Bring Alfie Kohn into your Living Room

Alfie Kohn, the author of The Homework Myth, has just released a DVD, No Grades + No Homework = Better Learning, featuring two of his lectures–one on the problem with grades and the other on the problem with homework. Each lecture, geared towards parents and teachers, is about 45 minutes in length and both are riveting.

If you’ve never had the opportunity to attend one of Kohn’s lectures, here’s your chance. He’s a very engaging speaker, and he really challenges his audience to think about the status quo. After listening to him speak, you’ll probably think up a few new ways to approach these topics at your school.

To learn more, to watch some snippets from the video, and to order, visit:

2 thoughts on “Bring Alfie Kohn into your Living Room

  1. I have attended three of Alfie Kohn’s lectures and not only is he articulate and can really work a room, he is hilarious. I still remember some of his best lines.

    I first found out about Alfie when my daughter, now a junior, was in her last year of preschool. I was trying to bring David Elkind in for a talk as a fundraiser for the preschool and his agent gave me some names around the country of organizations who’d employed Elkind as a speaker. My board president was worried we’d lose the shirt off our backs. I found inventive ways to make money off the event but she still nixed it.

    Still in the research phase, I called a delightful progressive private school in San Diego. This is pre-email. The director told me they’d brought in Elkind last year and were going with Alfie Kohn this year.

    I laughed, I’d never heard of Alfie Kohn. I thought the name “Alfie” was so funny, I pictured a little nerdy boy in coke bottle glasses, reminiscent of Woody Allen. Don’t laugh, she giggled. He is funny but you must read his books. They’re no joke.

    So I did. The first one I bought is his seminal work, “Punished by Rewards,” and it changed my life. I’d already been heading in that direction. I had a wise pediatrician who warned me, don’t listen to the preschool teacher (who was wonderful in every other way), don’t reward for toilet behavior. The doctor warned me, if you start a steady diet of rewards now, you’ll be very sorry later.

    How frustrating then that we instill all these values at home only to send our children to school. From grades to Accelerated Reader to points for good behavior, it’s reward this and reward that all day long. When they aren’t rewarding, they are punishing. It’s like an addiction, once teachers start ,they can’t seem to stop. My favorite reward is the reward for doing homework two straight weeks in a row. The reward? You get a homework pass, a night off! Never mind the message that sends, that homework is yucky and do it so you won’t have to do it!

    Kohn actually responded to the toilet training dilemma, rewarding for going to the bathroom, at one lecture I attended. He ceded, well, okay if you must, and contrasted it with his advice against rewards. I’m not trying to instill a life long love of defecating, he deadpanned.

    His other side splitting line at the lecture I attended when daughter was in kindergarten: He countered current claims that time outs were the next best thing since sliced bread. He said, “people are always telling me, well, time outs are better than spanking. To which I say, spanking is better than shooting.”

    You had to be there. He’s wonderful. Get on his web site and look up his speaking schedule. Chances are he’s coming to a location near you. I saw him speak twice when my daughter was in kindergarten and then again when she was in 7th grade. This reminds me to catch him the next time he’s in my neck of the universe.


  2. As I write this right now, I admit to a limited exposure to Mr. Kohn’s work. I have visited his website and watched the video clips available there. I have not read any of his work nor seen any of his complete presentations. Based on what I have seen and the writings of others I think I have an understanding of his basic premises.

    As I understand it now, Mr. Kohn believes that the negative issues associated with grades and homework outweighs the benefits…if there are any to begin with. He argues that the stress, negativity, and hatred of homework exhibited by most students causes the activity to have limited to no value.

    This is the premise to which I respond. If I discover later that this is not Mr. Kohn’s true stance I will adjust my thinking and responses accordingly.

    I think we are making a huge mistake in modern education when we talk about “students” as a whole rather than differentiating between the cognitive and emotional differences among them. To suggest that the same principles guide 5 year olds and 18 year olds is ludicrous.

    I teach 4th grade math and science. Much of what I teach is basic skills. As any athlete or musician will tell you, developing basic skills is about practice, practice, practice. If I assign my class to complete a sheet of two-digit by two-digit multiplication problems for homework, I do not care what their motivation for completing it is. If the student does it because they want to see me put a big smiley face on their paper…great. If they do it so they don’t have to miss recess to complete it…great. If they do it because of a deep, intrinsic sense of motivation (unlikely)…great. If they do it because they, at the age of 9 or 10, see a long term value in learning the skill (also unlikely)…great. Whatever the motivation for getting it done, the students will be better at the skill after having completed the work.

    If I were teaching high school seniors I would approach it differently. I would strive for total buy-in and understanding of the reasoning behind everything we do. Such a higher level of thinking is appropriate for high school students. For elementary school students that are generally focused on matters as important as, “What did Bobby bring for his snack?” and “What time is WWE Wrestling on tonight?” it is inappropriate to apply psychological models that suppose a more developed ability of thinking.

    It sounds harsh, but the Nike slogan of, “Just Do It” is often appropriate when dealing with young students. Can we try to explain the “why” and the reasoning behind something? Yes. Should we? Yes. If the little kid doesn’t understand why they should do something, does that me they shouldn’t have to do it? No. In the end part of being a parent/teacher/mentor/grown-up is the fact that we know better than they do because we have been around longer and have more wisdom.


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