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Alfie Kohn      

Author & Speaker on Human Behavior, Education, & Parenting; Outspoken Critic of Education's Fixation on Grades

Alfie Kohn is an American author and lecturer in the areas of education, parenting, and human behavior. He is a proponent of progressive education and has offered critiques of many traditional aspects of parenting, managing, and American society more generally, drawing in each case from social science research.

Kohn's challenges to widely accepted theories and practices have made him a controversial figure, particularly with behaviorists, conservatives, and those who defend the practices he calls into question, such as the use of competition, incentive programs, conventional discipline, standardized testing, grades, homework, and traditional schooling.

Speech Topics


Longer Workshops for Educators

  • THE DEADLY EFFECTS OF “TOUGHER STANDARDS”: Challenging High-Stakes Testing and Other Impediments to Learning
  • PERFORMANCE VS. LEARNING: The Costs of Overemphasizing Achievement
  • OVERHAULING THE TRANSMISSION MODEL
  • ON BRIBING STUDENTS TO LEARN: Second Thoughts About A’s, Praise, Stickers, and Contests
  • CHOICES FOR CHILDREN: From Coercion to Community
  • FROM DEGRADING TO DE-GRADING: Basic Questions About Assessment
  • THE CASE AGAINST COMPETITION
  • TEACHING CHILDREN TO CARE
  • THE (PROGRESSIVE) SCHOOLS OUR CHILDREN DESERVE
  • CHALLENGING STUDENTS . . . AND HOW TO HAVE MORE OF THEM
  • THE HOMEWORK MYTH

Speech Titles for Parents

UNCONDITIONAL PARENTING: Beyond Bribes and Threats RAISING REBELS: Helping Kids to Challenge the Status Quo

Performance vs. Learning: The Costs of Overemphasizing Achievement

Educational researchers have discovered that there is a significant difference between getting students to think about their performance (that is, how well they are doing) and getting them to think about the learning itself (what they are doing). These orientations often pull in opposite directions, which means that too much emphasis on performance can reduce students' interest in learning – and cause them to avoid challenging tasks. When the point is to prove how smart you are, to get a good grade or a high test score, there is less inclination to engage deeply with ideas, to explore and discover. Thus, as Alfie Kohn argues, the problem with standardized testing is not only how bad the tests themselves are, but also how much attention is paid to the results. Even new, "authentic" assessments may backfire if students are constantly led to ask, "How am I doing?" Getting students to become preoccupied with achievement may paradoxically undermine this very goal because of what happens to their motivation in the process.

Teaching Children to Care

We can't blame "human nature" when children act aggressively or selfishly. Extensive research has shown that these qualities are no more natural than the impulse toward empathy or generosity. But how do we nourish those positive inclinations and help children to act on their capacity to care? Alfie Kohn, author of The Brighter Side of Human Nature, discusses the roots of prosocial attitudes and actions, and invites educators to think about what promotes children's concern about others' well-being. He urges activities (and a curriculum) that enhance understanding of how others see the world, as well as a commitment to replace isolation and competition with a feeling of community in the classroom and school.

The (Progressive) Schools Our Children Deserve

Our knowledge of how children learn – and how schools can help – has come a long way in the last few decades. Unfortunately, most schools have not: They're still more about memorizing facts and practicing isolated skills than understanding ideas from the inside out; they still exclude students from any meaningful decision-making role; and they still rely on grades, tests, homework, lectures, worksheets, competition, punishments, and rewards. Alfie Kohn explores the alternatives to each of these conventional practices, explaining why progressive education isn't just a realistic alternative but one that's far more likely to help kids become critical thinkers and lifelong learners.

Unconditional Parenting: Beyond Bribes & Threats

Advice for raising children typically comes in two flavors: threats (known euphemistically as "consequences") and bribes ("positive reinforcement"). Either we make kids suffer to teach them a lesson, or we dangle goodies in front of them for doing as they're told. Rewards and punishments are two sides of the same coin, and unfortunately, neither can buy anything more than temporary obedience. Manipulating children's behavior – by means of time-outs, contrived praise, privileges offered, and privileges taken away – can never help them to reflect on the kind of people they want to be. Instead of encouraging kids to take responsibility for their actions, it makes them dependent on rewards and punishments. Rather than promoting generosity and compassion, it leads them to focus on the consequence to themselves of pleasing the adult.

This presentation, by Alfie Kohn, the author of Unconditional Parenting, will show why carrots and sticks are not only ineffective but actually counterproductive over the long haul. To raise children who are good learners and good people requires us to abandon strategies that do things to kids, in favor of an approach in which we work with them. And underlying those "working with" strategies is the message that children do not have to earn our approval, that we love them not for what they do but just for who they are.

Pushed Too Hard: Parenting in an Achievement-Crazy Culture

What does it mean to say we want our kids to be "successful"? In some neighborhoods, that word translates as making higher grades and test scores than other people's children – so they'll be accepted by elite colleges, so they'll get high-paying jobs, so they can... well, what? Erich Fromm once observed that "few parents have the courage to care more for their children's happiness than for their success." Indeed, research shows that affluent, high-achieving students are more likely to suffer from depression – and less likely to value learning for its own sake. Alfie Kohn invites us to rethink basic assumptions about competition, school achievement, and the relationship between how we're raising our kids and how we hope they'll turn out.

Motivation from the Inside Out: Rethinking Rewards, Assessment, and Learning

Beyond Bribes and Threats: Realistic Alternatives to Controlling Students’ Behavior

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Alfie Kohn

Alfie Kohn writes and speaks widely on human behavior, education, and parenting. The author of eleven books and scores of articles, he lectures at education ...

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