Alfie Kohn, lecturer and author of numerous books and articles on education, parenting and human behavior, will be at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto on Thursday, Jan. 8, to give a talk titled "Performance vs. Learning - The Costs of Overemphasizing Achievement."
Kohn is known within the educational sphere for his staunch and sometimes controversial criticism of attitudes and modes of learning that perpetuate rote instruction, achievement mania and unhealthy competition.
He sees no benefits to homework ("probably the most powerful device we have for extinguishing children's curiosity," he said) and despairs that the Common Core State Standards hailed by many as a push toward more innovative, active learning are "the next step downward in a perpetual descent toward a corporate-styled, test-driven prescriptive approach to school reform that is squeezing the intellectual life out of our schools."
"The more we get kids focused on how well they're doing in school, the less deeply they tend to think and the less interested they end up being in the learning itself," Kohn told the Weekly. "That speaks to the horrible emotional and psychological costs that an achievement-crazy culture often engenders. I'm talking about something that's less commonly noticed, which is that there are intellectual costs to this mania for school success, even for the kids who aren't emotionally devastated."
These costs will be the focus of his talk, which he said is geared toward the two stakeholders who must be working together to create any real change for students: parents and teachers.
"I want teachers and parents together to reflect on how we can question the conventional wisdom and stop the cult of rigor that is literally killing our children," he said.
Parenting has been the focus of much of Kohn's writing, including his most recent and 13th book, "The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom About Children," which challenges the assumption that "helicopter parents" are everywhere, producing coddled, overindulged children.
However, he's quick to throw out an acronym for achievement-obsessed parents: BIRG, which stands for "Basking In Reflected Glory."
"To talk about attitudes is to invite parents to think about how much of their children's curiosity and well-being they're willing to sacrifice so that the kids get higher grades and test scores that the parents can brag about," he said.
Kohn has also written extensively about the difference between praise and productive positive enforcement, from a 1999 book called "Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes" to a well-known 2001 parenting article titled, "Five Reasons to Stop Saying 'Good job!'"
But, he said, changes in parents' attitudes alone won't produce happier, more engaged children.
"There are structural changes necessary that go beyond parents' attitudes and that's where parents have to work with educators to talk about issues like grades, tests, homework, AP courses and a general climate in schools that's really not about exploring ideas but merely about succeeding at any price or worse, succeeding at other kids' expense," he said.
Kohn decries the entrenched culture of celebrating high grades "a school with even the most rudimentary sense of kids' best interest in mind would never do things like spelling bees and awards assemblies and school rankings," he said.
He praises teachers who take advantage of the latitude they have within their own classroom to shift the focus from achievement to learning. (He knows teachers who only give a grade at the end of the class, but not on individual assignments, and some who actually refuse to give homework, even in high school, he said.)
But the key point he'll be making on Jan. 8, he said, will speak to the particular environment in Palo Alto.
"The situation may be most dire in communities that boast about the excellence of their schools because they literally don't know the difference between high test scores that typically measure the size of the houses in neighborhood and quality of education," he said.
The Jan. 8 talk will begin at 7:30 p.m. For more information and to purchase tickets, go to paloaltojcc.org.