Alfie Kohn is an author and lecturer specializing in human behavior as it relates to parenting and education. He is known for his critiques of conventional parenting and behaviorism and promotion of progressive education and constructivism. Kohn graduated from Brown University in 1979 with an independent concentration in Normativism, which he describes as “drawing from existentialist thought, ethics, literature, and political theory to argue that the human capacity for making value judgements is something that shouldn’t be denied or discouraged and exists alongside our capacity to love, create, and be funny as a way of rebelling against a universe that is without any transcendent meaning.” In 1980 he defected from Brown University to earn a Masters of Social Sciences from the University of Chicago, but we forgive him. Kohn has published 14 books, including Punished by Rewards, The Schools Our Children Deserve, No Contest: The Case Against Competition, and Unconditional Parenting, and has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic, Harvard Business Review, and Chronicle of Higher Education among other publications. He has been a featured guest on C-Span, PBS, NPR, and Oprah. Many of his articles and lectures can be accessed for free at alfiekohn.org.
Amelia Spalter: As you’ve Tweeted about, grade school students in Wuhan inundated the app assigning them homework during quarantine with one-star reviews, until the app store’s algorithm removed it altogether. What were your initial impressions of this saga?
Alfie Kohn: It speaks to the cleverness of students and their ability to organize in response to unnecessary labor. Whether homework benefits students is an interesting question in its own right, quite separate from this story. Obviously the situation is different these days, when students are not [physically attending] school. The broader point is that it is difficult to imagine how beneficial homework could be if students regard it as unpleasant and something they want to escape from.
The idea that it’s intellectually advantageous regardless of what kids think about it reflects an antiquated, mechanistic view of learning that says the perspectives, attitudes, and goals of the human beings engaged in an activity have nothing to do with the outcome — as if kids were like vending machines, where you put in an assignment and you get out learning.
AS: In your book The Homework Myth, a devastatingly incisive takedown of the entire concept of homework as we know it, what sort of homework did your research find to be beneficial?
AF: No controlled study has ever found any benefit to any kind of homework below the high school level. And lately, research is also raising serious questions about whether homework of any kind is necessary, even in high school. When you look at cross-cultural studies, when you dig down deeply into the data, it just reinforces a failure to find any benefits to making kids do schoolwork after school. I devote the bulk of my book to asking why we persist in feeding kids this modern cod liver oil given the failure of good studies to show that it’s useful, much less necessary. Among those reasons:
First, as a society, we don’t much trust children. Particularly, we don’t trust them with free time, so we feel we have to make their every moment constructive rather than letting them decide how to spend their hours. The less you trust children, the more likely you are to be a big believer in the need for homework.
Second, homework persists because of a set of fallacious beliefs about learning. The fact that we think of learning mostly as practicing a list of decontextualized skills or cramming a “bunch o’ facts” into short-term memory helps to explain what’s being assigned and why it’s widely believed that kids need to spend even more time on such assignments at home.
Great teaching is more about helping kids to discover ideas than covering a prescribed curriculum. It is about giving students more say in what and how they’re learning. The kind of teachers who want to facilitate the construction of meaning are not only impressive in what they do during the day, but also tend to be the kind of teachers who rarely, if ever, assign homework. It is again, the people who understand the least about learning who tend to be most supportive of homework, and for that matter, many other traditional educational practices including lectures, worksheets, grades, quizzes, and so on.
And finally, for the purpose of this discussion at least, I think homework persists because of a focus on a particular approach to K-12 school reform that tends to be corporate-styled, top- down, test-driven, and concerned with beating other countries. The issue, as is so often the case, is not really about excellence, but about victory. The more you uncritically accept standardized test results as a marker for achievement – and the extent to which you’re interested in how much better our kids are doing than kids who live elsewhere – the more likely you are to adopt a get-tough, accountability-focused approach to education. That includes, among other things, homework.
AS: It seems that even when parents and teachers see eye-to-eye on the desire for less homework, bureaucracy stands in the way of taking any large-scale action. How can we begin to restructure American education so that it can accommodate this profound systemic change in a timely manner?
AF: The first thing we can do is realize that the problem isn’t with the way a policy is being implemented; the problem is with the very idea of making kids essentially work a second shift. The question shouldn’t be how much homework there is, or even in most cases, how good the quality of the homework is. The question is whether [the practice of assigning homework] needs to be done at all.
That, I suppose, is one through-line in my writings on many different topics having to do with education, parenting, and human behavior: our tendency to ask narrow questions of implementation and efficiency rather than radical questions that get to the premises underlying the whole conversation. I use “radical” here in the original sense, it comes from [the Latin, radix], meaning root. It’s true for homework, it’s true for grading, it’s true for a number of other things in education and in other arenas.
Then, too, we need to recognize that the problem is typically not just with individuals, such that we should improve the habits or mindsets of people caught in the system. We need to be asking about the structural causes of those problems. We have to think in systemic terms about what we’re doing. And some of those systems define individual schools or classrooms. That means that it’s possible to make structural changes rather than waiting for our whole society to be transformed.
AS: Are you concerned this sudden mass experiment in virtual learning will promote more standardized busywork and further emphasis on quantifiable learning outcomes?
AF: It may support a movement in that direction that’s already well underway. You’re already seeing the corporate vultures circling, by which I mean, the tech companies that stand to profit from online learning. So much of the problem with ed-tech in general, and online learning in particular, is that it is rooted in an uncritical tendency to see education as the transmission of information rather than the construction of meaning. It has always been difficult to have students in diverse locations, each looking at a screen, and think that you can possibly capture the deep understanding, the meaning making, the collaboration, that describes the best kind of education.
There are distinctions to be made between teaching younger and older students, of course, and teaching one subject versus another. In fact, one friend of mine who teaches college said that it’s possible that some instructors will actually be forced to be more thoughtful about doing something other than just lecturing as a result of online learning. Paradoxically, there could be some improvement here on the part of teachers who were terrible in real life.
AS: You are famously – or infamously, depending on who you ask – known for pedagogy that plainly prioritizes raising happy, well-adjusted children with a sustained passion for learning. Yet many academics and civilians alike are nothing short of infuriated by you. Why are you such a controversial figure?
AF: I’ve spent many years asking myself a variation of that question, and I finally pulled some of these thoughts together in a book called The Myth of the Spoiled Child, which I wrote as much for myself as for anyone else. A lot of it has to do with the moral weight that many of the issues I write and lecture about seem to have for people. George Lakoff, in his book Moral Politics, helped me to clarify why people are so deeply invested in rewards and punishments even though they’re typically ineffective or even counterproductive in a practical sense.
People become apoplectic with rage if you suggest failing to punish those who have transgressed or failing to reward those who have pleased us — or if there is even the possibility that someone undeserving has been rewarded (Hence the right-wing fury over the idea that a “thanks for playing” token could be given to little kids on the soccer field who didn’t defeat their opponents.) The same is true for competition, which was the subject of my very first book No Contest. We are, as a society, deeply ideologically committed to the idea that other people are rivals to be bested, and it is very upsetting to learn that competition is in most situations unnecessary, as well as destructive.
In our current Narcissist-in-Chief we see an exaggerated version of that hypercompetitive pathology that reflects back the worst impulses of our whole culture. These are among the issues that I write about that lead people not merely to say, “I disagree,” but to foam at the mouth.
AS: A common response to your work is the assertion that life is one long exercise in avoiding penalties and seeking rewards, so if we eliminate punishment and reward in schools, people will still have to contend with them in the workplace, the judicial system, etc. How do you respond?
AF: Well, it’s a convenient argument isn’t it? First you create a structure that doesn’t really make sense, and then when people challenge its inevitability, you point to the very status quo that you’ve created as evidence that this is just the way life is. There is obviously a difference between the way “life” is and the way things are in particular cultures or in particular times in history. A reasonable person approaches any status quo with two questions, “Is this really the way things have to be?” And if not, “Is this the way things should be?”
AS: You’ve pointed out time and again that those two questions are rarely applied to what should be one of the most individualistic and ever-evolving practices known to humanity, parenting. Why are people so hesitant to seek out, let alone embrace, advances or alternatives to conventional parenting?
AF: Part of it has to do with the way we individually were raised. Even if “human nature” is a cheap, convenient, and ultimately inaccurate explanation for our practices — in other words, even if things could be otherwise — that doesn’t mean it’s easy to flip practices and beliefs that have been around for a very long time. Social science is all about how ideologies and norms can become deeply rooted, even if we as humans have the capacity to do things otherwise.
We often reproduce very specific parenting strategies even if they make no sense, a phenomenon I call “How did my mom get in my larynx?” More deeply, if I had been raised to believe that children are ultimately untrustworthy and must be tightly regulated, bribed and threatened to do what I demand, I am likely to reproduce that whole system, not just specific scripts, with my own kids.
Then of course there is the question of ultimate objectives. I start most of my workshops by asking parents or teachers what their long-term goals are for their children or students. “How do you want these kids to turn out years from now?” The answers I get are remarkably similar across cultures and subcultures. I try to reorient the discussion to, “What kind of parenting or teaching is likely to meet your own goals?” Without that reorientation, the default objective is short-term compliance rather than, say, helping kids to become happy, moral, caring, curious, thoughtful individuals who are part of a community.
AS: If there were a licensing test required to raise to a child, what would you screen for that others might not think to include?
AF: A capacity for thinking about long-term goals rather than short-term compliance, and for looking not just at behaviors, but at the motives, values, and goals children have that inform their behaviors. One marker for such reflective parenting is the capacity and inclination to imagine how the world looks from someone else’s point of view. This is what psychologists call perspective taking. When I can see things through my child’s eyes, I’m more likely to work with her than to do things to her. The idea that we should “talk less, ask more,” is beneficial to us not only as parents, but as teachers, lovers, spouses, and friends.
AS: What outmoded societal construct will your next book be liberating us from?
AF: I’m not working on a book at the moment; I’m writing shorter pieces. I did one a couple of months ago, a fairly ambitious essay called “Autism and Behaviorism” that extended my ongoing critique of behaviorism to this particular domain. I’m working on a longer essay now about the role of factual knowledge in a good education, and why traditionalists tend to overstate that role in my opinion. I continue to give lectures on various topics, or at least I did until we were all put under house arrest.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.