Contemporary society experiences a crisis
Contemporary society experiences a crisis, or rather a number of crises, in many spheres of life. Education is one of the issues that are challenged by fast changing conditions of life. Nowadays, it is clear to many people that the traditional model of American education fails to meet the demands of the twenty-first century. In his two essays, Alfie Kohn asserts his message about the necessity to change the system of education dramatically in order to shift the focus from its informational function to the transformational one.
The essay “What Does It Mean to Be Well-Educated?” is the author’s attempt to scrutinize the current system of education and what it takes to be considered a well-educated person within this system. He is highly critical about the traditional model of secondary education which he describes as “large schools, short classes, huge student loads for each teacher, a fact-transmission kind of instruction that is the very antithesis of “student-centered,” the virtual absence of any attempt to integrate diverse areas of study, the rating and ranking of students” ( Kohn, 2003, p.5).
Throughout his research, Kohn explores the stereotypical vision of such kind of a person and comes to a conclusion that the criteria are not uniform and quite vague. First of all, the purpose of education is not treated in the same way by all people. While some of them focus on its role in intellectual development, the others provide an alternative view of its aim being to bring up a happy and caring personality. Besides, while some ascribe primarily a social value to education, others are more practical insisting on its economic relevance. Because of such gap that exists between opposing points of view, objective definition of good education is scarcely possible.
Secondly, the author stresses that there is another breach that can hardly be crossed between what is taught at school and college and what is actually learned by students. No one specifies if the quality of education equals the quality of teaching or learning. Next, more confusion to the issue is added by the fact that even within one country there is no one standard of expectations from a student, so a well-educated person will be judged differently in different places.
One more aspect on which Kohn dwells is the very approach to assessment and its flaws. For instance, having good memory is sometimes treated as excellent performance because education is often confined to learning some facts by heart. Besides, the author criticizes the quality of the standard regular and graduation tests and claims that there exists “correlation between high scores on a range of standardized tests and a shallow approach to learning”(Kohn,2003,p. 3).
Finally, the author reveals his own vision of good education which is “organized around problems, projects, and questions – as opposed to facts, skills, and disciplines. Knowledge is acquired, of course, but in a context and for a purpose”(Kohn, 2003, p.6) He believes that the current system is supported by conservative forces who resist changes not only at the level of education but at more universal levels because of education’s dramatic influence on social and cultural existence.
In his second essay, “The Dangerous Myth of Grade Inflation” Kohn focuses on another aspect of American education, the assessment of performance. While it is a popular message nowadays that grades have inflated in recent decades, the author opposes this point of view. Referring to statistics and surveys, he argues that there is no reliable data that support the idea of inflation. Moreover, he stresses that there are other more important aspects around this idea which are usually ignored.
Further on, the author explores the reasons of why this issue resonates so much with many politicians and college authorities. He believes that current system of education has to fall in line with economic demands of corporations. The ability to sort “good” students from “bad” ones in terms of their relevance for a certain career is expected by employers, and globally, the state.
Besides, the author criticizes the very culture of competition which is created due to the system of grading and which can collapse in case of grades inflation. “The question guiding evaluation in such a classroom is not "How well are they learning?" but "Who's beating whom?" The ultimate purpose of good colleges, this view holds, is not to maximize success, but to ensure that there will always be losers”.(Kohn, 2002, p.6). For this reason, the author claims, it is dangerous letting all students get equally high marks.
The next stereotypical pattern which the author discusses is that good education should be hard. It is accounted for by the fact that certain lecturers assess the quality of their work by how they manage to make students’ life unbearable due to too high workload. It is a conservative tradition that good education should be obtained through blood and sweat. Thus, as Kohn argues such people tend to be worried that this scheme can be broken somewhere and that someone could get a good grade “for free”.
One more aspect that is widely discussed in educational circles is that grades are an important instrument of motivation. In fact, “stick and carrot” methods are immortal, and grading is definitely one of them. However, as the author points out, grades devaluate more natural types of motivation. He classifies motivation into “intrinsic, in which the task itself is seen as valuable, and extrinsic, in which the task is just a means to the end of gaining a reward or escaping a punishment”.(Kohn, 2002, p.7). Thus, the researcher criticizes the current system of education for putting too much emphasis on extrinsic motivation. Within this context, it does not matter whether grades are inflated because the key problem is different.
Speaking of the two essays by Alfie Kohn, it is necessary to point out that the author raises important issues of today’s American education. Indeed, the situation looks like that the focus is shifted from the internal value of education to its external attributes like grades, hours spent in the classroom, diplomas, degrees, qualification of teachers. The advantage of these two essays is that they attempt to cover the scope beyond the questions which are traditionally discussed. Figuratively speaking, the author approaches the mainstream discussion from backyard. Pointing out the issue, he tries to find the factors that cause this issue. The benefit of the essays is that they rather answer “why?” and “what for?” questions than just being purely informative.
One of the important issues raised by the author is student’s motivation. He is right saying that racing for grades devaluates the true essence of education. When competing for better scores at college or trying to avoid penalties for poor performance, the students lose taste in exploring and generating ideas. Their creative spirit dies because of necessity to match some uniform format set for everyone. Today’s competitive system of education has nothing with individuality because of permanent necessity to compare oneself to someone else. So, it is easy to agree with the author who says that grade themselves but not grade inflation are real obstacle for perfection.
Another important question which still remains open is what the true purposes of education are. The author is quite categorical in his denying the economic approach in schooling; however it is not that dangerous. The main advantage of this approach is that learning stops to be purely theoretical and becomes a way to start building a future career as early as possible. Of course, it works better when the direction is clear, however there are some soft skills like leadership, public speaking or good writing that are a key to success in many professions.
Overall, though written in a complex literary language, the two essays leave an impression of being vivid and yet logical. The good ratio of emotions and evidence combined with the author’s genuine interest in the subject makes reading them beneficiary.
Kohn, Alfie. “What Does It Mean to Be Well-Educated?” Principal Leadership, March 2003
Kohn, Alfie. “The Dangerous Myth of Grade Inflation”. The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 8, 2002 -- vol. 49, no. 11, p. B7