Feel-Bad Education by Alfie Kohn

The four years that students spend in high school are excellent preparation for the real world—assuming that they plan to live in a totalitarian society. To the detriment of students as well as teachers, most American high schools continue to embody the sort of traditional, and antidemocratic, practices that I call into question in Feel-Bad Education: And Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling.

In this new book, as in my earlier work, I try to ask the radical questions—by which I mean those that get to the root of what we’re doing rather than looking for ways to tweak the status quo. For example, why do most 15-year-olds have less to say about how they spend their time in school (what they’re learning, and how, and when, and with whom) than do most 5-year-olds in kindergarten? Why do high schools seem designed to make sure that kids won’t feel part of a caring community and won’t really come to know, or be known by, any adults?

Why does learning in so many high schools mostly consist of memorizing facts for a test, passively listening to lectures, reading the predigested facts in huge soulless textbooks, filling out worksheets—and then beginning a second shift of these dreary tasks when students get home? And why is the push for “rigor” and “accountability” and “tougher standards” making things even worse? (What politicians refuse to learn—partly because teachers have been scapegoated and excluded from the national conversation about education—is that it’s possible to “raise the bar” and improve test scores … while making schools less intellectually stimulating and less appealing places.)

Where are the opportunities for students to integrate what different disciplines have to offer, to discover and explore, to understand ideas from the inside out, to learn actively and interactively, and to get excited while satisfying their curiosity about the world? How are teachers supposed to figure out how to be facilitators of learning rather than mere transmitters of information, how to be teachers of kids more than teachers of chemistry or history or literature? And even if they do figure out how to do it, where are they supposed to find the time?

If I had  simple answers to these questions, you would have heard about it by now. But in Feel-Bad Education I try at least to offer some different ways of responding to traditional schooling, some examples of places and people I think are on the right track, and a reminder that we need to make sure we’re asking the right questions. 

In the book, I talk, for example, about what it means to create more democratic classrooms even if that makes us a little uncomfortable to give up some control. (Kids learn to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions.) I talk about the importance of making sure students know we care about them unconditionally, even when they screw up or fall short. I talk about the disturbing implications of those inspirational posters so commonly found on school walls, about the danger of national standards, about what we can learn about ourselves as educators when students cheat, about the dark side of rubrics and the whole “data” craze in education.

Personally, I’ve spent enough time teaching high school to emerge humbled about how hard it is to live up to one’s best impulses—and awed by the teachers I’ve watched over the years who manage to do amazing things despite the systems in which they work. This book is designed to support the kinds of systemic, not just individual, changes that can make it a little easier for teachers to take pride in what they do every day and to help their students do the same.

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Copyright © 2011 by Alfie Kohn (http://www.alfiekohn.org/)

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