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Alfie Kohn delivers strong messages in WCS presentations
Alfie Kohn gave the Walton Central School District, as well as community members and visiting school districts something to think about.

In separate presentations on Wednesday and Thursday, Kohn spoke about the current educational system, the reliance on grades and homework, and gave ideas and thoughts on how things could be improved.

Kohn, an author of 13 books, spoke to about 100 people Wednesday night and about 175 on Thursday morning. His topic Wednesday was “From Degrading to De-Grading,” and he followed up with “The Homework Myth” Thursday morning.

His appearance was co-sponsored by WCS and DCMO BOCES.

Kohn is nationally known and writes and speaks widely on human behavior, education, and parenting.

A former English teacher, Kohn opened Wednesday night talking about the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. With intrinsic, a person has the desire to do something because they believe in it or find it important. Extrinsic motivation is based on completing something for a reward – such as grades, or a prize.

“The more you reward people for doing something, the more they lose interest in what they were doing to get the reward,” Kohn said. “If you want to destroy a kids interest in reading, give them a reward. … It’s the equivalent of giving them a doggy biscuit.

“You can watch their interest in learning evaporate before your eyes,” he said.

What do rewards end up doing? Kohn said kids are smart and they get what is going on.

“If they have to bribe me to do this, then it must not be worth doing,” Kohn said. “This is something unpleasant.”

Kids, said Kohn, will then do what they need to do to get the specific reward. They’ll take on lighter or easier challenges to maximize the chance to get a higher grade. And, he noted, they aren’t doing it because they are lazy, but because they are rational.

It’s radical thinking, especially when so much of state aid is based on standardized test scores. If a district was to get rid of grading and go with a different way of teaching, how would teachers evaluate?

Kohn said it’s via assessment.

Teachers would gather information about how the kids were doing. They’d share all of this information with parents and students.

Tests, Kohn said, aren’t always a good base for learning, as they rarely measure anything. Multiple choice questions and fill-in-the-blank are superficial, he said.

Great teachers don’t need tests as they get a constant flow of information.

The worst tests, Kohn said, are those created by those away from the classroom. All tests like that do, Kohn said, is show which community, school, or state is beating another.

“We’re turning it into an athletic event,” Kohn said. “Grades eliminate intellectual challenge. … It undermines a kids’ desire to challenge themselves.”

If you eliminate grades, Kohn said, you end up with students who dig into ideas, ask questions, and explore.

There are differences, though. While eliminating grades might be extremely difficult to get rid of in high school, Kohn said there is no research to back that grades at the elementary and middle school level are beneficial for long-term learning.

The argument about needing grades for college is not valid, either, Kohn said. There are many prestigious colleges – at the state and private level – that accept students who attend schools without grades, or are homeschooled.

What do those colleges, which include some Ivy League universities, use? They interview, look at essays, get detailed assessments from adults in the school, as well as a curriculum guide.

This doesn’t have to happen all at once, though. There would have to be discussions, consultations to include stakeholders (students, teachers, parents), and be done a little at a time.

“It’s not all or nothing,” Kohn said. “It can be gradual.”

And even if grades are needed – it’s important to hide them from students for as long as possible so as to not hurt the learning process. Report cards, too, should be a non-event and be more about discussing the subject and what students have learned.

“The best teachers and parents talk less and ask more,” he said.

On Thursday morning, Kohn spoke to the staff at WCS, as well as some visiting schools and community members, about how homework is not needed.

After talking a bit about his Wednesday night speech, he intertwined the two and then talked about how kids are in school all day and then go home and have to do homework, which could mean an additional two or three hours of schoolwork.

“Why are we making kids work a second shift after they get home from school?” Kohn questioned the audience.

Homework, he says, rarely – if ever – is a benefit to students. It can make them exhausted, or frustrated, or cause family conflict. By not having enough time to do something of interest to them, many kids will lose interest in learning.

Kohn noted there were four arguments people in favor of homework use: It’s needed for academic achievement; it’s useful to create a bond between home and school; it builds character; and the “better get used to it” mentality.

The problem with this, he said, is there are no studies to back up any of these arguments. Research shows that there are no benefits of homework, Kohn said.

“Family time is for families to decide what to do,” Kohn said he has heard from parents. “School has no right to tell me what my kid has to do in the evening. I want my kid to develop academically, but also socially, emotionally, and physically.”

Still, to go down this road will take time and patience. Some suggestions Kohn gave included not pressing the idea of no homework; assign only homework that can be justified; don’t grade homework; and assign only what you design.

The presentations also gave WCS something to consider in the long run.

“Now that we have heard this new perspective, the district plans on studying the idea,” Walton Superintendent Roger Clough said. “Faculty and staff spoke about this following Thursday’s presentation. This is something the district will look into as we evaluate our homework and grading policy moving forward.”
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