THE BLOG

Education Reform: Unspeakable Acts, Unnatural Practices

03/27/2016 05:26 pm ET | Updated Mar 27, 2016

Unspeakable Acts, Unnatural Practices. This title of Frank Smith's marvelous book debunking "scientific" approaches to reading is a good summary of current education reform. The unspeakable acts are finally drawing the necessary yet insufficient condemnation they richly deserve. The demeaning treatment of children in "no excuses" charter schools is a national shame, yet many schools continue to defend the indefensible by declaring that poor children of color "need it."

Unnatural practices draw less attention and fewer rebukes, as a very conventional approach to children and learning remains dominant. Very conventional and very wrong.

A recent New York Times Op-Ed by Angela Duckworth, a prominent University of Pennsylvania psychologist who has been a prime mover behind the "grit" and "character education" movement, represents a case in point. Most educators are aware of Duckworth's research, which demonstrates the value of self-control, perseverance and other so-called "character" traits. These traits are associated with school success, and research indicates that they can be strengthened through intentional practice.

In the Op-Ed, Duckworth recognizes that her acolytes may go too far in using "grit" as a variable in assessing schools and teachers. The problem, she asserts, is that the concept is too complicated to be reduced to a ranking and that many variables may skew data, including wide variation among expectations of schools and individual students. She cites, as example, a student who arrives on time, homework done, notebook opened, sitting straight at her desk, ostensibly ready to learn. Evidently this "character" profile may be too high or too low to be a useful benchmark.

I don't wish to quarrel with her work or its value. Anything that shifts toward a more comprehensive way of viewing children is an advance. For most of educational history, mathematical/logical and linguistic intelligences have been the currency of success and the primary, if not only, qualities considered in assessment or pedagogical intention. But, unfortunately, Duckworth and others have inadvertently added "you're not gritty enough" to the long-standing "you're not smart enough" as ways for schools and teachers to continue their unnatural practices.

I'm glad that Duckworth seeks to rein in the excessive enthusiasm her work has inspired. "Grit" report cards for kids, teachers or schools are even worse than regular report cards, if that's possible. As Duckworth herself notes, all of these extrinsic measures erode intrinsic motivation. But that addresses only part of the problem. The unnatural practices remain unexamined.

The portrait Duckworth offers is instructive. She asks that we silently stipulate to things like "homework done" and sitting quietly at a desk as good practice. The archetypical educational setting is one of compliance and conformity; speak when spoken to, respect your elders, fill in the bubbles, color between the lines, follow the rules, and do your homework. It is this stipulation that fuels the "character" training movement. It takes real "grit" for anyone to navigate this kind of unnatural environment, but it is particularly difficult for young children. They are naturally inclined to speak when they have something to say, see elders as real humans, blow bubbles rather than fill them in, color wherever the color looks good, and test the rules. As to homework, substantial research indicates that most homework has no value, at least in terms of long-term academic success.

While it was not a subject raised in Duckworth's piece, unnatural practices are also the primary cause of an alleged epidemic of ADHD. For decades, diagnoses of "attention" problems have skyrocketed as schools have become hostile environments. Children are genetically indisposed to long stretches of inactivity, so we medicate them so they may survive the unnatural environments most schools present. And, in perhaps the most insane response to such children, disproportionately boys, schools take away recess for the most impulsive boys despite research showing that activity is as effective as Ritalin in managing ADHD (assuming such a diagnosis is even appropriate).

Most "instruction" is geared toward children's linguistic and mathematical intelligence despite indisputable evidence that children are intelligent in many other ways. That's unnatural. Most schools and curriculum assume that children develop in the same ways at the same rate. That's unnatural.

Current education practices, most viciously in schools spawned by so-called reform, violate most of what we know about child development. Tutoring, remediation, more homework, "no excuses" discipline, longer school hours, test prep and "grit" programs are like chemotherapy. This tough medicine is toxic and harming students because we have misdiagnosed the disease.

Real education reform would require that we change the unnatural practices and unnatural environments. Schools should be boisterous, joyful and developmentally flexible. They should be places to play with bubbles, not fill them in; dance, not walk in silent lines; make up fantastic stories, not read some dull passage in a Common Core text so as to answer tedious questions. And I'm not referring only to early childhood. High schools should be like this too!

With apologies to Pogo; we have met the educational enemy and it is the system we've created, not the students or teachers. We're just too blind to see it.

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