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Part 2 of thoughts on intellectual development and teaching

I mentioned in my previous blog post that I just read NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children. It's a book by journalists that summarizes psychological research about children, mainly about how they learn. So, it's of interest to educators, and I got a few things out of it, and I have a few critiques of it as well.

What I got out of it:

* Praise doesn't help (they cite Carol Dweck on this point, but I actually knew this because I'm a follower of Alfie Kohn's educational philosophies. Like others I found it curious that they didn't cite Kohn.

* Teenagers need more sleep and have more difficulty sleeping at night than both small children and adults. Starting school later can help with this. (This will make me more patient with late arrivals and absentees if I end up having to teach 8:30am classes).

* Talking directly to children is much better for language acquisition than showing them videos (this accords with what I knew about linguistics but it was nice to see the evidence stacked up).

* Television, including positive-themed television designed for kids, is full of putdowns and insults that adds up to a negative influence. The idea here is that the stories in these programs spend most of the time setting up the conflict and only a few minutes resolving it. So, most of what the kids see is characters behaving badly to one another.

Here are a pair of critical comments:

* The authors say they weren't searching for 'genius', but they accept measures from standardized tests, grades, and even of IQ (though they say that children are tested too early). Again starting with Alfie Kohn's work (or Nikhil Goyal's student perspective) I think that a deeply skeptical look at what these tests actually measure is in order. There's a great deal of evidence that Kohn summarizes that these standardized tests and measures are inimical to learning, which requires freedom.

* There's another thread running through the development literature including NurtureShock, which is about how to resolve conflicts over homework and get kids to focus on their homework. But Kohn summarizes plenty of evidence that homework is also inimical to learning (see his book The Homework Myth).

An interesting discussion in NurtureShock is about how boredom is the source of many risky behaviours (e.g. drug use). But the problem might have to do with the overstimulating environment we are all in - the numbers of screens, the constant entertainment, and the assumption that every moment must be filled with entertainment. These aren't the assumptions made by 'entitled' young millennials, they are commercial pressures that companies are paying billions of dollars to saturate the cultural environment with. I'm reading Kim John Payne's book Simplicity Parenting in which he suggests that boredom is actually a 'gift', because most creative endeavours start from boredom.

It brings me back to my last post's discussion of Millennials. In addition to having to be called various names, these Millennials have also been through a more extensive array of standardized tests, are much more likely to have been diagnosed with some disorder (ADD, ODD, etc.), and medicated for these, than ever before. Again, this is not coming from the millennials, but it's been done to them - when they were children.

Last point for this blog entry: returning to the administrative/academic divide in the university, I read this essay by Jeff Noonan, that I mostly agree with, against the current push to define courses in terms of learning outcomes. Noonan argues that learning outcomes "are either redundant (doing nothing but state the obvious, i.e., that a class on Greek philosophy will cover Greek philosophy, and a class that involves essay writing will enable students to learn how to write essays), or useless (if what they aim to measure is something like love of thinking, which is an inner disposition and not subject to quantitative measure)." What I like about Noonan's essay is he also describes what a good learning environment is and does: "Every class in which the love of thinking is cultivated must be a class in which the interaction between teacher and students lives through the collective effort to open to question a purportedly settled issue, to see how these solutions came to be, what alternatives they excluded, and what alternatives might be better (as well as what constitutes a “better” solution)."

What I wonder about though is, that doesn't this critique of learning outcomes also extend to grades? It seems to me that an ideal learning environment would be one in which people would be there solely because they wanted to be, studying something because it's intrinsically interesting to them, working with others because that is a better way to learn than alone. Beyond what's needed to give the teacher a livelihood and the space open, tuition fees get in the way of this, and so do grades and credentials. A big part of the university's social role is to give grades, degrees, and credentials, but I do wonder if these are not in conflict with the freedom that's needed to learn much of the time.

Imagining education without grades, homework, tests, not competing with a saturated media environment, not intended as a for-profit enterprise or as many for-profit enterprises... it's not easy, but to really have a wide-ranging discussion of the problems of education we should open up the parameters as widely as possible.