Edu-Gurus Not Only Set a Poor Example, They Also Give Bad Advice

By Michael Zwaagstra
Michael Zwaagstra
Michael Zwaagstra
Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and author of “A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.”
April 20, 2020Updated: April 20, 2020


Do as I say, not as I do. This old adage reminds us that some people don’t always practice what they preach.

It’s even worse when people preach total nonsense. Hypocrisy is bad enough, but spouting foolish nonsense without ever trying it out is even worse.

Sadly, this often happens in education. Consultants who make their living telling classroom teachers how to teach never need to suffer through their own bad advice. That’s because many of them have little, if any, public school teaching experience. Some are consultants who make a good living by going from one in-service gig to the next. And some teach in faculties of education without realizing that teaching at that level is much different than teaching K-12 students.

For example, Alfie Kohn is a widely known education writer and consultant who regularly presents at teacher professional development conferences. Some of Kohn’s recommendations are not sensible for teachers, such as eliminating all grades, reducing curriculum content, removing all student-directed praise from the classroom, and minimizing teacher-led instruction. In other words, Kohn is a hard-core educational progressive with very little common sense.

Interestingly, Kohn’s official website biography is rather fuzzy regarding his actual teaching experience. One sentence mentions his “time as a teacher” but provides no other information. The reality is that Kohn has never taught in a public school. His most extensive teaching stint consisted of seven years (1978-85) on the summer faculty of Phillips Academy Andover, an elite private school in Boston, Massachusetts.

The truth is that Kohn has never tried out the techniques he keeps foisting on regular classroom teachers. He gets to keep on writing books and speaking at conferences while regular teachers struggle under the weight of his impractical ideas. Indeed, it is surprising that school boards keep hiring him to present at their conferences, while he charges them top dollar to hear him sell snake oil.

Not only has Kohn never tried out his methods in a public school classroom, he doesn’t implement them anywhere else, either. His website says he “lectures widely” at universities and schools. It is ironic that Kohn condemns lecturing as an outdated teaching method while relying upon it himself as his primary means of communicating his ideas to an audience.

Unfortunately, Kohn isn’t the only edu-guru peddling snake oil to unsuspecting teachers. In 2006, Sir Ken Robinson delivered the most-watched TED Talk of all time: “Do Schools Kill Creativity.” Robinson used a combination of touching anecdotes and well-timed humour to argue that schools are trapped in a 19th-century factory model that stifles the natural creativity in children.

Despite lacking any real substance, this TED Talk quickly vaulted Robinson to edu-guru status. Like Kohn, he receives many speaking invitations and has published several popular books. His philosophy is strikingly similar to Kohn’s because he wants to make classrooms more child-centred, which supposedly promotes children’s creativity.

Robinson also has precious little classroom teaching experience. He is a former arts education professor from the University of Warwick in England, and he has led several commissions studying creativity and innovation in various countries. If he ever did teach in a public school, there’s no mention of it on his professional website.

Several years ago, Robinson appeared in the feature-length documentary “Most Likely to Succeed” in which he praised High Tech High, a charter school in San Diego, California, for its project-based approach to student learning. At High Tech High, traditional subjects such as English, physics, and chemistry have been replaced with cross-curricular projects built around “educative experiences.” Robinson often uses High Tech High as a model for what all public schools should be doing.

However, there is nothing new about project-based learning. In 1918, William Heard Kilpatrick, a well-known education professor from Columbia Teachers College in New York, wrote an article for the Teachers College Record titled “The Project Method.” In it, he suggested that the school day should be centred on projects that interest students (such as kite building) since these are “purposeful acts in the educative process.”

Simply put, there’s nothing new about Robinson’s ideas and it is ironic that he and other edu-gurus would try to pass off Kilpatrick’s project-based method as a new approach to education. There is nothing creative about recycling someone else’s century-old ideas, especially when there’s little evidence that these old ideas work for the majority of students.

Considering how much Robinson values creativity, it’s surprising that he shows such little creativity himself.

Obviously, teachers shouldn’t rely on edu-gurus like Kohn and Robinson for professional development. Not only do they promote bad ideas, they’ve never even put their ideas into practice. It is surprising that school boards continue to hire these high-priced consultants to deliver the same message over and over again.

There is no need to keep going back to the failed ideas of the likes of Alfie Kohn and Ken Robinson. Regular classroom teachers know much more about effective teaching than these edu-gurus.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and author of A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.