by Alfie Kohn
Houghton Mifflin: Boston, 1999.  (344 pages)
Mark Goldblatt*
January 2000
The current back-to-basics movement in education was spawned by the near-universal perception that American students are progressing from grade to grade without knowing what they should know, without being able to do what they should be able to do, and without the initiative or curiosity to remedy either condition. It’s a common corollary of this perception that much of the blame lies with progressive methods in pedagogy–methods that prioritize students’ creativity over their formal correctness, self-esteem over measurable achievement, community spirit over individual progress–whose introduction in classrooms, in the late 1960’s, seemed to coincide the steady decline in students’ performance.

Not so! insists Alfie Kohn in his new book The Schools Our Children Deserve. The author of five previous works on pedagogical reform and left-liberal politics, he puts forward a passionate defense of the progressive approach to education. The main problem with American schools, according to Kohn, is that they aren’t progressive enough,that traditional teaching methods still carry too much weight in classrooms, and that parents’ expectations of what students should be doing in school have been conditioned by their own miserable educational experiences–thus blinding them to the nature of “true learning.” And what is true learning?

The question is answered by Kohn most often in negative terms. True learning is decidedly not what the back-to-basics crowd thinks it is. Their traditional approach to education, which he describes as “an uneasy blend of behaviorist psychology and conservative social philosophy” is “based on the idea that people, like other organisms, do only what they have been reinforced for doing [sic].” Learning, for traditionalists, “is just the acquisition of very specific skills and bits of knowledge.” The names he associates with the traditional approach are B.F. Skinner, Edward L. Thorndike and, most recently, E.D. Hirsch–whose Cultural Literacy program exemplifies what Kohn terms “bunch o’ facts” pedagogy.

In opposition stands the progressive approach, associated by Kohn with John Dewey and Jean Piaget, which holds “that schools shouldn’t be about handing down a collection of static truths to the next generation but about responding to the needs and interests of the students themselves.” Students’ “needs” and “interests” are vague terms, but Kohn hints at the goals of progressive education when he urges us to see schools not “as places where cultural knowledge is transmitted in order to preserve important institutions” but “as places where a new generation learns the skills and dispositions necessary to evaluate those institutions.”

The methodological and teleological opposition between the two approaches lends Kohn’s book its point-counterpoint structure. Chapter by chapter, he dissects the mean-spirited, misguided assumptions about learning of traditionalists and then contrasts these with the kind-hearted, benign views of progressives. Kohn bases his case on his own classroom observations, his conversations with teachers and his readings in educational psychology and pedagogic theory.

To gauge the benefits of progressive education, Kohn argues, requires a paradigm shift away from the very notion that education can be gauged. We must abandon our traditional preoccupation with “performance! results! achievement! success!” That is, the acquisition of specific knowledge and particular skills–the traditional signs of productive schooling–should concern us less than “the activity that produces those results.” The process of learning is more important that what is actually learned.

To that end, we must recognize the distortions of grade-by-grade curricula. He warns parents to worry if their children spend time drilling “state capitals, the multiplication table, the names of explorers of the New World, or the parts of speech.” Drilling, he maintains, is the by-product of standard curricula–which impose time-constraints on the learning experience; thinking is a direct casualty. “There should be less time defining words like ‘nationalism’,” he writes, “and more time discussing what the world would be like if there were no countries.”

Furthermore, we must stop imagining the classroom as a place where information is transmitted and begin imagining it as a place where students learn by doing what interests them. This principle is best illustrated by Kohn’s discussion of the “Whole Language” versus “direct phonics” controversy in reading and writing instruction. He makes the useful point that the debate is never actually either-or. Children cannot “invent” spellings, as Whole Language encourages, without a basic grasp of phoneme functions, and children taught by direct phonics must eventually move past sounding out every word phonetically–which no able reader does. What the debate boils down to is whether the move from phoneme-recognition to meaning-gathering is best accomplished by quick immersion in rich literary texts (the Whole Language view) or by incremental advances through model texts (the direct phonics view). Kohn comes down squarely, and predictably, on the Whole Language side. But his exposition, here and elsewhere, is marred by pointless, ideological asides–as when he notes that the Christian Coalition supports direct phonics instruction, and that “right wing” journals have published “wildly enthusiastic articles” on the phonics method.

The fact that ideology animates Kohn’s critique is a relatively minor objection. Reality is a greater obstacle to taking his program seriously. To begin with, he refuses to view plummeting test scores as a problem–or even as a sign of a problem. He must discount standardized testing because, as he reluctantly concedes, back-to-basics pedagogy is often more effective than progressive when it comes to the “temporary retention of facts and low-level skills”–in other words, students taught by traditional methods tend to score higher than their progressively-taught peers. This phenomenon is quickly explained away by noting that “Skills tests are a perfect match for skills instruction, and it’s not surprising that the latter often produces the former.” The circularity is obvious: The underlying error of the back-to-basics movement, according to Kohn, is that it is geared to produce measurable results; that it succeeds only confirms that such measurements are meaningless.

But here’s where experiential reality imposes itself. Would there be a back-to-basics movement in the first place if parents sensed that American schools were doing a good job? If falling test scores were indeed belied by the inquisitiveness, perspicacity and reasoning power of their children, would parents willingly rock the educational boat? Kohn perceives sinister forces behind the push to raise standards–forces that view learning as “memorizing random facts and doing whatever you’re told.” He explains that corporations regard children not as lifetime learners but as potential workers; since a skilled workforce maximizes profits, major companies are willing to underwrite skills-intensive programs. The “crisis” in American education, he insinuates, is at least partly a public relations conspiracy hatched by greedy capitalists to gussy up their bottom line. He never addresses the objection that even greedy capitalists send their kids to school.

Kohn’s next run in with reality emerges with the question of teacher-competence–another question he never addresses. It’s a glaring omission since doing away with curricula would empower individual teachers to determine their own classroom agendas. He assumes a world in which every teacher is blessed with the wisdom of Socrates and patience of Job, in which every teacher is capable of coming up, again and again, with responses pointed enough to push students to the next conceptual level but subtle enough not to provide a final answer. Anecdotes abound–wonderful anecdotes–of classroom breakthroughs; significantly, though, the same instructor is never profiled twice. Kohn provides glimpses of teachers at their most inspiring and supposes that these performances can be replicated time after time, by teacher after teacher, with no script to follow and no standard textbook as a safety net. In Kohn’s world, too, all teachers must be equally competent since, besides dropping curricula, he favors “looping”–uniting teachers and students for three grades at a stretch. Pity the poor class that rolls snake-eyes in that crap-shoot.

Kohn’s “reality problem” is evident even in his treatment of his opposition. Throughout the book, Kohn knocks down enough straw men to form a picket line around his house, caricaturing antagonists’ ideas, putting ridiculously severe words in their mouths. He is especially unfair to Hirsch–whose position is not, as Kohn would have it, that knowing a certain set of facts renders a person automatically “educated” but rather that knowing a certain set of facts is a prerequisite for the kind of active intellectual engagements typical of educated people. Consistently, Kohn sets up false dichotomies–as when he writes “The Old School . . . firmly rejects cooperative learning, in which kids can experience the value of doing things together.” Yet even the most traditional schools have, for the last half century, grouped students for science lab experiments or as speech partners or as writing respondents.

The remedy for what ails American education, according to Kohn, is a greater dose of the very thing that seems to be making it sick. If only we would re-define health and sickness, he argues, we would see the wisdom of his program.

*This is the original version of the review; a slightly edited version appeared in Commentary.