Road Trip With Alfie Kohn

by Robert Pondiscio
April 28th, 2011

OK, teachers.  Raise your hand if Alfie Kohn has ever set foot in your classroom and witnessed you drilling your students with rote memorization or handing out worksheets all day. 


One of the very first pieces I wrote for this blog concerned Alfie Kohn and his insistence that Core Knowledge is rote memorization and a “bunch o’ facts” while never to my knowledge having actually darkened the doorway of a single Core Knowledge school.  He’s at it again in Education Week, wringing his hands over the “pedagogy of poverty” and how urban children endure a curriculum that “consists of a series of separate skills, with more worksheets than real books, more rote practice than exploration of ideas, more memorization (sometimes assisted with chanting and clapping) than thinking.”

Where is this happening?  Where exactly?

To be sure, I agree with much of Kohn’s diagnosis.  The curriculum served to inner city kids tends to be a thin gruel.  There is entirely too much focus on test prep; reading tends to be reduced to ineffective and content-free reading strategies instruction.  Frankly, I see a lot more damage being done to low-income urban kids in the name of “authentic learning” and a refusal to acknowledge the cognitive benefits of a knowledge-rich core curriculum.  Kohn’s diagnosis makes me wonder what schools he’s been visiting:

In books like The Shame of the Nation, Jonathan Kozol, another frequent visitor to urban schools, describes a mechanical, precisely paced process for drilling black and Latino children in “obsessively enumerated particles of amputated skill associated with upcoming state exams.”  Not only is the teaching scripted, but a system of almost militaristic behavior control is common, with public humiliation for noncompliance and an array of rewards for obedience that calls to mind the token-economy programs developed in prisons and psychiatric hospitals.

That sounds truly horrible.  Where is this happening?  Perhaps I don’t visit as many schools as Kohn, but I haven’t witnessed a whole lot of rote memorization and militaristic behavior control.  Worksheets?  Frankly, I’ve seen more of them in classrooms where struggling teachers with poor classroom management skills are required to do small group work, ready or not, so they assign busywork while they try to steal a few moments with their mandated ”book clubs” and “literature circles.”

But I don’t want to question my betters, so here’s my earnest challenge to the estimable Mr. Kohn.  Show me.  Take me to these schools you decry so that I may see what you see.   I want to visit the schools that you have visited where all the children sit in rows, memorize by rote, and spend their days filling out worksheets.  I promise I will share your outrage.  Bottom line:  I completely agree that there a many, many lousy urban schools.  I’m just not convinced they’re lousy for the reasons Kohn describes.   But I’m willing to be convinced.

I’m ready.  My bags are packed, Alfie.  When can we go? 

Yes, I’m serious.


  1. A number of urban (and other) districts are implementing scripted curricula and lesson plans. Wouldn’t any of those classrooms fit this definition?

    Comment by Scott McLeod — April 28, 2011 @ 3:32 pm

  2. Of students learning by rote memorization and worksheets? I doubt it, but perhaps I’m wrong. Which scripted curriculum relies on that?

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — April 28, 2011 @ 3:34 pm

  3. The linked article is rather clearly referring to “no excuses” style school reform, not core knowledge type reform.

    It is a three sided (at least) argument now.

    Comment by Tom Hoffman — April 28, 2011 @ 3:59 pm

  4. @Tom Not sure I agree. To clarify, Kohn has a track record of characterizing Core Knowledge in a way that is cartoonishly false. That call his credibility into question as an observer of schools. I have seen little evidence of the practices he describes–rote memorization, militaristic control, worksheets, etc. — in the “no excuses” schools I’ve visited (KIPP, Achievement First, MATCH, et al.) But perhaps he has visited more than me and seen more than me. If these practices are as common as he claims, it should be quite simple for him to say, “Come with me to X school, where I’ve seen this stuff happening all the time.”

    So let’s go. Wanna come with us, Tom?

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — April 28, 2011 @ 4:04 pm

  5. Those schools aren’t exactly shy about their emphasis on discipline and control. Nor, for that matter are they embarrassed to talk about how they use chanting and memorization. Nor about relentlessly using data to track student acquisition of specific skills, particularly in literacy and numeracy.

    I’m sure there is a lot of variation in worksheet distribution — but I don’t think there is any risk that they’re becoming extinct in urban schools.

    We are conducting an experiment here in an urban/suburban “no excuses” charter here in Rhode Island, and I can tell you, a number of the white middle class parents who gave it a shot with their kindergarteners were mortified at how their children were treated, which is exactly what Kohn is saying.

    Comment by Tom Hoffman — April 28, 2011 @ 8:02 pm

  6. @Tom If that’s what he’s saying, then he’s engaging in some pretty remarkable hyperbole to say it.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — April 28, 2011 @ 8:38 pm

  7. I’ve never quite grasped the supposedly obvious awfulness of worksheets. My kids are in a reputedly decent public school, and they bring home reams of worksheets every week. But so what? Are kids not ever supposed to do written work, such as a set of math problems written on a sheet of paper? Or is it that the math problems would somehow be more educational if written by hand on a blank sheet of paper, or else if printed in professionally bound books? Why would THAT be the educationally relevant standard?

    Comment by Stuart Buck — April 28, 2011 @ 9:00 pm

  8. Worksheets are awful because they are putatively inauthentic. If you’re a good Deweyite, you hold that school should emulate real life. Since most of us in the adult world do not fill out worksheets (or write book reports, make dioramas, recite times tables or memorize poems) neither should children. This desire for authenticity is why we also dare not ask children to read books other than ones they choose themselves, or why when they write they should do so *authentically* — i.e. jot their imaginings in their writer’s notebooks, pen “small moments” about their lives, and generally unburden their tiny souls. Research papers and book reports are obviously inauthentic.

    I remember arguing once that if we were concerned with truly authentic writing, we’d have third graders draft memos to the accounting department or notes to judges seeking to get out of traffic tickets. My staff developer from Teachers College was not amused.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — April 28, 2011 @ 9:10 pm

  9. Robert,

    I’d love to know what kind of fluffy, transcendental life Dewey was leading, because most of those activities he decries actually are “authentic.”

    Ever fill out a form? That’s the adult name for a worksheet.

    Ever build a model? That’s the adult name for a diorama.

    Ever have to read anything in you job (brief, article, report, manual)? That’s the adult equivalent of reading a book you didn’t pick.

    Ever have to summarize what you read for a colleague or boss? That’s the adult equivalent of a book report.

    Ever been required to produce a technical document for your job (a report, manual, proposal)? That’s the adult equivalent of a research paper.

    All of these activities sound like good preparation for the world of work to me.

    Comment by AGH — April 28, 2011 @ 11:07 pm

  10. Maybe I’m misreading but I see a criticism of “amputated skill” as being something that Kozol/Kohn has in common with CoreKnowledge — is he not disparaging the atomization of skill out of background/context knowledge, and the derogation from thinking and learning in such a situation? It’s obvious that he goes the other way in other places, but this statement seems to fit the CK philosophy.

    “Nonreflective acquiescence,” which Kozol despises, is something that you also despise, and rightfully so. To characterize learning content as “nonreflective acquiescence” is no better than to characterize authentic assessment that way, even though we all know there are (unfortunately) some teachers for whom content = rote and (at least as unfortunately) others for whom authentic = anything-goes. Let me add, in that regard, that not every worksheet is the same worksheet: some can help focus kids productively on processes they need to learn in dealing with information, while others are canned, time-killing ends-in-themselves.

    And if Kohn is suggesting — as he seems to in the linked-to article — that “Work hard…Be nice” (which happens also to be the operating motto of my very very suburban principal) equals “nonreflective acquiescence” then he’s misusing evidence in a radical way. Everyone involved in education, on all levels, should support hard work and civility. No exceptions.

    Kohn does make many good points about problems in schools, though, and I would love to have a chance to visit any school with him AND you. In case Tom doesn’t want to join you on your odyssey with Alfie, I would love to help you oar that trireme/bireme/unireme!

    Comment by Carl Rosin — April 28, 2011 @ 11:08 pm

  11. Since we’re distinguishing between good and bad worksheets, and between good and bad “inauthentic” tasks, let’s also distiunguish between good and bad “scripted curriclum.” And while we’re at it, include good and bad “chanting.” I have followed the trajectory of Direct Instruction (a la Engelmann) for forty years now, and once used a reading curriculum for low-income first graders that incorporated many of its features. Direct Instruction does not aim to create robotic memorization of amputated facts and skills. Quite the reverse; it aims to give children mastery of an integrated set of perceiving and thinking skills that allows them to attack new learning experiences effectively. At the preschool level, it mimics the kinds of (internally scripted) exchanges that middle class children have at home. The chanting and call-and-response aspect is not weird; children like it and African-American children often note that it’s like what they do in church. But the real reason to like Direct Instruction, to my mind, is that it’s an efficient way to learn certain types of material, so you have more time to read to the children, discuss stories, do science experiments, and all that good stuff whose absence we decry in challenged schools.

    Comment by JBB — April 29, 2011 @ 8:48 am

  12. It seems that Kohn is mixing up some of the issues. Worksheets, drill, and memorization are not in themselves harmful. He suggests that they overwhelm the other activities; but to know whether this is so, or to know just what he means by this, one would have to look at a concrete example.

    Yes, it’s great to have thoughtful class discussions. But to have them, one needs at least two things : something worth discussing, and the necessary background information–that is, a strong curriculum; and a culture of perseverance and listening, where students do not need to be doing something at every moment but instead know how to sit and think about things as they discuss them.

    There can also be drill, worksheets, and memorization–but for the more complex instruction to take place, students need to learn how to handle it.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — April 29, 2011 @ 9:01 am

  13. The other nice thing about worksheets is that the student works truly independently on them. In other situations, no matter how hard you try to disguise your reactions, she may be picking up clues to the right answer from your voice, gestures, eye movements, etc. A worksheet is a chance for her to recall what she’s learned WITHOUT YOUR HELP.

    Comment by Deirdre Mundy — April 29, 2011 @ 9:43 am

  14. So sad that students continue to suffer from educators’ endless wars over the nature and purpose of learning. E.D. Hirsch’s 2001 article, “Romancing the Child – Curing American Education of its Enduring Belief That Learning is Natural”, is still the best analysis of the problem. (

    Comment by Just a mom — April 29, 2011 @ 10:07 am

  15. I read Alfie Kohn’s piece and have to say that, although it certainly paints a tragic picture, I don’t think it really represents the reality in low-income schools today. In my experience (having taught lower-income minority students in several different schools on both the West and East Coasts), the schools WANT the students to adhere to ‘rigid discipline’ but it’s a hopelessly losing battle.

    In every school I worked in, there were many students who acted in ways that would never have been tolerated in my suburban schools as a child. Cursing, refusing directions from the teacher to open a textbook or take out a pencil, never doing homework, spitting on the floor, etc… Schools tend to bend over backwards to avoid the possibility of a law suit and/or to avoid angering the parents by punishing their children. And frankly, this type of behavior (although less extreme) is present in many of today’s suburban schools as well.

    As Robert said, “Where is [Kohn's description] happening?”

    Comment by Attorney DC — April 29, 2011 @ 11:01 am

  16. What’s it all about, Alfie?

    The most amazing thing about this individual is he actually has a following; even more so, some here appear to be part of his kool-aid drinking cult.

    Diana is correct when she states, “…students must have… something worth discussing, and the necessary background information–that is, a strong curriculum,” in order to first have a meaningful/productive classroom discussion.

    When discussing education reform (how our schools need to be changed) many often forget, ed reform was targeted at a specific population, inner-city poor students. Many of these kids don’t show up at the schoolhouse gate at five or six years old with the necessary skills, attitudes, and behavior of other children. Unfortunately, some of what goes on in urban schools is a prerequisite for life in general and conformity/success specifically.

    If a poor, inner city child is conditioned to believe (by the home) that school is waste of time and all the teachers are morons, then this child’s needs must be addressed in a different manner than a child who comes from a secure home where the parent(s) demonstrate unconditional support the teacher and the school. It’s apples and oranges as far as approach and delivery systems in these vastly different buildings we call school.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — April 29, 2011 @ 12:36 pm

  17. Great post.

    I will take you to a Sox-Yankees game if Mr. Kohn takes you up on your offer.

    Comment by MG — May 2, 2011 @ 12:34 pm

  18. The worksheets that were given out in my son and daughter’s public school classes were totally random and given just to supply make work and please the parents. They just were a total waste of our evenings which would have been better dedicated to musical practice and reading for pleasure.

    There was little attempt at fashioning a meaninful, cumulative curriculum.

    Comment by Harold — May 2, 2011 @ 11:45 pm

  19. Just to add, it is a horrible thought to have children memorize trivia. If something is given to memorize it should be a math fact, or a great poem or piece of music that will be a life-long treasure.

    Comment by Harold — May 2, 2011 @ 11:47 pm

  20. The schools in my neck of the woods rely very heavily on worksheets- I was disappointed to discover that even the highly-touted Montessori charter school does it too. At least the Montessori school individualizes the worksheet packets so that each child works at an appropriate level instead of being bored out of his/her mind with one that is too easy or being frustrated by one that is too hard.

    I think the worksheet-reliance is primarily due to the fact that class sizes since the budget crisis are far too big. They’re stuffing 31 kids into primary grade classrooms. That’s just about double what the elementary school my brothers and I attended had (it ranged from about 15 to about 18 depending on the specific enrollment for that grade).

    Comment by Crimson Wife — May 3, 2011 @ 8:16 am

  21. While we do want students to develop mathmatical problem solving, we also need them to have the tools to apply to their problems. Developing those tools requires practicing a skill until it is at the level of automaticity. In math, worksheets are an effective method to help students develop automaticity.

    I always bring up the example of a heart surgeon. Do you want a heart surgeon who understands the concept, but has never even practiced a suture or incision, or you want one that is an expert at every techinical aspect, but doesn’t understand the concept? You want neither, you want someone who has mastered the skills and can apply them within the framework of the concept. Why do we not want the same for students?

    Comment by Paul — May 4, 2011 @ 11:50 am

  22. I find it interesting that Kohn quotes Natalie Hopkinson’s piece in The Root. In it she actually praises traditional educational techniques like lecturing. What she does criticize is too much emphasis on rules. Referring to the education she grew up with she says, “there would be assignments to read from textbooks. A teacher would give a lecture and randomly call on students. Students would ask questions and write things down. Then there would be some sort of written exam to see what you’d learned”. This is antithetical to Alfie’s version of progressivism.

    So why is he quoting her? She was critical because there were too many worksheets in the classroom she observed, but as many commentators have pointed out, that is not indicative of believing in a culture of poverty, but indicative of bad pedagogy.

    I think Alfie should have done what Tony Danza did. Let’s put his theories to the test. Can he really pull off a progressive utopia in a classroom where most of his students come from unstable environments, where most of them do not get flashcards and educational video games at home?

    Comment by Pete — May 4, 2011 @ 2:45 pm

  23. Pete,

    Great comments. I’d love to see ole Alfie in an urban classroom attempting to peddle his ware(s). That would be worth the price of admission to be a fly on the wall in that class.

    Has he ever taught anywhere???

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 4, 2011 @ 3:49 pm

  24. No mention of teaching in his bio, but I’m not one of those who likes to waive the bloody shirt and say you can’t criticise unless you’ve been a teacher. But here’s a fun fact about Alfie Kohn’s Twitter feed. He has well over 9000 followers. Guess how many people he follows? Five. I don’t mean this to sound snarky, but this is not someone who demonstrates a great deal of interest in the viewpoints of others.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — May 4, 2011 @ 3:55 pm

  25. Now gents, just because a person only follows five people on Twitter doesn’t mean they only follow five people. There is life outside the Internet. I’ve enjoyed this thread, although I don’t feel qualified to say much, just want to keep the train on the track.

    Comment by Cindy — May 6, 2011 @ 1:17 pm

  26. When teachers provide no “factual information”, and when students learn purely by “questioning, discovering, arguing, and collaborating”, as Alfie Kohn would have it, the kids who are advantaged are precisely the ones coming from intellectually sophisticated families. This is not a good philosophy to have for students coming from needy backgrounds, in a gang culture, English language learners with absent parents or with few books to read around the house.

    What Kohn is proposing, his ‘pedagogy of poverty, although he does not realize it, will make the intellectual gap between the well to do and the rest go larger from one generation to another.

    Antonio Gramsci said it a hundred years ago, in the slightly different context of vocational schools but to the same effect: “The greatest paradox is that this new type of school appears and is proclaimed to be democratic, when in fact it is designed not only to perpetuate social differences but to crystallize them in Chinese forms.”

    Gramsci also wrote: “Apropos of dogmatism and critical history in the elementary and secondary schools: it should be noted that the new pedagogy has chosen to attack dogmatism in the schools by targeting the field of instruction and the learning of concrete information. In other words, it has chosen to attack precisely that field in which a certain dogmatism is practically indispensable… “

    And also: “The new curriculum assumes that thinking presupposes formal logic, but it does not explain how one acquires it; so, in practice, the new curriculum assumes that formal logic is innate. Formal logic is like grammar: it is assimilated in a “living” way, even though it is necessarily apprehended schematically and abstractly. For the student is not a gramophone record, a passive and mechanical receptacle, even if the ritual conventionalism of exams sometimes makes him look like one. The relation between these educational systems and the mind of the child is always active and creative, just like a worker’s relation to his tools.”

    Comment by andrei radulescu-banu — May 9, 2011 @ 12:54 am

  27. There’s a nice quote from Henri Bergson to illustrate that last point Gramsci was making, about the active and creative aspect of learning:

    “Can we follow a mathematical calculation presented by somebody if we are not continually doing it over in our own mind for our own sake? Can we understand a solution of a problem given by somebody unless we solve the problem, in turn, ourselves? To be sure, the calculation is presented on the blackboard and the solution is printed in our text or exposed by the teacher viva voce. But the figures we see are merely so many way-posts to which we are looking back in order not to deviate from the route we have to make; the sentences we read or hear would not have their complete meaning to us were we not capable of finding that meaning by re-creating it, so to say, in out own mind and by our own
    effort, while expressing, in our turn, the mathematical truth that those sentences contain and develop.”

    Comment by andrei radulescu-banu — May 9, 2011 @ 1:07 am

  28. Great comments. I’d love to see ole Alfie in an urban classroom attempting to peddle his ware. That would be worth the price of admission to be a fly on the wall in that class.

    Comment by mary poppins — August 8, 2011 @ 12:56 am

  29. Alfie Kohn apparently comes into schools to see how the students are being taught. He says to have seen in urban cities only the memorization of facts and children being given worksheets. Low income schools are more focused on test prep and basic knowledge than exciting learning. The author of this blog is ready to believe Kohn’s explanation of teaching methods, but wants to see it for himself. I am in a college education class that focuses on perspectives of American urban schools; this blog directly relates to the perceived disadvantages children in urban cities have in their education. Living in cities that have low income families means the schools also do not have a variety of available resources. Giving children worksheets as opposed to real books to study may not be the most productive way to help them learn, however it may be all that’s available to them. This relates to the history of segregated schools not having enough funding to get proper resources to give the students a great education. They were discriminated against so they received less financial support. Schools in the urban cities also have little finances because the people living in the areas have low incomes. The curriculums are also general because they do want to increase test scores, increasing scores provide better funding opportunities and get the schools recognized. Putting eyes on the less fortunate urban schools can increase their chances of receiving more support. I chose this source for a class assignment because it specifically talked about education in urban schools, such as my course does.

    Comment by melly — September 30, 2011 @ 3:33 pm

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