Do you think that just because you’re a new teacher, you can’t create meaningful change in your classroom? Alfie Kohn begs to differ.

Alfie Kohn writes and speaks widely on human behavior, education, and parenting. Time described him as “perhaps the country’s most outspoken critic of education’s fixation on grades [and] test scores.” He is the author of 12 books, including The Schools Our Children Deserve, The Case Against Standardized Testing, and, most recently, Feel-Bad Education. He spoke with Educational Horizons about innovation in education.

EH: Let’s start at the beginning. Why is there a need for innovation in education?

ALFIE: I think we want innovation, which is to say fresh perspectives and an openness to change, in any endeavor so we don’t get stale and repeat our mistakes. In education in particular, though, innovation is necessary to challenge and move beyond the traditional approaches to schooling that turn out to be as unproductive as they are unappealing. Most of the conventional ways of teaching that we experienced when we were kids are, according to good research, exactly as pointless as most of us suspected they were at the time. I’m talking about a standard model where kids are viewed as passive receptacles into which facts are poured, an approach that’s driven by lectures, worksheets, textbooks, grades, tests, and bribe-and-threat discipline to keep students on task even though many of the tasks aren’t worth doing.

Our ultimate goal is to do what’s best for children, which often requires us to be rebels.

I should mention that when I talk about innovation, I’m not just talking about what is today called school reform, which is a test-driven intensification of the status quo, nor am I talking about just adding a digital shine to the same stuff that’s been done for decades. Most so-called technical innovations don’t challenge the basic pedagogical assumptions, and I don’t think they count as meaningful innovation.

EH: How would you describe innovation as it applies to education?

ALFIE: It’s something that gets to the core of the long-term objectives of education and the way that children actually learn. To be truly innovative, it’s got to begin with the assumption that children are active meaning-makers rather than passive receptacles, that knowledge is something to be constructed, that facts and skills have to be learned in a context and for a purpose, and that the assessment takes its cue from that meaning.

For example, a good example of what innovation is not might be the current fad of so-called flipping the classroom, in which the same basic stuff is generally done, it’s just done in a different place. “Flipping” doesn’t even challenge the premise that kids have to work what amounts to a second shift when they get home after spending all day at school.

Other examples of things that are not particularly innovative are posting grades online, putting textbooks on iPads, or using interactive white boards. None of this questions the assumption that the teacher is at the center of the classroom. None of this is about learner-centered education. That’s what I think real innovation has to be.

EH: What would that look like in a classroom?

ALFIE: The curriculum would be organized not around facts and skills and separate disciplines, but around problems and projects and questions that are meaningful to the students.

Log in or become a member to read more!
Want to read the rest of this article? Pi Lambda Theta members enjoy full access to Educational Horizons online.