What’s it all about, Alfie?

Education writer Alfie Kohn Is Bad for You and Dangerous For Your Children, writes cognitive scientist Dan Willingham on Britannica Blog. The headline parodies Kohn’s penchant to overstate his case.

Kohn has made a virtual industry out of finding interesting and provocative insights in the psychological literature and following them off the edge of a cliff.

In books and speeches, Kohn has argued against the usefulness of assigning homework, praising and rewarding students and teaching self-discipline.

Kohn specializes in attacking conventional wisdom in education. . .  Most people think that homework helps kids learn, praise shows appreciation and makes them more likely to do desirable things, and self-discipline helps them achieve their goals.  Kohn argues that each of these conclusions is wrong or over-simplified. Homework may bring small benefits to some students, but it incurs greater costs and overall is likely not worth assigning.  Praise doesn’t help academic achievement, it controls children, it reduces motivation, and makes them less able to make decisions. Self-discipline is oversold as an educational panacea, and in some contexts may actually be undesirable.

Kohn is useful as an provocateur, writes Willingham, but he “consistently makes factual errors, oversimplifies, the literature he seeks to explain and commits logical fallacies.”

Robert Pondiscio cheers the Kohn smackdown — Kohn is hostile to Core Knowledge — and links to Stuart Buck, who attacks Kohn’s argumentation style.

I think Kohn’s critique of praise was necessary at the time to prick the self-esteem bubble. The benefits of homework depend a lot on the quality of the homework. As for teaching self-discipline, schools are a long way from overdoing it.

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  1. Yeah, I accidentally picked up one of Mr Kohn’s books a few years ago. It was a mess. My review is here:


    My conclusion: “For me, the book wasn’t worth the free shipping.”

  2. I think Kohn’s critique of praise was necessary at the time to prick the self-esteem bubble.

    I disagree with this logic–basically, that inaccuracies might be acceptable if it gets teachers, administrators, or parents to do the right thing. I’ve heard it frequently about learning styles–“It gets teachers to present material in different ways, so what’s the harm?”

    I think it’s important to present the best summary/interpretation of the data that you can, then try to persuade people that your interpretation and the actions that you recommend make sense. I cannot justify overstating the case in order to persuade people.

  3. Well, the whole premise of the self-esteem movement was completely backward– achievement creates regard for one’s abilities– jeez, I can’t even say the s-e word, it’s been overused that much!

    All that did occur was that kids began to think that they never had to improve and that they were wonderful just the way they were. Any feedback suggesting change was decried as damaging to their fragile self-concept.

    As for Mr. Kohn, his main emphasis seems to be to garner attention for himself, not to try to be factually accurate or persuasive.

  4. I was doing a profile of Kohn back in 2000 for the Los Angeles Times and while we were together we saw a billboard that had a picture of a kid with a text that said only “Challenge Me!” He was repulsed. I met him in a hotel sports bar for an interview and he came in looking like he’d entered a strange, scary world. He told me he’d never been in a sports bar before. I was not surprised, given his revulsion at competition.