In their zeal to produce self-regulating, calm, marshmallow-postponing students, schools are failing non-conformists, writes Elizabeth Weil in The New Republic. Do we want a generation of Stepford Kids?
In the infamous Stanford marshmallow experiment in the late ’60s, nursery school kids were left in a room with a marshmallow and told that if they didn’t eat it they’d get two marshmallows later. One third were able to defer gratification. The tots with self-control went on, “or so the psychologists say, to show the straight-and-narrow qualities required to secure life’s sweeter and more elusive prizes: high SAT scores, money, health,” Weil writes.
Her daughter is not a marshmallow kid. In second grade at a private school, she resisted “the sit-still, raise-your-hand-to-speak-during-circle-time program.” The teacher didn’t discipline her. He recommended occupational therapy. Teachers don’t punish, Weil writes. They “pathologize.”
She met a Seattle mother whose son was referred for testing because he had trouble sitting crossed-legged. The mother “learned every one of the boys in her son’s class had been referred out for testing.”
Another family, determined to resist such intervention, paid for an outside therapist to provide expert testimony to their son’s Oakland school stating that he did not have a mental health disorder. “We wanted them to hear from the therapist directly: He’s fine,” the mother said. “Being a very strong-willed individual—that’s a powerful gift that’s going to be unbelievably awesome someday.”
Punishing students for misbehavior has been “problematic” for teachers since the 1975 Goss decision, says Jonathan Zimmerman, an education historian at New York University. The Supreme Court found that schoolchildren have due process rights. “As a result, students can say to teachers with some authority, ‘If you do that, my mom is going to sue you.’ And that changes the score.”
Instead of controlling students through rewards and punishments, teachers are supposed to get students to control themselves. Social and emotional learning (SEL) teaches self-regulation to produce a “good student, citizen, and worker” who won’t use drugs, fight, bully or drop out.
However, there’s no evidence SEL improves academic achievement, Weil writes. Meanwhile, as small children are expected to show more self-control, diagnoses of attention- deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are soaring.
When I asked Zimmerman, the New York University education historian, if schools had found a way to deal with discipline in the wake of the students-rights movement, he said: “Oh we have. It’s called Ritalin.”
The push for self-regulation coincides with a sharp decline in measures of independent thinking, Weil writes.
The Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking judge originality, emotional expressiveness, humor, intellectual vitality, open-mindedness, and ability to synthesize and elaborate on ideas. Since 1984, the scores of America’s schoolchildren have dropped by more than one standard deviation; that is to say, 85 percent of kids scored lower in 2008 than their counterparts did in 1984.
Suppressing feelings is mentally draining, according to Stanford Professor James Gross, author of the Handbook of Emotional Regulation.
The federally funded Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports is pushing its model for social-emotional learning, pre-empting other ideas, some educators complain.
Self-regulation and “grit” may be “lost in translation” in the classroom, writes Sarah Sparks on Ed Week‘s Inside School Research.