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Feel-Bad Education: And Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling Paperback – April 5, 2011
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From Publishers Weekly
Educator Kohn (Punished by Rewards) presents 19 essays (previously published in such newspapers and journals as the New York Times and Education Week) in this spirited and incisive probe of education today. Though Kohn can be witty and wry, his overarching message is quite sobering: he's convinced that "historians will look back at our era of ever-higher standards and increasingly standardized instruction as a dark period in American education." Kohn regards the one-size-fits-all approach as a serious mistake: instead of educating the "whole child" in an individualized manner that nourishes a love of learning, the trend is to produce students who can memorize facts that are soon forgotten. Along with standardized tests, Kohn debunks homework and grades, and in a piece entitled "How to Create Nonreaders" reveals that a sure way to destroy children's love of reading and writing is to require written reports, offer incentives, quantify assignments or focus on skills—all common practices in our classrooms. True "progressive education" is very hard to find, the author claims, which is one reason it can't be blamed for the failings of our educational system. With plenty of data to back up his contrarian views, Kohn asks readers to take a hard look at where America's classrooms are heading and do whatever is necessary to turn schools from "test prep centers" into joyful environments where kids learn to think for themselves. (Apr.)
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“Kohn cuts against the grain and takes on adversaries without fear, and yet with a mature and rational sophistication.” ―Jonathan Kozol
"[A] spirited and incisive probe of education today." —Publishers Weekly
“A philosophical, well-structured argument for viable progressive education from one of the movement's most prolific and well-regarded authors…A vital wake-up call to educators.”—Kirkus Reviews
“The reader will find much to reflect upon in Feel-Bad Education, and will be mindful of controversies that are still unexplored in this short but enjoyable volume.”—The School Administrator
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The tenor of this book could generally be described as progressive or anti-conservative. In essay after essay, Kohn turns conservative conventional wisdom that has tended to dominate national discussions on education, upside down. Some of the things he sees as being counterproductive are: homework, standardized testing, the use of rubrics, encouragement of self-discipline, the use of rewards and incentives, competition in the classroom, nationalized standards and the memorization of facts. If questioning some of these things sounds ridiculous to you, you might find this book interesting because he does a convincing job of calling into question these and more practices, some of which enjoy an almost unquestioned status in our society. One gets the impression after reading his book that the state of education in the US is dismal and getting worse, although I don't think that is necessarily his intent or even his own conclusion. I think the end goal of all of these essays is to go beyond questioning conventional wisdom to suggest ways of actually making education better for everyone involved. One of the undercurrents I noticed in this book is a serious concern about the encroachment of corporate activity or corporate ideas into education. Kohn seems to be genuinely worried that corporations are seeing education as a business opportunity and that business mindsets which are not always appropriate in educational settings are trumping actual educational research when it comes to policy-making.
For those who have already read many of Kohn's previous books and articles, this particular volume may seem more like a summary of his thoughts than something new. For those who have never read anything by him, this is an excellent introduction to some of his ideas and is a refreshing, thought-provoking, albeit contrarian look at some of the issues that are commonly discussed on the battlegrounds of public policy on education.
On a personal note, after reading one of Kohn's books suggesting that homework might be counterproductive in many ways, I decided to try it out for myself and banned homework from my classes. It was one of the best decision I have made as a teacher and has been highly successful for the most part. Sometimes things that seems counterintuitive are only that way because we have become so used to following particular practices without really questioning the validity of them. I have long held that if we really want to improve education all around, we should rely on educational research no matter how contrary the findings run to what seems to make sense based on conventional wisdom. This book by Alfie Kohn is a starting point for laypersons who are open to considering these kinds of possibilities.