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Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and ``Tougher Standards''

by Alfie Kohn

Pub Date: Sept. 7th, 1999
ISBN: 0-395-94039-7
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Another blistering critique (after Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes, 1993) of traditional public schooling by a progressive who displays the same intellectual rigidity he abhors in others.

In pithy, take-no-prisoners prose, Kohn mounts a frontal assault on what he calls the “Old School,” where teachers rely on lectures, textbooks, worksheets, and grades to “transmit” a series of isolated facts and skills to their students. Rebutting those who believe that education should get “back to basics,” Kohn makes a persuasive case that the majority of schools never left them behind. The author also targets the “tougher standards” movement, arguing that a greater emphasis on standardized testing and other evaluations needlessly pits students against one another and ultimately leads to mediocrity. Since schools are already failing with this approach, why offer more of the same? Instead, Kohn, leaning heavily on John Dewey and Jean Piaget, proposes multiage, interdisciplinary classrooms where students work on projects and actively “construct” their own knowledge, teachers act as “facilitators,” and grades give way to performance-based evaluations. As presented here, however, Kohn’s solution is just another brand of educational orthodoxy, the progressive version of the one-size-fits-all that currently afflicts the public schools. Oddly, for someone who decries simplistic thinking, Kohn does quite a bit of it. At one point, he frames the education debate this way: those who seek “education for profit” vs. those who seek “education for democracy.” (Guess which side he’s on!) Worse, Kohn belittles everyone who doesn’t agree with him. E.D. Hirsch, of cultural literacy fame, for example, is dismissed as the father of the “bunch o’ facts” school. The harangue spills over into the book’s lengthy appendix, in which the author debunks all the research he doesn’t like, and even into the extensive footnotes, which endlessly recycle arguments made more effectively elsewhere.

Though Kohn’s zeal for reform is undeniable, in this book he seems content to preach to the progressive choir rather than persuade others to adopt his cause.