February 12, 2009

The Intellectual Dishonesty of Alfie Kohn

In case you missed it, cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham recently criticised author Alfie Kohn for making factual errors, misinterpreting and oversimplifying the research, and making logical errors.

Willingham was too kind to Kohn.

Kohn responded and denied the allegations, casting most of the disagreements as merely a difference of opinion. Hopefully, Willingham will respond to Kohn's response and give him the smack-down he so rightly deserves because I, like Willingham, believe that Kohn is butchering the fair-reading of the research to lend credence to his crack-pot opinions and agenda.

Kohn is not the dispassionate advocate he pretends to be. He is a intellectually dishonest muck-raker with an agenda. A dangerous agenda for at-risk children.

You see, what Kohn does is prey on the sorry state of the quality of instruction and education research as a springboard for his opinions. For example, we know that praising students to increase motivation is difficult to do properly. It is difficult to get it right and easy to get it wrong and it is even more difficult to show positive academic results because those results are also dependent upon the quality of the delivered instruction which is often ineffective with at-risk kids, i.e., the ones who need the motivational praise. You see the problem --because Kohn doesn't. To Kohn, all praise or positive reinforcement is detrimental, unless you want to count Kohn's carefully worded weasel language he includes at the end of a long diatribe for plausibly deniability. Here's the weasel language that comes at the end of a long article informing the reader of how bad positive reinforcement is:

It’s not a matter of memorizing a new script, but of keeping in mind our long-term goals for our children and watching for the effects of what we say. The bad news is that the use of positive reinforcement really isn’t so positive. The good news is that you don’t have to evaluate in order to encourage.

Kohn ignores the large body of research in which the proper use of positive reinforcement was found to be effective in getting disruptive students to stop being disruptive so they can learn. What I haven't seen is a teacher of a classroom of disruptive kids following Kohn's advice and being able to get the classroom under control and then teach them effectively.

And, ultimately that's Kohn's main problem. He has lots of opinions on education, but no evidence of his opinions being put into practice and being effective. In fact, I'll go so far as saying that to the extent that his condoned practices have been actually been used, they've been failures. Miserable failures.

Look how poorly the Open education model and the other child-centered models fared in Follow-Through. That's some very inconvenient evidence for Kohn which he realizes and attacks. And, it's that hatchet job which I'll deconstruct in my next post.


Anonymous said...

Poor, rich Alphie. One thing positive that can be said about the guy is that he's "above proficiency" on the latent trait of self aggrandizement. Whether or not self aggrandizement is "intellectual dishonesty" depends on one's belief regarding the meaning of each of those terms (which gets into deep water philosophically, and I don't want to go there).

Certainly Kohn has a lot of company. Public schools are caught in the middle of two complexes. Coming down on them from one flank is the Schools Suck Complex (SSc). Here we have the reformers, privatizers, deconstuctivists and camp followers. On the other flank they face the Tender Loving Complex (TLC) of teacher ed institutions, publishers,and the industry of consultants and non-profit corporations that suck on schools. Kohn artfully has a foot in each complex. (What he does with his third leg is where the business of intellectual (dis)honesty comes into play.

Among his errors, Kohn does make some valid points (in my view). For example In talking about DIhe says:

"The study’s primary researchers reported that the 'clearest finding' of Follow Through was not the superiority of any one style of teaching but the fact that the variation in results of a given model of instruction from one site to the next was greater than the variation among the models."

I'm not sure that Kohn's quote is accurate, and it's certainly taken out of context. Nevertheless, it's a matter that deserves more attention.

Most of the "models" were nothing more than rhetoric. So variation was to be expected. Zig does clearly acknowledge variability in site result ranging from "dropout" to high variablility among schools and among teachers within schools. He chalks the phenomenon up to "lack of fidelity." But that treats all error as "user error." only in the ed sector can purveyors get away with that.

Unfortunately, the "big conclusion" drawn by everyone other than a few people whose voices were disregarded is that "the teacher is the teacher is the most important variable." Well yeah. But that's like saying "guns don't kill people; people kill people."

The DI camp and a few other tents part company from the EdLand view that "programs don't matter; a good teacher can make any program work." That is so false on its face as to be laughable, were it not so tragic for so many kids. But the self-fulfilling prophecy is tough to "take out."

The popularity in EdLand of flyweights like Kohn is a good gauge of the status of the US el-hi enterprise.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your point that Kohn's ideas are difficult to put into effective practice. As someone sympathetic to them, I readily recognize that they are very time consuming, so much so that they're largely infeasible.

I would disagree, though, with your tone and personal attacks since I think they're petty and that, even if his "ultimate problem" is one of practicality, there's a lot to think about regarding what Kohn says. As mentioned. I don't necessarily think all of Kohn's ideas will work, but they're intriguing and could be used to modify our own behaviors in some small regards. On a personal level, he at least seems to make a great deal of effort to back up his claims and respond to criticisms which indicates, for me, a genuine person who may be mistaken.

KDeRosa said...

he at least seems to make a great deal of effort to back up his claims and respond to criticisms

If but this were true.

I am familar enough with the DI research to know that Kohn has distorted the extant research to "back up his claims" that goes beyond the pale.

And, I'm confident that Dan Willingham is sufficiently familiar with the cog sci research that his reaction was the same as mine when he posed his intial criticism.

I will go over this in a future post.

Anonymous said...

I wonder sometimes whether KD's penchant for insulting the opponents of effective instruction is productive or counterproductive.

Calling Alfie an "intellectually dishonest muck-raker" is on-target, but the word choice is insulting.

Advantages of this approach:

1) It is entertaining reading and thus draws attention to a blog full of important insights and information.
2) It is such charged language that it is hard for even a casual skimmer to miss the point.
3) It can get you free drinks for "calling it like it is."

Disadvantages of this approach:

1) It will repulse some readers as immature and may cause them to disregard the validity of KD's points.
2) Most educators read "Punished By Rewards" in school and believe (wrongly) that knowledge of such works is what makes educators like themselves experts in the field. By denigrating Alfie, you insult these readers. And it is hard to persuade someone you have just insulted!
3) It can get you punched in the nose.

For a contrasting style, consider Supreme Leader Obama. At his best, he does not insult his opponents. He just calmly points out the flaws in their arguments.

Our agenda of education reform will advance faster and farther if we can attract allies without making needless enemies.

KD, if you use less charged language when writing your posts, you might be amazed at who you could convince.

Alfie is obviously a smart guy who is willing to engage in dialogue with those who disagree with him. Use a respectful tone, and even Alfie might come around eventually! :)

KDeRosa said...

I thought I had used a less charged tone for this post. I guess not.

I appreciate your point, anon, but I think I accord Alfie the respect he deserves and which he accords to others he disagrees with.

Anonymous said...

"Use a respectful tone, and even Alfie might come around eventually!"

Naw. That's not the way it works. How many Republicans have "come around" to Obama. At last count, 3 Senators. And those were won by monetary reinforcement, not by sweet talk.

The best treatment of this phenomenon is George Lakoff's "Don't Think of an Elephant" which both Dan and Ken would do well to think of.

Alphie should put both Dan and Ken on his payroll as publicists. But he doesn't have to. They work for him for free.

What I get from Lakoff is that reason, evidence and such aren't going to dissuade the opposition from their position. You can only hope to bring open-minded neutrals to your side. That can only be done by working hard and acting nice with your pitch.

Occasionally, you can "catch them when they're being good" to turn what they say against them. That's not often, because they're not-good most of the time.

Dan Willingham said...

I can't agree with you on this one. Kohn doesn't need me or Ken. . . he's already widely read. Silence would just indicate that we think he's right. . .and what would open-minded neutrals make of that? Dan

Anonymous said...

I think Lakoff would say that you can't put straight everyone who writes misguided stuff.

The affirmative pieces that you and Ken do are invaluable and speak for themselves. Obviously they controvert the quasi-nonsense but crowd-pleaser stuff that Kohn spews. If A person can't see that, they're not an open-minded neutral.

Attacking Kohn head-on does nothing more than give him an opportunity to respond obliquely, so we get a tis-taint. Then people loose track of the issue and it becomes an "Alphie defending himself against the pointy heads." That's the guy's meal ticket. You've punched the ticket, not him, and the substance of very important matters gets lost in the melee.

It's not about Alphie vs. Dan and Ken. The matters that the daring duo are trying to straighten out are highly consequential to teachers and kids, and you don't get any royalties or speaking engagements for the effort.

It's all too common in Internet exchanges that when an argument is "won" the opposition attacks with personal or snarky gibes. You guys try to raise the personal to an intellectual level, but viewers tend to think personal rather than intellectual.

Kohn knows this and counters with the contention that the differences are "matters of opinion" Of course they're not. But saying that just gives him the opportunity to say "yes the are", again obliquely. The discourse degrades into nothing, and Kohn is still standing. He may even have picked up a few sympathy points, like anon for one.

I dunno. The personal feedback from your post may counter the Lakoff logic.

Malcolm Kirkpatrick said...

I will believe that the Professors of Education who promote Kohn themselves believe that incentives do not work when I see Professors of Education strike for lower pay.

The problem is to find the appropriate incentive. Carrots work with donkeys. Sardines work with sea lions. Praise from teachers does not work with at-risk students because they are not into school. Compulsory, unpaid labor is slavery and accepting praise from teachers amounts to kissing the overseer's ass.

Students will work for freedom. Mandate that school districts must offer the GED at any age and subsidize employment or post-secondary tuition to age 18 from the $12,000 (or whatever) per pupil taxpayers currently spend on incarceration and you will see performance like you wouldn't have believed possible from the at-risk population.

Anonymous said...


You may be giving Alfie "the respect he deserves."

But in the process you are setting back our efforts to help children.

It is more important for us to change minds than to insult Alfie.

Anonymous said...

"Praise from teachers does not work with at-risk students because they are not into school."

Well, it's certainly true that if a reinforcer doesn't work it's not a reinforcer. Some kids get very little praise either at school or at home. As Wes Becker said, "Catch them being good." That's easier said than done.

I'd like to see a better test than the GED. I think prison costs run considerably higher than $12K per head. But it seems fair and reasonable to let kids "escape" and get the same subsidization personally that a school district is getting institutionally $8-10K.

Intrinsic reinforcement is always preferable to extrinsic. If there is no intrinsic reinforcement you can always use the Premack Principle if you don't want introduce extrinsic incentives. That is, a preferred behavior can act as a reinforcer for a less preferred behavior. "If you do [what you don't want to do], you'll get to do [what you like to do]." Then by catching them when they're good on the less preferred, you can begin to build up intrinsic reinforcers.

Kohn straw men to build a case against reinforcement and constructivists and and other romantic ideologs eat it up. As Malcolm says, we all work for incentives. All organisms do as a matter of fact. It's built into life.

But no proof or evidence is going to persuade one one who rejects the notion out of hand to start and end with. Many EdLanders even in high places are in this camp. They teach teachers, so it's no surprise that teachers believe abd practice what they've been taught.

Jerry Heverly said...

I think you have fundamentally misunderstood Mr. Kohn's central point. You say that rewards and punishments *can* change student behavior and suggest that Kohn believes otherwise. But Kohn doesn't argue that rewards and punishments can't work, he says that it is fruitless and corrosive to do so, because they steal the person's opportunity to make autonomous decisions. I believe I've had some success using Mr. Kohn's suggestions in my classroom but my attempts to avoid behaviorist methods are based on a desire to treat my students with respect, not my desire to control their behavior.

KDeRosa said...

But Kohn doesn't argue that rewards and punishments can't work, he says that it is fruitless and corrosive to do so, because they steal the person's opportunity to make autonomous decisions.

Then explain to me how catching a student when he's being good and praising him ("good job sitting in your seat") which has empirical support for reducing the incidence of students not sitting down and how this is "corrosive" and how it "steals the person's opportunity to make autonomous decisions."

Malcolm Kirkpatrick said...

Jerry, does your paycheck make you feel disrespected?

We accept thst, absent artificial barriers like professional licensing, raising salary offers allows businesses to attract more job applicants, and that raising offered prices (bids) for goods and services attracts a wider range of producers. Kohn and his disciples suggest that standard economic principles somehow do not appl;y to people between age 5 and 18 while they attend institutions operated by dues-paying members of the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel.

It's not "disrespect" to pay people for work. It's disrespect to expect them to work for the opportunity to kiss the overseer's ass, which is how "at-risk" kids see blue stars and praise from teachers.

Kohn's "punished by rewards" thesis is so counter-intuitive that I cannot avoid speculating about his motives and the motives of his disciples in offering it.

Jerry Heverly said...

he1. If I praise a student for doing the right thing she learns what it takes to earn my goodwill. But she has no notion that sitting in her chair connects to a myriad of other behaviors that collectively make her a better member of our class. Given time I think I can make her understand how sitting in her chair is something she might decide to do for her own reasons not ones supplied by me.
2. My district is the lowest paying in the county but I like my job because of many other factors not involving money. I respect my students by believing that they are capable of making informed decisions, that I don't need to 'pay' them to have a classroom where learning takes place.

Parry Graham said...


I know I shouldn't head down this rabbit hole, but what the heck.

Let's say what you recommend comes to pass: every state mandates that any student who wishes is able to take the GED at any age, and if the child passes then he/she is no longer required to attend school and will receive his/her per-pupil expenditure as a work or tuition subsidy up until the age of 18.

What percentage of at-risk students at each grade level (let's start at 5th grade and go up to 12th grade) do you believe would elect to take the GED? What percentage of parents would allow them this option? What percentage of these students taking the GED do you believe would pass? What types of jobs do you believe would be available to these sub-18-year-olds with a GED and no high school diploma? What post-secondary options do you believe would be available to these sub-18-year-olds with a GED and no high school diploma? And finally, what evidence do you have to support any of these predictions?


Mr. McNamar said...

Two things, and I don't know what sense to make of them. One, I am a teacher and have never read Alfie Kohn--I also lack any desire to do so.
Two, in theory, I want my students to want to make autonomously good choices, but if they don't do it autonomously, I really want them to make good choices because I told them to!

Malcolm Kirkpatrick said...


First, have you heard of the Innocence Project? Something like that, where law students examine incarcerations where the conviction seems flimsy? Sometimes they pay for DNA analysis or something which conclusively proves innocence and people win release. Suppose I were to ask you where these released prisoners would find employment, where they would take their vacations, which churches they would join. Could you answer? Based on what research? Should I take your inability to answer these questions as a good reason NOT to release people wrongly incarcerated?

I already recommended this one page Marvin Minsky comment on school and this article by Ted Kolderie on artificially extended adolescence. These authors suggest that the standard 12-year precollege regime does not work for many students.

I suspect that the proposal would instantly interest the nation's 1.5million homeschoolers, and that interest would grow rapidly.

It would not be at all difficult to accommodate teens in the workforce, since employers do it every summer without subsidy. Divide a per pupil budget of $12,000 by 240 work days times 8 hours per day and you get a subsidy of $6.25/hr, which ought to make many kids employable.

As more and more people demonstrated the difference between "well-educated" and "expensively schooled", demand for reliable certification processes would cause these to proliferate. Many occupations (e.g., welders, lawyers, electricians, accountants, actuaries) have exams which certify competence. I suspect that soon enough you would see on-line colleges which granted degrees based on exams alone, and a B.A. History or a B.Ed. would cost no more than the cost of books and grading exams.

Malcolm Kirkpatrick said...

Parry: "What post-secondary options do you believe would be available to these sub-18-year-olds with a GED and no high school diploma?"

Community college, if they take the SAT or ACT. My student, Eugene So, attended the University of Hawaii as a 14-year-old homeschooler, and started work on his MS (Math) with just a GRE--no HS diploma, no undergraduate degree--before he turned 17.

Parry: "...what evidence do you have to support any of these predictions?"

a) There's lots of evidence that many students want OUT.
b) State school defenders often blame parents for poor student performance. Suppose this is true. Does not this imply that these parents would welcome an alternative to conventional schools?
c) Community colleges NOW accept homeschoolers with SAT and GED.