Monday, March 29, 2010

Alfie Kohn on "Traditional" vs. "Alternative" or "Progressive" Education

I know it makes me an EduGeek, but I couldn't think of a better way to spend St. Patrick's day than by attending a lecture by Alfie Kohn at Central Michigan University. His talk focused on what he outlined as the three differences between traditional and progressive education:
1. Traditional education has a "right answer" focus. Teachers have the power and the answers and students compete to get the right answer first. This causes many students in a traditional classroom to give up. If they feel they will never have the "right answer" or that they cannot get it fast enough, perhaps they stop trying.
**This point leaves me feeling conflicted. I understand where Kohn is coming
from on the point of competition. I tend to not be as anti-competition as he
is. I have seen, especially in the classes of boys I have worked with, that
competition can be a motivator. I do agree that care needs to be taken that
competition in the classroom doesn't become mean or destructive. On the other
hand, we've been complaining in my building recently that students don't seem
to have the ability to persevere when learning gets tough. Is that partially
because we have been all about getting the right answer quickly?
2. Traditional education is all about facts and skills. Textbooks are the curriculum and teachers often use skill sheets to drill memorization of facts. In progressive education, facts and skills are taught in context, with textbooks, worksheets, and lectures used sparingly.
**This point makes me contemplate something that the math teachers in my
middle school have been saying for the last couple of years; that many
of our students seem to lack number sense. Could this be a function of
our traditional approach, that we aren't asking students to reason and
understand math operations? When they memorize formulas but don't know
why they work the way they do, have the students really learned anything?
3. Traditional classrooms have no real purpose for learning. A student may say she is working for a grade, but she isn't taught to think about her learning. In progressive classroom, learning is done for a purpose. Students know what that purpose is and the focus is on what is learned and on being reflective about learning.
**Alfie Kohn's ideas of progressive education match the philosophy of the
middle school concept; specifically, James Beane's
theories on integrated curriculum. In integrated curriculum, the
driving force is the questions that students have about their lives and their
world. Curriculum and the learning experiences in integrated curriculum are
created by teachers and learners together, motivating them to find answers to
their questions and learning for the sake of learning and not for a grade.

In addition to these differences, Kohn outlined the four main problems of traditional education:
1. The quality of learning is low, creating superficial thinkers who often ask, "Do we have to know this?"
2. There is an increase in the gap between the "haves" and "have-nots", between whites and blacks, etc. in traditional education.
3. There are more behavioral problems in traditional schools/classrooms.
4. As students move up the grade levels in traditional education, there is a loss of curiosity and less desire to learn.

It is interesting to note that what we think of as traditional schooling is not really that old. What we consider elements of progressive education: multi-aged grouping and learning by doing in apprenticeship situations, are much older than our traditional age-based, lock-step approach.

I was very impressed by Alfie Kohn. Although his ideas may seem utopian to some, and he is viewed by many as being "out there," I found him to be very realistic. I had the opportunity to ask him how he has tried to ensure that his own children receive the kind of education he proposes. His answer; that he has always been open to his children's teachers if they were interested in help and that he sometimes had to "hold his nose" and help his children with assignments that seemed pointless or worthless, put him in the context of a real person working for change while understanding and dealing with the realities that parents and teachers are surrounded by daily.

So many of his ideas were confirmed and reiterated for me the following Monday, when on the last day of the Michigan Reading Association's Annual Conference, I had the opportunity to hear a keynote by Jim Grant. But that's another post!


  1. I appreciate your posting your notes, LeeAnn. I have become fascinating by the work of Alfie Kohn lately, and I wish I could have been in Mt. Pleasant for the CMU presentation. Fortunately, my niece attended and took notes for me ( I have also been reading many of Joe Bower's blog posts ( and feel pulled to investigate Kohn's findings further. My hang up is how individual teachers can make these changes in a world of online grade reporting and standardized test requirements. Teachers in our district are required to upload two grades per week to the online grade reporting program. I'm not sure how his ideas can be implemented into our classrooms at this point. Any thoughts? /PC

  2. LeeAnn,
    I would love to see Alfie Kohn present in person, too. I became a fan of his after reading "Punished by Rewards." That was very eye opening! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and wonders. I especially liked the question you posed to him and his response.