No problem with Kohn

Dear Jennifer,

I read your post today called The Problem with Kohn after you tweeted a link to me. Thanks for the shoutout, and your flattering suggestion that I should have been one of the people mentioned by Alfie Kohn in his recent Washington Post article on educational technology featured in Valerie Strauss’s column on education issues. I appreciate that you are sensitive to women being usurped by men as role models, spokespeople, and advocates.

However, I respectfully disagree with the premise of your article, that Kohn is not qualified to speak about educational technology, and that his article is an example of sexist “mansplaining” — insulting and bypassing women advocates/critics of educational technology. * will give Kohn a “boost” of good publicity as a critic/advocate of educational technology, when there are better people to make the case, including those underrepresented in the conversation.

You say “Kohn, a non-expert on technology in schools was treated as an expert in technology in schools.” In contrast, the article exactly reflects his expertise, that technology exacerbates other trends that are wrecking schools. He wrote that technology is being used as a Trojan Horse to facilitate standardized testing (and standardized teaching), and being used in ways to allow big companies like Pearson to sell their “personalized learning” systems that are not  personal or about learning. Schools and parents are being sold this pack of lies as “modern” and providing kids access to computers. Alfie Kohn is correct. This is dangerous, self-serving nonsense.

In addition to being right on this issue, I admire his fearlessness and consistency over the decades. Kohn has stood up not just against conventional wisdom (homework = rigor), but also to giant corporations who stand to lose billions of dollars if their shameless exploitation of children and teachers is impeded. He has stood in the national spotlight for decades against politicians who use fear and junk science to advance agendas that ultimately deprive us of our full rights as citizens.

Kohn is not someone who simply “self-identifies as an expert on parenting and education issues.” He’s likely the world’s most read and cited expert on these issues. You may not agree with it, but his research is impeccable. His books are best-sellers and written in a way that makes difficult issues clear for a general audience. He gives voice to teachers struggling to do what’s right for children. I read his work and pray that I would ever achieve anything near his mastery of the written word.

When a parent or educator reads books like Punished By Rewards (1993)  or The Case Against Standardized Testing (2000), or The Homework Myth (2007), they immediately understand the right thing to do, even if it’s the hard thing to do. Maybe you still give an occasional time out, or don’t opt your kids out of tests, or struggle with completely dropping homework, but for a lot of parents and teachers what he says makes sense and opens your eyes in new ways. They certainly did for me.

Of course he’s not the only one who has been a long-time advocate for real learning. Kohn mentioned my writing partner, Gary Stager, as a critic of educational technology. That’s true, and was true for at least a decade before I ever learned to pronounce the word “pedagogy.”

But it’s not the whole story to simply call Gary a critic.

When I met Gary in 1992, one of the first things he shared was an article of his called “Integrated Learning Systems: The New Slavery.” Please read this article. It touches on educational equity, corporate mendacity, the idiocy of “learning” being about delivering content, teachers being deprofessionalized and devalued, and more. Now remember this is 1992 in the era of the first President Bush – well before our current crop of education reformers, No Child Left Behind, Khan Academy, “ed-trepreneurs”, or Silicon Valley types thinking they can fix education with a weekend hackathon. In the same year that Michelle Rhee graduated college, well before she ever envisioned taping children to their desks, much less “reforming” education, Gary was working in schools teaching programming to kids (and their teachers). And not because the kids might get a job, but because it was their right to have agency over the computer, the most powerful invention of our lifetime.

Honestly, before I met Gary I had never given it ANY thought to the idea the school system was biased towards certain kinds of students, because I WAS that student.  Gary introduced me to a whole new way to think about learning, and also to great thinkers like Seymour Papert. My learning journey began when I started to read people like Alfie Kohn and Seymour Papert, and yes, Gary Stager.

This summer, Gary and I will lead our ninth annual summer institute for educators called Constructing Modern Knowledge. Our first year, Gary convinced Alfie Kohn to be our keynote speaker. Why have Kohn speak at an event about creativity and computing? Because his expertise allows him to see the difference between computers used to do standardized testing and computers used, as Gary often says, “to amplify human potential.” Not only did we invite Kohn to reinforce this important distinction, but also to show him that there were uses of computers that met this high bar, and that there are teachers who are ready, willing, and able to take this back to their schools and make it happen.

The secret agenda was that Kohn would experience the difference, and use his immense communication skills and his national stature to help millions more people see this distinction. Maybe it worked!

The current popularity of the maker movement in education (and our book, Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom) is a sign that this is truly possible. We can change school, we can make them better places for learning, but only if we stand up to politicians, plutocrats, and corporations who insist that kids simply need to be plugged into learning systems set on stun. We need national figures like Alfie Kohn on our side for this to spread beyond the “educational technology” camp.

Along with Gary, Kohn mentioned three other educators, all of whom have interesting lenses through which they view and critique educational technology.  Emily Talmadge has been doing great work in pulling the covers back to reveal the slimy politics and business practices of the school “reform” movement. She stands on the shoulders of giants like Susan Ohanian, Gerald Bracey, Stephen Krashen, Roger Schank, and many many more who have been writing about these topics for years.

Will Richardson who writes passionately as a teacher and parent, and Larry Cuban as a researcher have both had long careers communicating the nuances of what constitutes good (and bad) learning with technology. These four people represent four interesting and worthy perspectives to recommend to readers of The Washington Post.

So Jennifer, should Valerie Strauss have asked someone else to write that article instead of Alfie Kohn? No! She should ask LOTS of people, men and women — teachers, advocates, researchers, parents, and anyone who can make a compelling case to write about the issue. She has in the past. Her column offers a rare national spotlight on progressive perspectives countering the well-funded education reform advocates. By featuring Alfie Kohn to articulate the harm caused by computerized testing, she’s doing us all a big favor.

Should I have been on Kohn’s list instead of them? I don’t think so. I’m not doing that “woman thing” saying oh shucks, I’m not worthy. I aspire to have the reach and influence someday of any of these people, and if I keep working and writing and talking about these issues, I might earn it.  I think I’m doing a good job and I’m getting better at this.

I do not support a call to ignore Alfie’s credentials or deny him his due national spotlight because he’s a man. And the list of people he mentioned, three men and a woman, are due their respect too.

* I changed this because Jennifer Binis and several people on Twitter pointed out that her article really wasn’t about “mansplaining”, and I see their point. However, I don’t agree with the “boost” argument. Alfie Kohn is a national bestselling author, if anything, the boost goes the other way, Valerie Strauss gets a boost for her column.

Leave a Reply