Tough teachers are the best

book

Tough teachers teach more, writes Joanne Lipman in the Wall Street Journal. Lipman is co-author, with Melanie Kupchynsky, of Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations.

The book is a paean to Jerry Kupchynsky, a Ukrainian immigrant who taught orchestra at a New Jersey high school for 40 years.  He “called his students ‘idiots’ when they screwed up.” They loved him.

Today’s teachers “are supposed to tease knowledge out of students, rather than pound it into their heads,” writes Lipman. ”There is something to be said about a teacher who is demanding and tough not because he thinks students will never learn but because he is so absolutely certain that they will.”

Mr. K’s former students were successful in a variety of fields.

 ”He taught us discipline,” explained a violinist who went on to become an Ivy League-trained doctor. “Self-motivation,” added a tech executive who once played the cello. “Resilience,” said a professional cellist. “He taught us how to fail—and how to pick ourselves up again.”

Lipman believes in eight principles of learning.

1. A little pain is good for you.
2. Drill, baby, drill.
3. Failure is an option.
4. Strict is better than nice.
5. Creativity can be learned.
6. Grit trumps talent.
7. Praise makes you weak . . .
8. While stress makes you strong.

Plenty of today’s teachers are strict, demanding character builders, responds Nancy Flanagan, a veteran music teacher. “Tough teachers get good results . . . when their students are emotionally prepared for intensive criticism,” she writes.

Lipman is a big fan of injecting failure into the classroom. Educators, she says, need “not be as concerned about the negative effects” of picking winners and losers, and cites a study where college musicians who placed low in auditions suffered no harm to their self-esteem.

Hey, I’ve no problem with voluntary competition–winning and losing on the volleyball court or the debate floor, vying for roles in the school play or college musical ensembles. I have witnessed first-hand, however, the corrosive effects of turning the classroom into a playing field, and every lesson and assignment into a contest. I abandoned the familiar practice of seating my band students in ability-based “chairs,” with these results: more kids in the program, more students accepting the challenge of individual solos and ensembles, higher levels of performance.

Students “who have coped with failure and adversity from the outset” are motivated by “a little honest success,” writes Flanagan. “Not more stress.”

ADHD or narcissism?

Many children diagnosed as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder may simply be slow to grow out of “normal childhood narcissism, writes psychologist Enrico Gnaulati in The Atlantic.

In the 1970s, a mere one percent of kids were considered ADHD. By the 1980s, three to five percent was the presumed rate, with steady increases into the 1990s. One eye-opening study showed that ADHD medications were being administered to as many as 17 percent of males in two school districts in southeastern Virginia in 1995.

ADHD symptoms — “problems listening, forgetfulness, distractibility, prematurely ending effortful tasks, excessive talking, fidgetiness, difficulties waiting one’s turn, and being action-oriented” — aren’t all that different from normal childhood challenges, he writes. In the past, a distractible, fidgety child would have been considered slower to mature and learn social skills. Now that child is quickly diagnosed with ADHD.

The core symptoms of ADHD resemble childhood narcissism, which is characterized by “overconfident self-appraisals, attention-craving, a sense of personal entitlement” and weak empathy for others, writes Gnaulati.

“Jonah” falls apart when he can’t master a task immediately. It could be a symptom of ADHD, writes Gnaulati. Perhaps he can’t retain the information needed. But it could be the “magical thinking” common for young children.

He believes mastering tasks should somehow be automatic—not the outcome of commitment, perseverance, and effort. Jonah’s self-esteem may also be so tenuous that it fluctuates greatly. For instance, when Jonah anticipates success, he productively cruises through work, eager to receive the recognition that he expects from parents and teachers. He is on a high. He definitely feels good about himself. But in the face of challenging work, he completely shuts down, expects failure, outside criticism, and wants to just give up.

“Parents who think their kid has ADHD often describe scenarios at home where the kid reacts to minor setbacks with bloodcurdling screams or to modest successes with over-the-top exuberance,” writes Gnaulati. For kids who really have ADHD, completing homework can be torture. But, for others, “dramatic displays of emotion are attempts to get out of tasks that warrant commitment, application, and effort.”

If parents give in, “these kids often do not acquire the emotional self-control necessary to buckle down and do academic work independently.”

I think the technical term is “spoiled brat.”

Gnaulati is the author of  Back to Normal, which is subtitled “why ordinary childhood behavior is mistaken for ADHD, bipolar disorder, and autism spectrum disorders.”

Brainy, introverted boys are over-diagnosed with autism, he writes in Salon. ”If we don’t have a firm grasp of gender differences in how young children communicate and socialize, we can mistake traditional masculine behavior for high-functioning autism.”

With no soccer ball, every child ‘wins’

According to the Soccer Association of Midlake, kids imaginations are runnign wild. (Steve DePolo/FLICKR)

According to the Soccer Association of Midlake, kids imaginations are running wild. (Steve DePolo/FLICKR)

Worried about too much competition, many Canadian youth soccer associations no longer keep score, reports This is That, a CBC radio show. Removing the soccer ball is even better, according to the Soccer Association of Midlake, Ontario.

Without a ball, “it’s absolutely impossible to say ‘this team won’ and ‘this team lost’ or ‘this child is better at soccer than that child,’” said Helen Dabney-Coyle. ”We want our children to grow up learning that sport is not about competition, rather it’s about using your imagination. If you imagine you’re good at soccer, then, you are.”

Is this for real? No, it’s satire. But it’s eerily close to plausible.

Millenials at work

If you’ve hired a “whiny, entitled, passive-aggressive, constantly offended new coworker who has an odd mixture of shaky self-esteem and an inflated sense of expertise,” here’s FAIL Blog’s training video.

The case against grades

Grades lower self-esteem, discourage creativity, and reinforce the class divide, argues Michael Thomsen on Slate.

. . .  the rigid and judgmental foundation of modern education is the origin point for many of our worst qualities, making it harder for many to learn because of its negative reinforcement, encouraging those who do well to gradually favor the reward of an A over the discovery of new ways of thinking, and reinforcing harsh class divides that are only getting worse as the economy idles.

In Ed Week’s Teacher, Kimber Larson, a sixth-grade teacher, advocates grading students on what they’ve learned, not on their behavior.

She doesn’t deduct points for late work or assign zeroes. However, “every assignment must be turned in, even if that means sacrificing their recess, special event, or class party until it’s completed.”

Instead of giving extra-credit points, she lets students redo assignments to show what they’ve learned, belatedly.

She grades only end-of-unit assessments.

It is a wonderful thing to see that my students feel safe to make mistakes as they discover, create, and grow throughout the learning process. Because I provide feedback instead of grades on their practice work and formative assessments, they aren’t focused on a score that will haunt them on their report card. The comments and corrections on practice work are much more meaningful than a grade, so they focus more on learning and appreciate the freedom to learn from their mistakes.

My daughter’s journalism teacher let students rewrite their stories, two or three times if necessary, to raise their grades. It was more work for the teacher, of course.

Broward County, Florida is considering eliminating the zero, making 50 the minimum grade for an uncompleted assignment.

Should grades be abolished? Based on learning rather than behavior?

Is 25 the new 15?

Twenty-five is becoming the new 15, argues Escaping the Endless Adolescence: How We Can Help Our Teenagers Grow Up Before They Grow Old.

Young people who’ve grown up in a responsibility-free “bubble” don’t know how to find a job, manage money, cook or care for themselves, write Joseph and Claudia Allen. They’ve been socialized by their peers, not by adults.

We’ve done away with “competition (too masculine, I suppose) and real-world feedback (kids need high self-esteem!),” writes Dr. Helen, a psychologist.

Young people spend more time as college students, often taking five or six years to earn a degree. If it’s a non-technical degree — or they never actually complete it — they’re likely to be living at home at 25.

High school is forever

High school is forever, writes Jennifer Senior in New York Magazine. Teens are stuck with an identity — nerd, princess, jock, brain, rebel — that sticks with them, in some form, even after they move into the adult world.

Until the Depression, most American adolescents worked alongside adults, Senior writes. Now they live in a world of adolescents that she calls “corrosive” and “traumatizing.”

Most American high schools are almost sadistically unhealthy places to send adolescents.

At the time they experience the most social fear, they have the least control; at the time they’re most sensitive to the impressions of others, they’re plunked into an environment where it’s treacherously easy to be labeled and stuck on a shelf. “Shame,” says Brené Brown, a researcher at the University of Houston, “is all about unwanted identities and labels. And I would say that for 90 percent of the men and women I’ve interviewed, their unwanted identities and labels started during their tweens and teens.”

In 2000, three psychologists asked tenth-graders which Breakfast Club they most considered themselves to be. At age 24, the self-evaluations were “immensely predictive,” according to Jacquelynne Eccles, one of the authors.

. . .  one datum was interesting: At 24, the princesses had lower self-esteem than the brainy girls, which certainly wasn’t true when they were 16. But Eccles sees no inconsistency in this finding. In fact, she suspects it will hold true when she completes her follow-up with the same sample at 40. “Princesses are caught up in this external world that defines who they are,” says Eccles, “whereas if brainy girls claim they’re smart, that probably is who they are.” While those brainy girls were in high school, they couldn’t rely on their strengths to gain popularity, perhaps, but they could rely on them as fuel, as sources of private esteem. Out of high school, they suddenly had agency, whereas the princesses were still relying on luck and looks and public opinion to carry them through, just as they had at 16. They’d learned passivity, and it’d stuck.

My identity was formed long before high school. People thought I was smart and funny. Since many of my classmates were Jewish, good students were admired, not teased. Middle school was socially challenging, but I survived. (I was voted “girl most likely to succeed” in eighth grade, though they didn’t specify in what.) High school was tracked, which I loved. I wrote for the school newspaper, yearbook, literary magazine and Student Stunts. Was it really that awful for the average kid? Perhaps I was just lucky.

Self-control, not self-esteem, leads to success

Does confidence really breed success?  “What’s really become prevalent over the last two decades is the idea that being highly self-confident – loving yourself, believing in yourself – is the key to success,” says psychologist Jean Twenge. ”Now the interesting thing about that belief is it’s widely held, it’s very deeply held, and it’s also untrue.”

About nine million young people have filled out the American Freshman Survey, since it began in 1966.

It asks students to rate how they measure up to their peers in a number of basic skills areas – and over the past four decades, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of students who describe themselves as being “above average” for academic ability, drive to achieve, mathematical ability and self-confidence.

More students say they’re gifted in writing ability, yet test scores show writing ability has gone down since the 1960s, says Twenge.

And while in the late 1980s, almost half of students said they studied for six or more hours a week, the figure was little over a third by 2009 – a fact that sits rather oddly, given there has been a rise in students’ self-proclaimed drive to succeed during the same period.

Self-esteem doesn’t lead to success, says Roy Baumeister, a Florida State professor who’s studied the topic for years. ”Self-control is much more powerful and well-supported as a cause of personal success,” he says.

In one study, university students who’d earned C, D and F grades “received encouragement aimed at boosting their self-worth.” They did worse than students with similar grades whose self-esteem had been left alone. ”An intervention that encourages [students] to feel good about themselves, regardless of work, may remove the reason to work hard,” writes Baumeister.

64 years after failing biology, a Nobel Prize

At the age of 15, John Gurdon ranked last in his biology class at Eton. “It would be a sheer waste of time” and “quite ridiculous” for Gurdon to pursue a career in science, wrote his teacher in 1949. “If he can’t learn simple biological facts he would have no chance of doing the work of a specialist.”

Sixty-four years later, Sir John Gurdon won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his research on stem cells.

The school report sits above his desk at the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge, which is named in his honour. It’s the only item the scientist has ever framed, reports The Telegraph.

The “blistering criticism” common 60 years ago may have been “more motivating – and helpful – than the consoling lies doled out to youngsters today,” writes Allison Pearson in Praising the school of hard knocks. The years after World War II were tough for Britain.

Telling children they were marvellous when they were bottom of the class and careless was not going to improve their chances.

By the Seventies, when I was at school, teachers were still allowed to write reports you could cut your hand on. “Allison has no interest and no ability in this subject,” observed my needlework teacher, a ferocious female with a face like a Ford Anglia. . . .

In today’s climate, Miss Harper would probably be suspended for damaging my self-esteem, even though she was absolutely right.

. . . We can already start to see where the Age of Praise has got us. Encouragement that fails to discriminate between the excellent and mediocre has been devalued. Our children have grown cocky and thin-skinned, poorly equipped to enter the global race . . .

By contrast, Max Davidson thinks teachers should encourage students, recalling that young Albert Einstein’s teacher predicted in 1895,  “He will never amount to anything.”

His daughter’s chemistry called her “a legend” when she was 15. “Her confidence rocketed – until she compared notes with her friends and found there had been five legends in one class.” Still, he prefers too much praise to dream-stomping criticism.

The Onion also takes on harsh teachers in Seeds of World War II Planted in Beijing Middle School Gym Class.

Red ink

When a former student was starting her first job as a teacher, Jessica Lahey gave her a fountain pen and bottles of red ink.

She sent a lovely thank you note – in red ink, of course – because she has to use all of that ink somewhere. It won’t, she reported, be used at school, because teachers at her new school are not allowed to correct student work in red ink.

Lahey asked around and discovered bans on red-ink corrections are common — and despised.

From a middle school teacher: “Gosh, heaven forbid we express any sort of disapproval!!”

. . . From a writer and teacher: “Why…. because it hurts kids’ feeeeeelings? Pardon me while I barf.”

. . . From a professor: “… boy can I tell which students have never seen red ink before. They also happen to be the same ones who have a nervous breakdown or have their parents call me when they get anything less than an A. One of them actually told me, ‘I don’t like it that you give edits in red ink. It makes me feel like I’m not perfect.’”

And again, from that same professor: “Two years ago, one of my students told me he preferred red-ink edits. He said it made him pay attention, and it made him see those edits as corrections and learning moments rather than just notes that he might’ve perceived as optional or not important.”

She found research by Abram Rutchick, a Cal State Northridge psychology professor, showing that people identify more errors and give lower grades when using a red pen, compared to those using a blue pen. NPR asked the professor what color pen he uses to grade papers. “I used a red pen, actually,” Rutchick said. “I have to override somehow my urge to be nice and kind.”

Yet Lahey is switching to green ink this year. “I had to recognize the possibility that I might be making my own students uncomfortable,” she writes.  She hopes students will accept feedback more readily in a color that doesn’t say, “You messed up.”

Or her students will come to fear green ink.