Alfie Kohn is most definitely one of my educational heroes. Controversial as he may be, the controversy often stems from his relentless focus on what research tells us about what is best for students even when it flies in the face of common sense. And anyone who is all about figuring out what is best for students, and who has the courage to follow through on those principles (even if they differ from my own), earns my respect.
Recently, Robert Pondiscio, an online friend of mine, posted a link on Facebook to an article published by Alfie Kohn entitled “Encouraging Courage.” In the article, Mr. Kohn argues that “There is already enough [education research] to help us decide what to do (or stop doing) on many critical issues,” that “there are plenty of examples of outstanding classrooms and schools in which that research is being put into practice” but that “What’s lacking is sufficient courage for those examples to be widely followed.” Mr. Kohn continued on to challenge educators to question traditional practices that interfere with learning, take responsibility for their personal role in the process of education, and share power with students. A lively discussion ensued on the page and, as a progressive educator, I found myself moved to write a more lengthy response. Three of the prime concerns expressed during the discussion were the roles of factual knowledge and homework in the classroom, and what (if anything) progressive educators want students to be able to do upon graduation.
Let’s start with the question about what goals progressive educators have for their students, and work backwards. Research tells us “that various ‘enhanced’ forms of discovery learning work best of all.” (Kohn) So how do I, as a progressive educator, try to put that into practice? Essentially, I determine the fundamental, non-negotiable parameters for a course and then turn the students loose to explore within those parameters, talking and conferring with them all along the way. Both the non-negotiable parameters and the individual student exploration help them learn the kinds of things I want them to learn - in short, to meet my goals.