Media Watch: New York Times publishes education brilliance and baloney in Sunday Review

Alfie Kohn speaks to educators, bosses and parents in his article "Science Confirms It: People Are Not Pets" published in the New York Times Oct. 27 Sunday Review. Our children, students and workers aren't pets; we shouldn't be trying to train them. As he does throughout his 25-year-old Punished by Rewards, Kohn shows how in our roles as authority figures, its better to work with people, creating the right environments for human potential, rather than manage behavior with rewards or punishments. Rewards stifle motivation.

"The conclusions that rewards frequently kill both interest and excellence have, if anything, grown more solid in the intervening decades [since the publication of Punished by Rewards]," Kohn said.

In addition to killing motivation, Kohn has also illustrated how limiting to potential it can be to people, when teachers, parents or bosses to try to control behavior. How in the world can the manager know the unique gifts and untapped abilities of the one they want to manage? Just a reminder: Manipulating behavior isn't teaching or parenting.

But in the case of behavior like showing up for school or work it seems simple. Make them come to work (and use a reward or punishment if they don't). School administrators do this to try to improve attendance, a Chicago public schools high stakes "School Quality Performance Policy" (SQRP) metric, by threatening teachers in fearful data analyses as well as encouraging teachers to reward student attendance with busywork "bell ringer" points. (Administrators also regularly cheat on the numbers, as in the case of the recently reassigned Ogden elementary school principal and in other past firings of cheating principals.)

Kohn says that bosses looking to manipulate the numbers with rewards or punishments are missing the real challenge of their positions.

"In the case of attendance, it’s a lot easier — and much less threatening to those in positions of authority — to reward students and workers for showing up than it is to reconfigure schools and workplaces so that people are more likely to want to show up," Kohn writes.

One reason students like to show up is in the joy of reading, of finding themselves or new interests in a book. It's an aspect of schooling that most children appreciate if they have the chance for free, voluntary reading with an encouraging teacher who has a classroom library and where there is a school library. In contrast to Kohn's thoughtful analysis of education practices, the reality of reading is completely absent in another piece published in the Oct. 27 Sunday Review. Systematic phonics instruction is the "scientific answer" of “Why are we still teaching reading the wrong way?” by Emily Hanford.

Hanford misses the entire point of reading: comprehension. She says nothing about thinking, just decoding, which all my reluctant, inexperienced readers can do, by the way. They can read words, but they don't even call themselves readers because they know they haven't been reading. Hanford writes of reading as if it only means being able to identify words, not think about them.

Reading expert Stephen Krashen responded to Handord's piece in a letter he submitted to the New York Times, Oct. 26, 2018.

In “Why are we still teaching reading the wrong way?” (Oct 26) Emily Hanford says the research supports systematic intensive phonics, a method that teaches all the rules of phonics in a strict order to all children.

Here are objections to this conclusion:

(1) Researchers admit we have not discovered all the rules.

(2) Even among those rules that have been described, some are extremely complex.

(3) Many children learn to read with little or even no phonics instruction.

(4) Studies show that intensive phonics produces strong results only on tests in which children pronounce words out of context. Systematic intensive phonics has little or no impact on tests in which children have to understand what they read.

(6) The best predictor of performance on tests in which children have to understand what they read is real reading, especially self-selected reading.

(7) “Basic phonics” can be helpful: teaching straight-forward rules that children can learn and can actually apply to texts to make them more comprehensible. Our ability to use complex rules is acquired as a result of reading.

Instead of misrepresenting scholars such as Frank Smith, I suggest Ms. Hanford read his books and papers. Start with Understanding Reading, and then read some critiques of the intensive phonics movement by Elaine Garan, Stephen Krashen (c’est moi) and Gerald Coles.

Original article:

Coles, G. (2003). Reading the Naked Truth: Literacy, Legislation, and Lies. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Garan, Elaine. (2001). Beyond the smoke and mirrors: A critique of the National Reading Panel report on phonics. Phi Delta Kappan 82, no. 7 (March), 500-506.

Krashen, S. (2002). The NRP comparison of whole language and phonics: Ignoring the crucial variable in reading. Talking Points, 13(3): 22-28.

Krashen, S. (2004) The power of reading. Heinemann Publishing Company and Libraries Unlimited. (second edition)

Krashen, S. (2004) False claims about literacy development. Educational Leadership 61: 18-21.

Krashen, S. (2009). Does intensive reading instruction contribute to reading comprehension? Knowledge Quest 37 (4): 72-74.

Smith, F. (2004) Understanding reading (sixth edition). Routledge.


November 4, 2018 at 8:32 PM

By: Jim Vail

Nice summary

Yes, motivating students to love to read by introducing great literature or topics of interest is the way - not pounding into their heads, 'this will be on the test.' But this is how they evaluate teachers these days.

Alfie Kohn is great!

November 6, 2018 at 12:05 AM

By: John Whitfield

Intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation

Yes, except we do not at all actually motivate students Alfie Kohn would say. Something that they care about, and may not even be any of those books that we have provided for them.

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