Alfie Kohn’s You Know What They Say… : The Truth About Popular Beliefs

Using humor and armed with expert studies Alfie Kohn attempts to question some of most basic beliefs on a variety of subjects.  With respect to education Kohn tackles some major issues and assumptions, such as do rewards motivate people? Are boys better at math than girls? Does competition build character? Do kids read less because they are addicted to television?  Does grouping students by ability help them learn better?  Kohn’s synthesis and critique of various studies-whose attempts at science are often times dubious-prove for some surprising results.

Do rewards motivate people?

The Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner popularized the theory of  positive reinforcement, which maintains that presenting a reward after a desired behavior will make that behavior more like to occur in the future.

Kohn sees this assumption as problematic when trying to encourage people to be creative. In effect, when rewards are tied to behavior, they can be

Why should this be the case? Kohn uses the term “intrinsic motivation,” which is what psychologists call doing what you enjoy doing. When a task that was once fun is now tied to a reward, the task often becomes tedious unless a reward mechanism is attached.

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Study after study has shown that people who believe they are working for a reward feel controlled by it. If we are to receive a reward for our efforts, this is tantamount to concluding that the task is unpleasant and that it is necessary to be bribed. From the youngest student to the most experienced worker, rewards force us to focus narrowly on a task, to do it as quickly as possible and to take few risks. This to Kohn “is death to innovation and artistic exploration” (33).

Are boys better at math than girls?

Recent studies have concluded that out of a total of four million subjects in over 100 published studies, that girls have a slight advantage in math during elementary and middle school. However, come High School, boys regain the advantage in the United States, which also happens when students are given some latitude in choosing their courses.

The more recent the study the smaller the differences of mathematical ability that are measured between the sexes. Most recent studies refute biological differences between boys and girls. For example, in areas other than math, boys have closed the gap in such “female” areas as language and spelling.

Studies of parental views, however, reveal that mothers still believe girls were better at reading than boys, and this may affect the way boys and girls direct their academic efforts.

Does competition build character?

Kohn is unable to find any study that supports the idea that competition builds character. Rather, available research refutes the idea. Researchers have found that athletic competition, for example, limits personal growth in some areas. Students who participate in competitive sports often suffer from depression, extreme stress and relatively shallow relationships.

Kohn sees as ludicrous that character-as defined by tenacity or discipline-is forged by engaging in activities where one person or team can become successful at the expense of the other. Indeed, competition can destroy self confidence. A 1981 study revealed that competitive teenagers are less likely than their peers to believe that they can control the events that affect their lives. Children tend to have higher self esteem when they can cooperate with each other rather than competing against one another. According to Kohn, study after study shows that “competition produces people who are less generous and empathetic, less trusting and sensitive to the needs of others, less likely to see things from someone else’s point of view, and less likely to use higher moral reasoning than those who are not competing” (83).

Do kids read less because they are addicted to television?

Kohn’s analysis of various studies steers to the same conclusion: despite “demeaning, vapid and violent” programming that may contribute to increased aggressiveness and obesity, television has no effect on reading nor academic achievement.

In studies conducted in the 1980s with over two million children, the two activities (reading and television viewing) were rarely substituted for one another. However, a 1982 compilation of twenty-three studies did show that to a limited degree for girls and children, grades went down if television
viewing was over ten hours per week. As a side note, watching fewer hours of television was associated with better performance in school than watching none at all.

The idea that television is a mindless form of entertainment has little empirical support. Kohn argues that most studies conclude that young children do not watch television passively but generally stay mentally active while doing so.

Perhaps the most striking result of television viewing is that the more it is watched the more likely that person has a dismal view of human nature. Despite this increase in cynicism, an absence of television viewing does not correlate with an increase in reading.

Does grouping kids by ability help them to learn better?

Kohn does not hold back any punches when he maintains that grouping students by ability is a “terrible idea” (166). Both national and international studies have shown that overall school achievement does not go up when students are segregated by ability. Some research does show marginal academic improvement when kids are placed in the top groups. Kohn attributes this to a more enriched curriculum and to better teachers. However, students placed in the lowest groups tend to “live down” to expectations of their achievement, or rather, lack of achievement. Students from the same socio-economic backgrounds tend to perform better in mixed academic groups than homogenous ones.

If this system is so counterproductive and unfair, then why is it so prevalent in American schools? The answer may be that upper level teachers and the parents of upper track students prefer it this way. Nevertheless, hundreds of studies have shown that children who are encouraged to help each other learn-rather than work individually or compete against one another-end up achieving more.