Alfie Kohn “goosed” us

April 12, 2013
Geoff Krall

Geoff Krall

Alfie Kohn spoke at our annual conference as the keynote speaker. He set out with the intention of “goosing” us(his words, not mine).

He succeeded.

He prodded and poked with every sentence: why are we teaching content according to our state? Why are we grading according to a rubric, which, in his words, are another way of standardizing assessment, just under a more liberal ruse? Why do we separate content areas as if life is somehow separated into particular spheres?

And then he went after math. And he went after it hard.

Perhaps Alfie Kohn didn’t go after math, per se, but rather the instruction of it. He intoned the only value of math at the secondary level was to figure out what the probability is of hitting jackpot at the slot machine. Everything else taught was simply a construct of the math teacher who has to conform their instruction to the state mandated tests that occur at the end of the school year. The implication was the skills learned in math were pointless outside of a small fraction of the population, so why even bother to teach it? If the kids didn’t want to learn it, then why bother teaching it?

While Alfie Kohn supposedly was attacking the system, I don’t think it’s the biased view of a “math person” to say he was particularly harsh on math instruction. Going off memory, he cited several math concepts as examples of a stain on education, while holding up the examination of the Constitution of the United States as an example of an extreme relevance and student engagement.

Then he attacked rubrics.

Now, rubrics are a pretty critical part of what we do. It allows us to evaluate student performance across several skill sets so students know where they’re at. But Alfie Kohn torched them. Seriously: slash and burn, Sherman’s-march-to-the-sea kind of stuff there. He equated the idea of grades in general, and rubrics especially as an indication that we’ve been subverted by our corporate overlords and seek only to destroy others. He made what we’re doing seem like it was only part of a corporate plot to create employees that dutifully do what they’re told so they can be fodder for our corporatist system.

And our organization paid Alfie Kohn to say those things to us. He knocked me off my pedestal, for sure. He even made me mad.

And that’s why I love our organization.

I hope that in the annual conferences we have from now on continue to have speakers that don’t simply give us a “rah-rah” speech. I hope we continue to have speakers that challenge us and make us question “yeah, why the hell are we using rubrics?” and “why is teaching quadratics important to kids?” and “what power am I willing to give up in the classroom?”

Most keynote speakers simply get up there and give a bunch of inspirational quotes. They never, ever challenge you. Especially us. After all, we’ve got it right. It’s all those other people who are way far behind, right? But New Tech is confident enough to let Alfie Kohn in and “goose” the hell out of us. While he upheld problem and project based learning as examples of great instruction, he also noted the ridiculousness of the teacher creating a project in his or her brain and calling it “authentic.”

Though we didn’t have a formal debrief time after the keynote, small conversations happened here and there between teachers and principals and school coaches the rest of the day up to and including about 20 minutes ago. As you know, this simply does not happen with most keynote speakers.

And it’s honestly an honor to work for an organization that would bring in a keynote speaker who challenges us on such a deep level. I mean, he spoke straight to the core of math instruction and questioned its very existence.

So next time I start thinking about how great our professional development sessions are in compared to other conferences, next time I start thinking about how we’ve got the silver bullet for instruction, I need to revisit Alfie Kohn’s speech, both to knock myself off my pedestal, and to reinvigorate my staunch defense of mathematics as a critical part of every child’s development, not just as a means to determine the probability of hitting the jackpot at the slots.

If there weren’t Alfie Kohn’s in this world to make us think deeply about our instruction and its purpose, then we could easily become stagnant, or worse: over-proud.

There was just enough in Kohn’s keynote to inspire and frustrate me. I should think about it more often.