Alfie Kohn

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Itís Not What We Teach; Itís What They Learn

“I taught a good lesson even though the students didn’t learn it,” makes no more sense than “I had a big dinner even though I didn’t eat anything.”
by Alfie Kohn

Regular contributor to the Gazette
Reprinted from Education Week, September 10, 2008 with the author's permission.
January 1, 2009

I never understood all the fuss about that old riddle – “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear, does it still make a sound?” Isn’t it just a question of how we choose to define the word sound? If we mean “vibrations of a certain frequency transmitted through the air,” then the answer is yes. If we mean “vibrations that stimulate an organism’s auditory system,” then the answer is no.

More challenging, perhaps, is the following conundrum sometimes attributed to defiant educators: “I taught a good lesson even though the students didn’t learn it.” Again, everything turns on definition. If teaching is conceived as an interactive activity, a process of facilitating learning, then the sentence is incoherent. It makes no more sense than “I had a big dinner even though I didn’t eat anything.” But what if teaching is defined solely in terms of what the teacher says and does? In that case, the statement isn’t oxymoronic – it’s just moronic. Wouldn’t an unsuccessful lesson lead whoever taught it to ask, “So what could I have done that might have been more successful?”

From both punishments and rewards, moreover, kids may derive a lesson of conditionality: I’m loved – and lovable – only when I do what I’m told.

That question would indeed occur to educators who regard learning – as opposed to just teaching -- as the point of what they do for a living. More generally, they’re apt to realize that what we do doesn’t matter nearly as much as how kids experience what we do.

Consider what happens between children and parents. When each is asked to describe some aspect of their life together, the responses are strikingly divergent. For example, a large Michigan study that focused on the extent to which children were included in family decision making turned up different results depending on whether the parents or the children were asked. (Interestingly, three other studies found that when there is some objective way to get at the truth, children’s perceptions of their parents’ behaviors are no less accurate than the parents’ reports of their own behaviors.)

Results don’t follow from behaviors but from the meaning attached to behaviors.

But the important question isn’t who’s right; it’s whose perspective predicts various outcomes. It doesn’t matter what lesson a parent intended to teach by, say, giving a child a “time out” (or some other punishment). If the child experiences this as a form of love withdrawal, then that’s what will determine the effect. Similarly, parents may offer praise in the hope of providing encouragement, but children may resent the judgment implicit in being informed they did a “good job,” or they may grow increasingly dependent on pleasing the people in positions of authority.

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About Alfie Kohn...

Alfie Kohn writes and speaks widely on human behavior, education, and parenting. The latest of his eleven books are THE HOMEWORK MYTH: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing (2006) and UNCONDITIONAL PARENTING: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason (2005). Of his earlier titles, the best known are PUNISHED BY REWARDS: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes (1993), NO CONTEST: The Case Against Competition (1986), and THE SCHOOLS OUR CHILDREN DESERVE: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and "Tougher Standards" (1999).

Kohn has been described in Time magazine as "perhaps the country's most outspoken critic of education's fixation on grades [and] test scores." His criticisms of competition and rewards have helped to shape the thinking of educators -- as well as parents and managers -- across the country and abroad. Kohn has been featured on hundreds of TV and radio programs, including the "Today" show and two appearances on "Oprah"; he has been profiled in the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, while his work has been described and debated in many other leading publications.

Kohn lectures widely at universities and to school faculties, parent groups, and corporations. In addition to speaking at staff development seminars and keynoting national education conferences on a regular basis, he conducts workshops for teachers and administrators on various topics. Among them: "Motivation from the Inside Out: Rethinking Rewards, Assessment, and Learning" and "Beyond Bribes and Threats: Realistic Alternatives to Controlling Students' Behavior." The latter corresponds to his book BEYOND DISCIPLINE: From Compliance to Community (ASCD, 1996), which he describes as "a modest attempt to overthrow the entire field of classroom management."

Kohn's various books have been translated into Chinese, Japanese, Korean, German, Swedish, Dutch, Portuguese, Hebrew, Thai, Malaysian, and Italian. He has also contributed to publications ranging from the Journal of Education to Ladies Home Journal, and from the Nation to the Harvard Business Review ("Why Incentive Plans Cannot Work"). His efforts to make research in human behavior accessible to a general audience have also been published in the Atlantic Monthly, Parents, and Psychology Today.

His many articles on education include eleven widely reprinted cover essays in Phi Delta Kappan: "Caring Kids: The Role of the Schools" (March 1991), "Choices for Children: Why and How to Let Students Decide" (Sept. 1993), "The Truth About Self-Esteem" (Dec. 1994), "How Not to Teach Values: A Critical Look at Character Education" (Feb. 1997), "Only for My Kid: How Privileged Parents Undermine School Reform" (April 1998), "Fighting the Tests" (Jan. 2001), "The 500-Pound Gorilla" (Oct. 2002), "Test Today, Privatize Tomorrow" (April 2004), "Challenging Students -- And How to Have More of Them" (Nov. 2004), "Abusing Research" (Sept. 2006), and "Who's Cheating Whom?" (Oct. 2007).

Kohn lives (actually) in the Boston area with his wife and two children, and (virtually) at

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