The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

How Can We Get Students to Work Harder and Better?

on March 2, 2016

Yesterday both Diane Ravitch and I read an article on the front page of the New York Times,Testing for Grit?  Schools Push on Social Skill.”  Neither of us liked the article, but our reasons were somewhat different.  She thinks the idea of testing those skills is ridiculous and I think that that trying to teach them directly is the wrong way to go.

The Times article tells about a project in California schools aimed at improving students’ behavior, attitudes and work habits through direct teaching and testing.  A few years ago, motivated by the writing of some respected educators, schools in various parts of the country began to adopt programs that teach such things as self control, perseverance, and resilliance.  Afterward, researchers determined that teaching those skills improved student academic achievement by several percentile points. From then on the enthusiasm for such teaching has increased considerably.

At the same time, key promoters of social-emotional teaching, such as Angela Duckworth, strongly disapprove of testing, claiming that the desired behaviors cannot be  precisely defined or measured by any test.  The tests used so far, surveys asking students to evaluate their behavior in typical school situations, are highly susceptible to falsehoods, exaggerations, and mis-judgments.  Nevertheless, for the time being school officials in many states believe that teaching social skills is crucial to improving the performance of American students, especially those mired in family poverty, and for determing the effectiveness of schools. Their goals are to increase the teaching of social-emotional skills and to find ways of evaluating the results accurately and fairly.

Ravitch’s first statement sums up her judgment on this new school emphasis quite clearly: “Just when you think American education can’t get any nuttier, along comes another crazy idea.”  Later she says, “Think of the data! Parents will soon have data points about their children’s grit. Think of the data-based decision making!”  And she closes  by declaring that “Pearson and the other giants of the testing industry must be delighted. More tests!”

Although I agree with Ravitch  about this new trend in testing, I believe there is a bigger problem in the idea of direct teaching of the skills in question.  In my opinion, none of those attitudes and behaviors mentioned are actually “skills” that can be taught the way  reading, math, or science are taught.  Instead, they are students’ emotional responses developed over time through interactions with others who have some control over them in one way or another: parents, teachers, older siblings, school bullies, police officers, etc.  For kids in school their behavior depends so much on how they are treated by those in power.  When an older kid on the playground takes the trouble to teach someone how to hit a baseball or when a teacher invites a student to eat lunch with her so they can get to know each other better, the recipients of this positive attention are likely to do anything asked of them later on with a smile and considerable effort and persistance.  On the other hand, when a teacher treats a kid as lazy or disruptive, his or her reaction is almost always the determination to be worse than before.

I could go on by giving examples of students’ reactions to positive treatment from my own experience and observations of teachers in my schools and the schools where I later was an independent researcher.  In fact, I plan to do just that in some up-coming posts.  But for now I will stop, hoping that readers will think about my argument against the practice of  directly teaching social-emotional skills in terms of their own experience.








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