Sure, let ’em all be winners

Do Our Kids Get Off Too Easy? asks Alfie Kohn in the New York Times. In a column adapted from The Myth of the Spoiled Child, he defends “participation” trophies for all — if we must have competitions with winners and losers. “Grit” lovers who think kids should earn rewards and honors want children to be miserable now to prepare for the miseries of adulthood, Kohn believes. They think children shouldn’t “be allowed to feel good about themselves” without “tangible accomplishments.” Conditioning approval on children’s behavior is a big mistake, he argues.

 (According to research), when children feel their parents’ affection varies depending on the extent to which they are well behaved, self-controlled or impressive at school or sports, this promotes “the development of a fragile, contingent and unstable sense of self.” Other researchers, meanwhile, have shown that high self-esteem is beneficial, but that even more desirable is unconditional self-esteem: a solid core of belief in yourself, an abiding sense that you’re competent and worthwhile — even when you screw up or fall short.

I think Kohn confuses parents’ unconditional love of their children with the world’s opinion of other people’s children. If Mom and Dad love their kids only when they score the winning goal or ace the test, that’s a serious problem. Children need to feel lovable.

But kids who grow up thinking that everything they do — however ordinary — will be cheered by non-family members are going to be very frustrated adults. And they won’t have the grit to deal with frustration and keep on going.

Outside your family, who think you’re wonderful just the way you are, the world is just not that into you.

When I was an adolescent, I found it comforting that the world did not revolve around me. It was less responsibility.

Kohn: Parents are too controlling

Millenials aren’t confident, coddled and narcissistic, writes Alfie Kohn in The Myth of the Spoiled Child.  Parents aren’t too indulgent, he argues. They’re too controlling.

Otherwise liberal parents are adopting socially conservative practices, Kohn believes. “It’s widely assumed that parents are both permissive and overprotective, unable to set limits and afraid to let their kids fail,” he writes. “We’re told that young people receive trophies, praise, and A’s too easily, and suffer from inflated self-esteem and insufficient self-discipline.” Not so, he argues. “Complaints about pushover parents and entitled kids” are nothing new.

It’s possible to be overprotective and controlling.

Kohn: Failure’s not all that educational

Do kids really learn from failure?  Alfie Kohn, writing on The Answer Sheet, has his doubts.

Kohn, who’s argued that self-discipline is overrated, is reacting to belief that “what kids need to succeed is old-fashioned grit and perseverance, self-discipline and will power.” Children experience plenty of frustration and failure, he writes, and there’s no reason to think it leads to learning.

In fact, studies find that when kids fail, they tend to construct an image of themselves as incompetent and even helpless, which leads to more failure.  (They also come to prefer easier tasks and lose interest in whatever they’re doing.)  In one study, students were asked to solve problems that were rigged to ensure failure.  Then they were asked to solve problems that were clearly within their capabilities.  What happened?  Even the latter problems paralyzed them because a spiral of failure had been set into motion.

“Challenge — which carries with it a risk of failure — is a part of learning,” Kohn concedes. But quitters may be rejecting challenges that “aren’t particularly engaging or relevant.”

Or it may be that schools have focused students on grades, test scores and being the best rather than learning, Kohn writes.

If the goal is to get an A, then it’s rational to pick the easiest possible task.  Giving up altogether just takes this response to its logical conclusion.  “I’m no good at this, so why bother?” is not an unreasonable response when school is primarily about establishing how good you are.

We want students to “experience success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information,”  said Jerome Bruner, Kohn quotes.

That’s a marvelous way to think about reframing unsuccessful experiences:  My experiment, or my essay, didn’t turn out the way I had hoped, and the reason that happened offers valuable clues for how I might take a different approach tomorrow.

But schools aren’t structured that way, Kohn writes. Students see grades and test sores as rewards and punishments because that’s what they are.

How can schools teach students to learn from failure?

Alfie Kohn’s message: Half-crazy, half-true

Alfie Kohn’s arguments are “half-crazy and half-true,” argues Mike Petrilli on Flypaper.

Like most demagogues, Kohn knows how to tap into his audience’s raw emotions—anger, feelings of powerlessness, and resentment of a ruling elite. In his case, he puts voice to what many educators already believe: That school reform is a corporate plot to turn young people into docile employees; that an obsession with standardized testing is crowding out any real intellectual engagement in our schools; and that teachers have no say over what happens inside their own classrooms.

Kohn is right about “mindless, soul-killing” schools, writes Petrilli, who concedes test-based accountability has narrowed the curriculum at many inner-city schools. But Kohn is wrong in calling for Dewey-style progressivism, Petrilli writes.

What Kohn refuses to wrestle with is the argument—made by Core Knowledge creator E.D. Hirsch Jr., among others—that progressive education might work well for children of the affluent but tends to be disastrous for children of the poor.

Democratic decision-making, self-directed studies, internal motivation, and the like are wonderful aspirations. But when it comes to lifting children out of poverty, heavy doses of basic skills, rich content, and clear expectations have been proven time and again to be more effective.

The modern school reform movement is is fueled by “outrage at the nation’s lack of social mobility,” Petrilli writes. “Backing away from accountability, teacher effectiveness, and academic ‘rigor’ would likely create an even bleaker future for children growing up in poverty—children for whom school matters most.”



Let kids play — even if it’s not ‘educational’

Children need time to play, even if it’s not educational, argues Alfie Kohn on The Answer Sheet. Play isn’t “children’s work.” It’s just play. And it’s good.

“Play” is being “sneakily redefined,” Kohn writes.

 “Most of the activities set up in ‘choice time’ or ‘center time’ [in early-childhood classrooms] and described as play by some teachers, are in fact teacher-directed and involve little or no free play, imagination, or creativity,” as the Alliance for Childhood’s Ed Miller put it.[2]

. . . The point of play is that it has no point. I didn’t know whether to laugh or shudder when I read this sentence in a national magazine: “Kids need careful adult guidance and instruction before they are able to play in a productive way.” But I will admit that I, too, sometimes catch myself trying to justify play in terms of its usefulness.

It’s a mistake to defend play time by arguing that “play teaches academic skills, advances language development, promotes perspective taking, conflict resolution, the capacity for planning, and so on,” Kohn writes. Play is fun. Get out of the way and let kids do it.

I’m usually not a Kohn fan, but I think he’s got a point here.


Turning Locke — and more

Green Dot had started successful charter schools in Los Angeles. But could Green Dot transform low-performing Locke High? Desperate teachers voted to try. In Stray Dogs, Saints and Saviors, Alexander Russo reports on the struggle to turn Locke into a decent school.

“Locke’s transformation has been a long slog, not an unmitigated success,” writes Gerilyn Slicker on Gadfly.

Russo reports teachers with blood-shot eyes, exasperated with their efforts, puking before starting class in the mornings, or crying quietly in the bathroom after a long day with the students. He chronicles powerful stories—both positive and negative—that have helped to shape Locke over the past three years. Among them: The tale of Keron, a football player who was pepper-sprayed by a rogue security officer after being caught gambling at school and one of Miss K., who battled to keep David, a defiant upperclassman filled with potential, in the school through graduation. This honest on-the-ground portrayal reminds us: School turnarounds are a hard business, indeed.

Terry Moe has a new book, Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools, which Fordham’s Checker Finn calls “deeply informative, profoundly insightful, fundamentally depressing, and yet ultimately somewhat hopeful about an educational future that unions won’t be able to block—though they’ll try hard—due to the combined forces of technology and changing politics.”

On the other side of the political and educational spectrum, Alfie Kohn has published his “contrarian essays” as Feel-Bad Education.

Is STEM special?

What’s so special about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)? asks Alfie Kohn on Answer Sheet.

. . . President Obama announced an expensive new public-private initiative last November called “Educate to Innovate” that will focus on improving student performance exclusively in STEM subjects. Then, in early January, he was back with a new education project. Was its intent to spread the wealth to other kinds of learning that he had overlooked before? Nope. It was to commit another quarter-billion dollars to improve the teaching of STEM subjects. And a few weeks later, in his State of the Union address, the only academic disciplines he mentioned were, yet again, math and science.

Thought experiment: Try to imagine this, or any other, president giving a speech that calls for a major new commitment to the teaching of literature, backed by generous funding (even during a period of draconian budget cuts).

STEM has an edge because it involves numbers, Kohn argues. We respect the quantifiable and distrust the qualitative.

Productivity and profit are the priorities for STEM boosters, Kohn writes.

“The nation that out-educates us today,” said President Obama last month, “is going to out-compete us tomorrow.” . . .  it is not a sentence likely to be followed by a discussion of the humanities.

Education isn’t just a mechanism to produce tomorrow’s workers, Kohn believes, quoting linguist Robin Lakoff: “Education is invaluable not only in its ability to help people and societies get ahead, but equally in helping them develop the perspectives that make them fully human.”

Common Core Blog agrees with Kohn, though I see commenters who resent the idea that math and science are dehumanizing.

It's OK to praise, punish

Children need unconditional love at all times, writes Alfie Kohn in the New York Times. Both praise and punishment backfire, he argues.

What’s a parent to do? Love your kids unconditionally and tell them when they’re going wrong or right,  responds Ashley Merryman, co-author of Nurture Shock.

Oberlin College professor Nancy Darling has surveyed thousands of adolescents, in the US, the Philippines, and Chile. She’s found that when parents set no rules, or when parents fail to enforce rules they’ve set, it sends a message that parents simply don’t care about their kids’ well-being or the kids’ actions. The adolescents think the parents just can’t be bothered by their transgressions.

While combining praise with a statement of love is problematic. For example, “You’re such a smart girl, and I love you,” sends a child a message that if she’s no longer is smart, the love will stop. But there’s nothing in the research that says parents should stop saying, “I love you.” It just that they should stop combining displays of love and affection and praise for achievement. Keep them separate.

Merryman notes research by Florrie Ng, who gave IQ tests to children in the U.S. and China.  No matter what the kids’ scores, she told their mothers that the kids did badly.

Then she left the mothers in the room with the kids for five minutes.

The American moms talked to their kids about what they would have for dinner. They talked about the day. They never mentioned the test. The Chinese moms immediately told the kids that the children didn’t do well enough on the test; then the mothers and children sat down to look at where the kids went wrong.

Upon the retest, the Chinese kids improved at twice the rate of the Americans.

While the Chinese mothers focused on their children’s improvement, they were just as warm and supportive as the American mothers, Merryman writes.

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.