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Posted on Feb 10, 2012

Faculty Attend Alfie Kohn Lecture

As educators, we aspire to extend children’s ability to think critically. In order to do that, we must be critical thinkers ourselves, able to find our own way through difficult questions. On Thursday, January 5, a number of Gillispie’s teachers took the opportunity to be challenged in their own thinking by a master in the educational field, Alfie Kohn, who spoke at the University of San Diego.

Mr. Kohn has for many years been a sometimes controversial, always provocative leader in education. He asks us to think critically about our practices and reminds us that our children are not products, but human beings who should have a voice in their own education.

His first and perhaps most well-known book is Punished By Rewards, in which he pointed out the dangers of dangling rewards in front of children for simply doing what is expected of them. Today, he echoes the wisdom from Nurture Shock, the Gillispie faculty’s summer reading selection, that discusses the tendency of adults to constantly—and meaninglessly—tell children they are doing a “good job” upon completion of any activity. Such practices, which Kohn refers to as “verbal doggie biscuits,” are actually detrimental to the acquisition of qualities such as perseverance that will be most helpful to children as they grow up.

Alfie Kohn reminds us that children naturally possess a desire to learn and an excitement about learning; therefore, the ultimate benchmark is whether children love to figure things out (at Gillispie, we ask the children to ask themselves, “What do I do when I get stuck?”). Rather than focusing on rigor and grades, Kohn believes the school’s the focus should be on meaning, engagement, and understanding, with curriculum that encompasses problems, projects, and questions.

At Gillispie, teachers hold many of Kohn’s ideas in high regard. In the early childhood program, projects often emerge from children’s ideas. In the elementary school, teachers often begin a unit of study with essential questions. Both divisions of the school agree that the old model, where teachers are the sole purveyors of all knowledge to students, is ineffective in the 21st century.


 Although most teachers have read Alfie Kohn’s work, his books and  essays don’t compare to seeing him in person. Thanks to the Gillispie Endowment for Excellence in Teaching, eight of Gillispie’s teachers, joined by Ms. Fleming and Mr. Bunyak, were able to do just that.
Margie Edwards
Director of Curriculum

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