Alfie Kohn is mad about tests. And I don’t mean he likes them.
This Saturday at the 2006 Language and Learning Conference at George Mason University sponsored by the Northern Virginia Writing Project, I had the guilty pleasure of hearing the iconoclastic progressive firebrand assault the paradigm under which all of us who teach today in public schools or who buy into any notion of “accountability” (read pols and the public) are complicit. Equal parts Woody Allen, Clarence Darrow, and John Dewey, Kohn waxed eloquent and often hilarious for four hours without notes or powerpoint on the evil effects of a system that valorizes standardized tests, grades and what he called “verbal doggy biscuits” (ever scribble ‘Good job!’ in the margin of a kid’s paper?) above actual learning.
Here are five problematic effects of an achievement-focused culture, as Kohn sees it.
1. Kids lose interest. Learning becomes a chore, not a way of approaching the world: “If you’re using the right glasses,” said Kohn, “you can see learning evaporate” in environments where kids are taught that its point is not to figure stuff out but only to get better. Don’t blame the grade-grubbers for their behavior, exhorts Kohn. Ask what are the structural aspects of schools and classrooms that promulgate the “toxic message of competition.” For starters, try tests, grades, and honor rolls (and don’t get him started on the bumper stickers).
2. Kids stop trying. Behaviorism, rants Kohn, has taken over not only education but parenting. When we focus only on what we can see and measure, we lose sight of the whole child, who comes complete with a messy but rich interior world in which decision-making is driven by values and thoughts that are not readily measured by star-charts or bubble-sheets. Whether kids succeed or fail, they can explain the results in four ways: effort, luck, ability, or task difficulty. Both the kid who gets a 100% and the one who gets an F tend to infer that the results are due to fixed ability and not effort in a carrot/stick world. Not putting in effort that won’t be rewarded is the rational conclusion.
3. Kids don’t challenge themselves. Citing a mid-20th century management guru, Kohn argues that compliance with a results-driven system again fosters its own “rational” behavior. Actors quickly come to realize that risk-taking is not rewarded, but playing it safe is. When the teacher says to choose any book for a free-choice reading unit (my example), why choose one that’s challenging or difficult when it’s easier-- and you’ll get a better grade-- if you choose one that’s simple, or, better yet, that you’ve already read back in middle school.
4. Kids are thrown by failure. Instead of resilience in the face of an uncharacteristic B+, the child used to getting 100s on quizzes responds with vague panic. Our well intentioned teacherly platitudes only serve to reinforce the zero-sum game, scolds Kohn. “92 is still a good grade,” or, “You’ll do better next time,” both underscore the notion that numerically evaluated performance is a worthwhile end in itself, and, even more damaging, an end that earns the ultimate reward: teacher approval. This as opposed to extending our approval unconditionally. To avoid psychic violence and ultimately create kids who learn for its own sake, the subtext from teachers and parents should properly be, “I validate you as a learner and a person regardless of your performance on any task or test.”
5. Kids do worse. The quality of thinking declines under the tyranny of a results-oriented, bottom line system. “Stupid standardized tests,” a term Kohn quips is redundant, may measure some improvement in so-called achievement when kids are forced on a long march to the endless drumbeat of “Raise those scores,” but ultimately, smarter indices show that quality suffers. Citing study after study, Kohn shows that kids are, for example, less likely to ask for help in a system where you’re supposed to be smart. And they’re less likely to make deep connections, take risks, and unify knowledge across disciplines under conditions that are typical in test-driven schools.
Kohn’s five points are a grim indictment of our NCLB times, but also an inspirational jolt for real world teachers, many of whom may recognize their best practice as striving towards Kohn’s ideals. Tune in next week for more of my brain on Alfie, including an attempt to say how he’d view the quest for NBPTS gold. Until then, as Kohn closed: Respond to the outrageous... with outrage!
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