Child-centered education vs. adult-centered test

A few months back, I got into a conversation about the concept — and consequences — of child-centered education with a colleague who teaches high school. Suffice it to say that neither of us is a particularly big fan of that approach, and the discussion was, for the most part, more cathartic than edifying. But then, halfway through the discussion, my friend commented that “child-centered” could not only be understood to refer to a type of education that is focused on children’s needs, but that it could also be interpreted to mean “education that is focused on being a child.”

That got my attention: as obvious as it seemed, I had never really considered that meaning before.

The word education means “to lead from” (Latin e = from + ducere = to lead). It contains a suggestion of movement — from ignorance to knowledge, and eventually from childhood to adulthood.

Teach is a transitive verb, which by definition requires two people — a leader must lead someone else — and it also implies a hierarchical relationship (in the best sense of the term) because a leader cannot be a leader without a follower. The very concept of child-driven education therefore strikes me as an oxymoron, not simply because it eliminates the student-teacher relationship that lies at the heart of the very concept of education, but also because children, being children, do not know what they do not know and thus cannot be expected to teach it to themselves.

That discussion came back to me as I read Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths About Education, a remarkable treatise/deconstruction/rant about the most pernicious beliefs on which the contemporary educational establishment is based.

Christodoulou trained and teaches in the UK, but a lot of what she says is equally applicable to American schools. (Although the ideological basis for the antipathy toward direct instruction differs somewhat in the two countries, in practice it manifests itself in much the same ways, with equally atrocious results.) Christodoulou makes the point that when students do nothing but project-based group work, they are effectively restricted to topics already familiar to them because they have not actually been taught anything new. Moreover, when they attempt to research new topics without having the necessary background knowledge or the vocabulary to filter what information is relevant, accurate, etc., they end up either confused and frustrated or flat-out misinformed.

Christodoulou cites one student who, assigned to write a report on the life of Dickens, confused the author’s life with that of Pip, the protagonist of Great Expectations — I realize that sounds impossible for anyone who hasn’t worked with with weak readers, but trust me, I’ve seen kids fall prey to similar types of confusion. After the first five or six times, I stopped getting surprised.

The end result is that schools, while attempting to teach students the skills they’ll need to succeed in the adult world, end up inadvertently short-circuting the entire educational process and keeping them children. And when it comes to Critical Reading, that is a very big problem indeed. Critical Reading [on the old SAT], you see, is the epitome of an adult-centered test: it covers topics from global warming to creative writing programs to Pauline Kael. There is little, if anything, that is directly relevant to most eleventh graders’ lives. Which means that if a student’s exposure to the adult world has been limited — if their teachers have gone out of their way to make everything relevant to teenagers’ lives — they’re in for a rough ride when it comes to the SAT. Even when they understand what the words are literally saying, they can’t make sense out of them because the concepts are so foreign. They often end up ignoring the text entirely and reducing what they’ve read to a familiar idea (everyone is really the same inside, so can’t we all just get along? Actors should try to be more creative to express their characters more effectively!) instead of trying to understand what it’s actually saying.

There’s a passage in the Official Guide in which the playwright and actress Anna Deaveare Smith talks about the limits of the traditional, psychologically-oriented approach to acting, a method that asks actors to transform themselves into characters by relating the characters to themselves. As Smith points out, the result for acting students was that the characters behaved exactly like the actors — there was nothing to distinguish actor from character, and all of the characters sounded the same. That passage flawlessly describes the limits of an education that never requires students to get past themselves and deal with other people’s ideas on their own terms. The irony, of course, is that most students taking the SAT cannot make heads or tails of that passage, even though (or perhaps precisely because) they’ve spent their entire school careers in a system based on the very principles that Smith criticizes.

Recently, the mother of one of my students told me that when her son first started studying for the SAT, the test just seemed like another irritating hurdle to jump through, and one that would take time away from schoolwork at that. As he studied, though, she started to realize that preparing for the SAT was forcing him to read at a much higher level than anything he would have ever been asked to contend with in school. “If not for the SAT,” she told me, “they’d never get past elementary school.”

How many times have you heard the complaint that SAT passages are boring and pointless and irrelevant to everything else in the world? It’s a pretty familiar refrain, and I’ve even heard it from parents. As it true for most things about the SAT, however, it’s a matter of perspective: the reality is that people do in fact care about those topics — it’s just that those people are generally well past high-school age. True, some of the topics are relatively obscure by mainstream, pop-culture standards, but others are taken from best-sellers (fiction and non-fiction) read by thousands upon thousands of people. A kid who isn’t really aware of what goes on in the adult world is pretty unlikely to know that, however.

Being engaged with the adult world does not necessarily entail diligently reading, say, The Economist. When I was in high school, I read plenty of great literature, but I also read all sorts of trash. I had (and still have) a soft spot for detective novels and medical thrillers — books that probably won’t show up on any school’s reading list but that taught me a whole lot about the world beyond high school (as well as a surprising amount of vocabulary) and about the sorts of things that adults cared about. Those junky books no doubt gave me context for understanding debates about “esoteric” topics like global warming and the impact of personal biases on scientific policy, allowing me to quickly situate complexly worded passages in pre-existing “slots” and understand the big picture of what they were trying to say. No one would have ever recommended that I read Michael Crichton and Robin Cook to study for the SAT, but in their own way, they helped me just as much as Dostoyevsky did.

Look: high school juniors and seniors are not children. They’re getting ready to go off to college, where they’ll have to read lots of lots of different things, some of which will be interesting and others of which will not, and most of which will be written at or above the level of the SAT. They don’t get to cherry-pick the interesting bits, and they certainly can’t go to their professor and complain that an assigned book is dumb and about some weird topic that no one really cares about. And they can’t look it up on either. If nothing else, the SAT is preparation for that.

Sometimes kids know less than adults think

Cross-posted from Kitchen Table Math:

A few nights ago, I was having dinner with a friend and her very smart fourteen year-old son.

My friend told me the story of how her son, who is in eighth grade, had come home from school with an assignment to write an 8-10 page paper.

The exceedingly nebulous instructions included brainstorming a “guiding question” and due dates for various drafts, but other than that, there was not one iota of specific information about how these thirteen and fourteen year-olds were supposed to go about writing the paper.

Never mind high school, it looked like the assignment sheet for a college term paper.

My friend, a teacher herself, was a bit concerned that the assignment was unclear and emailed his teacher. She couldn’t figure out whether the paper was supposed to be thesis-driven or whether it was just a research project, but the teacher wouldn’t give her a straightforward answer.

She asked her son whether he’d been given clearer instructions in class.

He shook his head.

“Do you know whether you need to have a thesis, or is it just research?” she asked.

He shrugged.

“Wait,” I said. “M., do you know how to write a thesis?”

He hesitated and looked confused. “What exactly do you mean by thesis…?”

Finally, some common sense…

From The Faulty Logic of The Math Wars:

A mathematical algorithm is a procedure for performing a computation. At the heart of the discipline of mathematics is a set of the most efficient — and most elegant and powerful — algorithms for specific operations. The most efficient algorithm for addition, for instance, involves stacking numbers to be added with their place values aligned, successively adding single digits beginning with the ones place column, and “carrying” any extra place values leftward.

What is striking about reform math is that the standard algorithms are either de-emphasized to students or withheld from them entirely. In one widely used and very representative math program — TERC Investigations — second grade students are repeatedly given specific addition problems and asked to explore a variety of procedures for arriving at a solution. The standard algorithm is absent from the procedures they are offered. Students in this program don’t encounter the standard algorithm until fourth grade, and even then they are not asked to regard it as a privileged method

It is easy to see why the mantle of progressivism is often taken to belong to advocates of reform math. But it doesn’t follow that this take on the math wars is correct. We could make a powerful case for putting the progressivist shoe on the other foot if we could show that reformists are wrong to deny that algorithm-based calculation involves an important kind of thinking.

What seems to speak for denying this? To begin with, it is true that algorithm-based math is not creative reasoning. Yet the same is true of many disciplines that have good claims to be taught in our schools. Children need to master bodies of fact, and not merely reason independently, in, for instance, biology and history. Does it follow that in offering these subjects schools are stunting their students’ growth and preventing them from thinking for themselves? There are admittedly reform movements in education that call for de-emphasizing the factual content of subjects like biology and history and instead stressing special kinds of reasoning. But it’s not clear that these trends are defensible. They only seem laudable if we assume that facts don’t contribute to a person’s grasp of the logical space in which reason operates.

In other words, reform movements are largely based on the rejection of a “reality-based” concept of education. We couldn’t possibly have anything as piddling as facts interfering with the joy and beauty of learning. If a child wants to believe that 2+2 =5, shouldn’t they be praised for thinking independently?

In all seriousness, though, there’s something borderline sadistic about schools refusing to teach actual, well-established knowledge, knowledge that makes learning easier. Not every student is genius capable of re-deriving the Pythagorean theorem on their own. Yes, by all means, teach students to understand why things are true – I’ve heard from math tutors who constantly encounter kids who do just fine in calculus because they’ve learned when to plug in about four formulas but who fall down on comparatively basic SAT math because they don’t really understand why things work the way they do, or how to apply simple formulas when they’re presented in unfamiliar ways. The point is, teach them something, don’t just let them flail around trying to figure it out on their own.

What’s the point in all those centuries of accumulated knowledge if schools are just going to toss it out the window?

Feeling is not learning

Stupidity from the New York Times opinion page. According to NY public middle school teacher Claire Needell Hollander:

New teachers may feel so overwhelmed by the itemization of skills in the Common Core that they will depend on prepared materials to ensure their students are getting the proper allotment of practice in answering “common core-aligned” questions like “analyze how a drama’s or poem’s form or structure … contributes to its meaning.” Does good literary analysis even answer such questions or does it pose them?

Excuse me? Studying the relationship between form and meaning is the point of literary analysis. An English teacher who doesn’t understand that has no business teaching English, no matter how “geeky” or enthusiastic she might be about her subject. Talking about feelings is what you do at a book club. Or in therapy. Ms. Hollander’s question calls to mind a teenager’s reaction when faced with a concept she doesn’t quite understand — rather than admit her perplexity, she clumsily tries to suggest that the whole thing never made sense in the first place.

To be fair, I understand her fear that schools will strip the (few) remaining bits of life from classrooms across the United States, but at least in theory, the Core’s emphasis on understanding that texts don’t magically come into existence, that they convey meaning through a series of specific choices about structure, diction, imagery, register, and so on, is one of the things that it gets right! Without understanding how texts are constructed, how things like irony, wordplay, and metaphor work, students have no tools for making literal sense out of challenging works. After years of teachers like Ms. Hollander, they have literally *never* been asked to read a text closely — fiction, non-fiction, nothing. As I’ve heard from so many students staring down baffling Critical Reading passages, “it’s just a bunch of words.”

I would be interested to know what Ms. Hollander proposes to a student doesn’t have an emotional reaction to what she’s reading? What would she suggest? That the student just keep reading until she feels something? Eventually, she’ll just learn to fake it, but she certainly won’t learn anything. Worse yet, what if a student can’t even really understand what he’s reading? (I haven’t met many middle-schoolers — or, for that matter, many high school juniors — who could really “get” The Color Purple, never mind grapple with the issues it raises in anything but the most clichéd manner, but perhaps Ms. Hollander’s students are an exceptionally precocious bunch.) Or what about a student who had the “wrong” kind of emotion (presumably one who didn’t feel sufficiently upset about Celie’s victimhood)? What would Ms. Hollander do then?

To be clear, I’m not advocating an approach that mechanically reduces literature down to a series of dry rhetorical figures in order to avoid any discussion of the actual ideas it contains — when I was studying in Paris, I loathed that aspect of the French system — but rather one that takes into account the fact that understanding how texts say what they say is a crucial part of appreciating what they say. The best teachers I had, both in English and otherwise, were intensely passionate about their subjects, and they conveyed that passion in ways that made what they had to say unforgettable. But they never confused their love for their subjects with the kind of facile touchy-feelyness advocated here.

Thank you to Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein for pointing out that this kind of “therapeutic” approach is actually quite manipulative. Describing a typical middle-school assignment, he writes:

Most specimens of narrative writing in the [Demonstrating Character] units involve some sort of personal experience, reflection, or opinion. One from a 7th-grade unit on Civil Rights may be the very worst, which asks students to pretend they were witnesses to the horrific bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church and a friend was seriously injured. “What emotions are you feeling?” it proposes. “How will these events affect your future? What will you do to see that justice is served?”

As a college teacher of freshman English, I can see no sense in these assignments. They don’t improve critical aptitude, and they encourage a mode of reading and writing that will likely never happen in a college major or their eventual job. There is a theory behind it, of course, holding that only if students can relate to their subjects will they do their best and most authentic writing, not to mention explore and develop their unique selves.

The notion sounds properly student-centered, the motives educational, but in practice few 14-year-olds have the intellectual and emotional equipment to respond. Puberty turns them inside out, the tribalisms of middle school confound them, the worlds seems awfully big, the message of youth culture impart fantastical versions of peers, and they’re not sure who they are.

What lurid imaginings do we throw them into when we tell them to witness a bombing? Do we really expect 7th graders to ruminate upon their integrity? Ponder these assignments closely and they start to look less benevolent and more coercive. One of them in an 8th grade unit on “Adolescent identities” mentions a short story involving self-sacrifice, then says,

Think of a time in your life where you have put someone else’s needs or wants, like a family member or friend, ahead of your own desires. Convey to an audience of your peers what the circumstances of that time were, who you sacrificed for and what led you to that decision.

A 14-year-old receiving it must wonder just how self-sacrificing he must appear. If the student doesn’t remember too much and still has to fill more pages, she will fabricate the necessary details. Should he admit to having resented the self-sacrifice? Should she congratulate herself for her good deeds? The whole exercise involves so many tricky expectations that the student wonders what implicit lesson he should take from it. (

And furthermore:

Without focused training in deep analysis of literary and non-literary texts, students enter college un-ready for its reading demands. Students generally can complete low-grade analytical tasks such as identifying a thesis, charting evidence at different points in an argument, and discovering various biases. But college level assignments ask for more. Students must handle multi-layered statements with shifting undertones and overtones. They must pick up implicit and explicit allusions. They must expand their vocabulary and distinguish metaphors and ironies and other verbal subtleties.

Those capacities come not from contextualist orientations (although “outside” information helps), but from slow, deliberate textual analysis. The more teachers slip away from it, the more remediation we may expect to see on college campuses, a problem already burdening colleges with developing capacities that should have been acquired years earlier. Indeed, when ACT pored over college-readiness data from 2005, it found that “the clearest differentiator in reading between students who are college ready and students who are not is the ability to comprehend complex texts.” More reader response exercises for 9th-11th-graders are only going to exacerbate the problem.(



Occasionally I inadvertently find myself in the crossfire between what teachers think students know and what students actually know. From this peculiar vantage point, I’m often struck by the way the assumptions on both sides fail to line up — high school teachers often take for granted that their students can “connect the dots” on their own, and high school students assume their teachers know that they need everything explained very explicitly. What looks from one side like teachers failing to teach important information, and from the other side like students being lazy or clueless, is actually a classic case of faulty assumptions.

Let me explain.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been wrapped up in AP French prep. The AP exam was revised last year ago to include a “synthesis” essay that requires students to read an article, interpret a graph, and listen to an audio clip, then write a thesis-driven essay (all in French) about a given question (e.g. “Should the French language be protected from English?”).

One of the sources always takes the “pro” side, one the “con,” and one is neutral. The audio is usually the most intimidating source because it involves authentic French spoken quickly by a native speaker, and it’s almost impossible for someone who hasn’t lived in a francophone environment to pick up on the nuances. Most kids are just flipped out about whether they’ll be able to figure out what’s going on.

Here’s the thing, though: it’s pretty easy to figure out what sides the article and the graph are taking, and they’re always presented before the audio. So by default, the audio has to take the side that the other two haven’t. Logically, a person can determine the point of the audio before they even begin listening to it.

Incidentally, I didn’t realize this until I had to calm down a panicked junior who was terrified she wasn’t even going to be able to figure out which side the audio was taking. When I inquired about the order in which the sources were presented and she told me that the audio was always last, I realized that she could deduce the position the speaker would take before she even listened to it. When I told her that… let’s just say that it was a proverbial lightbulb moment.

Now this is where it gets interesting: her teacher is a good friend of mine, and I mentioned the exchange to her. Now, for the record, my friend is a fabulous teacher with a 100% pass rate on the French AP — a major feat in a huge NYC public school (albeit a very selective one). She’s nothing if not clear. But somehow it had never occurred to her that her students needed to be told explicitly that the audio was taking the position that the other two weren’t. It just seemed too obvious. But after I told her about the student’s realization, she made a point of mentioning it in class.

The next time I saw my student, she proudly announced that Madame had taught the class the “trick” she’d learned from me the previous week. “But,” she sniffed indignantly, “she really should have told us that before.”

That moment threw into sharp relief everything I’ve been thinking about recently. I’m increasingly aware of the disconnects between what teachers and teachers think teenagers know vs. what teenagers actually know, and of the fact that high school students, given 2 + 2, won’t necessarily think to put them together to make 4.

More recently, I was explaining to a friend (a Ph.D. in Classics with years of teaching experience) that my students often have trouble figuring out when an author is discussing their own ideas vs. someone else’s ideas, and she asked me to repeat the statement because she found it so astonishing. She couldn’t even conceive of that a person could have such a problem, never mind the fact that I could be so matter-of-fact about it.

I don’t have any grand solutions for any of this. I do know that I approach the SAT with fewer and fewer assumptions about what people actually know (although every now and then I still get thrown — how exactly can someone make it through life without knowing the meaning of “permanent”?).

I know, for example, that a kid scoring 700 might not consistently be able to identify the topics of SAT passages.

I know that even kids scoring above 700 often have significant trouble figuring out what an author believes when that author spends time considering opposing points of view.

I know that kids often have trouble with tone because they can’t draw a relationship between how the words appear on the page and how the sound. I also know that sometimes they can’t sound out words in the first place because they were never taught phonics.

In short, I’ve learned to start from zero. Better for me to be pleasantly surprised than the contrary.