Alfie Kohn

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Alfie Kohn
Born (1957-10-15) October 15, 1957 (age 57)
Miami Beach, Florida, U.S.
Residence Belmont, Massachusetts
Occupation Author

Alfie Kohn (born October 15, 1957) is an American author and lecturer who has explored a number of topics in education, parenting, and human behavior. He is a proponent of progressive education and has offered critiques of many traditional aspects of parenting, managing, and American society more generally, drawing in each case from social science research.[1]

Kohn's challenges to widely accepted theories and practices have made him a controversial figure, particularly with behaviorists, conservatives, and those who defend the practices he calls into question, such as the use of competition, incentive programs, conventional discipline, standardized testing, grades, homework, and traditional schooling.[2]


Kohn was born in Miami Beach, Florida.[3] He earned a B.A. from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island in 1979, having created his own interdisciplinary course of study,[4] and an M.A. in the social sciences from the University of Chicago in Illinois in 1980.[5] He lives in the Boston area and works as an independent scholar, unaffiliated with any institution.[6]



Kohn's ideas on education have been influenced by the works of John Dewey and Jean Piaget. He believes in a constructivist account of learning in which the learner is seen as actively making meaning, rather than absorbing information, and he argues that knowledge should be taught "in a context and for a purpose."[7] He has written that learning should be organized around "problems, projects, and questions – rather than around lists of facts, skills, and separate disciplines."[8] Along with this belief, Kohn feels that students should have an active voice in the classroom with the ability to have a meaningful impact on the curriculum, structure of the room, and any necessary discipline measures.[9]

Kohn has been critical of several aspects of traditional schooling. Classroom management and discipline are, in his view, focused more on eliciting compliance than on helping students become caring, responsible problem-solvers. He has also denounced the effects of the test-driven "accountability" movement – in general, but particularly on low-income and minority students – arguing that "the more poor children fill in worksheets on command (in an effort to raise their test scores), the further they fall behind affluent kids who are more likely to get lessons that help them understand ideas."[10] More recently, Kohn has been critical of the place homework holds in the American classroom, noting that research does not support claims of any benefit from homework, academically or otherwise.[11]


While Unconditional Parenting (2005) is Kohn's first book that deals primarily with the topic of raising children, he devoted two chapters to this question in Punished by Rewards (1993). He discusses the need for parents to keep in mind their long-term goals for their children, such as helping them grow into responsible and caring people, rather than on short-term goals, such as obedience. The key question, he argues, is "What do kids need – and how do we meet those needs?"[12]

One of Kohn's most widely circulated articles is "Five Reasons to Stop Saying 'Good Job!'"[13] which argues that praise, like other forms of extrinsic inducements, tends to undermine children's commitment to whatever they were praised for doing (i.e. children are taught to do things in order to get praise rather than do the things because it is right to do so, or because it is enjoyable to do so). Later, he expanded this critique to suggest that positive reinforcement, like certain forms of punitive "consequences," amount to forms of conditional parenting, in which love is made contingent on pleasing or obeying the parent.[14]

Kohn's most recent book, The Myth of the Spoiled Child (2014), addresses common assumptions about “overindulged” kids, “helicopter” parents, self-esteem, and self-discipline, and it criticizes what he calls "the deeply conservative ideology" behind complaints that children receive trophies, praise, and A’s too easily.


Two of Kohn's books, No Contest (1986) and Punished by Rewards (1993), addressed competition and "pop behaviorism" in workplaces as well as in families and schools. Both attracted considerable attention in business circles, particularly when the late W. Edwards Deming, known for inspiring the Quality movement in organizations, endorsed both books. Kohn spoke at many conferences on management and at individual corporations, primarily during the 1990s, and his work was debated in the Harvard Business Review,[15] CFO Magazine, the American Compensation Association Journal,[16] and other publications.[citation needed] At one point he was described as "America's most biting critic of money as motivator."[17]

Books, articles, and DVDs[edit]

Kohn has published a total of thirteen books. This includes seven on issues in education (e.g. homework, standardized testing, grades, teaching styles), two on parenting, and four on general topics (e.g. human nature, competition, motivation). His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

  • No Contest: The Case Against Competition (Houghton Mifflin, 1986/1992)
  • You Know What They Say...: The Truth About Popular Beliefs (HarperCollins, 1990)
  • The Brighter Side of Human Nature: Altruism and Empathy in Everyday Life (Basic Books, 1990)
  • Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes (Houghton Mifflin, 1993/1999)
  • Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1996/2006)
  • What To Look For In A Classroom... And Other Essays (Jossey-Bass, 1998)
  • The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and "Tougher Standards" (Houghton Mifflin, 1999)
  • The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools (Heinemann, 2000)
  • What Does It Mean To Be Well Educated? And More Essays on Standards, Grading, and Other Follies (Beacon Press, 2004)
  • Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason (Atria Books, 2005)
  • The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing (Da Capo Books, 2006)
  • Feel Bad Education: And Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling (Beacon Press, 2011)
  • The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom about Children and Parenting (Da Capo Books, 2014)

Edited by Kohn:

  • Education, Inc.: Turning Learning into a Business (Heinemann, 2002)

DVDs of Kohn's lectures:

  • Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason.
  • No Grades + No Homework = Better Learning.

Kohn has written hundreds of articles for academic journals, popular magazines, and newspapers, many of which are available on his website. Among the publications to which he has contributed are The Atlantic, The New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Parents, and a variety of education periodicals.

Awards and positions[edit]


External links[edit]