Sunday, May 20, 2012

"The Unteachables"

As long as the nation has been awash in self-esteemist pedagogy, critics have been warning of the dangers inherent in such methods.

Janice Fiamengo brilliantly captures the danger  in a single concept: self-esteemism has rendered American children "unteachable."

The problem, she explains, originated with a man who is lionized as an educational reformer, John Dewey:

The unteachable student has been told all her life that she is excellent: gifted, creative, insightful, thoughtful, able to succeed at whatever she tries, full of potential and innate ability. Pedagogical wisdom since at least the time of John Dewey — and in some form all the way back to William Wordsworth’s divinely anointed child “trailing clouds of glory” — has stressed the development of self-esteem and a sense of achievement. Education, as Dewey made clear in such works as The Child and the Curriculum (1902), was not about transferring a cultural inheritance from one generation to the next; it was about students’ self-realization. It involved liberating pupils from that stuffy, often stifling, inheritance into free and unforced learning aided by sympathy and encouragement. The teacher was not so much to teach or judge as to elicit a response, leading the student to discover for herself what she, in a sense, already knew. In the past twenty years, the well-documented phenomenon of grade inflation in humanities subjects — the awarding of high “Bs” and “As” to the vast majority of students — has increased the conviction that everyone is first-rate.

Dewey and his followers saw education as self-realization or self-actualization. They did not want to teach children to memorize or analyze information. They did not want educators to transmit traditional civilized values. They wanted children to learn how to introspect to discover their own innate ideas.

It’s a throwback to Plato. Socrates used it first in the Platonic dialogues. It defies tradition and ignores both past and future. It produces children who are not only ignorant, but are also unteachable.

Worse yet, it mistakes education for therapy. It did so before psychoanalysis became the rage.

Fiamengo explains that self-esteemist pedagogy punishes all students, unequally.

In her words:

The intelligent ones see their indifferent, mediocre, or inept counterparts receiving grades similar to their own, and the realization offends their sense of justice. Moreover, there is little satisfaction in consciously playing the system.

It's worse for the less intelligent students. They are never allowed to improve, because they are told that they need not improve. They are never challenged and never criticized but are always rewarded regardless of their achievement. To put it simply, they are systematically lied to. They are never learn how to succeed because they never learn how to fail.

They are being allowed to develop character flaws that will haunt them in later life.

She writes:

In contrast, the weak student who believes in his high grades has also had a disservice done him. He has been misled about his abilities, falsely persuaded that career paths and goals are open that may be out of reach. Eventually, the fraud will be revealed: by an employer who finds him inadequate, by his own dawning recognition that he cannot achieve what he hoped. The reckoning will likely be bitter; evidence exists that the pedagogy of false esteem can even cause psychological harm. When students who have always been praised must confront the reality of their low achievement, their tendency is, as researchers James Coté and Anton Allahar report, not to confront the problem directly but to hit back at its perceived source — the teacher who has given them the bad news, the employer who does not renew a contract. Far more than their adequate peers when faced with difficulties, these students experience a range of negative reactions, including anger, anxiety, and depression.

In the interest of making education more therapeutic, the educational establishment has adopted a technique that will not only render students unteachable but will them avid consumers of psychotropic medication.


JP said...

Stuart says:

"It's worse for the less intelligent students. They are never allowed to improve, because they are told that they need not improve. They are never challenged and never criticized but are always rewarded regardless of their achievement. To put it simply, they are systematically lied to. They are never learn how to succeed because they never learn how to fail."

This was pretty much my problem during school, but it's a problem of more intelligent students.

I was always rewarded because I could, in fact, do the work at a level above my peers with essentially no effort. There wasn't much to criticize at the level at which I was achieving.

So, there was no correlation between effort and achievement. I put in minimal effort and did better than other people. This continued through much of college at a state school.

It was only when I encountered subjects that necessarily required effort and failure that I essentially collapsed, and remain collapsed for many years.

n.n said...

Progressive mediocrity is the only outcome suitable to overcoming natural differences. It is an ambition pursued by individuals without an interest in long-term viability. It fits perfectly the prevailing paradigm which espouses dreams of instant gratification without consequence.


Exactly. We still wonder why a progressive number of people seek to escape reality through the consumption of psychotropic drugs, promiscuity, and other deviant, self-injurious behaviors. Some people call it "disparate impact", while I call it generational exploitation, and it exhibits in diverse forms. The transgression is progressive, but its foundation can be traced to corruption of the first level of social organization, the family.

Dennis said...

I am not sure the students are the one who are unteachable. I think it is the teachers who are unteachable. The drive to not be accountable for the success of their students in the academic environment is extant in almost every public school, except charter schools. Why is it so hard to meet standards of teaching?
Just at a time in their lives when students strive for real discipline they get benign neglect. A sort of "Mary had a little lamb" approach. Discipline is a learned habit that needs to be constantly reinforced and one of the most important and life affirming tools in our "toolbox."
Talent applies to every field of endeavor. Talent is only 5 to 10 percent and the rest is hard work which is driven by discipline.
I would posit that we strive for discipline, almost lust for it, because we inherently recognize its importance to our success. When we get something for nothing or little work on our part we have no respect for it.
Every place where discipline is instituted students, especially in the inner cities, grades go up. It is the "Unteachables" who are being cheated. Question, "When I read bumper stickers that states, "If you can read this thank a teacher," Who do I blame for the fact that we are 25th in math and science, we haven't improved in 40 years of exponential grow in per student spending and these students are "unteachable?"
NOTE: I allow some high school students into my rehearsals to learn professional standards if they are sufficiently talented enough and I am hard on them. If I am to believe their teacher they love it. I expect the best out of them and they try to meet the standard I set for them.