Dear Dr. Alfie Kohn,
I wanted to write to you this open letter because I read your recent piece in Salon on Growth Mindset Theory. I respect your perspective as a researcher, theoretician, and counter-narrative story teller. It is necessary for you and many others to stand up for children. Your arguments are consistently eye-opening and informative – if not mind changing. But I have to ask you: please just stop and think about how you regard teachers.
One essential talent you have is bending any educational critique towards your dominant interests. I see these to be paraphrased by the following three statements: 1. It’s the testing stupid. 2. Praise is manipulation. 3. It’s the conservatives/new liberals. Not every school can be like the one in “Free to Learn” which, almost word-for-word, enacts your views on constructivist child-centered curriculum. Perhaps we would have a more vibrant world if we did schooling like they do in “Free to Learn,” but we would always teeter on the edge of the basest needs for power and belonging in human beings.
I am asking you to stop because, although I generally agree with you on all three of your dominant interests, I think you leave one important thing out whenever you talk about teachers and praise. You seem to ignore the role of human connection in learning. This results when you don’t acknowledge the emotional investment of teachers in the success of their students or students in their relationships with teachers. I have seen this before, for example, in your post on How to Create Non-readers. I have similar beliefs about motivation in regards to reading, but they include the view that students are motivated to reach beyond their limits by teachers who love them.
When I walk seventeen, 3 year-olds down the two-block long hallway to lunch every day, it doesn’t matter that I have to literally say things like, “Thank you for looking forward so you don’t run into the wall.” What matters is that my students know that I care about them, and over the past 8 weeks, they have gotten progressively better at this menial task. It also helps that I use this cursory transition as an opportunity to teach and engage their minds, while I also praise their efforts to conform to school norms. Have I ever used “false praise” like, “I like the way you are sitting in your chair”? Yes, in the past, but now I focus on praise in the form of appreciation for my students helping our community to thrive.
This is what struck me about the video demonstrations of Carol Dweck’s work. The adults in these videos show what seems like “authentic” praise not “false” praise that any child could sense, if not describe, when s/he hears things like, “You are so smart” when they complete a simple puzzle.
Please, Dr. Kohn, if you plan to continue to fight the good fight, alongside of hundreds of thousands of teachers who want the best learning possible for students – remember we love our students when we encourage them, identify their thoughtful use of strategies, and challenge them with the next hardest learning they can do.