The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"All truth, in the long run, is only common sense clarified."... ...Thomas Henry Huxley.

"Common-sense appears to be only another name for the thoughtlessness of the unthinking."... ...W. Somerset Maugham.

Commentary of the Day - January 27, 2005:  Embracing Common Sense.  Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

Public education has problems, but many of the problems at school aren't really at school.  They're alive and well at home or thriving in society at large.  More kids come from single parent households, or families with multiple divorces or serial relationships -- an upheaval that distresses hosts of children who show up in class every day.  When I was a kid, everybody knew that little Bobby wasn't himself because his dad had died.  Multiply that effect a thousand fold.

American society is less civil than it used to be.  You can see this everywhere from supermarkets and traffic lights to prime-time television and political campaigns.  We're also more brazen, self-absorbed, and complacent.  Our sense of entitlement dwarfs our sense of duty.  We're obsessed with our rights, but we are far less concerned about our obligations.  Self-reliance is obsolete, and gratitude is nearly extinct.  Too many of us really think that the world owes us a living, and more.

All these ills spill over into the classroom.

On the other hand, schools are far from blameless when it comes to the downward spiral of academic achievement.  Part of the problem is we've succumbed to some pretty crazy ideas.  Consider the expert who's concluded that there's no such thing as native intelligence and that all kids are gifted and talented.  This breathtakingly ludicrous notion was mainstream enough that the National Education Association lauded him as a spotlighted "innovator."  Then there's the professor who contends that teaching kids about American history is an unnecessary, "hollow mission" because half of us don't vote and kids don't care anyway.  Or how about the superintendent who decreed that schools don't need English classes anymore since students already use English in their other subjects.  This, by the way, was his remedy for high school graduates who can't read and write well.

Follies like these really do factor into school goals and policies.  One contemporary guru, Marvin Marshall, promotes a packaged approach to classroom management he bills as "discipline without stress."  According to Dr. Marshall's rose-colored theory of human nature, it's wrong and old-fashioned to think that the "average person" or student will avoid work if he can.  As for misbehavior, classroom discipline is simply a matter of cultivating and appealing to kid'í "internal desires," which apparently will miraculously coincide with our own as long as we don't try to coerce them into agreeing with us.  Instead of asking, "How do we get these kids to behave?" we are supposed to "support" students as they "learn to channel and direct their positive energy in ways that accomplish their goals and those of their community."


Dr. Marshall doesn't believe in punishments or rewards because they're too "external."  For example, it's wrong to tell a kid to sit at the table till he eats his Brussels sprouts.  Instead, you tell him he can play with his friends when he eats them.  In case you're confused, this is not a reward.  It's a "contingency."  Contingencies are good.

Dr. Marshall concedes that sometimes "consequences are necessary."  His secret to creating a "positive," humane learning environment is not telling students ahead of time what those consequences are, a bizarre tactic designed to make them too "insecure" to misbehave.  When somebody does misbehave, you ask him to name an appropriate consequence.  This gives him "ownership."  Then you reply, "What else?  What else?" until he comes up with what you want him to say.  This is supposed to make him think you weren't the one who punished him.

Discipline doesn't have to smack of tyranny.  There are ways to deal with misbehavior that breed less resentment and rebellion than others.  You can be fair.  You can be friendly.  Sometimes you can even have a sense of humor.  Anyone who's been stopped by a cop knows this.  But no matter how polite and reasonable the officer, I never drove away assuming I gave myself the ticket.  Kids aren't that dumb either.

Dr. Marshall's assumptions about human nature are muddled, but his recommendations for running a classroom are even more unsound.  If a kid launches a paper airplane during class, he suggests stopping the class, praising the kid for his airplane design, and then allowing him to teach everybody else in the class how to make paper airplanes, following which everybody goes outside to fly them.  If a student is slumping in his chair, the teacher should also slump to establish "rapport."  If a kid keeps tapping his pencil, you can "redirect the object to the studentís thigh."  An alternative less likely to prompt a lawsuit is to tap your pencil, too.  After a while you slow down and tap softer until hopefully both of you stop.

Dr. Marshall's system involves four levels of behavior.  Level B isn't good.  When a student disrupts the class, you're supposed to stop the class and ask him what level he's operating at.  In case the kid won't tell you, the doctor offers sample scripts for guidance.  My favorite ends with the teacher asking, "What letter comes after A?"  When the kid answers, "B," the teacher just says, "Thank you."  According to the doctor, "the objective has been met; level B behavior has been acknowledged."

Unfortunately, getting the offender to say the letter B wasn't really the objective.  Getting him to stop wasting everybody else's time was, and all we've accomplished is to help him waste more of it.  Just so you know, Dr. Marshall disagrees.  He insists that "time is not wasted" by his method.

Imagine the cumulative effect of three hundred pages of this, presented as valid in teacher training classes and inservice workshops across the country.

Schools and teachers are often accused of being slow to change with the times.  The truth is we've more often been too willing to change, too eager to follow every pied piping expert and snake oil peddler.

We've embraced enough folly.  We need instead to stand for common sense.  When it comes to school reform, this would be a good first step.

It won't be easy.

But it will surely help.

©2005 Peter Berger
Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, VT.  Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer messages sent to him via the Irascible Professor.

The IP comments: Saying that "all kids are gifted and talented" is a bit like saying that all kids are above average.  In a vacuous sense everyone is gifted and talented at something -- for example, some kids are gifted and talented at avoiding work, and some are gifted and talented at wasting time -- but this does not make them truly gifted or truly talented for these statements mean having gifts or talents that are exceptional.  Why is it that some of our educators take such great delight in demeaning that concept?

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