Old-Fashioned Education Works

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

Joanne Lipman explains why we should bring back old-fashioned education, with strict discipline and unyielding demands — because it works:

1. A little pain is good for you.

Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson gained fame for his research showing that true expertise requires about 10,000 hours of practice, a notion popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers.” But an often-overlooked finding from the same study is equally important: True expertise requires teachers who give “constructive, even painful, feedback,” as Dr. Ericsson put it in a 2007 Harvard Business Review article. He assessed research on top performers in fields ranging from violin performance to surgery to computer programming to chess. And he found that all of them “deliberately picked unsentimental coaches who would challenge them and drive them to higher levels of performance.”

2. Drill, baby, drill.

Rote learning, long discredited, is now recognized as one reason that children whose families come from India (where memorization is still prized) are creaming their peers in the National Spelling Bee Championship. This cultural difference also helps to explain why students in China (and Chinese families in the U.S.) are better at math. Meanwhile, American students struggle with complex math problems because, as research makes abundantly clear, they lack fluency in basic addition and subtraction — and few of them were made to memorize their times tables.

William Klemm of Texas A&M University argues that the U.S. needs to reverse the bias against memorization. Even the U.S. Department of Education raised alarm bells, chastising American schools in a 2008 report that bemoaned the lack of math fluency (a notion it mentioned no fewer than 17 times). It concluded that schools need to embrace the dreaded “drill and practice.”

3. Failure is an option.

Kids who understand that failure is a necessary aspect of learning actually perform better. In a 2012 study, 111 French sixth-graders were given anagram problems that were too difficult for them to solve. One group was then told that failure and trying again are part of the learning process. On subsequent tests, those children consistently outperformed their peers.

The fear, of course is that failure will traumatize our kids, sapping them of self-esteem. Wrong again. In a 2006 study, a Bowling Green State University graduate student followed 31 Ohio band students who were required to audition for placement and found that even students who placed lowest “did not decrease in their motivation and self-esteem in the long term.” The study concluded that educators need “not be as concerned about the negative effects” of picking winners and losers.

4. Strict is better than nice.

What makes a teacher successful? To find out, starting in 2005 a team of researchers led by Claremont Graduate University education professor Mary Poplin spent five years observing 31 of the most highly effective teachers (measured by student test scores) in the worst schools of Los Angeles, in neighborhoods like South Central and Watts. Their No. 1 finding: “They were strict,” she says. “None of us expected that.”

The researchers had assumed that the most effective teachers would lead students to knowledge through collaborative learning and discussion. Instead, they found disciplinarians who relied on traditional methods of explicit instruction, like lectures. “The core belief of these teachers was, ‘Every student in my room is underperforming based on their potential, and it’s my job to do something about it — and I can do something about it,’” says Prof. Poplin.

She reported her findings in a lengthy academic paper. But she says that a fourth-grader summarized her conclusions much more succinctly this way: “When I was in first grade and second grade and third grade, when I cried my teachers coddled me. When I got to Mrs. T’s room, she told me to suck it up and get to work. I think she’s right. I need to work harder.”

5. Creativity can be learned.

The rap on traditional education is that it kills children’s’ creativity. But Temple University psychology professor Robert W. Weisberg’s research suggests just the opposite. Prof. Weisberg has studied creative geniuses including Thomas Edison, Frank Lloyd Wright and Picasso — and has concluded that there is no such thing as a born genius. Most creative giants work ferociously hard and, through a series of incremental steps, achieve things that appear (to the outside world) like epiphanies and breakthroughs.

Prof. Weisberg analyzed Picasso’s 1937 masterpiece Guernica, for instance, which was painted after the Spanish city was bombed by the Germans. The painting is considered a fresh and original concept, but Prof. Weisberg found instead that it was closely related to several of Picasso’s earlier works and drew upon his study of paintings by Goya and then-prevalent Communist Party imagery. The bottom line, Prof. Weisberg told me, is that creativity goes back in many ways to the basics. “You have to immerse yourself in a discipline before you create in that discipline. It is built on a foundation of learning the discipline, which is what your music teacher was requiring of you.”

6. Grit trumps talent.

In recent years, University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth has studied spelling bee champs, Ivy League undergrads and cadets at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. — all together, over 2,800 subjects. In all of them, she found that grit — defined as passion and perseverance for long-term goals — is the best predictor of success. In fact, grit is usually unrelated or even negatively correlated with talent.

Prof. Duckworth, who started her career as a public school math teacher and just won a 2013 MacArthur “genius grant,” developed a “Grit Scale” that asks people to rate themselves on a dozen statements, like “I finish whatever I begin” and “I become interested in new pursuits every few months.” When she applied the scale to incoming West Point cadets, she found that those who scored higher were less likely to drop out of the school’s notoriously brutal summer boot camp known as “Beast Barracks.” West Point’s own measure — an index that includes SAT scores, class rank, leadership and physical aptitude — wasn’t able to predict retention.

Prof. Duckworth believes that grit can be taught. One surprisingly simple factor, she says, is optimism — the belief among both teachers and students that they have the ability to change and thus to improve. In a 2009 study of newly minted teachers, she rated each for optimism (as measured by a questionnaire) before the school year began. At the end of the year, the students whose teachers were optimists had made greater academic gains.

7. Praise makes you weak…

My old teacher Mr. K seldom praised us. His highest compliment was “not bad.” It turns out he was onto something. Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck has found that 10-year-olds praised for being “smart” became less confident. But kids told that they were “hard workers” became more confident and better performers.

“The whole point of intelligence praise is to boost confidence and motivation, but both were gone in a flash,” wrote Prof. Dweck in a 2007 article in the journal Educational Leadership. “If success meant they were smart, then struggling meant they were not.”

8.…while stress makes you strong.

A 2011 University at Buffalo study found that a moderate amount of stress in childhood promotes resilience. Psychology professor Mark D. Seery gave healthy undergraduates a stress assessment based on their exposure to 37 different kinds of significant negative events, such as death or illness of a family member. Then he plunged their hands into ice water. The students who had experienced a moderate number of stressful events actually felt less pain than those who had experienced no stress at all.

“Having this history of dealing with these negative things leads people to be more likely to have a propensity for general resilience,” Prof. Seery told me. “They are better equipped to deal with even mundane, everyday stressors.”

Prof. Seery’s findings build on research by University of Nebraska psychologist Richard Dienstbier, who pioneered the concept of “toughness” — the idea that dealing with even routine stresses makes you stronger. How would you define routine stresses? “Mundane things, like having a hardass kind of teacher,” Prof. Seery says.


  1. Dirk says:

    The US desperately needs to wake up to this kind of information, especially 2, 3 & 4. I’ve seen this myself, up close and personal. Students at the elementary school level are not taught and drilled in basic arithmetic. They’re taught, instead, 6 different ways to solve math problems – no exaggeration. When I was in school, there was constant drilling on times tables. We spent weeks and weeks learning that, and learning simple arithmetic.

    My daughter struggled with math, not because she couldn’t understand the higher concepts, but because it would take her hours to do her nightly homework, because she had to laboriously work out the arithmetic portion of the work, as she never learned times tables and basic arithmetic. We tried to help her overcome that, drilling her with flash cards, and it helped, to some extent – but it was hard to make up for the huge hole in her basic math education on our own.

    Fortunately, my son either got a better teacher, or just has more basic aptitude for math, as he was able to learn his times tables and is actually taking math classes from the next grade up. It was almost funny when we were drilling our daughter on times tables – we had to make him leave the room, as he was better at them than she was, and she’s two years older than him.

    The comments on self-esteem are 100% dead-on, in my opinion…Self-esteem that’s earned is much healthier than self-esteem that’s handed to kids.

    And definitely right about strict teachers. The ones I remember best and most fondly are the ones that expected a lot out of their students, who exercised strict discipline, among other qualities.

    The state of classrooms these days is appalling to me. We’d have maybe one class clown, at most, in any given class, while everyone else was there to learn. And even the class clown would buckle down and behave. Now, from what my kids tell me, most everyone in the class is acting up, and the teachers have been rendered powerless to control their classes. Detention? A joke, with no real stigma, no real consequence. It’s more of an inconvenience to the parents than anything. Suspension? Whee! Vacation time! Bring back the paddle, and bring back parents who are willing to punish the kids in addition to whatever the school did!

  2. Al Fin says:

    These are good rules of thumb. But the modern school system is designed around one form of learning — semantic declarative — which is only one part of the foundation that kids need.

    We have learned a lot about the neuroscience of learning since the 1800s, when modern factory-style assembly line education was devised.

    Are we trying to create an optimal learning environment which prepares children for a real life on their own terms, or are we trying to re-create some form of “golden age of education” where every child sat still and did his ciphers and became a good little cog in the machine devised by his betters?

    Age-segregating kids from the age of 5 to 18, separating them from the adult world of responsibility, treating them like little passive “knowledge receptacles” — while multiple critical developmental windows are closing shut, and their possibilities slip away . . . That is an unwise approach, no matter how well kids are forced to adapt to it.

    An a la carte approach to education is long overdue, getting away from the assembly line and moving to a bistro with virtually unlimited selections.

  3. Slovenian Guest says:

    Any thoughts on Charlotte Iserbyt and her book
    The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America? (The link goes to the full ebook pdf)

    For being in her eighties she is a remarkably sharp lady, as seen in this two hours long interview where she talks about how the socialist-collectivist state of education came to be, and how the system works to eliminate the influences of parents, religion, morals, national patriotism, merit…

    It is almost like a tie-in to Bezmenovs lecture on subversion.

  4. Candide III says:

    Japan has experimented with US-style teaching since the 80s. It was called yutori kyouiku (education which leaves elbow room). The Japanese considered that they had made their place in the world and now they could take pressure off their children. In the beginning, they reduced hours and amount of material to be studied, and re-focused education on ‘enrichment’ and ‘elbow room’. In the first half of the 90s they added a focus on student individuality, lifelong learning and flexibility in the face of globalization and informatization, and again reduced hours and material. However, all this was just scratching the surface and real yutori kicked off in 2002. Hours and material were reduced by 30% and there was now no school on Saturdays. A ‘synthesis learning’ period was added, and absolute-scale evaluation was introduced. Then, in 2004, the 2003 PISA and TIMSS results were published and the roof fell in. The next ministry demanded changes to the national curriculum. The 2006 PISA and TIMSS results served to underscore the gravity of the situation, and in 2008 the national curriculum was overhauled, purging most of yutori from schools over the 2011-2014 period.

  5. Alrenous says:

    +1 to Al Fin.

    If schools taught anything worth knowing, it might be worth haggling over how exactly to teach it. But a school that taught useful stuff would look entirely different, and wouldn’t serve the paymaster’s goals.

  6. Lucklucky says:

    Not everyone is equal.

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