Monday, September 12, 2011

Please visit an actual classroom before you make recommendations, VIII

The latest journalistic entities to carry on about how schools spend too much time on academics and drills are this past week's New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Both the Times' Tara Parker-Pope, in her Science Section's Well column, and the Journal's Jonah Lehrer, in his Weekend Edition Head Case column, make these assertions while discussing the importance of self-control, with those now-familiar longitudinal studies that conclude, in Mr Lehrer's words, that:

Children who could better regulate their impulses and attention were four times less likely to have a criminal record, three times less likely to be addicted to drugs and half as likely to become single parents.
 and that:
In many instances, the ability to utilize executive control was more predictive of adult outcomes than either IQ scores or socioeconomic status.
Both Lehrer and Parker-Pope argue that schools should spend more time teaching self-control instead of academics. Parker-Pope's piece, entitled School Curriculum Falls Short on Bigger Lessons, opens with the following:
Now that children are back in the classroom, are they really learning the lessons that will help them succeed?

Many child development experts worry that the answer may be no. They say the ever-growing emphasis on academic performance and test scores means many children aren’t developing life skills like self-control, motivation, focus and resilience, which are far better predictors of long-term success than high grades...

“What are we really trying to do when we think about raising kids?” asked Dr. Kenneth R. Ginsburg, an expert in adolescent medicine at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “We’re trying to put in place the ingredients so the child is going to be a successful 35-year-old. It’s not really about getting an A in algebra.”
...In his new book “Letting Go With Love and Confidence: Raising Responsible, Resilient, Self-Sufficient Teens in the 21st Century”... Dr. Ginsburg draws a crucial distinction between hard work and simply getting an A or “being smart.
And Jonah Lehrer's piece, entitled Learning How to Focus on Focus, concludes with the following:
We worry about the periodic table instead of persistence, spelling instead of self-control.

That's almost certainly a mistake. Given the age in which we live, it makes no sense to obsess over the memorization of facts that can be looked up on a smartphone. It's not enough to drill kids in arithmetic and hope that they develop delayed gratification by accident. We need to teach the skills of executive function directly and creatively.
Underlying both pieces are two fallacies. One, of course, is the assumption that today's (dumbed down, No Child Left Behind) testing means that schools are emphasizing academic performance and fact memorization. The other is the false dichotomy between self-control and academic performance.  For most kids, learning the periodic table, or getting an A in algebra (the more so back when algebra was mathematically rigorous), involves a fair amount of "self-control, motivation, focus and resilience."

Mr. Lehrer implicitly admits this earlier in his piece when he includes Montessori education on his "surprisingly varied" list of activities that are "both engaging and challenging." What he should be arguing, therefore, isn't that learning factual information is "a mistake," but that schools should be offering the sort of "engaging and challenging" education that Montessori schools provide (and for which demand far outpaces supply), including reinvigorated math and science courses.


Anonymous said...

What appallingly short-sighted articles. If a child is able to master Algebra or foreign language vocabulary, that certainly indicates self-control and discipline. The challenge is to get kids to the point where they are willing to put in the work to learn the building blocks of these subjects. What curriculum material, exactly, do these people think will develop self-control and discipline in children, if not the actual exercise of those faculties? There is certainly a correspondence with areas outside of school and academics where children do, in fact, learn to be persistent: sports and chores at home.

Amy P said...

Oh, my goodness. Where is Amy Chua when we need her?

Note that one possible implication of this article is that we should group kids by knowledge level. How can kids learn to persist and practice self-control if they instantly know the answer to every problem on the page? A more appropriate placement provides better opportunities for learning these soft skills.

Robert Pondiscio said...

Oh good lord. When I'm in charge, promoting a false dichotomy will be a crime punishable by public flogging.

Anonymous said...

I think schools stopped stressing self-control about the time the self-esteem movement arrived, which also forbade pushing kids to work harder because it might hurt their little feelings. Back in the dinosaur era, it was common for teachers,starting at school entry, to hand back sloppy, incorrect or incomplete work with the question, "Do you really think this represents your best effort?" Usually, it didn't, and both students and teachers knew it.