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The Problem with Kohn*

I’m going to use my author’s prerogative to borrow the language from my post about the history of testing and standards in NYS before John King’s tenure to introduce this post:

I don’t know Alfie Kohn. Never met him, never worked for, near, around, or with him. I know Joe Bower liked Kohn’s message and in a great many cases, I do as well. I disagree vehemently with Kohn’s take on rubrics as I think he uses the worst of what rubrics can be in order to support a hard line position; a position that is explicit in his lectures, books, and writings. And to be clear, this isn’t about Kohn himself or his words. It’s about how we, the education profession, respond to his words.

*Edited to add: I got powerful feedback on this which helped me see I wasn’t explicit enough in my intent. So, to be extra, super clear – the problem isn’t Kohn. The response to his edtech post is an example of a pattern that isn’t unique to education.

On his website, Kohn’s bio lists accolades and topics for his lectures. He self-identifies as an expert on parenting and education issues. He talks about standards, tests, and our obsession with grades and rankings. All interesting and compelling stuff. What’s not on his bio? Ed tech.

As a fellow writer and researcher, I’m happy to see anyone find a new topic of interest. On the other hand, there’s this:

Male experts dominate media coverage. On primetime cable and Sunday news shows, for another example, 75 percent of national security and foreign affairs commentators have been men …

The entire piece, The #ManPanel problem: why are female experts still so widely ignored?, is a great read.  did a solid job looking beyond surface statistics and getting to what’s behind the issues. Her post was written on March 16.

On March 12, Kohn released a post his wrote on educational technology. It was then published on Valerie Strauss’ space on The Washington Post website. From there, it was picked up by several education newsletters and Twitter accounts with thousands of followers. His own tweets linking to his article were re-tweeted at least 100 times and those who tweeted a link to his article were likewise RTed. In other words, lots of eyeballs saw Alfie Kohn’s thoughts on ed tech.

Kohn, a non-expert on technology in schools was treated as an expert in technology in schools. The reason this matters is because of a woman named Audrey Watters. I’ve never met her in person or talked to her outside of Twitter. I support her on Patreon because I love her clarity and voice. Her piece on the invented history of the “factory model” of schools is one I frequently return to when thinking about or engaging in ed history and if I see she’s tweeted a link, I will likely read it. Her annual Ed Tech wrap up is widely read and shared by those in education and in technology. To be blunt, Watters knows her shit when it comes to ed tech.

Here’s the kicker – there is nothing in Kohn’s piece that Watters hasn’t been saying for years. Years. Kohn framed his piece as “rethinking ed tech in schools” and has seemingly stepped right into the cognitive pothole of “if it’s new to me, it must be new.” You need only to scroll through a few of Watters’ pieces to see that she has been helping educators and schools be thoughtful around nearly every point Kohn seeks to make in his piece.

My wondering: what are the implications when a man who is not an expert in a topic presents his thoughts on a matter as “rethinking” and offers his opinion as one that can be trusted in this matter? And then, the field – which already had an expert among its ranks in the form of Audrey Watters – signal boosted, elevated, re-tweeted, and celebrated his thoughts?

Kohn does give a shout out to those doing work around ed tech – based on their names, I’m inferring its 3 men and 1 woman. He cites another writer with a female-presenting name [but why he chose to put “blogger” in front of her name and not others’ is likely a challenge of how often we share our words without editorial feedback] to support his claims. The piece, though, is firmly centered on his opinion, his perspective, and his advice.

That he did not cite Watters or Rafranz Davis or Sylvia Libow Martinez, the writing partner of one of the men he did cite, should infuriate anyone who cares about equity in education. That his piece did not begin with “Go read *this* by Audrey Watters (or Davis or Libow Martinez) and then come back here and I’ll share my thinking about how technology fits into the kind of education I write and lecture about” is a problem that lies at the heart of the Voxer piece about all male panels.

All of the boosting, re-tweeting, sharing, and elevating is not without repercussions. With one short column, Kohn just dramatically increased his odds of being asked to speak on panels about ed tech. It’s possible, based on some of the sources who shared his post, a superintendent just made the decision to hire Kohn to speak to his or her teachers about tech in the classroom on an up-coming PD day. And perhaps Kohn already does. The challenge is that his post cemented his place in social media rankings and memory.

I’ve written about the tension of “over-confident men” and the need for us to literally count when it comes to supporting equity. So in this post, I’m going to offer a new option, straight up. This isn’t about asking male authors like Kohn to stop talking but rather, ask that they (and you) actively work to boost female experts. To boost them, yes, at the expense of momentarily muting a white male voice. If a profession that is 72% female gives this much attention to a male non-expert, what chance do female experts in other fields have?

To be clear, there’s a lot more to unpack around this issue. There’s the nature of intersectional feminism, the history of men of color and how their voices are heard or not heard. There’s the nature of what counts as expertise and the complicated nature of social media. All of which I’m happy to discuss in the comments or over a good hard cider.

Post script: Many folks came into my mentions on Twitter when I tweeted about this and said basically, “yeah but is anything he said wrong?” To which I say: that is not the point.

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3 thoughts on “The Problem with Kohn*

  1. Pingback: No problem with Kohn | Sylvia Libow Martinez

  2. In addressing “the message of & within the message” it sure is easy to get confused. Any time we resist something, the question of “what’s the matter?” can quickly seem very slippery. So in objecting to the centering & elevating of Kohn’s voice specifically on edtech, many wonder – wow, is she knocking Kohn? What did he say that was so wrong? and on and on. Even in our most reasonable states, for progressive educators we very quickly come back to a very traditional “If you don’t have anything nice to say, …” (you know the rest.) Because what we heard in your resistance to another instance of a male stepping in and being given the spotlight based much more on general notariety rather than topic specific expertise, is that you disagree with Kohn. And we focus on that because it’s a pattern we understand without difficulty; it fits well in our existing mental models.
    With your challenge to seek out expert female voices first and sooner and more frequently than we currently do, you also ask us to do the work of bending, broadening, or even busting our current mental models of the way this world works. It’s a tall order and it is exactly what is required of us, on an individual level as well as on an institutional level. In confronting us with our response to “the message in the message”, you are forcing us to look in the mirror and see our own well-worn complicity. Few of us are really up for that but more of us need to be. I know you are and that makes me want to be, too. Thank you for that. Whenever you want to dig deeper, I’ve got shovels. Call me.

  3. Pingback: Reflecting on Last Night’s #Educolor Chat | When 140 just isn't enough...

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