Alfie Kohn “goosed” us. I probably deserved it.

So I am a Math Coach for the New Tech Network. And I really love my job. And here’s why.

A few weeks ago we ran our New Schools training. And, if I may say, it was really awesome. I was able to see the growth in teachers as they began to structure their classrooms into student centered content areas. My co-facilitators and I, frankly, knocked it out of the park. We were able to communicate a mode of instruction that would empower students.

Then I went to a conference the following week, put on by another organization, that was very mediocre (again, in my opinion). The sessions weren’t terribly interesting. The session titles were confusing, at best, and misleading at worst. The stench of the desire for a canned curriculum was abound. Participants were largely concerned with getting their hands on another pre-created lesson rather than thinking deeply about their practice. There was no mention of 21st Century skills and developing students that would be productive human beings.

So after that second conference, I was feeling pretty damned good about myself and my employer. The mediocrity of that second conference only confirmed the feelings I had about myself as a person who really, really knows the right answer. I talked about what “high-flyers” we were as an organization and about myself as a sole individual. I was unabashed in both my sense of pride in myself and in my organization. After all, we were pushing kids to become good citizens of the modern world, while the other conference was only catering to the basest of professional development desires: to have a pre-written curriculum that anyone, anywhere could plug into their classroom.

So I and we have all the answers, right? Inquiry-based, formatively assessed, with rigorous rubrics: who could argue against that? I was pretty damn well proud of myself and my practice.

Fastforward to today.

Alfie Kohn spoke at our annual conference as the keynote speaker. He set out with the intention of “goosing” us (his words, not mine).

He succeeded.

He prodded and poked with every sentence: why are we teaching content according to our state? Why are we grading according to a rubric, which, in his words, are another way of standardizing assessment, just under a more liberal ruse? Why do we separate content areas as if life is somehow separated into particular spheres?

And then he went after math. And he went after it hard.

Perhaps Alfie Kohn didn’t go after math, per se, but rather the instruction of it. He intoned the only value of math at the secondary level was to figure out what the probability is of hitting jackpot at the slot machine. Everything else taught was simply a construct of the math teacher who has to conform their instruction to the state mandated tests that occur at the end of the school year. The implication was the skills learned in math were pointless outside of a small fraction of the population, so why even bother to teach it? If the kids didn’t want to learn it, then why bother teaching it?

While Alfie Kohn supposedly was attacking the system, I don’t think it’s the biased view of a “math person” to say he was particularly harsh on math instruction. Going off memory, he cited several math concepts as examples of a stain on education, while holding up the examination of the Constitution of the United States as an example of an extreme relevance and student engagement.

Then he attacked rubrics.

Now, rubrics are a pretty critical part of what we do. It allows us to evaluate student performance across several skill sets so students know where they’re at. But Alfie Kohn torched them. Seriously: slash and burn, Sherman’s-march-to-the-sea kind of stuff there. He equated the idea of grades in general, and rubrics especially as an indication that we’ve been subverted by our corporate overlords and seek only to destroy others. He made what we’re doing seem like it was only part of a corporate plot to create employees that dutifully do what they’re told so they can be fodder for our corporatist system.

And our organization paid Alfie Kohn to say those things to us. He knocked me off my pedestal, for sure. He even made me mad.

And that’s why I love our organization.

I hope that in the annual conferences we have from now on continue to have speakers that don’t simply give us a “rah-rah” speech. I hope we continue to have speakers that challenge us and make us question “yeah, why the hell are we using rubrics?” and “why is teaching quadratics important to kids?” and “what power am I willing to give up in the classroom?”

Most keynote speakers simply get up there and give a bunch of inspirational quotes. They never, ever challenge you. Especially us. After all, we’ve got it right. It’s all those other people who are way far behind, right? But New Tech is confident enough to let Alfie Kohn in and “goose” the hell out of us. While he upheld problem and project based learning as examples of great instruction, he also noted the ridiculousness of the teacher creating a project in his or her brain and calling it “authentic.”

Though we didn’t have a formal debrief time after the keynote, small conversations happened here and there between teachers and principals and school coaches the rest of the day up to and including about 20 minutes ago. As you know, this simply does not happen with most keynote speakers.

And it’s honestly an honor to work for an organization that would bring in a keynote speaker who challenges us on such a deep level. I mean, he spoke straight to the core of math instruction and questioned its very existence.

So next time I start thinking about how great our professional development sessions are in compared to other conferences, next time I start thinking about how we’ve got the silver bullet for instruction, I need to revisit Alfie Kohn’s speech, both to knock myself off my pedestal, and to reinvigorate my staunch defense of mathematics as a critical part of every child’s development, not just as a means to determine the probability of hitting the jackpot at the slots.

If there weren’t Alfie Kohn’s in this world to make us think deeply about our instruction and its purpose, then we could easily become stagnant, or worse: over-proud.

There was just enough in Kohn’s keynote to inspire and frustrate me. I should think about it more often.

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5 Responses to Alfie Kohn “goosed” us. I probably deserved it.

  1. Jason Buell says:

    Wow. Impressive that your school would be brave enough to pay someone to be critical of them. The fact that I think Kohn is 95% full of crap is irrelevant to that statement.

  2. Pingback: Weekly Picks « Mathblogging.org — the Blog

  3. Is there a transcription of what he said? I usually like what he says, and I’d like to be in your position, thinking about my values versus what he said.

    • emergentmath says:

      Not that I know of. I’ll be on the lookout, and I’ll post it if I find it.

      I know that a video was taken. Obviously if I find that I’ll embed that as well.

      It was certainly challenging and it really, really got me thinking about my core values as an educator. Which is pretty much always a good thing.

  4. Pingback: What I learned in 2011 | emergent math

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