TCS Daily

Educated... and Bored

By Stuart Buck - December 7, 2004 12:00 AM

My old guitar teacher has a saying: "You can educate yourself into boredom."

What he means is that you can study the classical guitar repertoire so thoroughly and for so many years that you simply become bored with it. This happened to another teacher of mine, a lovable, gruff, old German immigrant, a professor of organ and harpsichord. Having spent upwards of 50 years studying the great works of the Renaissance and Baroque, he became bored with classical music, sold his harpsichord, and took up Oriental painting.

Indeed, the same things happened in classical music more generally. As the 20th century unfolded, composers became bored with the classical forms of the past, bored with tonality, bored with harmony. Thinking that beauty was played out, composers such as Schoenberg, Webern, Elliot Carter, or Pierre Boulez wrote atonal works that sounded to most people like a collection of wrong notes. Or think of John Cage's infamous piece "4:33," which merely consists of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of absolute silence: What could more perfectly display an attitude of boredom towards the very idea of music?

You see the same phenomenon in architecture, where modern architects aren't content to replicate the great, beautiful, human-friendly buildings of the past. Instead, because they are bored with beauty and usability, architects such as Frank Gehry busily set about creating disjointed, monstrous eyesores, as James Howard Kunstler regularly points out (see here, here, and especially here).

The same phenomenon may explain why so many education professors (and hence public school teachers) gravitate towards trendy educational methods that deny children a good foundation in reading. Not necessarily because of ill-will, stupidity, or ignorance. Boredom is the thing to look for.

As Professor Plum (a pseudonym for an education professor at a major university) writes on his blog, there is no mystery about how to teach children to read. What works is making sure that children are rigorously and systematically instructed in the basics: letter identification, sounding out phonemes (i.e., phonics), learning how to piece phonemes together into words, and then reading words that are progressively harder:

"[F]aced with quantitative data (1) from four different instruments; (2) measuring achievement (in math, reading, and spelling), self-esteem, and perceived control over one's own learning; (3) with tens of thousands of students; (4) in well over a hundred schools across the country; (5) comparing outcomes yielded by nine kinds of curricula, systematic and explicit instruction did the best for kids in the short-run and long-run. In stark contrast, the so-called child-centered, constructivist, wholistic, teacher-as-facilitator curricula actually worsened the percentile ranking of disadvantaged children in relation to the larger population.

"The data meant nothing to the education establishment -- except as a threat."

Instead of settling on what demonstrably works, some education professors have pushed "whole language" instruction, in which children are taught to memorize the forms of whole words, rely on contextual cues, etc. But when they lack the ability to sound out individual letters and sounds, children inevitably run into difficulty whenever they face a word that they have not memorized wholesale. After all, it is hard to read entire words unless you are able to read their components: What six-year-old could distinguish between "phonograph" and "photograph" without sounding out each word's second syllable?

For example, the "Follow Through" study -- initiated by Lyndon Johnson -- looked at approximately 700,000 students between 1967 and 1995. It compared several types of educational models -- including "Direct Instruction" (a rigorous, skill-based method that uses phonics when teaching reading). The Washington Times produced the following chart to display the results:

And yet, despite the obvious superiority of rigorous training -- whether in phonics or anything else -- successful methods are not always acknowledged. For example, consider the experience of a kindergarten-through-2d-grade school in Wisconsin: "Lapham [Elementary] bucked the Madison district's reliance on the Balanced Literacy reading program in favor of a grounding in explicit phonics for nearly all first-grade students. The results have been impressive. They have also been ignored." The results are indeed impressive: "In 1998, just 9% of Marquette black third-graders were considered 'advanced' readers, as measured on the third-grade state reading comprehension test; by 2003, 38% were 'advanced.'"

But why would such results be "ignored"? Why would the education establishment be reluctant to rely on something that works?

In a word: Boredom. Professional educators have educated themselves into boredom with traditional methods. The tried-and-true methods of teaching children start to feel trite and routine, while newer methods seem more exciting, creative, and trendy -- even if ineffective. Plus, if you're an education professor who must "publish or perish," the most promising prospect is to come up with something new. (There is very little reward in academia for publishing yet another version of the same old thing that was found to work 40 years ago.)

But the purpose of education is not to satisfy education professors' desires for grand, tenure-worthy theories. Nor is the purpose to give teachers a chance to experiment with their own creativity. It would be far closer to the mark to say that education -- at least learning to read -- is about (1) finding a method that works, and then (2) repeating it ad nauseam for every group of children who come through the classroom. Similarly, any obstetrician does her best to deliver babies in a routine and normal fashion; she would never deliver a baby head first just because it was a creative thing to do.

It's a sad state of affairs when educators have become bored with the very methods that are effective. At least when classical composers become bored with beauty and write a piece whose raison d'etre is trendiness, the worst that can happen is that people refuse to listen to it. But when educators reject an effective method because they think it is too mundane or boring, their choice of new and unproven methods can ruin people's lives. As Martin Haberman of the University of Wisconsin notes, "Miseducation is, in effect, a sentence of death carried out daily over a lifetime. It is the most powerful example I know of cruel and unusual punishment and it is exacted on children innocent of any crime."

The author is an associate with Kellogg, Huber, Hansen, Todd, Evans & Figel, and received his J.D. from Harvard Law School in 2000.


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