Justifying Bad Educational Practices: pt 1

I came across this article and thought to share it here. Part two follows in the next post because it's quite long.

Getting Hit on the Head Lessons
Justifying Bad Educational Practices as Preparation for More of the Same
By Alfie Kohn

Suppose you have a negative reaction to a certain educational practice but you’re unable to come up with any good reasons to justify your opposition. All is not lost: You can always play the “human nature” card. Never mind whether it’s a good thing to help students become caring and compassionate, for example, or to work at reversing segregation. Simply assert that everyone is ultimately driven by self-interest, or that people naturally prefer to be with their own kind. Presto! All efforts to bring about change can now be dismissed as well-meaning but unrealistic.

Conversely, no logic or data are necessary when you find a practice you happen to like. Just insist that what you favor is rooted in the natural inclination of our species. A search of the archives of this very publication reveals that various individuals have taken this tack in support of many different policies, including standardized testing (“It’s just human nature that when performance is measured, performance improves”) and extrinsic incentives (“Human nature . . . has always demanded, for peak performance, a potential reward consistent with effort put forth”). A lack of interest in school policies on the part of parents, a resistance to change on the part of teachers, even the practice of holding adolescent boys back a year to enhance their athletic prospects (“redshirting”) have all been casually attributed to human nature.

While such assertions are never accompanied by evidence (presumably because it doesn’t exist), they do prove remarkably effective at shutting down discussion. Those against whom this rhetorical ploy is used find themselves stymied because it’s not easy to defend something utopian, or to oppose something unavoidable.

Here’s another option for those who would rather not have to offer a substantive defense of their views: In response to a humane and respectful educational practice, they can say, “Yeah, but what’s going to happen to these kids when they learn that life isn’t like that?” Invoking a dismal future, like invoking human nature, can work both ways – to attack practices one opposes and also to promote practices one prefers. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard someone respond to the charge that a certain policy is destructive by declaring that children are going to experience it eventually, so they need to be prepared.

This kind of reasoning is especially popular where curriculum is concerned. Even if a lesson provides little intellectual benefit, students may have to suffer through it anyway because someone decided it will get them ready for what they’re going to face in the next grade. Lilian Katz, a specialist in early childhood education, refers to this as “vertical relevance,” and she contrasts it with the horizontal kind in which students’ learning is meaningful to them at the time because it connects to some other aspect of their lives.

Vertical justifications are not confined to the primary grades, however. Countless middle school math teachers spend their days reviewing facts and algorithms, not because this is the best way to promote understanding or spark interest, but solely because students will be expected to know this stuff when they get to high school. Even good teachers routinely engage in bad instruction lest their kids be unprepared when more bad instruction comes their way.

In addition to forcing educators to teach too much too early, the current Tougher Standards craze has likewise emphasized a vertical rationale – in part because of its reliance on testing. Here, too, we find that “getting them ready” is sufficient reason for doing what would otherwise be seen as unreasonable. Child development experts are nearly unanimous in denouncing the use of standardized testing with young children. One Iowa principal conceded that many teachers, too, consider it “insane” to subject first graders to a 4½-hour test. However, she adds, “they need to get used to it” – an imperative that trumps all objections. In fact, why wait until first grade? A principal in California uses the identical phrase to justify testing kindergarteners: “Our philosophy is, the sooner we start giving these students tests like the Stanford 9, the sooner they’ll get used to it.”

What we might call the BGUTI principle -- “Better Get Used To It” – is applied to other practices, too:

* Traditional grading has been shown to reduce quality of learning, interest in learning, and preference for challenging tasks. But the fact that students’ efforts will be reduced to a letter or number in the future is seen as sufficient justification for giving them grades in the present.

* The available research fails to find any benefit, either academic or attitudinal, to the practice of assigning homework to elementary school students. Yet even educators who know this is true often fall back on the justification that homework – time-consuming, anxiety-provoking, and pointless though it may be -- will help kids get used to doing homework when they’re older. One researcher comes close to saying that the more unpleasant (and even unnecessary) the assignment, the more valuable it is by virtue of teaching children to cope with things they don’t like.

* Setting children against one another in contests, so that one can’t succeed unless others fail, has demonstrably negative effects -- on psychological health, relationships, intrinsic motivation, and achievement – for winners and losers alike. No matter: Young children must be made to compete because – well, you get the idea.

**continued in the next post**