Kohn's You Know What They Say... : The Truth About Popular Beliefs
Reviewed by Jeremy Solomon
Using humor and armed with expert
studies Alfie Kohn attempts to question some of most basic beliefs on a
variety of subjects. With
respect to education
Kohn tackles some major issues and assumptions, such as do rewards
motivate people? Are boys better at math than girls? Does
competition build character? Do kids read less because they are
addicted to television? Does grouping students by ability help
them learn better? Kohn's synthesis and critique of various
studies-whose attempts at science are often times dubious-prove for some
Do rewards motivate people?
The Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner
popularized the theory of positive reinforcement,
which maintains that presenting a reward after a desired behavior will
make that behavior more like to occur in the future. Kohn sees
this assumption as problematic when trying to encourage people to be
creative. In effect, when rewards are tied to behavior, they can
Why should this be the case? Kohn uses
the term "intrinsic motivation," which is what
psychologists call doing what you enjoy doing. When a task that was
once fun is now tied to a reward, the task often becomes tedious unless
a reward mechanism is attached. Study after study has shown that
people who believe they are working for a reward feel controlled by it.
If we are to receive a reward for our efforts, this is tantamount to
concluding that the task is unpleasant and that it is necessary to be
bribed. From the youngest student to the most experienced worker,
rewards force us to focus narrowly on a task, to do it as quickly as
possible and to take few risks. This to Kohn "is death to
innovation and artistic exploration" (33).
Are boys better at math than girls?
Recent studies have concluded that out of a
total of four million subjects in over 100 published
studies, that girls have a slight advantage in math during elementary
and middle school. However, come High School, boys regain the
advantage in the United States, which also happens when students are
given some latitude in choosing their courses.
The more recent
the study the smaller the differences of mathematical ability
that are measured between the sexes. Most recent studies refute
biological differences between boys and girls. For example, in
areas other than math, boys have closed the gap in such "female" areas
as language and spelling.
Studies of parental views,
however, reveal that mothers still believe
girls were better at reading than boys, and this may affect the way boys
and girls direct their academic efforts.
Does competition build character?
Kohn is unable to find any study that supports
the idea that competition builds character. Rather,
available research refutes the idea. Researchers have found that
athletic competition, for example, limits personal growth in some areas.
Students who participate in competitive sports often suffer from
depression, extreme stress and relatively shallow relationships.
Kohn sees as ludicrous that character - as
defined by tenacity or discipline - is forged by engaging in
activities where one person or team can become successful at the expense
of the other. Indeed, competition can destroy self confidence.
A 1981 study revealed that competitive teenagers are less likely than
their peers to believe that they can control the events that affect
their lives. Children tend to have higher self esteem when they
can cooperate with each other rather than competing against one another.
According to Kohn, study after study shows that "competition produces
people who are less generous and empathetic, less trusting and sensitive
to the needs of others, less likely to see things from someone else's
point of view, and less likely to use higher moral reasoning than those
who are not competing" (83).
Do kids read less because they are addicted to
Kohn's analysis of various studies steers to
the same conclusion: Despite "demeaning, vapid and violent"
programming that may contribute to increased aggressiveness and obesity,
television has no effect on reading nor academic achievement.
In studies conducted in the 1980s with over two
million children, the two activities (reading and television
viewing) were rarely substituted for one
another. However, a 1982 compilation of twenty-three studies did
show that to a limited degree for girls and children, grades went down
viewing was over ten hours per week. As a side note, watching
fewer hours of television was associated with better performance in
school than watching
none at all.
The idea that television is a mindless form of
entertainment has little
empirical support. Kohn argues that most studies conclude that
young children do not watch television passively but generally stay
mentally active while doing so.
Perhaps the most striking result of television
viewing is that the more it is watched the more likely
that person has a dismal view of human nature.
Despite this increase in cynicism, an absence of television viewing does
correlate with an increase in reading.
Does grouping kids by ability help them to
Kohn does not hold back any punches when he
maintains that grouping students by ability is a "terrible
idea" (166). Both national and international
studies have shown that overall school achievement does not go up when
students are segregated by ability. Some research does show
marginal academic improvement when kids are placed in the top groups.
Kohn attributes this to a more enriched curriculum and to better
teachers. However, students placed in the lowest groups tend to
"live down" to expectations of their achievement, or rather, lack of
achievement. Students from the same socio-economic backgrounds
tend to perform better in mixed academic groups than homogenous ones.
If this system is so counterproductive and
unfair, then why is it so
prevalent in American schools? The answer may be that upper level
and the parents of upper track students prefer it this way.
hundreds of studies have shown that children who are encouraged to help
each other learn-rather than work individually or compete against one
another-end up achieving more.
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