Monday, November 19, 2007

Alfie's Prediction Comes True

Some fourteen years ago I heard noted speaker Alfie Kohn make a prediction regarding Book It, the Pizza Hut reading program which rewards children with free pizza for reading books. He said:

"We'll have a bunch of fat kids who don't like to read."

Alfie Kohn is an author of 11 books on education and parenting, including Punished By Rewards, which questions the value of incentive programs. "The more kids see books as a way to get pizza or some other prize, the less interest they'll have in reading itself," Kohn, a former teacher, said. "They tend to choose easier books to get through faster."

So what are the results of the reading program started in 1985? A study revealed 9 year old kids read like crazy but by the time they are 17, interest in reading plummets to where almost 20% "never or hardly ever" read for pleasure.

Among the findings:
-In 2002, only 52 percent of Americans ages 18 to 24, the college years, read a book voluntarily, down from 59 percent in 1992.

-Money spent on books, adjusted for inflation, dropped 14 percent from 1985 to 2005 and has fallen dramatically since the mid-1990s.

-The number of adults with bachelor's degrees and "proficient in reading prose" dropped from 40 percent in 1992 to 31 percent in 2003.

The decline in reading over the time period is apparent. Obviously, one program isn't responsible for the whole drop. But anything that teaches kids they need a reward to do something as naturally enjoyable as reading, certainly didn't help.

What about the obesity end of Alfie's sage foresight? Five years ago the government said it was a growing problem. The Mayo Clinic said "In just two decades, the prevalence of overweight doubled for U.S. children ages 6 to 11 — and tripled for American teenagers."

"Fat kids who don't like to read" has been generally supported by wider societal data. However, Alfie is too good a social scientist to let this pass as positive proof. My intent with this piece is to get people thinking about what "works" and how do they know? The teaser comes from using theory. With it, you too can make profound predictions like Mr. Kohn's. So explore No Contest and Punished by Rewards. They are both eye opening works. Also, Dr. W. Edwards Deming has a few works chock full of useful theory in our leadership challenged world.

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