"Giving trophies to all the kids in order to minimize the destructive effects of competition is a well-meaning attempt to exclude fewer children from these noxious distinctions -- a tiny step in the right direction. But it doesn't begin to compensate for all the ways that children are made to feel inadequate on a daily basis at school and at play. In fact, adding more trophies distracts us from the problems inherent in competition itself and its message that each kid must succeed by making others fail. In other words, "trophies for everyone," like effusive praise, troubles me for the opposite reason that it offends conservative critics."
I've never found Kohn's -- or anyone else's -- opposition to praise compelling, convincing, believable, wtf. I think he's got a point that there is more than one reason to object to praise, and certainly I find his rationale less irritating than the usual. "That two year old doesn't run well! Don't praise the toddler for running well, unless they're winning the Boston Marathon." <-- exaggeration for effect vs. Kohn's "Don't praise the toddler for running well to get him to run well; you'll destroy his joy in running." Can you destroy someone's motivation for doing something by paying them (with money, prizes or praise)? Yes! Is it a sure thing? NO! And a whole lot of us get a whole lot of pleasure from realizing that someone else gets good feelings from our good feelings doing something we enjoy -- which is what praise, in my mind, is all about.
ETA: I feel like I should kick this thing one more time. When I do something successfully (especially if it was tricky or I had to try it several different ways first, but really, anything at all), I have all these happy, good feelings. I did it (the laundry! got the kids to school! emptied the dishwasher! finished the book! wrote a blog post!)!!! I know some people are going to side-eye me for this, but I do, and when I don't, I work hard to restart that internal dialogue, because it is that internal dialogue of Yay! I Did It! that contributes in a really meaningful way to my feeling happy and content vs. suicidal and enraged (<-- alas, I am not exaggerating for effect). When someone I care about gives me an indication that they're really happy that they did something (or are even just at that, OMG, I did it. I can't believe it finally worked out! What a relief!), I Praise. It's not intended to get the person _to_ do something; it's part of the internal stabilizing loop of recognition that a positive thing happened that ensures that as the hours and days go by, there's a sense of Things Happened and That Was Good vs. Nothing Ever Happens I Always Fail At Everything. Remove the praise (which I believe should exist at a minimum of 4x to neutral-to-negative thoughts/feelings/assessments to even be perceived as balanced) and a spiral into negative affect ensues. Kohn means well, but he's either abusing the language ("That's not praise!") or he's giving dangerous advice.
Kohn continues: "As for the tendency to emphasize differences in ability ... Some kids have to work harder than others to do any given thing well... But that's not an argument for calling attention to those differences, let alone for making children try to defeat one another. On the contrary, we ought to assist those for whom things come less easily, thereby reducing the salience and significant of kids' relative standing. Better yet, we can help the kids themselves to reframe the differences in how good they are: If Allison grasps certain concepts faster than Allen does, it's not that Allison wins and Allen loses, but that Allison is lucky enough to be able to help Allen improve. Later, at another task at which he excels, he can return the favor."
Let's decompose this.
(1) There isn't any compelling reason to insist that all kids attain even some minimum ability at all the same things. If I well and truly suck at visualizing the cross section of a three dimensional object, I ought to be allowed to decide -- in an informed way ("Architects need this skill.") -- to give up and just suck at it forever. There are other things to do with my life (and yes, I really, really, really suck at visualizing the cross section of a three dimensional object. I also suck at rotating a three dimensional object in my head). If Kid A is fantastic at picking up languages and Kid B struggles to produce a single sentence in the only language Kid B has ever encountered, Kid B should get a pass on ever learning any other language. The more we decide to do this explicitly and in a non-judgmental way, the faster we can make "differently abled" something other than a euphemism for "Poor You".
(2) I'm all over reframing how kids think of differences in skills. But rather than encouraging the idea that equality and fairness and generally being humane to each other means leveling out of skills and achievements, why can't we go, hey, you really love doing This Thing (visualizing the cross section of a three dimensional object). Here's the kind of things you could do as an adult that society values and which you might really enjoy. Also, we'll see if we can use that skill to make sure you attain some skills that your adult life will truly suck if you don't attain (functional literacy, a minimum level of social competency, managing money and time and other organizational skills like planning and workflow). It's great when Allison can teach Allen and vice versa, but honestly, just because you're really good at something does not in any way imply that you will be good at teaching someone else that thing or anything else and there's some reason to believe that the very best teachers are the ones who had the worst time learning it but eventually did -- they remember in vivid detail all the obstacles and misunderstandings that can occur. Instead, we could help Allison understand, based on her life experience so far, that she's likely to find easy and/or enjoyable some career paths and difficult or boring others. Saving young people the massive debt associated with college when it does not have the intended result of a remunerative career in that field, seems worth doing.
In Kohn's eagerness to detox the raising the education of the young'uns ("Hunger Games Bad! Don't Make Kids Fight Each Other!" <-- again, exaggeration for effect), he has conflated that detox process with a separate set of goals. And while I'm all over the detox, I don't agree with the other goals. Which is to say, I actually don't mind sorting and ranking children and people -- I just want to make sure that the end result of that process is useful to the person in leading an pleasurable, low-stress life.