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|Born||October 15, 1957|
Alfie Kohn (b. October 15, 1957) is an American author and lecturer who has explored a number of topics in education, parenting, and human behavior. He is considered a leading figure in progressive education and has also offered critiques of many traditional aspects of parenting, managing, and American society more generally, drawing in each case from social science research.
Kohn's challenges to widely accepted theories and practices have made him a controversial figure, particularly with behaviorists, conservatives, and those who defend the specific practices he calls into question, such as the use of competition, incentive programs, conventional discipline, standardized testing, grades, homework, and traditional schooling.
Kohn was born in Miami Beach, Florida. He earned a B.A. from Brown University in 1979, having created his own interdisciplinary course of study, and an M.A. in the social sciences from the University of Chicago. Kohn has taught at the high school and college levels in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. The father of two children, Kohn is divorced. He lives in the Boston area and works as an independent scholar, unaffiliated with any institution.
Views on education
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." He has written that learning should be organized around "problems, projects, and questions – rather than around lists of facts, skills, and separate disciplines." 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.
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." 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.
While Unconditional Parenting] (2005) is Kohn's first book that deals primarily with the topic of raising children, he devoted three 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?"
One of Kohn's most widely circulated articles is "Five Reasons to Stop Saying 'Good Job!'" 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.
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, CFO Magazine, the American Compensation Association Journal, and other publications. At one point he was described as "America's most biting critic of money as motivator."
Books, articles, and DVDs
Kohn has published a total of twelve books. This includes seven on issues in education (e.g. homework, standardized testing, grades, teaching styles), one 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)
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.
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"The real alternative to being Number One is not being Number Two; it is dispensing with rankings altogether" – [No Contest, chap. 9]
"It doesn't matter how motivated students are; what matters is how students are motivated" – ["The Dangerous Myth of Grade Inflation," Chronicle of Higher Education]
"Rewards and punishments are not opposites at all; they are two sides of the same coin. And it is a coin that does not buy very much" – [Punished by Rewards, chap. 4]
"Children learn how to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions" – [The Homework Myth, chap. 10]
"The value of a book about dealing with children is inversely proportional to the number of times it contains the word behavior. When our primary focus is on discrete behaviors, we end up ignoring the whole child." – ["Unconditional Teaching," Educational Leadership]
"Most things that we and the people around us do constantly... have come to seem so natural and inevitable that merely to pose the question, 'Why are we doing this?' can strike us as perplexing – and also, perhaps, a little unsettling. On general principle, it is a good idea to challenge ourselves in this way about anything we have come to take for granted; the more habitual, the more valuable this line of inquiry." – [Punished by Rewards]
Awards and positions
- Editorial Advisory Board, Education Digest
- Editorial Board, Greater Good Science Center
- Laureate, Kappa Delta Pi (International Education Honor Society)
- National Council of Teachers of English George Orwell Award for Distinguished Contribution to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language, 2000, for The Schools Our Children Deserve
- National-Louis University Ferguson Award for Distinguished Contribution to Early Childhood Education, 2002
- American Psychological Association's National Psychology Award for Excellence in the Media, 1987, for No Contest
- National Parenting Publications Awards (NAPPA) Gold Award, 2006, for Unconditional Parenting
- Canadian Teachers' Federation's Public Education Advocacy Award, 2007
- [Source: Fortune, August 17, 1998].
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