Teaching The Kids

One of my fellow bloggers who calls himself “Mindful Stew” has been involved in a most interesting discussion of academic discipline — teaching the kids the right way. Most of the comments on his blog have come from teachers, or former teachers, and they have some very interesting things to say about how best to teach the young. The hard nut to crack that lies at the center of the discussion is the question of discipline. As I read these comments I admire the teachers who have a very tough row to hoe with little pay and no thanks. But it also occurs to me that there are two sorts of discipline and we don’t always keep them separate.

To begin with there is what we might call “behavioral discipline” which focuses on keeping order in the classroom so that teaching can take place. As parents increasingly shunt their spoiled kids off to the schools, this is becoming an increasingly difficult problem. It is no longer acceptable to use corporal punishment and, in fact, if a teacher so much as lays a hand on the child there will be serious repercussions — as perhaps (allowing for over-reaction on the part of parents and authorities) there should be. One of Stew’s contributors, Chris Corrie, had a lengthy comment on the subject and he is clearly attempting to find a middle ground between harsh, sit up straight and shut your mouth discipline, and fawning, raise their self-esteem entitlement where the child is told that nothing he does could possibly be wrong. Indeed, “wrong” is a word that we simply don’t use any more. In any event, a portion of Chris’ comment is worth pondering:

Key to all this is to understand that, for some kids at a particular point in time, it may be more important to talk to them about their personal problems than to try to force trigonometry into their brain. It is also important to realize that they are subject to news and social interaction 24 X 7. Think back to what you dealt with growing up and how you would deal with the issues these kids face today.

I cannot quarrel with Chris except to point out that we all had problems growing up and it is not clear that today’s youth have any more than we did — especially given the fact that they have so many ways to divert their attention from the serious problems that their parents and elders all face daily. It is not clear, from what I have read and seen first hand, that these kids are deeply troubled about the state of the economy or the future of the planet, for example. We may simply assume that since there are so many problems the kids must be aware of them. This is a highly debatable assumption. But in any event, there is another sort of discipline that gets overlooked in this discussion and I attribute that to the shift in the thirties of the last century from subject-oriented teaching to child-oriented teaching, the birth of “progressive education.” That sort of discipline is mental discipline and I found a very nice statement of just what that is in a Japanese novel (of all places) entitled Naomi by Junicherio Tanizaki. In that novel the hero a 26-year-old man who is attempting to teach a young girl English is having troubles and finally decides it is not worth his time. In reflecting on the problem, he has the following suggestion:

“Why do boys study geometry and algebra in middle school? The objective is not so much to provide them with a practical tool, as it is to cultivate their ability to use their minds with precision.”

Indeed, this is the heart of the situation: in our preoccupation with behavioral discipline we have lost sight of mental discipline which, I would argue, is what education is all about. Education is about putting young people in possession of their own minds, enabling them to use their minds to think and speak coherently, to “use their minds with precision.” But, as Chris and others remind us, we must never forget that these kids are children and bring emotional baggage to school with them and in order to help train their young minds we must first get their attention. There’s the challenge!

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7 thoughts on “Teaching The Kids

  1. Putting young people in the possession of their minds. Well said. Teach them to think.

    I do agree the kids are exposed (as we adults are) to a 24×7 load of news and faux news, plus they are marketed to like they are adults and don’t have a filter of experience.

    This is a great post. Thanks for sharing. BTG

  2. Hugh, as the son of a career educator who gave a lot of his time — especially after hours and on weekends — to kids from troubled homes, “at-risk kids”, I guess — I can’t help but wonder if a solution would be to create a two-pronged education approach: one that dedicates time and resources to the roles parents or nuclear families once played, giving the kids a more nourishing and safer environment away from school; then the actual school day where teachers can do the job of teaching and not be social workers. The first prong could be built off existing after-school programs, such as those at the Y or Boys and Girls Clubs, but would need professionally trained — and committed — staffers who truly believe in teaching the kids the values and life skills parents otherwise would do. There are so many single-parent families, so many families where both parents work and work long hours, and many families where the parents have no presence at all in their kids’ lives. This is one of the biggest assaults on education there has been the past half-century, and our response to it has been half-hearted at best.

    • Terrific suggestions, but in today’s political climate I think it would be a hard sell to those legislators who hold the purse strings!

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  3. Is this rocket science? How do the Finns do it? How do the South Koreans do it? How do the Singaporese do it? In short, how do the rest of the top ten countries in childhood education do it?

    • They pay their teachers and they don’t force them to take mind-numbing “methods” courses in “teachers’ colleges.” Because they can be selective, they can also let them have their heads and allow them to teach as they see fit. We put restraints on our low-paid teachers and then expect them to teach out-of-control kids whose parents are too busy making a “living” to take the time to raise them properly.

      • Like I said, it ain’t rocket science. Is it a “not invented here” sort of thing, or is it a mistrust of “book larnin'” in general;?

      • It’s a combination of things, I think. I wrote a book about it a few years ago (“Recalling Education”) and have blogged about it endlessly. I dare say readers are sick of me writing about it!

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