Alfie Kohn

Table of contents

In the modern age of No Child Left Behind and similar mandates, there has been an increased focus placed on what schools must do in order to improve the educational outcomes of each and every student. It has finally become apparent that the traditional method of schooling is not as effective as once believed.

Evidence of this fact can be found within the test scores of individual schools as well as entire school districts. Alfie Kohn is a leader in school reform and he focuses on nontraditional ways to educate students so they are excited and eager to learn.

Despite the idea held by many Americans that current methods do not work, the vast majority of schools continue to rely on “back to basics” strategies for instruction (Kohn, 1999, 2). While “back to basics” may have worked for previous generations it is not working for the current generation.

Kohn emphasizes the need to shift focus away from traditional methods of school in favor of nontraditional methods in order to motivate students to want to learn. A biography of Kohn is offered as well as a discussion based on his personal contributions to the field of education and classroom management.


Alfie Kohn is one of the most vocal critics of the intense focus placed on standardized tests and test scores (Kohn, 1998, 1). His theories and ideas have motivated many educators and administrators to reexamine the way that students learn and the way that teachers teach.

Kohn began his career as a high school teacher and enjoyed making improvements to his curriculum and lesson plans in order to provide the best educational experiences for his students.

After Kohn left the classroom he realized that using the same curriculum in the same way for each group of students is not the most effective way to motivate students to learn. Instead, he realized that adapting the course material to each group of students was a more effective way to provide authentic learning experiences that left students wanting to know more (Kohn, 1998, 1).

Kohn also spent a great deal of time observing other teachers and engaging in dialogue with education experts in order to present a cohesive view of the education system in America. Kohn is most well known for his stand against teaching to the test and relying on test scores as adequate measures of educational progress.

Kohn also is known for his idea that the ultimate outcome of education is not that each child receive all A’s because this is not the point of school. Finally, Kohn is known for his idea that current assessment measures are not adequate and do not give a clear representation of what really happens in classrooms (Kohn, 1998, 1).

Contributions to Education

The most important contribution that Alfie Kohn has made in the field of education is the shift in focus that has occurred from assessment measures such as standardized tests to a more comprehensive view of education that is primarily concerned with students’ ability to learn and keep on learning (Kohn, 2004, 27).

Kohn emphasizes that the intense focus placed on grading and assessment has taken away the potential for authentic learning experiences that truly benefit students rather than simply teach them how to take a test.

Further, teachers spend so much time worrying about what amount or level of work constitutes what grade when their focus should be on enabling students to make significant progress in their understanding of certain subjects regardless of what grade they end up with (Kohn, 2004, 28).

This contribution is essential within the education field because it has allowed teachers to question the traditional methods of instruction and begin to consider non-traditional methods that may motivate students to learn more than what is possible through traditional education.

It has also motivated many educators to begin to work with experts and policymakers in the field in order to discover alternate ways to assess student progress that does not rely solely on the outcome of standardized testing (Kohn, 2004, 28).

A similar idea that has stemmed from the idea that alternate testing measures must be discovered is the idea that grades cause students to do as little as possible and still get a good grade. In this way, grades actually disable the desire to learn more because students quickly find out how little they can get away with and still receive an acceptable grade (Kohn, 2004, 28).

At the same time, the motivation to learn more decreases as students desire to receive a good grade increases. Students who receive grades based on performance are reluctant to try challenging things because of their fear of failing and/or receiving a poor grade.

On the other hand, students who are encouraged to think for themselves and explore topics that interest them without the fear of being graded are more likely to recall the information that they learn as well as continue to seek opportunities to learn new things (Kohn, 2004, 28).

While this certainly does not mean that schools are going to stop handing downgrades to students this idea has allowed many educators to reexamine the way they assess their students in order to provide ample opportunity for students to learn without the fear of failure.

Another important realization that has come from Kohn’s view of traditional assessment models is that there must be an educational goal behind assessing students.

In other words, the assessment must be used to enhance the educational opportunities for students. Instead, assessment is most often used to categorize students and determine who is smarter than whom or as a technique to motivate students to work harder in order to get the “A” (Kohn, 2004, 28).

Therein lies the problem with standardized tests. Kohn emphasizes that standardized tests do not truly show how much teaching or learning has taken place. Instead, they simply show how well a child can do on a test on any given day and/or how well a student is able to guess on questions they do not know (Kohn, 2004, 28).

Kohn has opened the eyes of educators and allowed many of them to see the error of their ways in relying solely on the outcome of standardized tests in measuring student progress. Kohn has also forced many experts and policymakers within the field of education to realize that perhaps there is a better way to determine how well America’s students are doing in school.

Contributions to Classroom Management

Kohn has questioned the use of traditional discipline strategies that focus on getting students to do what the teacher wants them to do. Traditionally, the teacher creates a set of classroom rules and expects students to obey them.

These rules often include detailed consequences that accompany them in order to show students what will happen to them if they break one of the rules (Kohn, 2006, 1). Similar to his work with standardized tests and assessment measures, Kohn’s work with classroom management has forced many teachers to reexamine how they approach classroom management.

Obviously, it is necessary that students be taught how to behave appropriately in the classroom in order to create an environment conducive to learning. However, Kohn feels that classroom management is significantly more effective if students take part in creating caring environments rather than being expected to follow the rules decided upon by the teacher (Kohn, 2006, 1).

In other words, Kohn has shown teachers that not all discipline problems are because students are naughty but rather because a caring community has not been created that encourages students to work together to learn and grow.

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