Renowned author, lecturer, and progressive education proponent, Alfie Kohn says, “Many questions in education, for example, take for granted the inevitability of traditional practices. That means our job is to challenge the question’s hidden premises. ‘Wait,’ we might say, ‘You skipped a step…’”

QUESTION: Should grades be “standards based?” Should they be posted online? To what extent should they be based on tests/homework/class participation?

KOHN ANSWERS: You skipped a step. Multiple studies have found that students who get letter or number grades—particularly those who have been led to focus on improving those grades—become less interested in learning, tend to think less deeply, and prefer the easiest possible task, as compared with students who are not graded but may receive informational feedback when needed.

The question, then, isn’t how to grade but how to stop grading. Fortunately, more teachers are doing just that in order to create classrooms that help students of all backgrounds and ability levels become more focused on (and excited about) the learning itself. Even when administrators still demand a final course grade, these teachers never put a letter or number on any individual assignment. And some let their students decide on their own final grade.

QUESTION: Are we assigning the right amount of homework? Are parents helping their kids too much (or too little) with these assignments?

KOHN ANSWERS: You skipped right over asking why we should force kids to work what amounts to a second shift after getting home from a full day of school, particularly when there’s no evidence that any kind of homework is beneficial for younger students. (Indeed, recent research casts doubt on its necessity even in high school.) I have heard from many teachers who have eliminated all homework, and they all report fabulous results, with students experiencing less stress and greater interest in learning without sacrificing achievement. To focus on the quantity, or even the quality, of something is to discourage questions about whether it needs to be done at all. This is especially unfortunate when that something may be the greatest extinguisher of curiosity ever devised.

QUESTION: Are we making progress at closing the achievement gap?

KOHN ANSWERS:  Because “achievement gap” usually just means “test score gap,” attempts to narrow it often entail transforming low-scoring schools into test-prep factories. This may succeed in raising scores but at a substantial cost to the cause of genuine equity. (Much the same is true of closing the digital gap. Greater access to computers doesn’t help—and actually may hurt—if they’re used mostly for traditional drill-and-skill instruction.”

QUESTION: Should we praise students’ ability on their effort?

KOHN ANSWERS: Too often we fail to ask why praising children for anything—offering a verbal doggie biscuit for pleasing the adult—is necessary or constructive… Substantial research literature has shown that people typically end up less interested in whatever they were rewarded or praised for doing because now their primary goal is to get the reward or praise. The most salient feature of a positive judgment is not that it’s positive, but that it’s a judgment; it’s less about feedback (which is purely informational) or encouragement about evaluation…

In general, we should pause to consider why we’re doing what we’re doing, whether it’s necessary or desirable, rather than prematurely focusing on the details of implementation. That way, even if we decide to continue with the status quo, at least we’ve grappled with the most meaningful questions.

With thanks to Mr. Kohn, and Education Week, you all, too, for your continued support, Carol (