Another thoughtful piece from Alfie Kohn

July 21, 2016


By Alfie Kohn

Here are two ways to abuse an idea: You can invoke it to pursue your own objectives, shamelessly exploiting the favorable associations it has accumulated over many years. Or you can create a caricature of the idea and then pretend you’ve shown it to be flawed.

This pair of strategies has been used in various contexts — for example, to disparage progressive education[1] — but here I’d like to explore its application to the idea of choice. You may already have noticed that this word provides cover to bigots – those intent on discrimination or segregation. Racism is recast as freedom (from federal regulation). Likewise, Tea Partyers march behind the banner of “liberty.”

In the field of education, efforts to privatize schools represent the most conspicuous example of how choice can be used to promote a very different agenda. Vouchers, having been decisively rejected by voters in several states, were rebranded as “school choice” to make the notion sound more palatable. Conservatives have been doing this for so long, in fact, that the primary association many of us now have with the word choice (in the context of schooling) is not, say, giving kids a chance to make decisions about what they do in their classrooms. Rather, it refers to turning schools into commodities, pitting them against one another in an education marketplace.[2]

Surprisingly, the same bait-and-switch strategy is sometimes on display within classrooms. Some teachers have appropriated the idea of choice to justify the use of punitive discipline. In one variant of what might be called “pseudochoice,” a student is asked something like this: “Would you like to finish your worksheet now, or would you prefer to do it during recess? It’s up to you.” (Since few kids want to miss out on recess, this is actually just a threat disguised as a choice: The teacher is saying, “Do what I tell you, or I’ll take away something you enjoy.”) In another version, students who act in a way the teacher doesn’t like are accused of having “chosen” to break a rule. (The operative word emphasizes the supposedly deliberate nature of whatever they did, the idea being to rationalize the teacher’s punitive response.) Even more egregiously, the adult may announce that such a student has, for example, “chosen a time-out” — the implication being that, by doing something defined as inappropriate, he or she has asked to be punished. (A truthful teacher would say, “I’ve chosen to punish you.”)


Most people think choice is a good thing, so it’s not surprising that this word would become the linguistic lipstick applied to pigs like privatization and punishment. But it’s also possible to call the value of choice itself into question, to cast aspersions on the concept by giving it a different and less wholesome meaning. The latter strategy shows up in connection with the work of psychologists who argue that having more options is actually worse than having fewer.

Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper published an influential paper in 2000 — based on Iyengar’s dissertation at Stanford, before she went on to teach at a business school — demonstrating that people were less satisfied when they had two dozen or more types of jam (or chocolate) from which to choose as compared to when they were offered only six varieties. The same basic idea, that lots of choice can be counterproductive, also features prominently in the work of psychologist Barry Schwartz.

Of course, the fact that some people are overwhelmed by having too many options doesn’t mean that choice, per se, is a bad thing. But the limits of this line of research — and the attendant warnings that choice isn’t always desirable — aren’t limited to that obvious reminder. A few other questions are also worth asking.

1. How meaningful are the choices? Iyengar’s study is about shopping. The array of options among products for sale is often due to trivial variations: how much pulp is in the orange juice, how much RAM is in the laptop. In fact, the choices offered to consumers may be even more of a charade in light of the fact that, to cite just one example, you can pick Tide, Gain, or Cheer laundry detergent but your money goes to the same company in all three cases. When we’re faced with distinctions without a difference (in commodities or, for that matter, in political candidates), Iyengar may have a point. But the idea that we’d do better with less choice is far less persuasive when our options differ in more substantive ways.

2. Are we talking only about individual choosers? The neoclassical economic model of rationality is based on solitary actors. It would be misleading to generalize from this to a discussion of choice in classrooms, workplaces, families, or political forums where democratic decision making can occur: the give-and-take of a community whose members must listen to one another’s reasons and consider one another’s perspectives, devise compromises and struggle to reach consensus. Perhaps what’s really problematic isn’t choice but individualism.

3. Why is the scenario limited to a list of “options”? Even if fewer possibilities can seem simpler and more appealing, the ultimate in extensive choice — and perhaps the ideal arrangement — is one that’s open-ended. Do students’ heads spin when you tell them to “pick one of these 30 topics to write about”? Maybe, but that doesn’t entitle us to give them only five possible topics (or to conclude that choice backfires). What if, instead, we invited them to write about whatever topic they find interesting? That would offer more freedom than a long list and would also likely be received more favorably. Educationally speaking, it’s more important for kids to have the chance to engage in construction (of possibilities) than in selection (of items from a menu prepared by someone else).

4. Might it be worthwhile to grapple with possibilities even if it’s also challenging? We may feel overwhelmed by the number of possible outcomes. In some cases, we may eventually regret the decision we made. But that doesn’t mean there was no value in the process of deciding, at least when doing something more important than buying stuff. “The choice may have been mistaken,” as Stephen Sondheim has one of his characters sing, but “the choosing was not.” In a broader sense, Kierkegaard and Sartre reminded us, we ought to embrace our capacity to make decisions despite the burden it entails. You want to artificially limit the number of jams or detergents? Fine. But don’t draw sweeping conclusions about “excessive choice.” To try to escape our freedom (in Erich Fromm’s phrase) by ceding it to authority figures, or by attributing moral precepts to supernatural forces in an effort to deny we have that freedom in the first place, is to live an inauthentic life.

5. Have we confused autonomy with selection? From a psychological perspective, the sort of choice that’s most beneficial — indeed, the sort whose absence causes real problems — is an experience of autonomy or volition: the capacity to steer your life and have a meaningful impact on what happens to you. The possibility of suffering cognitive overload when presented with too many options isn’t really an argument against choice in that more meaningful sense. Conversely, the provision of superficial choices can’t redeem an activity that fails to support, and may even dilute, real autonomy.[3]

Anyone who warns about the dangers of too much choice may be using the term in a truncated, trivial sense – rather like condemning progressive education after defining it as “letting children play all day in school.” Likewise, a questionable definition may explain why some researchers — including Iyengar and Lepper in another paper — argue that choice may be advantageous only in individualistic cultures. Sure, it’s always worth checking our assumptions for unexamined cultural biases. But in this case, if choice is understood as autonomy, researchers have shown that it doesn’t seem to matter whether we live in the West or the East. The benefits of autonomy — and the harms of being controlled — prove robust even in collectivist cultures.[4]

As long as we’re talking about choice in the most meaningful sense of the term, warnings about its undesired effects generally prove misconceived. And once we’ve rescued the idea, we have an obligation to make sure the word isn’t co-opted by people promoting entirely different practices.



1. The first is employed by schools that are really quite conventional but find it advantageous to present themselves as progressive. The second is on display when, as I once described it, people “paint progressive education as a touchy-feely, loosey-goosey, fluffy, fuzzy, undemanding exercise in leftover hippie idealism — or Rousseauvian Romanticism.” That exercise makes a proud, research-backed tradition appear ridiculous in order that an unprogressive approach to education will appear to be the only sensible option.

2. “Choice” has also been used to frame a defense of teaching creationism alongside evolution, even in public schools. As one religious proponent put it, “Why not let people choose what they want their children to learn” regarding the history and diversity of life on earth? Moreover, these two examples appear to be related rather than simply parallel: The use of vouchers (“school choice”) seems to have facilitated efforts to teach theology posing as science.

3. Consider attempts to justify “gamification” – offering work or learning tasks in video game-like formats, complete with points, prizes, and contests — by claiming that players have control over which strategies to use or which levels of difficulty to attempt. In reality, this extremely circumscribed sort of choice mostly serves as a distraction from the reliance on extrinsic inducements and competition, which decades’ worth of research has shown to actively undermine meaningful autonomy (along with interest in the tasks themselves).

4. For a list of relevant studies, see my book The Myth of the Spoiled Child, p. 208n25.



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The Territory of Play


Watch this wonderful video. I particularly liked watching the joy and intelligence of the “country” children. Somehow the “city” children’s world seemed sterile in comparison–until the teachers decided to enhance the play materials and environment in order to study the children at play. So much to learn here.




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Revised and Available: De-testing and De-grading Schools (Peter Lang USA, 2016)

Co-edited with Bower, J. (2016). De-testing and de-grading schools: Authentic alternatives to accountability and standardization. Revised ed. New York, NY: Peter Lang USA. Book synopsis A century o…

Source: Revised and Available: De-testing and De-grading Schools (Peter Lang USA, 2016)

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It’s abusive and crazy.

In the introduction to this Washington Post article, kids sitting still in school is mentioned and the implication is that recess will help them do that. YES, children need recess in order to be healthy, to learn, and to be happy. However, an even bigger question is, why do schools think children need to sit still to learn? Why is school set up that way? There are many schools that know better and their children are very successful–and happy. Research shows over and over again, that conversations, moving, and using our hands promote better learning. Most adults, when working or learning, move about and find it helpful to do so. We have coffee or water, talk to a colleague, learn things WITH other people, ask questions, collaborate, and then go back to our work or study. High schoolers are given more flexibility than very young children. Prisoners get to spend more time outside than most young children in schools. Lunch time is a tightly controlled dash with little opportunity for conversation and building relationships. Don’t even get me started on the terrible food children are served! Then there’s homework that cuts into their time for play after school. So we wring our hands about obesity and stress and suggest stress relieving exercises, pedal desks, and behavior charts. It is crazy and it borders on child abuse.

#recess #youngchildren #reallearning #schoollunch #sittingstill



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Finland’s teachers — with less stress and more free time — collaborate naturally

A recent international study suggests that collaboration is linked to teachers’ reported job satisfaction and confidence in their own teaching abilities.

Source: Finland’s teachers — with less stress and more free time — collaborate naturally

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She was very wise and very fun.

Bev Bos.jpg

Bev and I having a really good laugh.

#bevbos #play #earlychildhoodexpert

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My article from Community Connect blog, Community Playthings

Ladybug 1.jpg

The Big Questions

Discovering the Heart of Great Teaching

What do you think of when you hear the word “child”? How would you define your role in the classroom? How do young children learn? These are some of the big questions that are crucial to a teacher’s understanding of and commitment to teaching and learning but are rarely addressed in depth.

In the field of education, teachers are constantly being told what they should do with children in a classroom. They are inundated with new curricula packages, child assessment rubrics, Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS), and activities that purport to promote children’s learning. But teachers have little opportunity to explore for themselves the most important questions at the heart of great teaching. These questions are the foundation upon which they grow in the art and practice of their craft. It is through ongoing reflection and action that teachers become competent, empowered, and energized by their work.

What is your image of the child?

Perhaps the most important question teachers need to ask themselves is, “What do I think of when I think of the word ‘child’?” Or as they ask in Reggio Emilia preschools, “What is your image of the child?” I have asked this question of many college students majoring in early childhood education. The responses are telling. Students have replied, “pure, innocent, vulnerable, cute, sponges, and sweet.” They used negative descriptions as well, “manipulative” being one of the most common. Of course, I rejoiced at responses that included, “curious, bright, energetic, lively, strong, inventive, and imaginative.” This initial big question, however, afforded my students and me the opportunity to explore the implications of their responses.

What are those implications and why is this important? If you think of children as innocent and cute, how will you talk with them? Will you take their ideas seriously? Will you listen closely to the deeper feelings being expressed? What sorts of materials will you provide and will you allow them to take reasonable risks?

If you think that children learn like sponges, soaking up information from the outside, without contributing their own understanding, thoughts, and feelings, then how will you approach learning? Will you decide to give them the words, ideas, and facts instead of allowing them to discover?

If you first think of “manipulative” when you hear the word “child,” does that preclude a genuine relationship between the teacher and children? Will there be such an absence of trust that children’s movements will be restricted?

How you view children will have a direct impact on how you talk with them, what happens in your classroom, and what sort of environment you create. If you respect children’s thinking and ideas, you will listen intently to what they say and build on those ideas. You will be curious and, instead of constantly doing, you will step back to watch and listen in order to better understand. You will want to know more. You will develop a relationship that is based on genuine interest and kindness. The environment and routine will be flexible enough to follow the children’s lead, to be spontaneous, and to allow time for discovery. Having teachers reflect on their attitudes and beliefs about children should be the first step in a teacher’s education.

What is your role?

A teacher’s attitude about children will play a big part in how she defines her own role in the classroom and, therefore, it is important for teachers to ask, “Who do I want to be in the lives of children?” Teachers often refer back to their own memories of elementary school when embarking on a teaching career. Did that model of teacher make sense, then or now? Do you think of yourself as an instructor/manager of a classroom, or do you think of yourself as a co-researcher, continually learning along with children? What words would you use to describe your role in working with children? Without giving this considerable thought, teachers can easily become technicians, simply following a set of guidelines, allowing someone else to define who they are and what they believe.

How do we learn?

Then teachers need to ask, “How do young children learn?” Do they learn by being provided with information, worksheets, crafts, and activities, or do they learn best by constructing their own learning, playing with other children and exploring with the teacher as she coaxes or observes? But asking the question is not enough. The teacher must also examine evidence gathered from many sources, including her own observations and working knowledge. She must ask, “How do I know?”

The danger in not asking questions

There is a real danger in not asking these questions. If teachers rely solely on the dictates of others, they can never really distinguish between what is good for children and what is not. They are too busy following guidelines, standards, and assessments from outside sources that do not know the particular children in their classrooms and, in fact, may not truly understand the way that young children learn. Taking so much time completing assessments, checklists, and doing to children leaves teachers with less time to observe and be with children. When teachers are required to tick off activities, crafts, or skills, there is less time available to be involved while children play and explore in nature, pretend and imagine stories, and spontaneously follow the BIG questions that will propel them to deep learning.

Questioning and learning together

Teachers would do well to grapple with these questions, to continually assess their work and take time to share ideas and thoughts with colleagues. Schools and preschools need to provide space and time for teachers to learn the way we all (children and adults) learn best—through play, discussion, and inquiry with colleagues—in a safe, supportive environment. Perhaps states and governing bodies that mandate teachers to add STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Mathematics), literacy, or whatever else to their classrooms should provide the means for teachers to create space and time for ongoing collaborative work and self reflection. If the teacher only knows teaching and learning based on a set of curriculum guidelines or worse, a scripted curriculum, the children will gain very little in the way of deep learning or becoming confident learners. However, if the teacher is curious about the world around her and about the children with whom she works and is afforded the time to question with colleagues, the classroom will benefit by leaps and bounds. How? The teacher will be a role model, exhibiting her curiosity and interest in the children while sharing discoveries. Her inquisitiveness and disposition to keep learning can only influence the children in the most positive ways. She will have the time to know each child more intimately and then be able to provide the tools and materials, guidance, and nurturance that suit her particular children. In turn, the children will thrive and become even more of their amazing selves.

Paulo Freire said it best: “Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.”

Date: November 18, 2014

Author: Judith Pack

About the Author

Judith Pack After 25 years as teacher and then director at a school for children from the ages of two and a half through eight years old, Judi Pack began working with teachers of young children. She taught graduate courses in early childhood and worked for a childcare resource and referral agency as their early childhood specialist. Judi has presented workshops at local, national and international conferences. She now works as an independent consultant encouraging early childhood professionals to listen carefully to children and to build on their ideas and interests.

#reggioemilia #teacherreflection #askingquestions

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I’m Boring!

My latest article in Community Connect:

#boredom #play #earlylearning #brainpickingskierkegaard


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Doing real things

My blog site isn’t about high school but it is about learning and teaching and, therefore, I am sharing an article that is pertinent to all of us who care about education. The article describes an innovative school that respects students’ thinking. I think it’s a hopeful sign, just as Vicki Abeles’ (“Race to No Where”) new film, “Beyond Measure” is. Her film highlights schools that are creating laboratory/studio type classrooms where kids work on real problems and use their hands and minds to solve those problems. And, in most cases, work collaboratively, without fear of making mistakes or taking tests.

And speaking of films, I saw “The Martian” last night and thought how exciting it would be to have a group of kids watch it and then take even one problem that Matt Damon (aka Mark  Watney) confronted and  explore together what he did and why…and then try to replicate something similar or relevant to their lives. Something real.

East Campus: Uncovering the brilliance in every student

#realeducation #themartian #inquiry in education


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A Child’s  Selfie



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