Dear Alfie Kohn Please Just Stop

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.

Related categories:
  • MarciaPowell

    We Love Our Students

    Thank you, John.  Relationship, encouragement, respect, honoring creativity while helping with misconceptions, research-based applications…all of these are qualities that great teachers possess.   They are also the factors I think about when I vision “growth-mindset teachers.”  Here’s the rub that I think happens when I see Alfie Kohn’s work, and the question I would ask,  “How many days have you spent in a classroom in the past year?”  Let’s take that a step further for administrators or people who are supporting teachers and students or informal educators:  “How many different classrooms have you been present in as an observer and/or learner?”  This question is something that I think needs to be asked of every educational writer.  Without it, we often forget the nuances, the unspoken art of teaching.  I really appreciate you pointing that out.

  • Kathleen L. Gallagher

    Growth Mindset and Instructional Improvement

    Rather than attack the messenger, I would appreciate a discussion on the real issue Alfie Kohn is raising. How valuable are the instructional tasks in which teachers are asking children to engage? I would urge respondents to consider that this answer will be very diferent depending on the quality of each teacher's instruction. My guess is that the highest quality tecahers are able to instill a growth mindset because they have a growth mindset themselves. But when a growth mindset is absent, the complexity around instructional improvement is much deeper than simply providing encouragement that focuses on a student's effort.

    • JohnHolland

      But I Agree with the Messenger

      Dear Dr. Gallagher,  After doing some minimal research I realize that you are bringing to this conversation a different lens than I am focusing on in this post. If you are the Kathleen Gallagher who has done this interesting and valuable research you have a great deal of interest in the quality of teacher’s instruction. My problem is not with the quality of teachers instruction or with the real issue you believe Dr. Kohn to be asserting, that of formulaic encouragement. I believe he is actually more concerned with standardized testing and new liberalism than with the quality of instruction. However, I still don’t have a problem with what he says. What I do have a problem with is what he doesn’t say. What I do have a problem with is that teachers bring to learning human connection. When this connection is the center of the instructional process the “quality of instruction” as well as the quality of encouragement is higher than when it is processed through a series of packaged or improvized encouragement around mundane instructional tasks. As I said in the post, I agree with much of what Dr. Kohn asserts. What I am asking Dr. Kohn to stop and consider is that he may be portraying an idea of teachers because real teachers, even mediocre teachers are genuinely invested in student success.  Alfie Kohn is not talking about any real teacher I know. He is talking about a straw teacher who is a stand-in or prop for his lifelong, and likely necessary, campaign against formulaic quick fixes and new liberal agenda focused on the value of students to the economy not the value of an education to a student. What I want Alfie Kohn to do is not just observe or teach one course in existentialism, (which is what counts for his teaching experience). What I want him to do is ask real teachers why a growth mindset is necessary to instruction with thier students instead of using teachers as a prop in an arguement with society.


      What I really appreciated about your comment Kathleen, is this, “My guess is that the highest quality tecahers are able to instill a growth mindset because they have a growth mindset themselves.” Based on your research I am pretty sure this is a little more than a guess. I often talk about how I play the guitar in my classroom. I am not very good. I often make mistakes and when I do I keep trying. To my three year old students this is how I model my growth mindset. However, that mindset is not easily modeled unless made explicite through teacher talk. This is where we get into murky waters because that teacher self-talk is another one of this formulaic interventions. In my college courses I often ask my students why they want to teach. One of the most encouraging responses I have recieved is, “Because I love to learn.” Each of the future teachers who said this also had other dispositions that might help them but their reason stemmed from this love of learning or growth mindset. In your school how do teachers instill that growth mindset?

      • Kathleen L. Gallagher

        Growth Mindset and Instructional Improvement

        I have to admit, that I am not able to instill in it everyone (yet) and that I am often guilty of "assessing teachers" in ways that Alfie Kohn would probalby find abhorent, at least upon first glance. What I have essentially done in my research is to offer teachers both a qualitative description of their instruction and a quantitative measure that could be interpreted as a "Grade". If grades are "bad" for students, then it is likely they are "bad" for teachers as well. (For people who believe that grades provide important measures of children's learning, then wouldn't it follow that they would also be important measures of teaching?) My rationale was that unless we are able to somehow define quality instruction in ways that we agree capture the essential nature and complextiy of the interactions associated with it, then we can't begin to assess whether or not we are hitting the mark. I think Alfie Kohn would challenge us to think about the value of the "mark" we are trying to hit. If that mark does not result in engaed and relevant meaning-making of the world, then it probably isn't a good mark. I think the complexity that Alfie Kohn introduces is, who gets to define the mark? For my work, I reveiwed as much of the research I could find on quality instruction, exemplary practices, and measurement. I came up with a framework for quality teaching that is dependent upon three critical domains or teacher expertise, none of which are new to our profession: content knowledge, pedagogy, and the abilty to establish a classroom culture that honors and aprpeciates students' contributions and perspectives.  Initially, when receiving my feedback, teachers who are struggling to engage students or are struggling with implenting the curriculum in ways that foster students' authentic conceptual devleopment, leave feeling a substantial degree of cognitve disonance because many have not ever been been asked to reflect so depeply on the impact that their instruciton has on students. Our first impulse when feeling threatened is to blame the messenger, rather than to reflect on our own actions and perceptions.

        You stated in your original treatise to Alfie, "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." In my view, Alfie is attempting to ensure that we do for students exactly what you are requesting that he do for teachers–acknowlege their strengths, interests, and perceptions about what matters. Is what we are asking them to do is worthy of their effort?

        Another level of complexity has to do with equity, which was the motivation behind my research. If we can't define quality instruction, how do we know who does or doesn't have access to it? When I see two teachers teaching in classrooms side-by-side, and one is able to meaningfully engage students in active and relevant meaning-maiking, and the other is struggling just to get students to sit down and do their "work", and the students don't get a choice about which classroom they get to be a member of, then we are not effectively addressing issues around equity. My work was menat to shine a flashlight on this problem and offfer at least a first step in bridiging the gap between these two classrooms. Aside from the political and economic motives behind standardized testing, it was my belief that their orignial intent was to do the same for students, so that as a profession, we could ensure that all students had access to the same opportunities to learn. While we still have a long way to go, at least the fact that we are engaging in these arguments heightens our awareness of the issues involved. While grit and growth mindset are important factors that impact learning, they don't tell the whole story, which is what I believe Alfie was trying to help us understand.

  • Charles Ellenbogen

    Kohn: Punished by Rewards

    First-time participant here. As a faculty, we were asked to read Mindset last year (which I'd read before) and Kohn's Punished by Rewards this year. I had some of the same troubles with Kohn. There's a kind of either / or approach to his writing. You are to do it his way OR you must be delivering a dull lecture. I find the teaching life more grey than that. As a school, we are struggling with issues of motivation. Is there a difference between an acknowledgement (a shout-out posted on a bulletin board, for example) and a reward (cookies!) or is that just a distinction we're trying to make. We recently returned from a PD trip to New York and saw three schools similar to ours, largely filled with over-age and under-credited students. All of them had certificates galore. Some also had cookies. Thanks to Dweck and Kohn, I am certainly more mindful of comments I offer students, and I think that has to be a good thing.

    I am also struggling as a parent. I have a 5th grader. Recently, she reported that as a consequence for the class being too loud during a lesson, they had to spend part of their recess walking the halls. I can't make sense of that. And then, the teacher admonished her for talking in class by saying, "Did you like walking the halls?" This is also a school that gives out tickets for good behavior that can be redeemed for spirit wear.

  • JohnHolland

    Punished by Skinner


    Thanks for your imput. I explored the idea of “Behavior Bucks” in my post Learning to Demotivate Teachers from our Middle Schools. I think that much of our cultures in schools is our rehashing of our own education. When I was in school Skinner’s behaviorism was very prevalent. When your daughter had that experience, my son and daugther have had them as well, the only thing I could do as a teacher is say, “Some teachers teach because they like to be in control.” Control = Stimulus response theory. I agree with you on Kohn’s either or perspective. It makes it much easier to craft convincing arguements if you start it by saying, “This is very simple….” And then when a person is primed for a simple answer it is easier to sway their opinion. This is the truth I hardly ever see in research, like Dweck’s, or philosophizing like Kohn, “Teaching is messy.” I am currently chairing our Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports committee. I am so afraid our school will want to give our “bucks” or cookies. When you don’t see the complexity of children it is easy to go for the simple solution. I never use external rewards and I teach 3 year olds, the most easily swayed by a token economy. The cloesest I get is giving them a high high five. But, I don’t think I could teach at all if I did not offer some forms of praise. I try to be authentic but it is a challenge day in and day out. This is what frustrates me when someone tells teachers how to teach who has minimal experience. Teaching is messy and you don’t know how messy unless you have done it.