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Inside Teaching : June 2011
www.atra.edu.au | email@example.com REVIEWS 51 Feel-bad Education and Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling By Alfie Kohn Published by Beacon Press ISBN 9 780 807 001 400 RRP $19.95 Reviewed by Steve Holden American author, proponent of progressive education and self- styled contrarian Alfie Kohn’s Feel-bad Education and Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling is at first reading a likeable book that makes the case, to use William Butler Yeats’s well-worn phrase, that, ‘Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.’ The only problem with the 19 essays collected here, mostly first published in the United States in education journals and magazines like Education Week, Educational Leadership and Phi Delta Kappan, is that Kohn overplays the view that education is the filling of a pail. His target is the prescriptive approach to schooling driven by top-down government mandates that privilege accountability measured through standardised testing where success depends on students who can be prepped to regurgitate content before they forget it. Sure, schooling in the US has been and is being pushed on some kind of no-child-left-behind race-to-the-top, but the feel-bad education Kohn attacks feels like a straw man. The eminently readable ‘How to create nonreaders: Reflections on motivation, learning and sharing power,’ for example, suggests seven ways to kill student motivation: quantify their reading assignments; make them write reports; isolate them; focus on skills; offer them incentives; prepare them for tests; and restrict their choices. Who, I wonder, would actually reduce their teaching to such an approach? On incentives, by the way, Kohn writes that, ‘Scores of studies have confirmed that rewards’ – his examples include A’s and praise – ‘tend to lead people to lose interest in whatever they had to do to snag them.’ Psychological research suggests the effects of praise and reward are much more complex. There’s also some sleight of hand. In ‘Debunking the case for national standards,’ for example, Kohn claims, ‘Talented teachers have abandoned the profession after having been turned into glorified test-prep technicians.’ The trick here is that readers will typically see themselves as those talented teachers, whose abandoning of the profession would be a huge loss, leaving the assumption that educators are glorified test-prep technicians, well, untested. For some reason ‘The truth about homework,’ from the 6 September 2006 edition of Education Week, doesn’t get a guernsey. Maybe that’s because Kohn argued that extra time on task through homework is a waste because the only skills that can be automatised are behavioural, like improving your tennis swing, not cognitive. There’s plenty in the Handbook of Reading Research to correct that. It’s a shame that this book has such weaknesses, since Kohn is fun to read, and there’s no index. Considering that Kohn is pretty much a magpie, grabbing shiny ideas from here and there, why would there be? Steve Holden is Editor in Chief – Magazines at ACER Press. REFERENCES Kamil, M.L., Pearson, P.D., Birr-Moje, E. & Afflerbach, P.P. (2011). Handbook of Reading Research. New York: Routledge.