Alfie Kohn's presentation lacked facts and research to back up his teaching suggestions

“Alfie Kohn’s been on Oprah!” Based upon the audience reaction, this announcement made during the speaker’s introduction seemed to translate into instant credibility.

Much of what he said March 17 has merit. Teachers ought to be creating an environment that nurtures a lifelong interest in learning, problem solving and creativity.

The current system does emphasize rote learning over process discovery.

Standardized curricula and high-stake testing probably are counterproductive for training problem solvers.

Unfortunately, Mr. Kohn has a penchant for overgeneralizing and oversimplifying.

After criticizing false dichotomies for oversimplifying matters, he proceeded to dichotomize all the complexities of teaching practices into two categories: traditional and progressive.

Traditional approaches, we are told, are exemplified by the empty receptacle metaphor.

Students are passive containers and the teacher’s job is to pour in the facts.

Kohn contends that traditional approaches have decreased the quality of learning and student curiosity and have increased the gap between the rich and poor.

Where is the data supporting these claims? We were repeatedly told that research supports these claims, but the details of this research were glaringly omitted from his talk.

This strikes me as someone trying to sell something, like snake oil.

In a time of school closures and teacher layoffs, Mr. Kohn’s message is more irresponsible and damaging than ever. The stakes are high.

The recent firing of 93 teachers and staff at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island in reaction to a federal mandate related to underperforming schools will not likely remain an isolated event.

We ought to be arming teachers with empirically-derived and validated practices that work.

Mr. Kohn seems to reject all traditional measures that we would use to identify successful teaching practices and provides nothing as a replacement.

Only twice, and briefly, during his 90-minute talk did he actually employ a ‘progressive’ approach, instructing everyone to ‘learn’ with a neighbor.

Of course, not everyone complied. Mr. Kohn seemed to be OK with this.

“As long as you are OK with it when you become teachers,” he remarked, “everything’s groovy.”

This is a recipe for disaster.

Mark P. Reilly Associate Professor of Psychology