Alfie Kohn has made sense to me for more than a decade, ever since a colleague recommended Kohn’s book Punished by Rewards and enthusiastically implemented a no-grade policy in his class that caused quite a brouhaha. In the intervening years, our nation’s education policies and discussions have viscously congealed around an accountability culture that diminishes the ability of students, teachers, and communities to nurture authentic learning and learners. Feel-Bad Education, a new collection of Kohn’s articles published over the past several years, is a welcome addition to current debates about the state of American education.
Educators and parents concerned about the direction of education in our nation should read at least some of the pieces in Feel-Bad Education. Kohn engagingly articulates ideas about reading, writing, cheating, testing, grading, teaching, learning, and parenting. He deservedly skewers those in the education community who advocate standardized testing as a meaningful way to do anything productive. Also in Kohn’s sights are homework, grades, “rigor,” and the national core standards movement.
My only two quibbles with Feel-Bad Education are relatively minor. Although I’m glad to have all of these highly relevant writings collected in one volume, some of the themes become repetitive if a reader goes through the book cover to cover. Of course, the pieces were not originally published with such a reading process in mind, so this is more a function of the book’s nature than anything else. I’m more bothered that the articles here lack pragmatic considerations. For example, I agree with Kohn that grades are detrimental to actual learning, but grades are still the coin of the realm in American high schools. What exactly can classroom teachers do in the face of that? How can we mitigate the deleterious effects of grades while we work to eliminate them (or at least undermine their impact)? I agree with Alfie Kohn on just about everything, but many teachers still work in environments that fall far short of his vision. How exactly can teachers take steps toward Kohn within the context of schools going in the opposite direction?