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What Does it Mean to Be Well Educated? And Other Essays on Standards, Grading, and Other Follies

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Few writers ask us to question our fundamental assumptions about education as provocatively as Alfie Kohn. Time magazine has called him'perhaps the country's most outspoken critic of education's fixation on grades [and] test scores.' And the Washington Post says he is 'the most energetic and charismatic figure standing in the way of a major federal effort to make standardized curriculums and tests a fact of life in every U.S. school.'

In this new collection of essays, Kohn takes on some of the most important and controversial topics in education of the last few years. His central focus is on the real goals of education-a topic, he argues, that we systematically ignore while lavishing attention on misguided models of learning and counterproductive techniques of motivation.

The shift to talking about goals yields radical conclusions and wonderfully pungent essays that only Alfie Kohn could have written. From the title essay's challenge to conventional, conservative definitions of a good education to essays on standards and testing and grades that tally the severe educational costs of overemphasizing a narrow conception of achievement, Kohn boldly builds on his earlier work and writes for a wide audience.

Kohn's new book will be greeted with enthusiasm by his many readers and by any teacher or parent looking for a refreshing perspective on today's debates about schools.

224 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2004

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About the author

Alfie Kohn

45 books477 followers
Alfie Kohn writes and speaks widely on human behavior, education, and parenting. The author of fourteen books and scores of articles, he lectures at education conferences and universities as well as to parent groups and corporations.

Kohn's criticisms of competition and rewards have been widely discussed and debated, and he has been described in Time magazine as "perhaps the country's most outspoken critic of education's fixation on grades [and] test scores."

Kohn lives (actually) in the Boston area with his wife and two children, and (virtually) at www.alfiekohn.org.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 57 reviews
Profile Image for Will Ejzak.
190 reviews5 followers
December 19, 2020
I love Alfie Kohn. He has a matter-of-fact way of saying very obvious things about the education system that only seem radical because high school is so idiotic and inhumane: grading does way more harm than good, standardized tests benefit rich kids and corporations at the expense of everyone else, the structure of high school is completely antithetical to meaningful learning, and so on.

I've read a bunch by Kohn in the past, and like a lot of people, I've found him extremely meaningful. This book isn't exactly groundbreaking if you already know what Kohn is all about. (He sort of repeats the same five arguments over and over in different words.) But as Kohn himself says, you can hear something a billion times and believe it with your whole heart and still benefit from frequent reminders. I'd like to think I've internalized a lot of this stuff, but I'm still very glad I read this now. Every high school teacher should read books like this every three months or so--if only to remind themselves that most of what we take for granted in schools is not humane or rational or effective or sane.

Being a decent high school teacher is tricky because it isn't enough to decide once at the beginning of your career to reject "traditional" teaching practices and beliefs (that are mostly designed to promote exhausted compliance and to "separate the wheat from the chaff")--you have to continue to intentionally reject these practices on a daily basis because they're in the air you breathe. School is stupid, but Kohn is doing his best to remind people that it doesn't have to be this way.
Profile Image for Mr. B.
16 reviews
October 29, 2007
NOBODY has influenced my teaching/pedagoy more than Mr. Kohn. In fact, I don't think I'd be nearly as effective a teacher if I hadn't read Kohn's work. He'll thoughtfully, yet relentlessly, critique public educational status quos. I was forced to rethink/revise/consider my ideas and practices about the following topics:
1. The purpose of school.
2. Homework
3. Classroom management
4. Rewards and Punishments..."dangling carrots"
Profile Image for Tasha.
835 reviews
December 21, 2010
The man has a point, but he could be less irritating about making it...
Profile Image for dirt.
348 reviews18 followers
May 31, 2010
This book hurts my insides.

I especially want to photocopy and highlight this section of page 58:

"Standardized tests tend to measure the temporary acqusition of facts and skills, including the skill of test-taking itself, more than genuine understanding. To that extent, the fact that such tests are more likely to be used and emphasized in schools with higher percentages of minority students (a fact that has been empirically emphasized) predictably results in poorer-quality teaching in such schools. The use of a high-stakes strategy only underscores the preoccupation with these tests and, as a sresult, accelerates a reliance on direct-instruction techniques and endless practice tests."

But then I don't know what to do. Post it in the teachers lounge? Would that change any attitudes?

How do we get teachers and administrators to stop and think? Why are we subjecting our kids to these tests and then emphasizing the scores so much? At my school there was an incredible amount of fuss over MAP testing. Bubble kids were targeted for intervention, assemblies were held to pump kids up about taking a test, awards for students with high scores, morning announcements were replaced with inspirational music, and on and on...

I found myself thinking "Geez, a lot of emphasis is being placed on this one test. That is kind of bizarre." Then I sort of left that feeling hanging and didn't go further. Now I see that these kids' education is being watered down. Exploration of ideas is being replaced with drill and kill instruction and this realization has turned that lingering feeling into anger and frustration. We are doing a true disservice to our youth.

Aside from giving them a crappy sham of an education, all this crowing about the MAP would lead kids to think that this test is pretty important. These questions must have some sort of divining ability. There is some really pressure for kids to do well on this test. And if they don't, well, then there is something wrong with them. I am reminded of a Radiolab short where they explored the Obama effect. Just in saying something is a test can reduce a score. Holy shit, we should not be making such a big hoopla over a test! We should say it's a puzzle! Or actually make it a puzzle. Or an oral response. Or a portfolio demonstrating growth.

During my reading, I imagine myself in debate with someone in favor standardized testing and I want to ask them about their schooling. What was their education like? Did they have to take a lot of bubble tests? Hopefully not. And yet, do they feel stupider for not having been required to take these standardized tests? Do they feel let down because the bar was not raised for them?

But I do think there is some hope and there is a shift in the tide. I mean, the powers that be did create a constructivist based pre-k curriculum. So that might lead to some good things.
Profile Image for Milo Douglas.
29 reviews2 followers
July 19, 2010
By the end of this book (a series of essays), I felt like Alfie Kohn truly challenges traditional notions of what it means to educate children and young adults. I wish this book (or one like it) had been required reading back when I was getting my teacher certification, not because Kohn has all the answers, but rather because he questions the status quo and suggests alternatives to the old chestnuts we've relied on for so long.

Kohn's strongest argument is that "traditional", reactionary and often punitive means of dispensing knowledge are more than outdated, they are arguably destructive. The never-ending quest for grades, for example. What is less clear is how Kohn expects educators to unite and rebuild the educational roller coaster we are on without getting off and without the conductor's blessing. Kohn doesn't offer much in the way of reliable practices which model what he suggests. As a result, to the more skeptical reader, he may come across as a bit of a glib sophist.

A worthwhile read, especially if you are an energetic, open-minded educator willing enough empowered enough to make significant changes.
Profile Image for Patricia.
358 reviews3 followers
January 31, 2019
A series of essays about all sorts of topics related to education. Some were pretty typical of progressive education debates (which are still incredibly important! just sometimes over-discussed), but I found some particularly worthwhile chapters that I had never considered — namely, a discussion on merit pay, an essay that called into question the entire point of education, a call to end praise, and a study of education in relation to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
18 reviews
May 16, 2022
Summary of the book
This book is a collection of essays written by Alfie Kohn, who is an American writer and speaker on education, parenting, and human behavior; and is also one of the most outspoken critics of the education system in our times. The book consists of eighteen essays, each of which have been previously published elsewhere.

The essays are organized into five sections. The essays in the first section, The Purposes of Schooling, raise questions about what it means to be well-educated and whether learning should be turned into a business; and stress that education should focus more on what students are doing rather than how well they are doing it. The second section, Standards and Testing, reveals how utterly flawed the testing system is - the author argues that the purpose of testing is to rank, not to rate; and that “the phrase high standards by definition means standards that everyone won’t be able to meet.” The third section, Grading and Evaluating talks about the harmful effects of grading and rewards. Kohn repeatedly says: “the more we reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward.” The fourth section, Moral, Social, and Psychological Questions talks about how the things happening in schools and in society in general impact children morally and psychologically. The fifth and last section, School Reform and the Study of Education talks about our approach towards education, how schools can be improved, and gives some practical guidelines for teachers and educators.

My review of the book
The book makes a very compelling case. Most of the author’s arguments are supported by research and evidence, and are presented very convincingly. I found the style of writing to be quite engaging - some non-fiction books read like textbooks, but this was not one of them. Another good thing about the book is that it comprises short, standalone essays that can easily be read in one sitting. One does not have to read the book cover to cover to understand the author’s message; you can read an essay at random without having much difficulty in understanding.
That being said, anyone who reads the book cover to cover (like I did) will agree that there is a fair amount of repetition in the book - each essay makes some points that the essays before it have already made. Moreover, because every essay is from a different source, each essay has a different style specific to the audience. Some essays have no citations at all, while others have an entire bibliography at the end. Needless to say, some are easier to read than others. Some of the essays were set in a specific context, like the one on Abraham Maslow (essay fourteen in the book), where it was assumed that the readers would already be aware of Maslow’s views on psychology (I wasn’t, and found it difficult to read through). Furthermore, the author writes from a fundamentally American perspective. One essay is about 9/11, and what lessons American teachers and students can draw from it, while another is about American high school shootings, both of which are not directly relevant to an international audience, in my opinion.

Who should read this book
The book is aimed mostly at teachers, educators, policymakers and researchers; but also at parents who want to know more about what goes on in schools. I wouldn’t say that all of the essays would be useful for everyone, but there were some that I believe everyone - regardless of whether they teach or have kids - would benefit from reading. These include the first essay - the title essay, What Does It Mean To Be Well Educated - as well as the eleventh essay in the book, 5 Reasons To Stop Saying Good Job!
Profile Image for Sebah Al-Ali.
477 reviews940 followers
March 7, 2010
الكتاب ظريف . نقدي ممتع . عبارة عن جمع لمقالات متفرقة للكاتب . رغم أني لا أوافقه في كل ما دعا إليه ، إلا أن الأسئلة التي طرحها و النقاط التي انتقد فيها الأنظمة التدريسية تدفع القارئ لكثير من تفكر ، و بالأخص المدرسين في طريقة تدرسيهم و نظرتهم لها .

أعجبتني كثيرا القصة التي ساقها في الفصل الأول من الكتاب ، الذي يحاول طرح سؤال : "ماذا يعني أن تكون متعلما ؟ " . طلب من القارئ قبل أن يجيب أن يستعرض قصة زوجته . طبيبة بارعة في اختصاصها ، حازت على الدكتوراة في الأنثربولوجيا قبل أن تتخصص بالطب . و لكن مع ذلك ، هي لا تعرف جداول الضرب ، و لم تتطلع على الأعمال الأدبية الكلاسيكية . هل هي "متعلمة" ؟ أم لا ؟ .. و ما منطق إجابتك ؟ .

أعجبني أيضا تطرقه لمسألة المفاضلة بين المدارس الخاصة و الحكومية بشكل عام ، و تحويل التدريس لعملية تجارية بشكل لاحق . بمع��ى ، ذكر أن المدرسة حين تصبح خاصة ، ستتحول بجزء كبير لعملية تجارية / ترويجية تحاول فيها جذب أكبر عدد ممكن من الطلاب بدلا من التركيز الحصري الموجة نحو التعليم . و هذا أيضا بدوره يجعلهم يستقصون طلاب معينين من الانضمام للمدرسة "حفاظا على صورتها" . مما يجعل من المدارس الحكومية ، أيضا ، مرتعا لكل من "هب و دب " من الطلاب بغض النظر عن مستواهم الأكاديمي أو رغبتهم في التعلم ، فيساهم هذا بشكل أو بآخر بتدني مستوى المدارس الحكومية و تحصيلها .

أيضا راق لي حديثه عن المدارس ك(مصانع) للإنتاج ، تفرض على الطلاب السرعة و الأناقة في تقديم الأعمال ، تركز الاهتمام على القوانين و بهوس على الجرس / الجدول / الحصص .


(لأني لا تحضرني ترجمة أنسب ، حين أقول متعلم ، أعني
well educated )

تعلمت :

ف�� نقاشه لتعريف ما يعنيه أن يكون أحدا متعلما ، استعرض 6 عوامل :
1. The point of schooling الهدف من التدريس / التعليم . (شد انتباهي حين ذكر أن الهدف من التدريس هو تنمية الطلاب عقليا / فكريا / معرفيا ، بدلا من أن يكون تنمية أشخاص صالحين فاهمين محبين محبوبين .)

2. Evaluating people VS. their education ، تقييم الأشخاص و تقييم تعليمهم ، يشرح : حين نقول "هذا شخص متعلم" ، هل نشير إلى طبيعة المدارس / التعليم التي تلقاها ؟ أم نشير لشيء في شخصه ؟ .

3. An absence of consensus غياب الإجماع . و يعني بذلك أنه لا يوجد إجماع على ما الذي يحتاج أن يعرفه / يفعله المتخرجين من المدارس لنستطيع أن نعتبرهم "متعلمين" .

4. Some poor definitions مفاهيم ضعيفة ، و من خلال هذه النقطة استعرض المفاهيم التي لا تدخل في الإجابة على السؤال ..
أولها : عدد ساعات الدراسة Seat time . مجرد التواجد في المدرسة لعدد ساعات معين لا يعني أن الشخص أصبح متعلما .
ثانيها : job skills المهارات الوظيفية . و وضح فيها أنه من الخطأ أن يتم التدريس في المدارس لمجرد هدف تحضير الطلاب للوظائف. هذا قد يجعلهم مؤهلين للوظائف ، لكن لا يعني بالضرورة أنهم أصبحوا متعلمين .
ثالثها : test scores درجات الامتحانات .
رابعها : memorization of a bunch o'facts حفظ مجموعة من المعلومات . وشخصيا أظن أن الإشكال في مدارسنا يقع بشكل أساسي على هذه النقطة . ذكر فيها أن المدارس قد ترى أن التعليم يعني أن يحفظ الطالب معلومات متفرقة عن أشياء متعددة . و هنا تنتج ، برأيي ، عدة أسئلة : أي المعلومات نحتاج أن نقدمها للطلاب ؟ و على أي أساس يتم استقصاء المعلومات الأخرى ؟ ما المجالات التي يحتاج الطالب أن يعرف عنها شيئا ؟

5. mandating a single definition تطلب تعريف واحد لمفهوم المتعلم . و يعني بهذا أن تثبيت مقاييس و معايير التعليم دون مراعاة العوامل المختلفة التي تحدد المناطق كالاجتماعية مثلا ، أمر يعرض أولئك من خلفيات مختلفة لعدم القدرة على التخرج من هذه الأنظمة بنجاح .

6. The good school المدرسة المثالية . و يعني بها الصفات التي تحتاج أن تتوافر في المدرسة لتزود التعليم المطلوب لطلابها .


و في سياق الحديث عن العلامات و الهوس بالتحصيل الأكاديمي بدلا من التعلم نفسه ، نوه إلى أن الطلاب يدفعون للتركيز على محصول النقاط التي يجنوها بدلا من التركيز على العلم الذي يتعلموه أو مدى الإبداع فيما يقدموه . همهم يصبح : "كيف أحصل على علامة أفضل؟ " بدلا من "كيف أتعلم أكثر / بشكل أفضل ؟ "
و ذكر خمس نتائج مدروسة من هذا الهوس :
1. الطلاب ينظرون لعملية التعلم كمهمة بدلا من متعة . تصبح أشياء يجب أن يحسنوا صنعها بدلا من الاستمتاع في استكشافها .
2. يتجنب الطلاب التحدي في تقديم أفضل مما هو متوقع . يكتفون بتقديم ما طلب منهم ، دون محاولة استكشاف جوانب أخرى تتحدى قدراتهم و تدفعهم للمزيد من الاستكشاف / التعلم .
3. يجنح الطلاب للتفكير بعمق أقل .
4. يتأثر الطلاب سلبيا ، بشكل كبير ، حين يواجهون بالفشل . لأن الهدف من كل عملية التعليم في نظرهم هو النهاية : نجاح أو فشل ، دون النظر للعملية نفسها و ماتعلموه خلالها .
5. يعطي الطلاب قيمة أكبر للقدرات بدلا من المجهود المبذول .


اقتبست :

"Perhaps the question "How do we know if education has been successful?" shouldn't be posed until we have asked what it's supposed to be successful at." (italics in original, p. 2)

"It is misleading and even dangerous to justify our own pedagogical values by pretending they are grounded in some objective, transcendent Truth, as though the quality of being well educated is a Platonic form waiting to be discovered." (p. 3)

"Knowing a lot of stuff may seem harmless, albeit insufficient, but the problem is that efforts to shape schooling around this goal, dressed up with pretentious labels like "cultural literacy," have the effect of taking time away from more meaningful objectives, such as knowing how to think."

"If the Bunch o'Facts model proves a poor foundation on which to decide who is properly educated, it makes no sense to peel off items from such a list and assign clusters of them to students at each grade level."

"Dewey's suggestion that an educated person is one who has 'gained the power of reflective attention, the power to hold problems, questions, before the mind.' Without this capability, he added, 'the mind remains at the mercy of custom and external suggestions.'" (p. 6)

"Knowledge is acquired, of course, but in a context and for a purpose." (p. 8)

"...succeed in creating "school-to-work" programs, by which children are defined as future workers and shaped to the specifications of their employers."

"None of this is particularly effective at preparing children to be critical thinkers, lifelong intellectual explorers, active participants in a democratic society --or even, for that matter, good friends or lovers of parents. But the process is exceedingly effective at preparing them for their life as corporate employees."

"Much of the current discussion focuses on how often to prepare grade reports or what mark should be given for a specified level of achievement (for example, what constitutes "B" work). What we really should be asking is why we are assessing students in the first place."

"Standardized test often have the additional disadvantages of being (a) produced and scored far away from the classroom, (b) multiple choice in design (so students can't generate answers or explain their thinking), (c) timed (so speed matters more than thoughtfulness), and (d) administrated on a on-shot, hight-anxiety basis." (p. 29)

"When teachers feel pressured to produce results, they tend to pressure their students in turn."

"The more teachers are thinking about test results and "raising the bar," the less well the students actually preform --to say nothing of how their enthusiasm for learning is apt to wane."

Discussing the consequences of "obsession with standards and achievement," .. "[Students:] may come to view the tasks themselves as material that must be gotten through. It's stuff they're supposed to do better at, not stuff they're excited about exploring."

"No one succeeds all the time, and no one can learn very effectively without making mistakes and bumping against his or her limits." (p. 33)

"These days almost anything can be done to students and to schools, no matter how ill-considered, as long as it is done in the name of raising standards."

Quoting Henry David Thoreau, "It is not enough to be busy. The question is, what are you busy about?"

Profile Image for Allison.
15 reviews
June 27, 2021
a bit redundant, but that's understandable given its format. i felt like it just scratched the surface of its subject matter, but that it was a good introduction.
Profile Image for Ope Bukola.
51 reviews12 followers
August 22, 2014
Kohn challenges the status quo of current education reform movements, from standards and grading, to teacher merit pay. He does it all why making a plea for us to fundamentally question the why of education. What are the values we want to instill in students and why? What values do the current modes of teaching instill and what purpose do they serve. Even if some of his views or prescriptions are extreme or unlikely to be implemented, this is an important book for everyone interested in education policy, education reform, and building authentic learning environments to read. Highly recommended!
41 reviews4 followers
June 5, 2008
This would get more stars if I had read the essays individually about a month apart instead of as a book, because of the repetition. However, the issues are very heavy and I spent at least as much time thinking about as I did reading this book-which means it was pretty darn good. Wish more people would think about stuff like this. Kohn is at least one of the most articulate critics of the status quo that I have read, so even if he gets a little soapy-boxy he's still basically right about almost everything.
Profile Image for Lori.
242 reviews
October 25, 2009
Interesting book which makes me consider underlying issues about how to teach the students of today. Along with the fact the standardized tests are made by the same people who publish our textbooks, this book also gives me reason to reconsider telling my students when they do a good job. This book really makes you think deeper than any book I have read to date regarding today's classroom.
Profile Image for Marianna.
694 reviews19 followers
November 25, 2010
A book every person who sets public education policy should read, but probably won't as it challenges too many dearly held assumptions.
Profile Image for Mike.
693 reviews5 followers
November 21, 2012
I want to buy a dozen copies of this book and just hand them out to people who blithely talk about how our schools are falling behind, teacher accountability, or any other such nonsense.
Profile Image for Nathan Albright.
4,488 reviews110 followers
February 14, 2020
The author is right that this book is about follies, but not necessarily in the way that he claims.   Just as everything in the contemporary world is the subject of massive fighting, so is education, and the author seeks to present the point of view of leftist activists while demonstrating his folly to everyone who hasn't shared the kool-aid he is continually sipping from while having written this book.  It would take at least a sizable pamphlet to discuss all of the massive flaws of logic and reasoning, but suffice it to say at least briefly that if the author is seeking to present himself as a well-educated product of our contemporary education system, including the education of teachers, he is more eloquent as a statement of crisis in the education system than anything he writes about in this book, for if such a person as the author can seriously believe himself to be educated and capable of teaching others then we clearly need some massive changes, although it should be noted that they need not necessarily be either the leftist activism the author would support or the sort of changes that he laments concerning his phobias of standardized tests and being held accountable for the performance of students.

This book is less than 200 pages long and about the only positive thing that can be said about it is its brevity and the author's honesty in admitting his activist and progressive bias.  The book ends with a preface and the author's unsuccessful attempts to grapple with the conflicting opinions about goals for education.  The author then provides three essays on the purposes of schooling (I) that discuss what it means to be well-educated (1), the author's hostility towards the business of schooling (2), and the author's anti-achievement bias (3).  After that the author discusses standards and testing (II), which the author is unsurprisingly hostile to, with essays on the relationship between harder and better education (4), the author's hostility to standards (5), the author's concern trolling for the supposed victims of standardized testing (6), the author's belief that learning is sacrificed by an interest in getting high scores (7), and the author's premature celebration of the end of the SAT (8).  The third part of the book then discusses grading and evaluating (III), with essays on the author's hostility to grade (9), the supposed myth of grade inflation (10), and the author's hostility to people congratulating students for doing a good job (11).  It is perhaps fortunate that no one has to tell the author good job for this book.  The author provides three essays on moral, social, and psychological questions (IV) such as the legacy of American high schools (12), September 11  (13), and Abraham Maslow (14).  The author then stumps for various activist causes for school reform (V) with essays on his beliefs that certain types of reforms are needed (15) to make students more compassionate and caring, the rotten apples of education (16), the folly of merit pay (17), and a plug for activist teachers (18), after which there are credits and an index.

Perhaps what is most notable about this book are the false premises and false dilemmas that fill nearly every page of every essay.  The author claims that private school succeeds because it is allowed to be choosy in terms of its students, not noting that such standards account for all of the public school programs (like the IB Program I went to as a public high school student) that tend to work.  Likewise, the author claims that the contemporary high level of tests are what makes school less intrinsically worth learning, as does grading, not remembering that school has seldom been a place for intrinsic love of learning to blossom, which self-education does nicely without the leftist indoctrination.  The author completely ignores homeschooling in the false dilemma he engages in against private schools or, presumably, some sort of voucher program that would give parents meaningful choices.  Even the author's statements that a majority of educational attainment results from factors outside of the classroom itself backfire by suggesting that our society, if it wants to do well by parents, would do better to strongly encourage families to be and remain intact rather than adopt models that make the state a surrogate husband or parent to the harm of children.  There is scarcely anything the author talks about that he manages to get right, demonstrating why it is that having an education that focuses on facts and panders less to feelings would have done the author good, much less the poor children who the author disastrously screws up in his classrooms through his misguided activism.
Profile Image for TimsGlitterBug.
127 reviews2 followers
June 18, 2023
Wow, great compilation of essays discussing so many factors that need reform immediately when it comes to the system that is called public education. He highlights the immense harms that can are inflicted upon societies due to such a rigid, teach to the test system in which good teachers are being deskilled and disrespected by being forced to use scripted curriculums and being turned into test-prep techs.

'The goal of education is more education.' Sadly instead on infusing in our children a desire to learn and understand concepts of the world and us encouraging our children to ask, 'what does this mean?', they instead ask, 'but do we need to know this for the test?' or how will doing/not doing this effect my grade? The essence of using such a system of grading students is exclusiveness and competition. It creates or at least perpetuates an extrinsic orientation that is likely to undermine the love of learning the schools are presumably seeking to promote. So are we actually sending our children to places that foster their curiosity and hone their innate ability to appreciate the world around them and the concepts that govern this world? Or are we sending them to learn how to keep busy, sit still, and just follow directions? It all depends on what you're child's school values, or how compliant it is with governmental regulations regarding national testing standards.

Bringing the long-term implications of blind compliance in the classrooms where radical questions aren't allowed forward into the tragedy of what occurred at 9/11 he stated:
"One detail of the tragedy carries a striking pedagogical relevance. Official announcements in the S.Tower of The World Trade Center repeatedly instructed everyone in the building yo stay put, which posed an agonizing choice: Follow the official directive or disobey and evacuate. Here we find a fresh reason to ask whether we are teaching students to think for themselves or to simply to do what they're told."

Here are a few more quotes from this book that I found extremely powerful:
'How logical is it to expect that teenagers who have been coerced into flooring directions will develop into responsible decision-makers? The average high school is terrific preparation for adult life-as long as that life is led in a totalitarian society."
"Rather than coming to an understand ideas in depth they are exposed superficially to a vast amount of material during 45-50 minute periods. High schools are transformed into Test Prep Ctrs, or Fact Factories."
"Making students feel powerless and the need for autonomy might express itself in antisocial ways. Treat students as interchangeable & anonymous and occasionally someone will do dreadful things to attract attention or make their mark. As a rule high schools are not designed to meet students needs at all."
"Many say, "Hey if the traditional approach was bad enough for me, it's bad enough for me kid"
"We need to ask, 'what do kids need and how can we meet those needs? As opposed to ' how do I get them to do what we tell them?'

The answer to 'What really is a good education' I feel is truly a personal matter based on how one defines success and what a good, meaningful life looks like to them. . .
This book raises many concerns with the current system of education foisted on the public at large in a very detailed yet clear way. I think it's absolutely worth the time to read it.
Profile Image for Books By Hala.
209 reviews37 followers
August 8, 2018
this was an interesting read. I advise parents and people in the education sector to read it. The main message here is defying standardised testing as the main method of assessing students. Grades are considered unreliable, thought to be a barrier to interactive learning, a blocker to smooth dynamics in the classroom amongst teachers and students, and a distortion to the curriculum. The author talks a lot about the American situation, but this time it seems to be relevant to Jordan and on a global level. Schools seem to be dropping free reading, volunteering, arts and music, extracurricular activities for standardised learning. A problem with standardised learning is that although most students seem to be learning more complex information, this information doesn’t seem to be highly relevant to the real world and the marketplace needed skills.
Profile Image for Flynn Magorian.
12 reviews2 followers
November 23, 2020
I think the name is misleading. What does it mean to be well educated? Is a huge, exciting, interesting question that deserves thoughtful, well researched experienced answers.
This book would be better titled “what are the three biggest barriers to a meaningful education? Grades, class rank and standardized tests.”
I appreciate the authors insights and experience and agree with many of his points. I would of loved it if a few of the essays in this book attempted to answer the title question. Maybe one of his other books does.
Profile Image for Katie Rybakova.
221 reviews2 followers
February 24, 2017
Not my favorite text by Kohn. He is still a brilliant theorist and man, but I found that the essays were a bit outdated and repetitive. After reading the third essay about testing, I felt like I was reading the same argument over and over. He makes great claims, but unfortunately a lot of these claims are just simply unrealistic in regards to real change RIGHT NOW in education. We need not only theory but also a plan of action.
Profile Image for Michelle Cristiani.
Author 2 books34 followers
February 10, 2019
I didn't read this as closely as I should to post a full review, but the first essay - the 'title track' - is a very important read for our time. What does it mean to be educated, what is the purpose of education, and - perhaps most importantly - who gets to answer these questions? It is important for all educators to ponder this, discuss it, and act accordingly.

This series of essays is from 2004; so much has changed since then, but it's eerie how much is still as relevant today.
15 reviews
September 21, 2020
So I would give this book a 5 out of 5, this book is really helpful for people who need a little more input on education, that will definitely help you in the future for your life. I love how in the book the author really connects to the reader and actually like make this topic easier and less in your face from others informants, the message I received by this book is how it helps you from a young age to help you for a long term, that will really help you get and feel ready for college.
April 24, 2018
I don't agree with everything Kohn argues here (mainly because I feel like I need to research it more on my own first). However, I do believe this book should be required reading for every parent, educator, administrator, and politician seeking to improve public education.
3 reviews
July 27, 2023
I love Kohn and his ideas, but this book is now (2023) in need of an update.
Profile Image for M.
152 reviews23 followers
March 22, 2017
"The average high school is terrific preparation for adult life - as long as that life is led in a totalitarian society."
33 reviews4 followers
August 22, 2011
Alfie Kohn lays out his basic philosophy. If you're tearing your hair out trying to explain why standardized testing is not going to single-handedly save the educational system or the economy, this might make you feel better. It also probably won't surprise you. Kohn introduces basic critiques of things he disagrees with (punitive standardized testing and the cash cow it represents), but offers no in-depth critique of things he agrees with (for that, go read David Labaree).

A few useful tidbits:

On praise (p. 111)
"When unconditional support is present, 'Good job!' isn't necessary; when it's absent, 'Good job!' won't help."

On better feedback (p. 111)
- say nothing
- say what you saw ("You put your shoes on yourself," "Boy, you sure used a lot of purple today!")
- Talk less, ask more ("What was the hardest part to draw?" "What do you like best about it?")

On teaching principle vs procedure (p. 160)
"Regardless of the order in which these two kinds of instruction were presented, students who were taught both ways didn't do any better on the transfer problems than did those who were taught only the procedure -- which means they did far worse than students who were taught only the principle. Teaching for understanding didn't offset the destructive effects of telling them how to get the answer. Any step-by-step instruction in how to solve such problems put learners at a disadvantage; the absence of such instruction was required for them to understand." (quoting Michelle Perry in Cognitive Developement, no citation)

Noam Chomsky on social control:
"The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow lively debate within that spectrum -- even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there's free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate." (1998, no citation)

Chapter headings:

One: The Purpose of Schooling
What Does It Mean to Be Well Educated?
Turning Learning into a Business
The Costs of Overemphasizing Achievement

Two: Standards and Testing
Confusing Harder with Better
Beware of the Standards, Not Just the Tests
Standardized Testing and Its Victims
Sacrificing Learning for Higher Scores
Two Cheers for an End to the SAT

Three: Grading and Evaluating
From Degrading to De-Grading
The Dangerous Myth of Grade Inflation
Five Reasons to Stop Saying "Good Job!"

Four: Moral, Social, and Psychological Questions
Constant Frustration and Occasional Violence: The Legacy of American High Schools
September 11
A Fresh Look at Abraham Maslow

Five: School Reform and the Study of Education
Almost There But Not Quite
Education's Rotten Apples
The Folly of Merit Pay
Professors Who Profess
Profile Image for Shannon.
391 reviews46 followers
March 21, 2017
This collection of essays challenged my preconceptions of learning, education policies, and standardized testing. As someone who thrived within a structured, heavily tested, and “reward / punishment” system, I would never had questioned them if I hadn’t been actively seeking out new perspectives on how to teach. It made me question if I enjoyed my classes because I was a “good test taker” or if I was actually enjoying the material. The essays on testing were fascinating, but my favorite studies were on the harmful effects of saying “good job,” etc. So often “good job” or an “effective” classroom are really just whatever serves the teacher best: order, compliance, and not the intrinsic motivation to learn. Kohn takes the focus away from measurable results of standardized testing and away from the teacher, and asks: how are the students learning? Would they pick up a book on their own outside of class as a result of teaching? Does grading have a positive or negative effect on their motivation to learn?

Another favorite essay was on the idea of merit pay, and how it promotes the insulting idea that teachers are somehow holding back “better” teaching that they will unleash if they are paid high salaries. Kohn argues that sure, teachers wouldn’t mind an across-the-board higher wage, but merit pay pits teachers and schools against each other and has dismal success rates. What is causing quality teachers to leave the profession is frustration with the education system itself, and not the money (honestly the people who complain the most about teacher’s salaries are non-teachers).

The one critique in the back of my mind was wondering what Lisa Delpit would think of his progressive educational ideas (no grading, no testing) – if we don’t expose students of color to this sort of education and those students do not receive any similar instruction / understanding at home, will it disenfranchise them in college, grad school, etc.? He mentions race issues and educational inequality a few times but not in depth. This is just a baby thought of mine – not sure where it leads yet.

5 stars for making me think deeply about old ideas and being clearly, concisely written.
Profile Image for Nola Tillman.
637 reviews44 followers
September 26, 2008
Very few nonfiction books are "quick reads" for me, but this book certainly was. Although it is a collection of essays, it is very well grouped and has a wonderful flow to it. Kohn walks you through his viewpoint on education and school.

One thing I did grit my teeth at was the way he seemed to paint "Christian conservatives" with quite a large brush. They are in the group, he claims, who want our kids to learn to accept everything given to them. I don't think this is a fair point to give so broadly. As a Christian conservative, my goal in educating my kids (I homeschool) is to teach them to think for themselves, to explore and love to learn. Ultimately, that will lead them to inquire about my fundamental beliefs - but I also think that ultimately they will agree with them (because, hey, I think they are true). Just because you are taught something repeatedly doesn't mean that you internalize it and accept it.

But that is a small point out of many. Overall, I think Kohn makes some excellent comments about the public education system at large, grading, standardized tests, and how classes are set up. If you just want to "dip your toes in the water", so to speak, this is a good way to experience Kohn, since the book is not precisely linear.
Profile Image for Rachel.
338 reviews4 followers
September 18, 2012
I heartily agree with most of his arguments, but have no idea how he thinks a) it can be practical for any teacher (I used to be a teacher, so my teacher filter was on while reading) b) that his ideas can lead anywhere else but to homeschooling. He said in another one of his books he does not want to do away with the public school system, but overhaul it. Fat chance in this day in age! People and government as an overwhelming majority are too fixed on things that don't work and will not relent, just try to reinvent the wheel time and time again.

I am, however, glad that he is putting these ideas out in the public arena because they are true. Even if the big system won't change, individuals (especially parents) can rethink what kind of education their children are receiving.
Profile Image for Joseph.
205 reviews3 followers
February 14, 2013
A set of fiery sermons on some of the problems of our education system, this book addresses quite a few questions without ever answering them (this includes the title question). It is quite effective at raising some important questions, though. This being only my first experience with Kohn, I will say tentatively that he is essential for any educator to read, whether you agree with him or not. As an educator (and a parent), I can see quite clearly that the issues he brings up are absolutely relevant today, and the questions he raises should be discussed at every level of education. If you or your children are involved in any way with the public schools, you should read Kohn.

(I have also written about this book on my blog: http://blog.marriageeternal.com/?p=270)
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