Alfie Kohn is an American author and lecturer who has explored a number of topics in education, parenting, and human behavior. He is considered a leading figure in progressive education and has also offered critiques of many traditional aspects of parenting, managing, and American society more generally, drawing in each case from social science research.
Kohn’s challenges to widely accepted theories and practices have made him a controversial figure, particularly with behaviorists, conservatives, and those who defend the specific practices he calls into question, such as the use of competition, incentive programs, conventional discipline, standardized testing, grades, homework, and traditional schooling.
Kohn’s ideas on education would currently be described as progressive and have been influenced by the works of John Dewey and Jean Piaget. He believes in a constructivist account of learning in which the learner is seen as actively making meaning rather than absorbing information, and he argues that knowledge should be taught “in a context and for a purpose.” Kohn has also written that learning should be organized around “problems, projects, and questions -- rather than around lists of facts, skills, and separate disciplines.” Along with this belief, Kohn feels that students should have an active voice in the classroom with the ability to have a meaningful impact on the curriculum, structure of the room, and any necessary discipline measures, among other things.
Kohn has been critical of several aspects of traditional schooling. Classroom management and discipline are, in Kohn’s view, focused more on eliciting compliance than on helping students become caring, responsible problem-solvers. He has also denounced the effects of the test-driven “accountability” movement — in general, but particularly on low-income and minority students — arguing that “the more poor children fill in worksheets on command (in an effort to raise their test scores), the further they fall behind affluent kids who are more likely to get lessons that help them understand ideas." More recently, Kohn has been critical of the place homework holds in the American classroom, noting that research does not support claims of any benefit to homework, academically or otherwise.
While Unconditional Parenting (2005) is Kohn’s first book that deals primarily with the topic of raising children, he devoted two chapters to this question in Punished by Rewards (1993). He discusses the need for parents to keep in mind their long-term goals for their children, such as helping them grow into responsible and caring people, rather than on short-term goals, such as obedience. The key question, he argues, is “What do kids need – and how do we meet those needs?”
Toward that end, Kohn argues for an approach he calls “working with,” as distinguished from “doing to.” The latter is exemplified by punishments and rewards, and, more generally, a focus on behavior rather than on the motives and values that underlie behavior.
One of Kohn’s most widely circulated articles is One of Kohn’s most widely circulated articles is Five Reasons to Stop Saying ‘Good Job!’ which argues that praise, like other forms of extrinsic inducements, tends to undermine children’s commitment to whatever they were praised for doing (i.e. children are taught to do things in order to get praise rather than do the things because it is right to do so, or because it is enjoyable to do so). Later, he expanded this critique to suggest that positive reinforcement, like certain forms of punitive “consequences,” amount to forms of conditional parenting, in which love is made contingent on pleasing or obeying the parent.
“Children learn how to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions” -Alfie Kohn