Confusing Harder With Better


‘Confusing Harder with Better’ is a long essay written by Alfie Kohn more than a decade ago to show his disaffection with the usual system of education of our days. The essay also sought to enlighten the public and sensitise school administrators and education policy makers on the need to concentrate more on improving the quality of the teaching-learning processes in schools to improve the intellect of students rather than continually increasing the difficulty involved with solving test questions in the name of raising standards. The essay expressed Kohn’s disaffection with an educational system that make students study very hard for tests and examinations continually but fail to take note of the creativity of the learners. To Kohn, that system of education only put undue burden on learners because the teaching and learning processes are made header for them. Hence, Kohn concluded that such style of learning makes the educational system harder for learners rather than better which was intended by the educational planners.

The Key Points of Kohn’s ‘Confusing Harder with Better’ Essay

While the main theme of this essay focuses on demystifying the notion that ‘harder’ equates ‘better’ in the educational system of our days, Kohn argues his points by using some key points which I prefer to categorise as follows:

The place of Intellectualism in Quality Education: Kohn argues the need to improve the intellectual capacity of learners rather than improving the difficulty of test and examination questions. Kohn claims that developing an educational system that increases intellectual growth of learners is equal to improvement in quality of education and never the same as continually making test and examination questions harder from time to time.

From Kohn’s perspective, making students to go through gruelling conditions to pass a test or an examination because the standard of questions are being raised from time to time only amounts to raising the scores on the scale of standardised tests and never the same as improving the creative capacity of learners or helping them to develop their intellect better. When a school focuses on improving performances of learners in standardised tests, the opportunities learners have to learn from the educational system are sacrificed since efforts will shift to ensuring good performances in tests rather than on developing intellectual capacity.

The Misnomer of an Educational System that keep treating Learners as passive Receptacles: Kohn claims that seeing learners as passive beings that must be made to receive knowledge or skills by force is counterproductive to the quest for quality education. Though he claims that tests shouldn’t be made too easy, he also says tests shouldn’t be made unduly difficult. While the later makes students stupid, the former can make them insufficiently challenged. Students who feel stupid about their learning can invariably lose interest in their studies or feel alienated from the school system. Kohn aligned his views with that of Jerome Bruner who suggested the need to ask students medium questions that can be answered and that hold the promise of taking them somewhere. Indeed, asking students to make deductions from interesting stories can captivate their attention towards learning than asking them to decode a string of tough questions. Kohn suggests the need to make students learn facts based on context and skills that make a lot of meanings to them. Onerous learning tasks are different from rigorous tasks; Kohn says. While one is rooted in an ideology of coercion, the other is rooted in an ideology of valuing difficulty for its own sake.


Kohn’s ‘Confusing Harder with Better’ essay explains the need for schools to use the best possible methods to teach students things they are supposed to know and not what they should know in the name of raising the standard of education when those who formulated such education policies themselves can’t meet the standards required or do not need such level of knowledge to secure employment or to be considered as educated individuals. Kohn’s argument may sound implausible but it does make a lot of sense that harder does not necessarily mean better.

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