A Calgary Catholic District school, St. Basil Elementary and Junior High, made headlines in late October when principal Craig Kittelson sent a letter to Grade 7 to 9 parents announcing the elimination of the academic honour roll and end-of-year awards ceremonies. The controversial Letter to Parents cited the work of American popular writer Alfie Kohn, including the contention that “dangling rewards in front of children are at best ineffective, and at worst counterproductive.” A Postmedia news story by Trevor Howell in the Calgary Herald and the National Post gave extensive coverage to the eruption of “parent outrage” over both the decision and the way it was summarily announced to the community.
Axing the Academic Honour Roll reignited a public debate over the common practice of giving awards as an incentive to encourage academic achievement. The Calgary Catholic District School Board was caught flat-footed by the outrage. Scrambling for a plausible explanation, the National Post turned to Alfie Kohn’s leading Canadian disciple, Red Deer elementary teacher Joe Bower who operates the blog for the love of learning. While news reports referenced Joe Bower’s 2007 move to end awards ceremonies at Red Deer’s Westpark Middle School, they made no mention of his related initiatives abandoning homework and refusing to give grades. Nor did the media report that he did so after experiencing an epiphany while reading Kohn’s article “The Costs of Overemphasizing Achievement.”
After “discovering” Kohn, Bower has been on a mission. He’s become a serial @AlfieKohn retweeter, while bouncing from school to school and ending up teaching special needs kids in ungraded classes at the Red Deer Regional Hospital. In September 2013, Bower published a co-edited collection of so-called “progressive education” articles entitled de-testing and de-grading schools, complete with a glowing foreword by none other than his mentor, Alfie Kohn. Almost simultaneously, the Canadian Education Association published a feature article by Bower in Education Canada (Fall 2013) on “Telling Time with a Broken Clock,” the trouble with standardized testing. Kohn’s fingerprints are all over Bower’s articles and posts, hammering away at the evils of academic rewards, homework, and student testing of any kind. It makes you wonder whether this once repudiated, retooled agenda is actually the hidden curriculum of the CEA and its acolytes.
Whatever got into the Calgary Catholic District Board to actually sanction the axing of academic awards? When pressed for a rationale, the CCDSB posted a rather bizarre summary of the “education research” intended to support the decision and come to the rescue of Kittelson, the beleaguered school principal. Surveying that short brief, makes for fascinating reading because it leads off by quoting American radical critic John Taylor Gatto, a leading “unschooler” opposed to compulsory schooling, then cherry picks evidence from Alfie Kohn’s favourite sources. As a validation for the policy, it’s a classic example of a selective, politically-driven education research “mash-up” — the very kind that has landed education research in such bad odour in academe.
Just when it appeared that America’s leading progressive gadfly was fading in influence, Bower and a new generation of disciples are taking up the cause. Having heard Alfie Kohn speak at a Quebec English Teachers Conference in Montreal in the early 2000s, I have seen–first hand– his tremendous gifts as an orator and felt the allure of his iconoclastic ideas, until I began to consider the consequences of putting those ideas into actual practice. Born in Miami Beach, Florida, the preppy-looking, reed thin author and lecturer, now in his late 50s, has authored a dozen books with catchy titles such as No Contest: The Case Against Competition (1986), Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars (1993), The Case Against Standardized Testing (2000), The Homework Myth (2006), and Feel Bad Education (2011). He has staying power, judging from the steady stream of simple Kohn axioms spewing out of Bower and his other camp followers.
Like most educational evangelicals, Kohn has undeniable appeal, especially to North American teachers, tapping into their very real feelings of alienation, powerlessness, and resistance to imposed change. He finds a ready audience because he has identified a vein of dissent and resistance running though the rank and file teacher forces, often manifested in opposition to top-down educational decision-making. Academic critics like Daniel Willingham, author of Why Don’t Students Like School, point out that Kohn is effective as an agent provocateur and likely “not bad for you or dangerous to your children.” He raises important questions, but, according to Willingham, “should not be read as a guide to the answers” because his writings “cannot be trusted as an accurate summary of the research literature.” In his reply to Willingham, Kohn held his ground, while conceding that some of his distillations run the risk of oversimplying complex issues.
One of the most incisive assessments of Alfie Kohn comes from Michael J. Petrilli of The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an American education gadfly of a different stripe. Writing in the March 2012 issue of Wisconsin Interest, Petrilli hit the mark: “Kohn’s arguments are half-crazy and half-true, which is what makes him so effective — and so maddening.” He also provides a useful corrective to Kohn’s particular educational worldview. “What fuels the modern school reform movement,” he claims, “is not acquiescence to Corporate America but outrage over the nation’s lack of social mobility.” You can be sure this will not appear on Joe Bower’s blog or in one of his next tweets.
What fuels American education gadfly Alfie Kohn’s zealous contrarianism and various progressive education crusades? How much of Kohn’s core progressivist ideology is rooted in the teachings of John Dewey and Jean Piaget — and what proportion is pure creative imagination? What has Kohn actually contributed to the education world in terms of sound policy ideas? What does explain his continuing influence and undeniable capacity to attract new adherents?