Saturday, August 30, 2003

Weird Zajonc

I’ve long been skeptical about elaborate theories of education, not because I’m an enemy of the subtle—I treasure complicated and devious concepts for their aesthetic value—but because only simple remedies have any prospect of every getting implemented in an enormous public system like ours. In a previous life I spent quite a few hundred hours listening to highfalutin theories of how to teach math and was persuaded that many of them would work just fine if elementary school teachers actually understood math, which of course they don’t and probably never will in our system. Unfortunately, simplicity, by itself, avails no more. I used to know John Saxon, a cult figure among the same kind of right-wingers for whom phonics is a panacea. Mr. Saxon promoted a system guaranteed to improve math skills by program of endless, relentless review. In this approach, every homework assignment and every test covers not only the most recent material but also everything that has already been covered in the whole sequence of math courses. The Saxon method appeals greatly to home schoolers because it requires almost no mathematical knowledge on the part of the instructor whose fundamental role is to hand out hand outs, score the results, and play drill sergeant—did I mention that Saxon once taught at West Point? Professional teachers and students generally despise the Saxon method because it is crushingly dull and discounts understanding in favor of mechanical proficiency but above all because it is very hard work for everybody. It is comfortable for math phobic parents, however; and it does work on its own terms. Which is to say, survivors of the program score very well on tests with the same kind of potted problems as the Saxon exercise sets. And that’s the joke about it. What Saxon has discovered is an instance of Harrison’s First Law of Instruction: If you teach ‘em more, they’ll learn more. Flogged through more hours of instruction, students learn more, but because of the hours, not the method.

In a way, even the Saxon approach isn’t crude enough. It assumes that the best way to improve education is to change a methodology. I think the available evidence suggests something quite different, namely that the crucial variable isn’t how adults interact with children but how much they interact and when. Robert Zajonc pointed out quite a long time ago that the observed higher intelligence of first born and only children had a ready explanation: such children usually spend more time with adults than later children who keep each other company. A more recent and rather tragic finding, which we owe to an incredibly strenuous research project conducted by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley (Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children), is that the greater verbal skills of the children of middle class and professional class can be accounted for by the number and quality of words the children hear in their preschool years. In the study, children of professional class people heard something on the order of 500 words an hour, mostly addressed to them, and mostly supportive, affectionate, and substantive. In poor households, the number was closer to 200, less often addressed to the children, and characterized by fewer nouns and adjectives. By age four, the professional class kids had heard a total of 45,000,000 words, working class kids had heard 26,000,000 and poor kids had heard 13,000,000, This difference in experience had significant results. The lower income children arrived at school with an average vocabulary of 3,000 words, the middle-income kids with an average of 20,000. Unsurprisingly, the lower income kids did far worse academically. Intervention after early childhood didn’t remedy this discrepancy; but in a related study, it was shown that intensive education of the parents of preschoolers, in this project mothers with an average IQ of 75, could prevent it. The kids in that pilot study performed at grade level through elementary school. If Hart and Risley are correct, the way to improve American education is pretty clear. Educate the parents and make it possible for them to spend more hours with their kids. And Hart and Risley are correct—their research merely confirms a series of huge studies conducted over the years in the United Kingdom by the discourse analysis folks on the relationship between class and language.

While it is perfectly sensible and often intensely interesting to develop better ways to teach the higher freebus to elite students, the endlessly debated educational problem is not about the Education of the Prince. The often-cited gap between the performance of our schools and those in Asia and Europe disappears when you disaggregate the statistics and remove the underclass kids. If you really want to improve the educational attainment of American kids as a whole, you’ll have to do something for the poor and minority segment and that will require educating their parents and making sure they have the time to teach their own kids at the early stage when it really counts. That’s not going to happen in our America. So we’ll go on trying to solve the problem in schools, where it can’t be solved, meanwhile punishing teachers and school districts for their mysterious inability to float lead.

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