[E]ven with good curricula and teaching methods you are still facing pupils with bad attitudes, poor motivation and atrocious behavior. There is something very wrong with the school culture. I am more and more convinced that decades of progressive, child-centered education (and the consequent demotion of the teacher) fosters this bad culture.
Educators have taken their eye off the ball. Instead of focusing on outcomes, educators want to focus on the process of education. When you focus on process, learning may or may not take place. When process is the focus of education, there are no winners or losers because no one is keeping score. We're all familiar with this lack of accountability meme.
But today I want to discuss the nasty side effect of stressing process instead of outcomes alluded to by Instructivist -- the unintended, but entirely predictable, consequences of social promotion: student apathy and misbehavior.
Social promotion is a byproduct of focusing on process instead of outcomes. When there is no agreed upon outcome that can be reliably measured, there is no choice but to keep moving children ahead regardless of their skill level. And, it doesn't help that there is some touchy-feely junk science research out there claiming that kids are more likely to drop out if they are held back. In recent years, accountability measures have cut back on this pernicious practice somewhat, but it still thrives in most schools.
Vicki Snider has written about the dynamic:
When there is no accountability, students are unlikely to put forth their best effort. This is especially true at the high school level. It is the rare adolescent who is intrinsically motivated to do well in school, and those that lack the basic skills and background knowledge necessary for success are even less motivated. No one is intrinsically motivated to do things he or she is not very good at. Eighty-one percent of the American public said that students achieve only a small part of their potential (Johnson, et al. 2003; Rose & Gallup, 2001) and even students seem to recognize that fact. Public Agenda found that 71% of students readily admitted that they do the minimum to get by and 56% said that they could try a little harder (Johnson & Farkus, 1997) and a Metlife (Markow & Scheer, 2002) survey found that 73% of students agreed that students in their school do only enough work to get by.
Well, no friggin' duh.
Incentives matter. That's why communist economies fail at a fast rate and socialist economies also fail but at a slower rate. The rate of economic failure is inversely proportional to the amount of incentives to work removed from the system. When you're giving "to each according to their means" and only asking "from each according to their abilities," you create a perverse incentive to do as little as possible. The lefties who control education, haven't learned this economic lesson yet. (In fact, they have no incentive to learn it--to continue my analogy).
Grade inflation only exacerbates the problem. Getting good grades for doing very little just feeds the fire and gives students an inflated sense of achievement. Students end up thinking they know a lot more than they really know. The chickens won't come home to roost until college or their first job when performance is finally demanded and excuses cease to be available.
And here's the kicker.
While no student is served well by focusing on process instead of outcomes, it is the students who arrive at school the least well prepared for academic learning who suffer the worst effects.
Snider is on it again:
One might think that de-emphasizing specific content in favor of thinking skills would benefit smart, curious youngsters regardless of their socioeconomic status or cultural background--but it turns out that 's not true. Children who come from homes where education is not stressed or where the parents are uneducated themselves are less likely to acquire the background knowledge that they need to achieve school success.
This is not intuitively obvious (unless you read this blog regularly), so allow me to explain.
In order to learn, you need to comprehend. Comprehension is highly dependent on your background knowledge. The more you know about what you are trying to learn the better and more easily you will learn it. This underlying knowledge is background knowledge. Those who lack it are at a serious disadvantage when it comes to learning.
Being a curious youngster, means you are willing to learn which means you are willing to use your working memory to think about something for a period of time. But to actually learn this new thought requires that you understand the new thought well enough to find a place where it fits in your long term memory. To do this, however, requires that you not exceed the limited capacity of your working memory. You manage this feat by marshaling the resources stored in your long term memory, i.e., your background knowledge, to expand the capacity of your working memory and allow you to finish your thought. If you can't finish your thought, you're not going to learn, no matter how curious you are.
Background knowledge is critical to higher levels of learning. The acquisition of background knowledge becomes increasing reliant upon the reading of books. Most books used for "reading to learn" are written at a fourth grade level or above. The vocabulary in these fourth grade books and above tend to contain words that are seldom contained in everyday speech, including on the television. Vocabulary (and the underlying concepts) is merely background knowledge.
Traditionally, schools have been designed to educate the middle class. This means that schools could rely on the students family to impart the vocabulary and oral concept knowledge needed to read at a fourth grade level. Such knowledge is not forthcoming in lower class families. And, most schools have never taken on this responsibility. Right out of the starting blocks, disadvantaged are in a position where it is impossible for them to learn by the time they hit fourth grade.
Focusing on the process of education has created perfect storm conditions in most schools, but especially the schools in which the students have low levels of background knowledge. It's a two-pronged pincer attack:
Prong one: Removing the incentives to learn and the consequences of not learning, creates apathy. Apathy breeds misbehavior and defiance. Misbehaving, apathetic kids are difficult to teach.
Prong Two: Not caring about the content of what is learned, reduces the the already slow process of accumulating background knowledge. Failure to acquire background knowledge reduces the student's ability to learn new stuff. This reduction of capacity to learn increases the effort level required to learn. Kids who find it difficult to learn are difficult to teach.
When the prongs come together in an environment of social promotion under a teaching pedagogy that downplays the importance of teaching content, you have the perfect positive feedback loop: apathetic misbehaving kids with insufficient background knowledge who have no incentive to put effort into learning and who find learning increasingly difficult.
Welcome to hell.