Friday, September 21, 2012

You Don't Learn That in School

Fellow teacher friends, have you listened to the most recent episode of "This American Life"?  It is 474 "Back to School."  And it is fascinating.  I almost avoided it because I get tired of all the various reports that point fingers and just get plain tiresome.  But this was a little different; they asked what schools should teach, starting the trail by comparing success/consistency of people who dropped out in HS compared to those who got their GED compared to those who graduated with a traditional diploma.

In short, it presents a study that suggests that a greater predictor of success are not cognitive skills but non-cognitive; skills like self-regulation/discipline, resourcefulness, responsibility, ambition, resilience, etc., traits more old school educators might call "character."

We've heard that poverty is a greater predictor of success than teachers or classroom resources.  Teachers have struggled to make politicians understand that there are so many issues outside of the classroom that influence a student's achievement.  But what some of the scientists/psychologists in this realm now suggest that it is really the stresses associated with poverty that cause the greatest developmental harm to a child.  The show explains the issue cogently, and it is truly fascinating.  Now, I admit, I have always found the study of stress interesting, I think because it is such a mental thing that manifests itself in such very physical ways.  So, tying that into school & learning...well, it just makes complete sense to me.  And (Ira Glass even states this at one point) some of the studies actually confirm a very common sense principle: parenting makes a significant difference.

This program is fascinating and gives me hope that scientists & psychologists are finally providing educators with research that supports ideas we've suspected or even promoted for years.  People like to throw around research studies, so it's my hope that policy-makers will latch onto this and stop taking pressure off teachers and start finding ways to support those parents and students who need it.  However, the research in this program is also heartbreaking because it proves that (as the system is now) most traditional teachers just won't be able to do as much as they wish they could for those in-need students.  It's not impossible, but with the current system, teachers don't generally get the right amount of time/tools/curriculum to nurture these non-cognitive skills in students.  But I'm hopeful that we could see that change.