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Kohn on Schools

March 17, 2012
Cover of "No Contest: The Case Against Co...

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Excerpted from No Contest: The Case Against Competition by Alfie Kohn:

By contrast, students in most American classrooms are eager to be free of them. They count the minutes until the end of the period, the days left before the weekend, the weeks they must endure until the next vacation. Perhaps this is because they hear their parents articulating similar sentiments about their work by thanking God for Friday. But maybe students genuinely find life at school to be a collection of tedious tasks and humiliating evaluations from which any reasonable person would want to escape. John Goodlad’s mammoth study of more than a thousand representative classrooms across the country confirmed that “the kinds of classroom practices found most often were well liked by relatively small percentages of students”; the older the child, the less satisfaction was expressed.

Of course, everyone is aware that most kids do not care for most aspects of school. Everyone is also aware that too many students are graduated without the intellectual skills or knowledge that we expect the schools to have provided; indeed, it has become a popular entertainment of late to describe how much students do not know. But rarely do we connect these two pieces of data. If children seem unhappy about going to school, we typically attribute this to the fact that kids just are wont to complain, that they don’t like anything — or at least anything good for them. Then we insisit that they had better get used to things that aren’t any fun. (The premise here seems to be that the chief purpose of school is not to get children excited about learning but to get them acclimated to doing mind-numbing chores.)

It is also possible, however, to conclude that the problem may just lie with what happens in school rather than with some character flaw in the individual child. The extent of “on-task” behavior in a classroom, by the same token, may tell us something about the teacher as well as about the students. When a teacher complains that children are off task, our first response should be to ask “What is the task?” Moreover, the sharp line drawn between enjoying the process, on the one hand, and buckling down to learn how to spell, on the other, may reflect a philosophy of self-denial — or, more accurately, other-denial — that yields the worst of both worlds, since it often produces neither enjoyment nor effective results.

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