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.