Kohn constructs pedagogical strawman

In his most recent missive (published today in Ed Week), Alfie Kohn decries "the pedagogy of poverty," i.e.: the way many poor children are taught in traditional public and public charter schools around the nation. He complains:

Policymakers and the general public have paid much less attention to what happens inside classrooms—the particulars of teaching and learning—especially in low-income neighborhoods. The news here has been discouraging for quite some time, but, in a painfully ironic twist, things seem to be getting worse as a direct result of the “reform” strategies pursued by the Bush administration, then intensified under President Barack Obama, and cheered by corporate executives and journalists.

In an article published in Phi Delta Kappan back in 1991, Martin Haberman, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, coined the phrase “pedagogy of poverty.” Based on his observations in thousands of urban classrooms, Haberman described a tightly controlled routine in which teachers dispense, and then test students on, factual information; assign seatwork; and punish noncompliance. It is a regimen, he said, “in which learners can ‘succeed’ without becoming either involved or thoughtful,” and it is noticeably different from the questioning, discovering, arguing, and collaborating that is more common (though by no means universal) among students in suburban and private schools.

This description is misleading on so many levels. First of all, it seems to suggest that having tight classroom management and routines is antithetical to creating classrooms where students can think deeply about issues. Nonsense.

In fact, having tight classroom management and efficient and effective classroom routines is exactly what you need to create the conditions where students can learnwhere they can question and debate and where teachers can effectively use more student-centered techniques if they so choose.

Of course, there are classrooms where you can get away with looser routines and not have it devolve into chaos. But just because a classroom isn't completely chaotic doesn't mean it wouldn't benefit from having tighter management and stronger routines. And just because you have strong management and routines doesn't mean that your students aren't actively engaging in advanced work and critical thinking.

Kohn goes on to say:

Among the research that has confirmed the disparity are two studies based on data from the periodic National Assessment of Educational Progress. One found that black children are much more likely than white children to be taught with workbooks or worksheets on a daily basis. The other revealed a racial disparity in how computers are used for instruction, with African Americans mostly getting drill and practice exercises (which, the study also found, are associated with poorer results).

Again, this is incredibly misleading. I have no doubt that there are far too many poor and minority students who are exposed to ineffective or lazy pedagogy. (And giving nothing but seatwork without thoughtful planning or instruction is lazy.) But let's not forget that there is a known teacher quality gap that accompanies the achievement gap. It's no secret?and no surprise?that schools that serve predominantly urban, low-SES students are more likely to have ineffective teachers. That is precisely why adopting reforms that help attract and retain higher quality teachers in urban schools is so critical.

What is perhaps most frustrating about Kohn's piece, however, is that he tries to suggest that the pedagogical techniques used in many high quality charter schools around the nation are the actual problemand that they are grounded not in the desire to do what's best for students, but rather to deliberately stifle thinking and learning. He argues:

Rather than viewing the pedagogy of poverty as a disgrace, however, many of the charter schools championed by the new reformers have concentrated on perfecting and intensifying techniques to keep children ?on task? and compel them to follow directions.

Wrong.

The pedagogy that is used and encouraged at the most successful urban charter schools around the countryincluding KIPP, Uncommon Schools, Achievement First, and a host of othersare actually designed to create the conditions where student thinking and learning can actually happen. (It's difficult for students to learn if they are, in fact, not on task.) And, done right, they help push students thinking very deliberately beyond lower level questions. Watch any of the host of clips that Doug Lemov has amassed for his Teach Like a Champion book and you'll see teachers using these techniques expertly. Visit schools like KIPP: Infinity, Achievement First Hartford Academy, or North Star Academy and you'll see teachers pushing their students thinking every day, in almost every classroom.

What's more, plenty of these techniques are effectively used in suburban and private schools around the country as well. (Catholic schools are, for example, known for their tight culture and strict rules.)

There are plenty of thoughtful critiques you can level against reform efforts?critiques that the reformers themselves struggle with every day. Sadly, Kohn fails to make any of them convincingly.

More By Author

Related Articles