The DeHavilland Blog

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Alfie Kohn, demagogue

I came across a commentary titled “Against Competition” by Alfie Kohn in last week’s issue of Education Week. It’s classic Kohn: wrong ideas, logical fallacies, and vague allusions to the utopian world that would be possible if only we were enlightened enough to completely change our way of life.

We’ll get to the article in a minute, but let’s take a quick detour to a statement in which Kohn tackles his subject head-on. What follows is a description of one of his workshops titled “The Case Against Competition:”

The race to be Number One has been described as America's state religion. We have been trained not only to compete frantically, but to believe in the value of beating people -- and to help our children become winners. Research and experience, however, demonstrate that competition is actually destructive to self-esteem, poisonous to relationships, and counterproductive in terms of learning. Spelling bees, awards assemblies, competitive sports, and even informal contests at home teach children to regard other people as potential obstacles to their own success. The result is that everyone ultimately loses in the desperate race to win. Alfie Kohn, author of NO CONTEST: The Case Against Competition, describes the hidden costs of turning the school into a place for triumph. The problem, he argues, is not just that competition is overdone or badly handled; rather, the very win/lose structure itself has damaging consequences for how children come to see themselves, each other, and the act of learning. The alternative is not merely the absence of competition but the construction of caring communities in which people help each other to succeed.

Does this ring true to anyone? Competition is destructive to self-esteem? Awards assemblies teach children to regard other people as obstacles to their own success? There are hidden costs to turning the school into a place of triumph? Really?

I would propose a diametrically opposite view: that competition is the path to true self-esteem - not feel-good smiley-face sticker self esteem, but actual “I accomplished something of importance, and I am a capable person” self esteem – what the psychologists call self-efficacy. That awards assemblies, competitive sports, and the like allow us all to recognize achievement and find a bar that we can all strive to clear. That schools should absolutely be a place of triumph. And that competition, far from separating us, not only creates deep and strong bonds between us unlike any others, but allows us to innovate and create in ways that make life better for us all.

But I’ll say this for Kohn: at least he lets you know where he stands. And now that we understand his world view, let’s consider his commentary.

There are two things that leap out in his piece.

First, it becomes clear that Kohn’s beef is with the competitive nature of capitalism, and he’s using schools as a proxy battleground. He talks quite a bit about the avarice-filled companies who want to turn children into worker drones, and that are willing to use schools as a scapegoat for their own failings. (For bonus points: can anyone name one of these companies in real life? Is Snidely Whiplash running a Fortune 500 company?)

But not once does he talk about the well-being of children: how it is our obligation to help them learn the knowledge and skills they need to succeed after school – to prepare them to live as successful adults, capable of landing well-paying jobs that will allow them to provide for their families and their future. (Or to run their own successful companies if they want out from under Kohn’s alleged corporate jackboot.)

Clearly, to Kohn, children are pawns in a chess game between himself and the capitalists. Their futures are not what’s at stake – rather, it’s his beliefs that must be advanced, no matter the cost in terms of the pieces on the board.

Next, it’s also clear that his goal is not to protect kids from the evils of competition, but rather to eliminate any kind of accountability for the public education system. He decries competition and comparisons both by saying that they’re innately bad for us, and then by saying that any kind of measurable comparisons are faulty or invalid. It’s bad to compare us to others, and all of your attempts to do so will be faulty because it’s impossible to find legitimate criteria and tools.

Eliminating measurement is essential if we’re to adopt his views. Only by eliminating any kind of accountability can he succeed. If we were to build public education on the platform he provides, the results would be catastrophic – but we’d only know that if there were some way to evaluate his results.

Kohn really hits his stride in decrying measurement and comparison. Consider the following from the article:

But just as we shouldn’t justify a wonderful curriculum by claiming it will raise standardized-test scores—first, because such tests measure what matters least, and second, because claims of this sort serve to legitimate these tests—so we should hesitate to defend or criticize educational practices on economic grounds.

We can’t justify a “wonderful” curriculum on some sort of independent measurement. On what basis, then, can we then determine the wonderfulness of the curriculum? Whose determination matters? Without any standards of reference, we’re left to whim, or to divine inspiration. Or, more likely, we should choose materials that further the set of beliefs that Kohn seeks to foist upon us.

Consider the sport of ranking the United States against other nations on standardized tests. Once we’ve debunked the myth that test scores predict economic success, why would we worry about our country’s standing as measured by those scores? To say that our students are first, or 10th, on a list provides no useful information about how much they know or how good our schools are. If all the countries did reasonably well in absolute terms, there would be no shame in (and, perhaps, no statistical significance to) being at the bottom. If all the countries did poorly, there would be no glory in being at the top. Exclamatory headlines about how “our” schools are doing compared to “theirs” suggest that we’re less concerned with the quality of education than with whether we can chant, “We’re number one!”

This is quite a feat of selective hearing on Kohn’s part. In fact, we do spend a great deal of time analyzing the validity, relevance, and meaning of such comparative tests. Keep in mind that there’s no evening gown competition; no one’s juggling or singing. These are not tests with subjective reviews by a judging panel. We’re talking about academic comparisons using internationally respected measurement tools. And these tools can very clearly state what our children can and cannot do at various levels.

And then the coup de grace: in a brilliant bit of Orwellian NewSpeak:

What if we just ignored the status of students in other countries? That wouldn’t be especially neighborly, but at least we wouldn’t be viewing the gains of children in other lands as a troubling development. Better yet, rather than defending whatever policies will ostensibly help our graduates “compete,” we could make decisions on the basis of what will help them collaborate effectively. Educators, too, might think in terms of working with—and learning from—their counterparts in other countries.

Translation: only by eliminating comparisons and measurement can we determine what is of value. Orwell would be proud. Clearly, the truth is that Kohn wants to eliminate independent measures in order to insert his own belief system as the exclusive criterion. That can be the only motivation for such silly talk.

It’s a shame that Kohn’s rejection of competition, and clear advocacy for socialism, is apparently so well accepted in the American education community. And clearly, he is having an impact. When you read about schools banning tag from the playground; when you hear that high schools are eliminating “most likely to” awards; when you find that schools are eliminating academic awards or honor rolls; you see Kohn’s invisible hand at the helm.

As he himself competes in the marketplace of ideas, we can only hope that people will think through the positions he tries to sell them in order to determine what will truly prepare our children to succeed in life, and what will deny them the tools and mindset needed to reach their potential.


  • Last year when I inquired about the lack of homework my third grader was receiving, the elementary school principal asked me if I had read the Washington Post article "As Homework Grows, So Do Arguments Against It" by Alfie Kohn.

    After reading the article, I realized where the school was headed. I say this because of her reaction to reading Kohn's article. She was all starry eyed.

    Competition at the school is frowned upon. Recess is a joke. Fourth grade boys can't compete at basketball or kick ball because someone might get their feelings hurt.

    It is ridiculous.

    By Blogger PaulaV, at 8:42 AM  

  • Alfie is beyond mockery at this point.

    By Blogger KDeRosa, at 5:24 PM  

  • I've been teaching about competition for 20 years, so I understand that Kohn's ideas sound crazy. After all, we all want competitive (low) prices, want our kids to get into competitive (elite) colleges, and hope the game we watch this weekend will be competitive (close score).

    Unfortunately, the specific version of competition Kohn is talking (spelling bees, award assemblies) about is a consistent loser. These aren't ideas Kohn made up--he's just a guy who writes about other people's reseasrch. I teach doctoral courses in motivation and graduate course in child development, and if you want all kids to reach their maximum potential, competition is one of the first things you have to cut. Ambition, yes. Hard work, yes. Strive for personal best, yes. Competition, no.

    I have a handout on over a dozen reasons why competition backfires so badly, but here are a few. 1) Winning is at the wrong level of challenge for most students most of the time (and optimal challenge is key to motivation and learning). 2) Most people lose most of the time, and kids learn pretty quickly who is likely to win the spelling bee, the footrace, round the world in math. After that, effort drops off for most kids, or they try just hard enough to stay out of trouble or get the B their parents expect. Competition consistently undermines both self-esteem and efficacy beliefs (if you are thinking of the whole class, not just the winners). Ironically, competition thus teaches many kids that hard work doesn't pay off, and tus undermines the work ethic (the highly talented and moderately talented kids both work really hard--moderately talented kids learn that hard work still won't bring them victory).

    3) The unpleasantness of competition (for many people) undermines their performance.

    4) The competition distracts people from learning itself.

    5) Competition tends to reduce prosocial behaviors and increase anti-social behaviors, making the class harder to manage.

    I'm all for low prices, great colleges, and a close basketball game. Schools are about maximizing learning for all kids, not about profits or the final score--so it's a very different dynamic.

    Classroom competition creates a few winners and a lot of losers. Ironically, competition also creates motivation problems for winners--including procrastination, playing it safe, and performance anxiety.

    Karl Wheatley
    Associate Professor
    Deaprtment of Teacher Education
    Cleveland State University

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:13 PM  

  • The point Kohn makes is not that competition has no positive benefits. The point he makes is that it is not conducive to learning or motivation--not in the way you might imagine.

    The idea is supposed to be "losing makes someone want to get better, so competition drives them." That's simply not the case. Winning makes someone want to win more. Losing makes them want to quit, after awhile.

    Competition is healthy in many settings. Those settings, however, must exist in such a way that each encounter requires one winner and one loser. The market, for example--two businesses compete, one comes out on top, the other falls short.

    Why is this healthy? Because the result does beyond the winner and loser--the result is better quality goods at lower prices, which is good for everyone. The business that "lost" is a cost of improvement.

    In a classroom, however, we don't want to create winners and losers. What good does it do to create a loser? This doesn't mean we create equal winners, but the goal is to create some kind of winner in each student.

    How do you create losers? Does simply achieving at a lower level make a student a loser? No, it doesn't. A "loser" isn't created until those in power (in this case, the teachers) place emphasis on the difference between two students--and assign greater value to one at the expense of the other.

    Note well: at the expense of the other. Jimmy does better than Bobby, so Jimmy gets a treat and Bobby does not. Bobby loses.

    Alternate, slightly better situation: Jimmy does better than Bobby, so Jimmy gets a bigger treat than Bobby. Even so, extrinsic rewards destroy intrinsic motivation at an alarming rate.

    Better solution: Bobby does well. Jimmy does well. Bobby's scores are better than Jimmy's, but why should that mean anything to either of them? No treats are awarded, because success is the reward.

    Yes, in the real world, one person gets the job and the other doesn't. But what good is achieved by enforcing that principle in youth? It doesn't "prepare them for the real world." It prepares them to "accept their place as a loser."

    Education is about teaching students to achieve, not simply sorting them based on how well they achieve early on. The focus is achievement for each student.

    Winning a competition does not mean achievement, either. Winning a contest doesn't mean you're good. It just means you're better than the other folks you competed against. Creating "winners" is just as destructive as creating "losers."

    It only requires you work hard enough to stay one step ahead of the next guy--which means you're looking backward, not forward.

    It provides a false sense of security--you beat these guys, so that must mean wherever you go you'll be ahead of the pack, right?

    It does not equate to learning--any means of judging a competition can be played to, creating artifical progress. Look at pageants--people learn to say what the judges want to hear, but nothing in the competition ensures that they actually believe it.

    Competition has its place. Losing teaches lessons that people must learn, like many other negative experiences with loss, anger, frustration, and so on. These are all things people must experience.

    The classroom, however, is not the place for any of those. Life will take care of that.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:44 PM  

  • I think we need to think more broadly and creatively when it comes to how we assess the quality of our primary and secondary schools (ie education up to the point of a high school diploma). There ARE other ways to assess how a school is performing, outside of grades and standardized tests--drop-out rates, percentages of graduates going on to college, even, if you want to expend the effort, post-graduation follow-up to determine rates of employment, income stats, criminal records, etc.

    On another topic, I would not say that competition is bad per se, only that competition has its place. I wholeheartedly agree with bmc...'s post there.

    By Blogger Wiegie, at 11:53 PM  

  • I wholeheartedly disagree with the statement that competition is a bad thing. I am a dance teacher, not a teacher in the public school system. My students come to me because we DO compete. We also go to dance auditions. In the dance world, the word NO is heard more often than the word YES. I would be doing my students a disservice if I did not push them to work harder and experience the competition they are going to be up against once they get out into the real world. My students do not win all of the time. I do not want them to win all of the time, and yet they keep coming back. They enjoy going to competitions and seeing what other dancers are doing. They enjoy trying again to see if maybe they can win next time. Losing is motivation for them to try harder next time. This is not forced on them. Most of the parents would prefer the cheaper way anyway. This is voluntary. The students want to do this. They choose this over other recreational classes at the school, because it gives them a sense of accomplishment when they achieve their goals. THIS is how true self-esteem builds, with hard work, not coddling. I have not done extensive research like Mr. Kohn has. I am speaking from my own personal experiences as a student and teacher. I have seen competition, rewards and punishments work.

    By Blogger Unknown, at 11:11 AM  

  • Competition is not a bad thing. Stop making this so black and white. Kohn does not say all competition is wrong. He is talking about awarding someone for a task so that the award becomes the focus and that the children who are participating lose sight of the process and how EACH person who strives can grow. In the end, at a school that focuses on awarding "the best" all of the kids who were gratified by the process and growth from where they were are ignored. It celebrates the few who get the highest grades. It doesn't necessarily celebrate the values of our society... working hard and doing your best.

    I am not a smiley face -- reward all -- kind of person. I am merely saying that effort is something that should be valued more than top of the top.

    I am a teacher who has had naturally brilliant children who barely had to open the book to excel on a test. If I keep all kids at the same level, that child will "win" the award with little work. He is being awarded for his natural gift. If I choose to challenge him with harder work, he won't "win" because he is working at a level more challenging and appropriate. Hmmm I see parents in a rage either way. Let's do away with "who is the best" and look at process. How well does a teacher guide her students to learn? Is this child curious? Does the child work hard and ask questions and study independently if left to his own devices? What do we value in our culture.

    Just look at the collapse on Wall Street and the greed and consider what matters when teaching.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:36 PM  

  • I'm concerned that Alfie Kohn's concepts lead to social leveling and should be avoided at all costs!

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