. Why is a quiet classroom necessarily better than a noisy one, for instance? Is it better to have students obedient or engaged? This essay is addressed primarily to educators who may see the problems with more traditional, authoritarian classroom management styles and who may want to move in a more progressive direction, but get caught up in common stumbling blocks in which they may think they’re “working with” rather than “doing to”, but they’re actually just using kinder, gentler methods of top-down control.
The next essay addresses the idea of compromising by using multiple approaches together. Why not use a combination of letting kids figure out problems for themselves and direct instruction? Why not use grades and narrative reports? The reason, the research seems to show, is that one approach often undermines the other. For example, the negative effects of letter grades are not offset by the addition of narrative comments – the narrative is undermined by the presence of the letter grade. The final two essays are one about merit pay (which doesn’t seem terribly related to the question of being well-educated) and one encouraging education professors to be more activist in the face of the encroach of education reform.
I always enjoy reading Alfie Kohn’s work. Even if you don’t agree with him, it’s still refreshing to hear an alternate perspective and an encouragement to question underlying assumptions about the way we do things. Maybe there are benefits to such traditional procedures as letter grades or standardized testing that Kohn is overlooking (although, what those benefits might be is beyond me), but it seems like it should be incumbent upon proponents of such methods to prove their benefits, not incumbent upon the rest of us to simply go along like meek sheep because that’s the way it’s always been done or because they are somehow “good” for children without demonstrating that that good in fact exists.