Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Hard America, Soft America

Barry Garelick recently asked me a very thought-provoking question addressing what I've written about left-brainers and criticism:

In the conclusion chapter of your book, on p. 205, you make the point that compliments are favored over criticism, so students are really ill-prepared for the workforce ultimate, etc etc. Yet, on p. 115 of the book you make the point that left brainers get mediocre grades because they don't "participate" well nor do the "explanations" required, and so forth. Further, in that section of the book you talk about how in some areas, there is a grading system going from 1-4, and that no one gets "4's". This seems to contradict what you say later. There is criticism, some of it very harsh, both for the left brainers who can't play in the right brained world, and in grading systems for which the top grade is rarely, if ever, handed out. 

Perhaps the conclusion is that compliments are earned for doing superficial and non-academic, non-rigorous assignments, and that in some situations, criticism is so severe that everyone is ill-served.
Barry's question helped me significantly sharpen my question on this matter. So did a TV show I watched during one of my book tours. Here's how I responded to Barry:
I think part of what's going on is giving feedback vs. passing judgment. I most recently found this exemplified by a reality show I watched a couple of times along with some acquaintances during a mini-book tour. The show is So You Think You Can Dance, and the gimmick is that a group of young people each have to prepare and perform (individually) a bunch of different dances in different styles, and then have to stand on stage (here's where the voyeuristic element comes in) and listen to feedback from 3 different judges. Later even more drama ensues as all half dozen dancers stand on stage to find out which two of them are going to be eliminated before the next round. 

What struck me was how positive the feedback was--the judges (even the British one) seemed incapable of giving much in the way of criticism, and such criticism as there was was couched in so much positive that you barely noticed it. As a result, when they finally passed their judgment, regardless of who they eliminated, it was always a surprise, to all concerned. 

Not being a fan of reality competitions, I have no idea how common this protocol is, but it instantly struck me as emblematic of what happens in public schools. Tons of judgment (in highly choosy grades; in who gets to take violin lessons, in who gets gifted programming) but very little actual criticism--constructive or otherwise. And, yes, this makes the judgment all the harsher because you don't know the basis. On the other hand, when pushed by parents, teachers will insist that "a 3 is a good grade." (one reason I think they've moved from the standard letter grades to this less familiar number system--though parents now are catching on..) They also tell the kids that 3s are fine.

The second piece of the picture is that such criticism as does occur seems to me mostly not to target academic work, but behavior and social-emotional maturity. Here there in fact is a lot of criticism, as many teachers seem to mistake immaturity for willful disrespect and unkindness (which, in our zero-tolerance classrooms, seem to upstage the concerns about self-esteem that academic criticism raises). When I visited my daughter's kindergarten, I was astonished to hear this experienced and in many ways highly effective teacher call one boy out for turning away from his classmates towards the easel when explaining something to them: she felt he was being "disrespectful" by not facing his "friends" and speaking loud enough for them to hear him, when it seemed pretty clear to me he was just being a typical 5-year-old.

So in short I'd say we have highly hedged judgments instead of criticism, except when it comes to behavioral expectations.


Linda said...

Let me preface my comments by saying I am a left-brained parent of two left-brained kids, and I am also a teacher (math!) I agree whole heartedly with your point regarding the need for more honest feedback in schools. I also believe that academic grades should not be affected by a student's social skills.

I think you are off-base about two other things. First, is your criticism of the lack of 4s given out. If marking systems are standards-based, 3s indicate a level of proficiency, meaning the child is consistently performing grade level work; this IS fine. 4s are for students who are performing well above the level of proficiency- basically the kids on the right tail of the bell curve. If the marking system is valid, there just should not be many 4s because most children are not capable of performing above grade level work. Teachers are trying not to replicate sad state of grade inflation where everyone received an A if they were reasonably conscientious.

Second, that highly effective Kindergarten teacher did exactly what a good teacher should do. How do we teach children social skills? Through explicit, direct instruction. As ticked off as I am when my son's high school teachers write that he doesn't speak up enough in class, what I want is for them to help him learn to do it rather than just tell me that he doesn't do it. I know that in his later life he will be more successful if he learns to be more participatory. It doesn't come naturally to him, but there are a lot of things that don't come naturally to kids and we teach them how to do them anyway.

Katharine Beals said...

It is indeed a good idea to reduce grade inflation and reserve 4's to those who do above-grade level work. There are two reasons why this isn't actually happening, and why the 4's are going to the kids who produce verbose, artistic math assignments as opposed to those who can do above-grade-level math.

Reason 1: in those schools using the Reform Math curricula, the math is actually below grade level compared to what it once was in this country and what it still is in others. (for examples, see the problems of the week on this blog). As a result (as I discuss in "Raising a Left Brain Child," math buffs are so bored that they opt out, especially when asked to explain their answers to simple questions (a new requirement of dubious value, prerequisite for 3s and 4s).

Reason 2: most kids today aren't given the opportunity to do above grade level work. Many are required to work in groups with classmates, and to do the work that everyone else is doing. Without the opportunity to do above-grade level work, how can someone demonstrate that he or she is capable of performing at a higher than proficient level? Back when kids could work through more independently at their chosen rates, it was much easier for teachers to identify who was capable of above grade-level work.

Yes, social skills are best taught explicitly to those who need them. But specific skills should be developmentally appropriate, and the teaching of these skills shouldn't be infused with harsh moral judgment. Instead of calling the child "disrespectful," the kindergarten teacher should simply have told him that his classmates could hear him better if he turned to face them when talking to them.