The Schools Our Children Deserve by Alfie Kohn

By John Hunter, founder of

YouTube video

Alfie Kohn starts with an excellent discussion his fear of applying business improvement ideas in the education setting.

…And yet, Dr. Deming’s work offered some principles at an abstract level that, when pulled out of a workplace context, turn out to be equally revolutionary, powerful, and constructive in virtually any other kind of environment, including schools. But first, my point of view is that we have to be careful not to drag with those important principles too much workplace stuff that would change classrooms for the worse by turning them into workplace-like environments.

This idea that you need to understand the principles and think about how to apply them properly in the context you find yourself in is very important. In the education context, this idea is even more important because the context is so different from that of running a business (or nearly any organization). But truthfully, the failure to understand the principles and then thinking about how to apply them most effectively within your organization is a huge problem nearly everywhere. People so often want instant pudding solutions.

He goes on to expound on many important ideas.

Alfie quotes Peter Scholtes responding to questions from executives on how to deal with “dead wood” in their organizations:

I think the question you meant to ask is, why are you hiring live trees and killing them?

And then Peter would say, “and they often didn’t invite me back.” Another version of Peter’s quote: “Why do you hire dead wood? Or why do you hire live wood and kill it?”

Alfie shares research on education throughout the talk, including:

No research has ever shown any benefit to any kind of homework below the high school level.

Another quote from the talk:

Kids learn to make good decisions by making decisions; not by following directions.

Alfie provides an overview of what he believes the school should look like at the end of the talk (at about minute 1:42), focusing on kids making decisions about the school and education process, a culture of cooperation among students (including students of different ages), and interdisciplinary, project-based learning. You have to listen to his explanation to understand what he discusses at the beginning about how radical the implications of what he says are. As he said in the beginning about Deming’s ideas, if they don’t make you uncomfortable, you probably don’t understand what they mean.

His vision for education isn’t making some minor tweaks to the existing system, just as Deming’s ideas were not about making minor tweaks to the existing management system. But many people can’t grasp that idea. Many people attempt to bolt on the ideas as minor adjustments to the existing system.

David Langford shared some thoughts after the talk and introduced Linda Lippe’s presentation as a great follow on to Alfie’s as she explores by what method they brought learning to science in Leander, Texas.

Related: Alfie Kohn on Systems Thinking, Human Behavior and EducationCash Incentives Won’t Make Us HealthierSchooling Beyond MeasureFundamental attribution error: attribute fault or defect to the individual without first considering the systemic effect.An Introduction to Deming’s Management Ideas by Peter ScholtesConfusing Harder With Better

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