The Great Connections Seminar

The Great Connections Seminar
Discussing ethics

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Graduation Rate Myth

Robert Weissburg, professor of Political Science at Cornell, gives a stunning indictment of student irresponsibility in this John W. Pope foundation article, and some of the reasons faculty put up with it.

What he doesn't analyze are the psychological effects of their previous twelve years of schooling. The flaws in lower education are rife; I can't go into them all. But I'd like to examine two which have devastating effects and are directly related to the kind of behavior Weissburg laments:
  • False self-esteem-building practices
  • Test-driven instruction
First, the mis-directed ideas of phony self-esteem dominant in the last 20-30 years has encouraged teachers and parents to praise children regardless of accomplishments or effort. This practice seems to be motivated by at least two beliefs:
  1. Children's egos are so delicate they cannot withstand any negative feedback from others.
  2. Children cannot develop self-esteem without continuous praise from others.
In fact, a large portion of solid self-esteem results from achieved competency as a result of hard work, and from the regular experience of failure.


Because failure will always be a normal part of life and if a child does not learn how to overcome failures and continue to strive for his or her goals, that child will have a very difficult time in adulthood.

A child who has a false sense of self-worth and efficacy, and little experience with overcoming failure, is extremely vulnerable to depression, drugs, and suicide when faced with the actual problems of life because he or she is, in fact, incompetent. No amount of praise will overshadow those facts.

Optimally, parents and teachers encourage students to work hard at their learning, while modeling and expecting serious achievement, and giving praise for actual accomplishments. Negative feedback should be factual and task-oriented - "Here's where the equation has an error" - not directed at the child - "You should know better than to write the equation like that; here, this is how it should be."

In a Montessori classroom, self-development and self-esteem are achieved by mastering the work. The materials through which learning is accomplished are designed to be just hard enough to be challenging, but not so hard as to be impossible to master. At the same time, they are just the kinds of things children find fascinating to do, given their level of development. All this results in flow experiences for children, making them highly motivated to work.

Here is a video that illustrates how young children (3-6 years old) develop their sense, motor, and observational skills through the materials:

 And here's a video illustrating the mathematics curriculum:

The older a child gets, the more advanced and complicated the materials, until he or she is competently working abstractly, but with a rock-solid foundation in reality through previous work with concrete materials. Here's a video about the elementary level: (embedding wasn't allowed).

and one about the arithmetic of fractions, usually the hardest and least-understood arithmetical operation:

This kind of work develops happy, competent, self-directed individuals who want to learn.

And one of the other elements that makes this possible is the competency-driven curriculum that does NOT center on standardized testing.

Which leads back to Weissburg's complaints: the second major element motivating poor student behavior has been the inordinate emphasis on standardized tests these past 20 years.

Schools, teachers, and students have been rewarded on test scores alone - not actual learning or competent teaching. Students are talked at, not engaged in the learning. Teachers feed information (not understanding) and students learn that all they need to know is what's necessary to score well on tests.

So are we surprised that's all they're interested in? That they just want to "get through" the class and will find any way to do that efficiently and economically? That they don't respect their teachers - that they're not oriented to understanding the material? They have not been encouraged to be invested in learning or in achieving the actual competency of understanding.

I lament the situation with Weissburg, because of the enormous wasted time and potential - and worry whether they will be able to learn enough as adults to overcome these handicaps.

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