Wednesday, November 22, 2017

This Is Where Those Bedrock Character Traits Come From

Few things have put more wear and tear on my teeth than the entire concept of "teaching" character traits like "grit," "resilience," "optimism," "conscientiousness," and "self-control." It's not that those things aren't important. Indeed, they are vital not just for academic achievement, but for any kind of real, lasting success, be it in school, work, or just being a member of a family or community. No, what sets my teeth grinding is the self-satisfied way in which so-called education reformers, the ones with a product or agenda to sell, insist that they have figured out how to "teach" these things, even going so far as to produce pre-packaged curricula they claim will do this.

It's classic snake oil, based upon the faith-based notion that all these kids need are more lectures, more tests (yes, there are actually standardized tests now that purport to measure these noncognitive traits), and a vigorous system of rewards and punishments. It has been these Skinnerian notions that has lead to such things as zero-tolerance policies, No Child Left Behind, and other anti-child measures, none of which have worked in any way to move the needle on the holy grail of "academic achievement." It hasn't worked because what they are doing is not based upon science, but rather an ideology that comes right out of neoliberal economic theory -- the kind business executives, the very folks who are leading the charge to turn our schools into test score coal mines, tend to favor.

To underline this point, Roland G. Fryer, Jr., an economics professor at Harvard distributed nearly $10 million in cash incentives (e.g., rewards) to students in several US cities over the course of several years, with the idea of improving reading scores. These came in the form of cash, cell phones and other inducements just to read books and spend more time on their math homework. The results: "Students performed the tasks necessary to get paid, but their average math scores at the end of eight months hadn't changed at all . . . their reading scores . . . actually went down."

This quote is from an article by education author Paul Tough that appeared in The Atlantic entitled How Kids Really Succeed (they've changed the title in the online version) in which he contrasts actual brain research with current educational practices. It's a worthwhile read, especially the first half in which he discusses the impact of early childhood "toxic stress" on the ability to learn. What researchers are concluding is that the behaviorists are wrong, at least with regard to children:

". . . (W)e are mostly motivated not by the material consequences of our actions but by the inherent enjoyment and meaning that those actions bring us, a phenomenon called intrinsic motivation."

This brings a resounding, "Well, of course," from those of us who work with young children (emphasis mine).

(Researchers) identified three key human needs -- our need for competence, our need for autonomy, and our need for relatedness, meaning personal connection -- and they posited that intrinsic motivation can be sustained only when we feel the those needs are being satisfied.

Competence, autonomy, and personal connection: these are the building blocks of a play-based education where children are allowed to become competent by having the time and space to autonomously ask and answer their own questions within the context of a loving community. This is where those bedrock character traits come from. And it is why they will never emerge from the reward and punishment model of the neoliberal Skinnerians.

Sadly, when Tough asks the question, "So what do these academic environments look like?" (e.g., those that emphasize competence, autonomy, and personal connection) he answers it by going into traditional schools where teachers are using this research to manipulate kids into "learning" what adults have pre-determined is good for the kids, rather than what the kids themselves are driven to pursue, which means they might produce statistically significant improvements, but ones that are still marginal compared to the sort that would come from the kind of systemic change that brain (and psychological and anthropological and pedagogical) research tells us would transform the lives not just young children, but all of us.

The research tells us that we should set kids free to lead their own learning, but the policy-makers (and in that I include most of us as well) are still fixated on getting those damned orcas to jump just a little higher so that we adults can applaud ourselves.

And while you're here at the bottom of this post, maybe you can think of someone who would like a copy of my new book for the holidays!

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

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