Sunday, September 29, 2013

To Teach Or Not To Teach

America may no longer excel at educating children, but it is surely leading the world in self-recrimination. The kids aren't learning anything, but we feel appropriately bad about it.

Joanne Lipman explains that as our children continue to lag their peers around the world, we are gnashing our teeth and wringing our hands:

We're in the midst of a national wave of self-recrimination over the U.S. education system. Every day there is hand-wringing over our students falling behind the rest of the world. Fifteen-year-olds in the U.S. trail students in 12 other nations in science and 17 in math, bested by their counterparts not just in Asia but in Finland, Estonia and the Netherlands, too. An entire industry of books and consultants has grown up that capitalizes on our collective fear that American education is inadequate and asks what American educators are doing wrong.

Evidently, current educational policies have failed. Lipman decribes them:

… the kinder, gentler philosophy … has dominated American education over the past few decades. The conventional wisdom holds that teachers are supposed to tease knowledge out of students, rather than pound it into their heads. Projects and collaborative learning are applauded; traditional methods like lecturing and memorization—derided as "drill and kill"—are frowned upon, dismissed as a surefire way to suck young minds dry of creativity and motivation.

We want children to develop their creativity. We want them to flourish. We want them to be happy and healthy. We do not want them to struggle. We do not want them to compete. We do not much care if they ever learn anything.

It was not just the self-esteem movement that led us to this impasse. Of equal import was the fact that traditional methods of education were branded as abusive.

Our culture has been overcome with a phobia about child abuse. We saw it when Americans attacked the Tiger Mom for forcing her child to sit at the piano until she could play a passage right.

Try to discipline a child, try to teach perseverance and you will be lumped in with the bullies and the child molesters. At a minimum you will be denounced as a stone cold reactionary.

The abuse charge has blinded people to the evidence. After all, there is a mountain of evidence that shows not merely that empty praise hurts children but that failing to discipline children damages their ability to learn:

Now I'm not calling for abuse; I'd be the first to complain if a teacher called my kids names. But the latest evidence backs up my modest proposal. Studies have now shown, among other things, the benefits of moderate childhood stress; how praise kills kids' self-esteem; and why grit is a better predictor of success than SAT scores.

Lipman is calling for a return to the old ways, where strict discipline and unyielding demands defined the experience of education. Not a minute too soon. We all know that today’s young adults lack a sense of discipline. They do not know how to persevere, so they tend to give up. They do not think of how they can best accomplish a task. They are looking to see what they can get away with.

We need to recognize that these character flaws were taught to these children in school.

Teachers had all the right feelings, but Johnny and Janey were not learning anything. In truth, teachers were so thrilled to have the right feelings that did not really notice that their children were failing to learn anything.

ipman offers a simple answer to the question of why American children underperforming on standard math tests:

American students struggle with complex math problems because, as research makes abundantly clear, they lack fluency in basic addition and subtraction—and few of them were made to memorize their times tables.

When teachers fail to force children to memorize their multiplication tables, they are undermining these children’s ability to do future work in math.

Lipman recommends that teachers follow the example of her old music teacher. She offers a touching and moving tribute:

I had a teacher once who called his students "idiots" when they screwed up. He was our orchestra conductor, a fierce Ukrainian immigrant named Jerry Kupchynsky, and when someone played out of tune, he would stop the entire group to yell, "Who eez deaf in first violins!?" He made us rehearse until our fingers almost bled. He corrected our wayward hands and arms by poking at us with a pencil.

Today, he'd be fired. But when he died a few years ago, he was celebrated: Forty years' worth of former students and colleagues flew back to my New Jersey hometown from every corner of the country, old instruments in tow, to play a concert in his memory. I was among them, toting my long-neglected viola. When the curtain rose on our concert that day, we had formed a symphony orchestra the size of the New York Philharmonic.

I was stunned by the outpouring for the gruff old teacher we knew as Mr. K. But I was equally struck by the success of his former students. Some were musicians, but most had distinguished themselves in other fields, like law, academia and medicine. Research tells us that there is a positive correlation between music education and academic achievement. But that alone didn't explain the belated surge of gratitude for a teacher who basically tortured us through adolescence.

I fear that Lipman is right. In today’s world, a teacher like that would probably be fired. Parents expect their children to be coddled. They expect their children to receive excellent grades, merited or not.

Were a teacher to call out children for poor performance their parents would sue. They would demand that he never be allowed to teach again. After all, the worst crime today is not the failure to teach. It’s hurting a child’s delicate feelings.


JKB said...

Even those writing on this subject fail to see the true problem and fall back on a symptom. It is mostly due to the different form a poor teaching in the past.

Take the multiplication tables, for example. It is good to memorize them but at a point it just becomes an exercise in brute mental force and not very productive. However, the real value, beyond bit of the tables in the grasp of the average student is learning to apply the rules of arithmetic to find the answer. I for one had a tough time with the 9's table but solved my problem by realizing and using the fact that the 10's table is easy and then I just subtract one value. Thus 9x7 becomes (10-1)x7 or 70-7=63. Sure that is trivial now, but you need to know how to do that in Algebra when it's all symbols. And I claim no great proficiency with Algebra.

But the problem is that although the properties and rules are taught, using them in real life seldom is/was.

The problems in education stem a good deal from the lost understanding of what is being taught. Facts are good and the weak-minded latch on to them but really they are only a means to push the student to learning how to think. Not what to think but how to order their thoughts to process the facts or do new things with them. Or more importantly, use the thinking techniques to conquer the abstract in later studies. One conundrum most are unprepared for is that the more "educated" you become the less concrete and more abstract, even ambiguous you knowledge becomes.

Leo G said...

My boys would come home with their test results, my first question was always, "where is the other 7%?". (if they scored 93% let's say)

Done jokingly, but the point was made, I expect better next test.

My oldest is now fourth year honours in philosophy, in a uni that does NOT grade easy. The other is third year music, with 2 advanced classes.

My nick name from them when they were kids was "mad dad". I took that as a compliment!

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Here's an anecdote. I was at a store where the bill came to $10.88. I gave the cashier $11.03. She gave me $0.21 in return. It took three cashiers to figure it out.

Sam L. said...

Stuart, as Lili Von Shtupp said in "Blazing Saddles", "It's twoo! It's TWOO!"

Alogon said...

Your anecdote is less of a condemnation of the cashiers' math skillls so much as impugning your own. Why tender $11.03? It neither makes giving change easier nor round, as the point of giving change over and above the $11 to the cashier would be. Either give $11.02 or $11.08 for round change or just give $11.
It probably took two cashiers just to figure out what you were trying to pull.