Alex Lickerman M.D.

Happiness in this World

Inverting Education

Why we're teaching children in reverse order of what we should

Posted May 01, 2011

Photo: Tulane Public Relations

Many of us probably remember our education in the following terms: a lot of useless information we'll never need to know (and by now probably don't remember) was drummed into us for the apparent sole purpose of advancing us to the next level, from grade school to junior high school, then junior high school to high school, and from high school to college. If there are bright spots, they're probably memories of particular teachers who inspired us, believed in us, or taught us something we actually do remember that has served us well. Rarely, however, do I hear people say any such cherished lesson was about Euclidean geometry or the periodic table of the elements. Usually, it was about believing in oneself, valuing oneself, learning to not give up when discouraged, or some other life skill that turned out to be as valuable to know now as it was then. Sadly, such life lessons seem taught and learned almost by accident, as if in a footnote only.

And yet if we turn to what research is now showing predicts future happiness and success, it's not any of the content we learned in our formal education. IQ and test-taking ability, which are still the means by which students excel in primary education, barely correlate at all with those more important aims. Rather, what best predicts success and happiness turns out to be things like a love of learning itself, resilience in the face of adversity, the ability to exert self-control and delay gratification, and the ability to work well with others and relate positively to the people around us.

Yet where do we learn these things? Rarely in formal education. Mostly from our parents and our peers, yielding, frankly, a highly varied mix of quality of teachers. What's most tragic about this is that research suggests a great opportunity is being wasted: many of these skills can-and in fact need to be-taught to us when we're young. We're teaching content early in life and form later when it should be the other way around.

Consider the pre-school program called Tools of the Mind as described in Po Bronson's and Ashley Merryman's marvelous book Nurtureshock:

When the class begins, the teacher tells the students they will be playing fire station. The previous week, they all learned about firemen, so now...the children choose what role they want to take on in the pretend scenario-pump driver, 911 operator, fireman, or family that needs to be rescued. Before the children begin to play, they each tell the teacher their choice of role. With the teacher's help, the children make individual "play plans." They all draw a picture of their chosen role, then they attempt to write it out as a sentence...then they go play, sticking to the role in their plan. The resulting play continues for a full 45 minutes, with children staying in character, self-motivated. If they get distracted or start to fuss, the teacher asks, "Is that in your play plan?" At the end, the teacher puts a CD on to play the "clean-up song." As soon as the music begins, the kids stop playing and start cleaning up-without another word from their teacher.

Overall, the Tools classrooms seem a little different, but not strange in any way...After pilot-testing the program in a few classrooms and Head Start centers, they put it to a true test in 1997, in cooperation with Denver Public these classrooms one-third to one-half of the children were poor Hispanic students who began the year classified as having limited English-language proficiency: they were starting kindergarten effectively a grade-level behind.

The following spring, all the children took national standardized tests. The results were jaw-dropping. The children from the Tools classes were now almost a full grade-level ahead of the national standard.

The books authors go on to describe the enormous behavior differences between children in the Tools classrooms and those in regular classrooms: "From the teachers in the regular classrooms, the principal got reports of extremely disruptive behavior almost every day...but those kinds of reports never came from the Tools classes."

Why does the Tools program works so well, not just in controlling behavior problems but in enhancing learning? One reasons seems to be the ability of the Tools program not to engage children in play but in sustained play. As the author's state, "The notion of being able to sustain one's own interest is considered a core building block in Tools." How, after all, can anyone learn if they can't maintain attention and focus? The brilliance of Tools is that it leverages play, something all kids want to do, to teach them the skills they need to be successful in life: self-control, abstract thinking, higher order thinking like self-reflection, and working well with others.

Another famous experiment conducted by Walter Mischel around 1970 demonstrates the value of self-control in future success in life. David Brooks describes the experiment in his book The Social Animal:

[Mischel] sat a series of four-year-olds in a room and put a marshmallow on the table. He told them they could eat the marshmallow right away, but that he was going to go away and if they waited until he returned he would give them two marshmallows. In the videos of the experiment you can see Mischel leave the room, and then the children squirming, kicking, hiding their eyes...trying not to eat the marshmallow in front of them...the significant thing is this: the kids who could wait several minutes subsequently did much better in school and had fewer behavioral problems than the kids who could wait only a few minutes. The kids who could wait a full fifteen minutes had, thirteen years later, SAT scores that were 210 points higher than the kids who could wait only thirty seconds...twenty years later, they had much higher college-completion rates, and thirty years later, they had much higher incomes. The kids who could not wait at all had much higher incarceration rates...and were much more likely to suffer from drug- and alcohol-addiction problems."

Not that higher incomes predict happiness all that well, but the differences here are striking: self-control is a key requirement for success in life by many measures. Why then hasn't formal education widely recognized its importance or the importance of teaching critical thinking and cooperation in the classrooms of the young?

I'm sure there are reasons for this. Perhaps it's the challenge of disseminating widespread change across large bureaucracies, or the shortage of funds for educational reform. But it seems to me enough evidence exists now that we should be focusing on teaching children different things than we are now, things like how to recognize their own cognitive biases and how to be on guard against them to improve their ability to reason. That we should be seeking ways to motivate children to learn by placing engaging challenges before them that at the same time require them to learn the skills we now know they need to be successful and happy in later life, rather than requiring them to memorize reams of disembodied facts unrelated to real-world problems that need solving. (In one example in Nurtureshock, children in a middle school were tasked with figuring out how to make a section of their library quieter, a task that completely engaged them and required them to think creatively and critically, to work together, and to learn about the physical properties of various materials. None of those children, I'd wager, would have said about the principles of physics they had to learn, "Why do we have to learn those?") Indeed, why not begin emphasizing content later in a student's educational life once they've developed a love of learning and allow them to gravitate to subjects they find interesting?

As I said at the beginning of this post, I'm certainly no educational expert, but the idea of inverting our current educational curriculum to some degree remains on my mind as I watch my own son at the beginning of his educational career.  We're barely even raising a generation of content-educated people.  What will happen to our society if the average person finds himself or herself with a significant deficit of self-control or ability to work with others?  I worry for our future.

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to visit Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.

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