Notes from Alfie Kohn’s Talk at CMU

Alfie Kohn, an outspoken critic of traditional schooling and standardized testing, spoke at CMU on Wednesday, March 17, 2010. Here are some notes I captured from his talk, “Overhauling the Transmission Model: An overview of traditional versus progressive teaching”

  • You may know if you have been a student or teacher that learning is not simply a process of absorbing information throw at you, but if that is true then it makes sense for this presentation to not be about me just talking at you
  • What I am going to describe for you is a first grade classroom in New England, where kids were studying the Mayflower, and the kids showed up to see that the chairs and tables were pushed to the edge of the room and the floor had an outline of a ship made in masking tape.
    • A classmate comes in and unrolls a scroll from the king — we cannot sail on the ship until we know how big it is. Teacher asks — any ideas for how to figure this out? Figuring out how tall a student is, using him as a measure, then with hands, etc. The king doesn’t know how long the child, the hands, etc are.
    • They don’t get it that day, but they return to it the next day… measure it with the classmate’s feet… he knows the king!
    • Finally, on the third day, the teacher finally introduces the concept of standard units of measurement, and gives them rulers.
    • What distinguishes this lesson, makes it unusual?
      • She took three days to let the students discover this concept; “covering” material makes you feel that you don’t have enough time — this is about “discovering” material
      • There was a rationale, not just “open wide” and here come the facts
      • Basis for life-long learning and problem solving
      • It was connected and inter-disciplinary
      • It was generative and collaborative
      • Invited the children to use their imaginations
      • Both hands-on and minds-on — they were inventing the idea of a ruler and figuring out standard units of measure
  • How might we find teaching and learning more generative if we were involved in these types of classrooms?
  • Middle school example — what questions do you have about yourself? What questions do you have about the world?
    • Looking at questions together to develop themes, then the teacher takes themes from each of the groups and to synthesize what students are saying to look at some overarching themes to intrigue them all. Examples: conflict and war, the future, etc. This becomes the overarching curriculum for the entire school for the entire year. Teachers in this school see them as generalists first, then content area specialists second.
    • The teaching is organized around questions that the kids themselves have asked. The students themselves become scholars, far more engaged in what they are doing than in traditional school settings.
  • High school example — Harvey Daniels and Best Practice High School, Chicago
    • Cross-disciplinary unit on fast food and how it connects to health, economics, popular culture, etc.
    • Read Fast Food Nation and connected it to content in biology related to nutrition, digestion, etc.
    • Students then chose from magazine articles about the fast food industry — animal cruelty, locations of fast food in low-income neighborhoods, etc.
    • Went to restaurants and kept anthropological observation journals of patrons and employees
    • Some became activists around the issue
    • Did they test at the end? No… they kept portfolios of letters, pamphlets, and other materials that they created
  • What can we do in classrooms to make this happen?
  • Setting up a false dichotomy… but one to use as a way to compare/contrast…
    • Traditional — skill and drill (although, “traditional” models in the sense of being “old” is multiage learning and apprenticeship models)
    • A new, progressive way… as exemplified by the examples I offered
      • Differences:
        • Traditional — the purpose is to get the “right” answer and spit it out on demand to the teacher who has all the power and will determine who talks when (the point is not to have an intellectual conversation, but to give the one answer that the teacher wants, the one that she is fishing for)
          • What to Look for in a Classroom (from
          • I want to see stuff from the kids on the walls… but what does it look like? I don’t want all the pumpkins on the wall in a kindergarten room to look the same.
          • How to teach kids to read — a teacher thinking about phonics may look at the phonemes, the progressive teacher will focus on meaning
          • Standardized tests measure what we need least; efforts to improve tests scores lead to less authentic learning
          • Mom asks “what did you do in school today?” Kid answers, “nothing.” He is probably right — he may have had a lot done to him.
        • Old school — bunch of facts and skills. Worksheets to learn how to add, but not applying it.
          • Progressive school — facts and skills are taught in a context.
          • It is easier, not just more interesting, to make sense of this if there is a context… “I think that I could read this if I knew what it was about.”
        • Traditional — no good reason for learning
        • Progressive — create a lesson with and for your students that will engage them
  • When I talk about this in terms of context, problem-based learning, etc… I am referring to the idea that teachers have a collection of facts to but into students’ heads ala Dewey, Freire
    • When the kids have nothing to say about the course, the curriculum… consider the “ten year” question. What is left of your course after a decade has passed? We are creating elaborate snow structures on the last day before spring… it drains right out again if we are not helping students learn in real ways. We are meaning-makers, and we work from a constructivist approach. The best learning is a process of reconstructing ideas.
    • When people talk about making things more “rigorous,” we should be worried about that…
    • We often think that AP courses are the best courses in the high school because they are “accelerated”
    • It almost always works out that when we are trying to “raise the bar” and “close the gap,” we have kids who are poor who are being given more drill and skill while the rich kids are doing more real learning.
  • Last effect of traditional education is the loss of curiosity
    • As kids move into school, their intrinsic motivation dies off as a response to traditional instruction
  • Final question — if everything I have said is true, especially if progressive schools are proven by research to be effective, then why is the traditional approach still so common?
    • It is difficult to do well
    • Not given training in college
    • We teach how we are taught
    • “Any idiot can stay one chapter ahead of the kids”
    • Top down leadership; lack of autonomy
  • Q/A
    • Books: effects of grading, negative effects of homework, negatives of standardized tests, bribes and threats of disciplines
    • Check out Diane Ravitch‘s “Death and Life of the Great American School
    • Question to ask at schools — How do you hope these kids will turn out? Happiness, problem-solving, ethics — these are the things that we care about in the long run and these are the criteria we should set as “standards”
    • Ted Sizer‘s work on the Coalition of Essential Schools
    • The teachers who were glad to have me didn’t need me; the ones who didn’t want to talk fit the model of traditional education


Alfie Kohn certainly stays on message, despite his “digressions.” I first started reading him over a decade ago, saw him speak about five years ago, and have been influenced by his ideas in many ways. There are some points that I disagree on, especially the idea that assessment is — in and of itself — an almost evil force, because I think that we can do assessment in responsible ways that help kids learn and help teachers teach. But, overall, he reiterates the negative data (and anecdotes) about testing, grading, skill and drill teaching, and awards for kids that he has been discussing for years. As I think about writing instruction, especially in an age of technology, I think that we can take some of these ideas and look at how a writing workshop approach can foster student learning in a constructivist manner, one that values the context in which students work and the authentic inquiry that they choose to pursue.

I think, too, that we have to recognize the overwhelming forces that teachers face — it is not just about individual choices inside our own classrooms, although that is important; it is about the structural aspects of schooling and the expectations of our society that place particular demands on schools, teachers, and students. At the end, he began to talk about the socio-economic and political influences on our system of education, and I think that we really need to talk more about these influences because they permeate our classrooms. Teachers can be progressive within their four walls, or their school, but that is not going to create substantive change in the system. It is a start, indeed, but will not change the entire system.

At any rate, I know that many of my CMU students were in the audience, and my sincere hope is that they have gained some insights into some of the perspectives that I bring to ENG 315. I try to alleviate the pressures of grading and invite them to think critically and creatively about what they can do as writers and teachers of writing. I ask them to do authentic writing, both personally and professionally, and I do not rely on tests in any way. Instead, I ask them to write in different genres, for different purposes, and to different audiences. As one student said in class the other night, “This is a lot of work.” Indeed, it is. And, I know that it is overwhelming and that my class doesn’t meet the expectations that they have of what a college course, or a methods course, should look like. Yet, I think that it is valuable work, and I hope that it will encourage them as writers and teachers of writing to be a little more, as Kohn would suggest, “progressive” in their own classrooms.

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