Saturday, April 20, 2013

What could be more important than grit? Listen and learn.

The basic problem with all this focus on "grit" and "character" in K12 education--for which Paul Tough's recent book How Children Succeed is both the latest inspiration, and the latest incarnation of one of our culture's most persistent memes-- is that it simply adds to the litany of things that are diluting academics. The more we dilute actual academics, the more we limit students' opportunities to develop such learning-enhancement traits as curiosity, skepticism, and, yes, grit (a.k.a. perseverence)--traits that, in fact, develop alongside academic development.

You develop grit by doing a hard math problem whose solution requires lengthy puzzling out; by answering comprehension questions that make you work through challenging sentences and paragraphs; by revising an essay in response to requests for clarity, economy, and coherence. It's true that students today, more than ever before, need grit. But the reason for this has less to do with the vicissitudes of the world outside of school than with what is no longer happening at school. And the solution isn't to send teachers to grit workshops, cover classrooms with grit slogans, and to interrupt academics with grit rallies.

I've recently realized, however, that there is one element of "character" that absolutely must be well established before academic instruction can take off. In fact, I realize this approximately once a week: whenever I'm teaching in our after-school math enrichment program. I realize it specifically whenever I'm trying to explain a concept that requires students to attend to my words for more than a few seconds in a row. For the more restless of these students--which tend to be those who most need the explanation in the first place--those few seconds are a few seconds too long.

To teach someone anything, you need, at minimum, a window of joint attention with that person. As I know from raising an autistic son, when this window of joint attention is rare and fleeting, so, too, are opportunities for direct instruction. Joint attention with neurotypical kids is typically much more frequent and extended, but they, too, are potentially distracted away before you finish what you're saying.

The key word here is potentially. By the time neurotypical kids are in the early grades of grade school, they can potentially be quite attentive. How attentive depends both on the immediate environment--how distracting it is--and on longitudinal circumstances--whether the kids are acquiring habits that foster attention. Are they sitting facing the teacher, or facing one another in "pods"? Is the class full of distractions like group activities, laptops, and a couple of highly disruptive students? Have the students come to view the teacher as the "sage on the stage," or merely as the "guide on the side"? Have they been held accountable for paying attention to what their teachers say and for not disrupting others? In other words, has the environment in the early grades been conducive to the development and maintenance of teacher-focused attention?

For too many of my students, the answer would appear to be "no." But I suspect that many people would take a quick look and blame either the kids themselves--surely they need attention-enhancing mediation--or their surely disruptive home lives. Only if you looked at the classrooms that these children (mostly 5th graders) have attended daily for the last several years--where, in fact, students sit in pods and student-centered activities and distractions predominate--might you get an inkling of what's really going on here.

One educational paradigm that has caught on is KIPP. Its SLANT (Sit up, Listen, Ask and Answer Questions, Nod, and Track the Speaker) is all about extending the window of attention so as to make it possible for students to learn from their teachers.

The sad fact is that today's student-centered educational paradigm, which sees itself as the best model for developing all those "essential, non-academic" skills, and which is forever vilifying KIPP's SLANT, is, in fact, stunting the growth of the one trait that matters the most for learning. And making it very difficult for those of us who seek to remediate the academic consequences of this non-clinical, but no less debilitating, deficit.

26 comments:

Anonymous said...

You are so right! Kids don't learn grit by talking about it. They learn grit by taking on a challenging task and succeeding. Professional parents model this for their kids, and don't allow poor effort, even if it is acceptable to teachers. The parent that sends a kid to Kumon because she knows the math program is inadequate, or encourages a child to play the piano, or to re-write an essay just because she knows the child can do better, and then rewards extended effort is teaching grit. Schools, with the group activities and the downplaying of individual achievement, seem to have given up on this.

Anonymous said...

You're also so right about attentiveness. Attentive kids do far better than predicted based on raw ability. Inattentive kids (whether because of ADD or just goofing off or distractions) do worse. When I taught first grade, I came to recognize a certain type of child -- average or even slightly below average ability but very attentive. Those children did fine.

Auntie Ann said...

I remember hearing a couple of years ago a description of one of the differences between American and Chinese teaching practices: Chinese teachers work to increase their students' short attention spans, American teachers accept students short attention spans and do short, clipped, flashy activities to compensate for them.

Anonymous said...

Most of the things you write about (strong math foundations, respect for the teacher, teaching "grit" through demanding academic tasks etc.) are widely accepted in Asian families and schools. Check out this blog post on Asian parenting wisdom:
http://www.mayathiagarajan.com/2012/12/eastern-parenting-wisdom-what-asian.html

websofsubstance said...

This from Plutarch, “As skilful horse-trainers give us horses with a good mouth for the bit, so too skilful educators give us children with a good ear for speech, by teaching them to hear much and speak little.”

Katharine Beals said...

Plutarch doesn't sound like a very good teacher.

momod4 said...

Expecting even very young kids to pay attention was something that used to be a routine part of raising a family. Homes were adult-centered, with adults teaching kids to participate appropriately. Even toddlers were taught how to do simple tasks like putting clothes in the laundry and setting the table, and they were expected to behave and interact during family dinners (which used to be a daily norm). By the time they hit school, kids were accustomed to being taught by adults (parents), doing chores and were able and willing to pay attention to the teacher and to persist at their work. Now, kids arrive with the attention span of a gnat, expect to be entertained and expect school to be both easy and fun.

shiftingphases.com said...

I wish I could ignore advice like KIPP's SLANT. I teach adults in a community college -- wouldn't it be great if my students were so far beyond this that we could all take it for granted? Unfortunately, I don't live in that world. I don't know if SLANT would work in an adult classroom or if students would mutiny at feeling so patronized. Regardless, each year I have to find a way to set these expectations, because most of my students find them completely surprising and alien.

FedUpMom said...

Katherine, that Plutarch quote sounds like he's agreeing with you. Why do you think he sounds like a bad teacher?

I'm not a fan of KIPP SLANT. Among other issues, the insistence that students have to track their teacher with their eyes won't work for every student. I know that for me, I need to look away in order to listen carefully. I can't intently watch someone and intently listen at the same time.

Katharine Beals said...

FedUpMom, I'm skeptical about the teaching skills of anyone who, sincerely or ironically, equates "good" teaching with horse training and minimal speaking. The "A" of SLANT, remember, is "Ask and Answer Questions." I agree that "track the speaker," taken literally as eye contact, would be problematic for those (relatively few in number, I suspect) who have trouble looking and listening at the same time. However, I would hope that good teachers would teach "tracking" as a more abstract process than that--one can track with one's ears as well as one's eyes.

FedUpMom said...

Katharine, SLANT is quite literal about tracking the teacher. From a NYTimes article about KIPP:

***
And so it is a little unnerving to stand at the front of a KIPP class; every eye is on you.
***

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/26/magazine/26tough.html?pagewanted=6

Katharine Beals said...

Sounds like the kids in that particular classroom didn't have a problem with simultaneously watching and listening. Quoting from a couple of sentences later in the same article:
"But the kids I spoke to said they use the Slant method not because they fear they will be punished otherwise but because it works: it helps them to learn."

FedUpMom said...

Katharine, what I'm trying to say is that KIPP is not the answer for everyone. If I'd gone to a KIPP school, I would have been suicidally depressed. The same is true for my older daughter. My younger daughter would have been expelled for non-compliance.

Where you see attentive kids, I see an authoritarian nightmare. There's no simple fix here.

Katharine Beals said...

FedUpMom, I appreciate what you're saying here about yourself and your daughters. And I suspect most human beings out there would, too. And I doubt that many people, if anyone, would say "KIPP is the answer for everyone." I've certainly never heard anyone say that.

The fact that KIPP isn't the answer for everyone, however, does not contradict the importance of attentivness to learning, or the ways in which sensorily cluttered classrooms, pod-based seating and guide-on-the-side teachers interfere with students' abilities to attend to those who are supposed to know more than they do--i.e., their classroom teachers, or, say, teachers in after school programs designed to address what students aren't learning in school.

momof4 said...

I may be wrong, but I've received the impression that the KIPP model was specifically designed to address the learning needs of kids in high-risk situations who have never had much structure in their lives and are much in need of it. Those middle-class kids, who arrive at school knowing the "framework" of a day (specific times for arising, scheduled work,activities, eating meals etc),do simple chores,pay attention and learn from adults, do not need the rigid KIPP model.

I do agree with Katharine, though, about the critical nature of giving sustained attention and effort to any learning - and with the fact that current instructional practices work against this.

Chris said...

I don't disagree with everything you're saying here, but your statement that curiosity, skepticism, and grit develop alongside academic development strikes me as an unsupported assertion, and does not ring even generally true to me. Authority-driven techniques seem just as capable of killing off those qualities as trendy pod-organized classrooms are.

It seems at least equally plausible that kids who have to listen to the teacher for long periods, on subjects chosen by others, would emerge bored and alienated. I certainly experienced much of my schooling that way.

Lots of kids are turned off by school as early as fourth or fifth grade. To say that that's because they're insufficiently challenged or overly distracted seems like just an article of faith. Maybe it is because school is an uninteresting chore that they associate with threatening adults.

What evidence is there that KIPP schools -- which train students to be reflexively obedient to the teachers -- are developing skepticism and curiosity?

I agree with FedUpMom here. I also think any argument that authoritarian education is good for "those kids" while "our kids" don't need it should be inherently suspect.

Katharine Beals said...

"your statement that curiosity, skepticism, and grit develop alongside academic development strikes me as an unsupported assertion, and does not ring even generally true to me."

Doing challenging math problems--ones that require persistence and hard thinking--fosters grit.

Learning about other times and places, and being encouraged to ask questions about these, fosters curiosity. So does learning what is and isn't yet known about how things work.

Reading/listening to well-argued critiques and debates, being asked to defend one's own arguments and critique those of others, and being asked to play devil's advocate, foster skepticism.

All these are essential elements of a good academic program.

Katharine Beals said...

"Authority-driven techniques seem just as capable of killing off those qualities as trendy pod-organized classrooms are."

It depends on the authority. We need good teachers who are authorities on the subjects they teach and know how to explain things clearly and run lively discussions.

In the child-group-centered classroom, the "authorities" are the children, particularly the socially dominant ones, and they are generally not capable of explaining things clearly and running lively discussions.

Katharine Beals said...

"t seems at least equally plausible that kids who have to listen to the teacher for long periods, on subjects chosen by others, would emerge bored and alienated"

The best teacher-centered classrooms are highly interactive, with swift alternations between listening and asking/answering questions. Longer periods of listening are necessary only with complex explanations, but even these can be highly interactive, if sufficiently teacher-directed (and with sufficiently non-distracted kids).

Katharine Beals said...

"on subjects chosen by others"

An education driven by child-chosen subjects risks being highly limited. We expand our horizons, particularly when we're young, thanks to adult guides. There are a few kids who are natural autodidacts, exploring a wide range of subjects on their own initiative. But most kids need guidance and, whether it's history, math, or science, need subjects to be chosen for them in order to develop academic skills.

Katharine Beals said...

"Lots of kids are turned off by school as early as fourth or fifth grade. To say that that's because they're insufficiently challenged or overly distracted seems like just an article of faith."

As a generalization about all turned-off kids, yes. As a statement about *many* turned off kids based on heaps of anecdotes all over the education blogosphere, and from friends, family and neighbors, no.

Katharine Beals said...

"Maybe it is because school is an uninteresting chore that they associate with threatening adults."

Undoubtedly true for many kids--particularly if they have bad teachers, as way too many kids do.

Katharine Beals said...

"What evidence is there that KIPP schools -- which train students to be reflexively obedient to the teachers -- are developing skepticism and curiosity?"

I have no idea. I haven't done any formal research on KIPP. I cite it here for its SLANT and its stated rationale behind that.

Katharine Beals said...

" I also think any argument that authoritarian education is good for "those kids" while "our kids" don't need it should be inherently suspect."

The reality is that there are kids who enter school more or less prepared to attend to their teachers. Whether those at the latter end of the spectrum might benefit from techniques like SLANT is an empirical question that shouldn't be rejected simply because SLANT seems authoritarian of because it might turn out that there's some link to SES.

Also, don't forget what "A" stands for, or the key difference between authoratitive and authoritarian. (There's an interesting discussion on this somewhere on kitchentable math).

Katharine Beals said...

Just as important as not seeing education in terms of "my kids" vs. "those kids" is not assuming that just because "my kid" is a self-starter who reads everything and shouldn't have school interfering with his education, this must be true for all kids. Some kids (all of my kids, in fact) would not get very far academically without authorities guiding them interactively through what's out there.

momof4 said...

Even within the same family, all kids do not necessarily have the same educational needs, even if they are all of average-or-better ability and motivation. I've known many families who have sent their kids to different schools, whether public, private or a mix. Some kids do better in a small school, others in a large one, some in a highly-structured school, some in the opposite etc. My son played sports with a kid who attended a small private school (100/grade), while his older sister had attended a very large public school (1200+/grade). Another teammate attended my son's public school (5-600+/grade), while his sister attended a small, very structured private school (<100/grade). The one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work for many kids, whether it's size, educational philosophy, academic demands or any other factor.