Monday, December 27, 2010

Reconsider Attitudes About Success

This was written by Alfie Kohn in the New York Times:

By Alfie Kohn

Even “Race to Nowhere,” with its poignant depictions of the emotional cost of traditional schooling, doesn’t tell the whole story. For one thing, students suffer intellectually as well as psychologically because the pressure to succeed academically leaves little room for exploring ideas. (Achieving is very different from learning.) For another thing, this destructive pattern doesn’t stop when kids get to college.

The solution, I think, is twofold: Reconsider our attitudes about success (and long-term goals for our children); and change the school policies that create or exacerbate the problem.
Many parents push their kids with the best of intentions, but some are so busy basking in the reflected glory of their children’s accomplishments that they overlook the damage being done by the pressure to live up to their expectations. “Few parents,” said the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, “have the courage and independence to care more for their children’s happiness than for their success.”
Whole childhoods are sometimes sacrificed in a relentless regimen of preparing kids for Harvard, a process I’ve come to call “Preparation H.” Gambling their mental health and love of learning in the hopes of acceptance at an extremely selective college is a bet that no caring, rational parent should take.
Ultimately, though, educators (with parental support) must be willing to change the entrenched educational practices that are turning so many teens into basket cases.
-- Gratuitous competition teaches students that everyone else is an obstacle to their own success. (Awards and class rank could be eliminated tomorrow without jeopardizing admission to college.)
-- Absurd quantities of mostly pointless homework force students to work a second shift after having spent all day in school. (Happily, I’ve heard from many teachers who rarely or never assign homework and report fabulous results.)
-- Advanced Placement courses often just accelerate the worst sort of lecture-based, textbook-driven, “bunch o’ facts” teaching. (Realizing that harder isn’t always better, a growing number of high schools are eliminating A.P. courses.)
And there’s more. Some 830 colleges and universities have stopped requiring the SAT or ACT. Courageous educators are replacing letter and number grades with less destructive forms of assessment.
One thing is clear: We can’t be content with just giving kids “coping strategies” that leave the structural problems intact; we have to change the structures themselves.


  1. I tend to agree with your point, but my experience in AP courses was really different. Those were my favorite classes. True, they were accelerated. However, for a student who was a fast reader, fast writer and who wanted deep, critical thinking, it meant we avoided fluff like People Bingo at the beginning of the year or "reteach this concept in seven different ways." Instead, we would learn a concept and go deeper into it. We had debates and mock trials, built models, filmed documentaries, interviewed guest speakers and yes, we did our fair share of reading and writing, too.

    Our teachers knew that rigor wasn't about quantity and acceleration was about moving past basic facts and into critical thinking. We rarely memorized much of anything and yet we did really well on the AP tests (despite the fact that we never reviewed for the test)

  2. Joe, I like that you point out both sides to schooling: the intellectual as well as the psychological (or social). Not only are kids getting very little lasting value from school (intellectually), but they're missing their childhoods (socially).

    To your point about "Preparation H", Seth Godin points out ( that students who are accepted to Harvard but DON'T attend are just as successful in life as those who are accepted to Harvard and DO attend. It makes you wonder about the value of the experience provided.

    On the note about Race to Nowhere, there will be a screening in Calgary ( on January 12, 2011 at 5:30pm with a moderated discussion afterward. I plan to attend.

  3. @John, I fear that your experience of real learning with AP classes is the exception rather than the rule.

    I've come to see too many AP classes define excellence as just harder and faster which equates to simply an accelerated version of the worst forms of teaching and learning... for too many kids the test is the learning.

  4. In middle school all of my classes were the "AP" classes, but we called it Magnet classes. I was in the Magnet program and had all higher classes. All it was was the same stuff as the other classes but (and this is literally how some teachers I asked described it) "faster and with more work".


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