The Simple Reason Boys Don’t Read

IT is a fact that boys don’t read as much as girls, though in school our success at getting kids to read for pleasure fails for both sexes, particularly as students move from elementary to middle school and then high school.  For the boys the drop off occurs early – sometimes as early as elementary school, but with a near universal occurrence by the end of middle school.  We should not sugarcoat the truth: by high school 95% of our boy students do not read for pleasure, which means that they really don’t read at all unless it’s required for class, a test, or a grade.  Our success with girls is better, and many leave high school maintaining the healthy reading attitudes they built in middle school and earlier, but it’s still a damagingly low number.  Too many kids simply don’t read on their own and they suffer academically because of it.

Here in Colombia we have an interesting wrinkle to the usual kids and reading dilemma.  Getting kids to read has no easy solution wherever you teach.  Our school in Colombia is entirely bilingual; kids have both an English and a Spanish literature course.  We struggle, as most bilingual schools do, with getting students to speak in English rather than Spanish.  Our task is to create truly bilingual students, but since their native social language is Spanish they are far more at ease interacting in Spanish than English.  Here’s the interesting part: they much much prefer to read in English.  The reasons for this are related to the reasons we have a hard time getting kids to read in any school: academic reading versus pleasurable reading.  In elementary and middle school, the emphasis in English is interest and choice, in keeping with Columbia University’s Reader’s Initiative (which most International American schools have adopted).  Colombian schooling, on the other hand, is far more traditional, and the texts the students read are selected for their academic and cultural purpose.  Students read The Hunger Games in English, The Iliad in Spanish.  Moreover, our selection of English texts is varied, modern, individualized, and entertaining.  Our Spanish language library is 1/10th the size of our English library, which also contains a regularly updated selection of ebooks that students can check out.  Students prefer reading English books because the English books are entertaining and because they are free to choose.   Continue reading “The Simple Reason Boys Don’t Read”

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School Actively Creates Unhappiness

A wealth of current research into happiness has yielded a consistent and surprisingly small set of factors.  Three, in fact, beyond the needs of food and shelter: Relationships, Freedom, and Meaningful Work.  Strong, positive relationships create a sense of belonging, a feeling of value and importance in the world. We are social creatures, dependent upon the company of others for survival. At the same time, we are autonomous, and need independence. We don’t wish to be forced into all decisions and crave, both for ourselves and those closest, the freedom to choose.  And finally, research shows that people are most happy when they are good at the things they spend most of their time doing.  Mastery and Meaning go hand in hand.  People who are good at what they do tend to find meaning in it, and people who find meaning in what they do tend to develop the skills that create mastery.

But these are ADULT conditions.  We apply them to the workforce, the family unit, the social contract.  We do not apply these concepts to school and children.  If anything, much of what we do in school is the opposite of belonging, autonomy, and mastery.  It’s almost as if school is not merely unconcerned with the happiness of students, school is designed to eliminate their happiness altogether.

Consider Relationships.  The classroom structure is actually primarily designed to break students’ most meaningful social connections.  We sit them in desks facing one direction.  We often (and necessarily) assign seating away from the distraction of friends.  We take away their phones, of course, and attempt to limit in all sorts of often futile ways the social access of their computers.  Many schools and teachers even go to great lengths to discourage the only human relationship left, that with the teacher.

Autonomy, of course, is completely absent in school.  Kids can’t even go to the bathroom without asking permission.  They can’t choose what to wear, when to eat, what to study or when to study it.  Where to go, when to go there.  Who to be with or what to do with them.  How to walk or how to talk.  What to care about and what to ignore. The lack of freedom students have is so thorough, actually, that I suspect we simply avoid thinking about it altogether. Whatever shades one might attempt to paint the picture of school and autonomy, there’s little arguing that nearly every detail concerns the reduction of it.

The three components of happiness are somewhat exclusive of each other, even oppositional.  Relationships decrease autonomy, for example.  Strong, meaningful social commitments, as any married person or parent can tell you, come with expectations of behavior, limits on one’s personal desires and actions. Both Belonging and Autonomy can limit the acquisition of skill, especially if those skills are necessary but not chosen.  Again, as any married person can tell you, having a spouse or child in the room can seriously disrupt work.  There’s a balance that needs to be maintained, and sometimes a choice to be made.  School, obviously, is about Mastery and work.

But while meaningful work is the primary focus of school, it’s actually here where we stumble most profoundly.  Yes, education is almost exclusively dedicated to the acquisition – and mastery – of skills.  It is for this reason that we work so hard to break kids from their social circle and force them into behavior they wouldn’t otherwise choose. But since we aren’t really concerned with a student’s happiness (if we were, we wouldn’t be so aggressive in eliminating 2 of the 3 essentials), we ignore both Meaning and Mastery when instructing.

Meaning is significantly powered by choice, by Autonomy, so there is an immediate reduction of the individual aspect of meaningful work when students cannot choose what to study, when to study it, or how to study it.  But the lack of Meaning in the work of school extends much further than choice.  Often, it’s simply not considered at all.  The acquisition of skills is complicated, uncertain, and expensive if one is forced to answer the fundamental question: why?  The vague answers students so often get – almost all of them variations of ‘You’ll need this later’ – rarely address the actual question that most adults ask and answer satisfactorily about their jobs: Why?  What is the value or purpose?  Because most of the time, for that student in that place at that time, there is no answer.  They are studying the subject more or less ‘Because.’  Because that’s what the curriculum mandates.  Because that’s what’s on the test.  Because that’s what the Standard is.  Because that’s what the system says they must learn.  Because that’s what the structure of their schedule demands.  Because this is the hour in which they study that thing.  There is no ‘Meaning’ or ‘Purpose’ to the subject; there is only system and structure and process.  There is not even the reward of money, merely grades.

Sometimes there’s a kind of peripheral motivation to schoolwork that leans towards meaning – working on ‘this’ builds a parallel skill which will help later in the mastery of meaningful work on some undefined ‘that’. ‘This’ math problem helps build math fluency, which will be useful when one is an engineer or building a business.  Writing ‘this’ essay builds writing skill, which will prove necessary when one actually has worthy ideas.  But such motivations have absolutely nothing to do with meaning, and everything to do with a skill divorced from any kind of purpose; students are told simply to trust and mindlessly do.  Yet meaningful work is anything but mindless.

We might like to think, perhaps, that if ‘Meaning’ isn’t clear to their work, at least students are focused on Mastery.  But again, no.  School is not structured for Mastery.  School is structured for Adequate.

The basic motivational aspect of grades guarantees that schools are not interested in mastery.  Consider:  what is the first thing one thinks if they hear everyone in a class got A’s?  Amazing teacher and totally invested kids?  Of course not.  The class was too easy.  Most schools, in fact, attempt to maintain average grades that hover around the ‘Adequate’.  Mastery is for the few, not the many.  And while there is a great deal of teeth gnashing and lamentation about grade inflation, nobody ever makes similar points about grades being inaccurately low.  If ALL – or even most – students are achieving some form of mastery over the material, the cry goes out to make it harder.

Standardized testing has little to do with Mastery or Meaning, of course, unless it means one masters a meaningful exam, but this is just one element of the problem of assessment.  The traditional classroom measurement device – the test – is specifically designed to separate the few who have mastered the material from the many who have merely acquired the basics.  And rarely does any kind of exam really address the fundamental aspect of Meaning.  Many tests only matter in the moment, to the material of the moment.

None of the three components of happiness stand alone to the creation of a satisfying life.  By themselves, Community, Independence, and Meaningful Work do not create happiness.  If anything, too much of one and not enough of the others is often the root of an unhappy life. Conversely, none of these happiness factors is mutually exclusive and they often feed each other.  Community creates a sense of purpose and belonging, gives value and meaning to one’s work.  Mastery feeds one’s Autonomy.  Choice makes Meaning meaningful.  But in deliberately removing these components from student’s lives, we do not make learning any easier or powerful.

Kids who come to class and act social, who push against the lack of autonomy in various childish ways, or who don’t care for the work are usually punished.  We treat their actions punitively, as if they have been bad.  Yet the truth is, all they are trying to do is be happy. That’s not exactly a crime; in fact, isn’t happiness kind of the whole point of education in the first place?

Failure Does Not Instruct, Success Does

We’re on a bit of a ‘let’s embrace failure’ trend these days.  Lots of articles across the internets about the benefits of failure, the learning potential, the need for coddled students to experience the wonderfully instructive power of being told they are wrong.  As so often the case, the central thesis comes at us in fairly easy to catch, sensible sounding nuggets of wisdom, which we’ll address in a moment.  More interesting, as usual, is the subtext, and also the actual, usually unstated, intent.  In this case: School is too easy.  People are given too much without needing to work for it.  Pain is not merely instructive, it’s essential to wisdom and moral order.  

So, a few Bromides out of the way first.

  1. Yes, it’s true, Failure is a way we learn.  Success has rewards, but ‘learning’ isn’t entirely one of them.  Most learning occurs before success, in the trial and error process, where one is neither winning nor losing, just working.
  2. Yes, it’s true, Failure is not unnatural.  Much of our life is spent fundamentally failing in one way or another.  Only those born with exceptional gifts are denied the experience of struggle that is intimately married to failure.  
  3. Yes, it’s true, Failure creates strength.  Though it’s not exactly a muscular strength.  The strength of failure is in callous, tendon, cartilage.  The strength one gets from failure is the thickened skin of scar.  

But let’s not kid ourselves.  Failure is not so very often the product of natural disaster, or chance, or unanticipated event.  It’s not so often a blind spot, or an absence of essential.  And when it is, one doesn’t really ‘learn’ anything but to move on, around, through.  The failure that we experience confronting the external world is mostly a kind of failure that we go to great lengths to ensure we never have to experience again, or at all.  If the building falls because of an earthquake, we don’t chalk the disaster up to a learning experience.  The building was not designed as some kind of learning experience; it was designed to avoid the failure of falling down.  Perhaps more importantly, the more we know, the more we anticipate failure, the more we do to make sure it doesn’t occur.  The ‘knowledge’ we gain from the failure of disaster is less about skill or fact or detail as it is about resilience, about moving on after the tragedy.

If failure was so very instructive, so very powerful, most of the world would be a hell of a lot more successful.

But the other failure, the failure of school, most often, lies in Character.  We fail because we lose courage.  We fail because we can’t force ourselves through the present moment’s discomfort, or uncertainty, or struggle, or pain – and not because the pain itself is good.  The pain of work is painful.  It’s boredom. It’s tedious repetition.  It’s sacrifice – of time, attention, pleasure.  It’s embrace of struggle.  But none of it is really related to failure.  We embrace all of it because of success.  We embrace struggle to achieve success, and the fact that we fail really has little instructive value.

We know, most of the time, exactly why we have failed.  We failed because we were lazy. We failed because we are stupid.  We failed because we didn’t work hard enough.  Or we failed because we didn’t really care.  We failed because the task was pointless, or stupid, or meaningless.  Often times, our failure is neither a flaw in our character or an instructive step towards future success.  Often times our failure is a product of injustice – of other people’s moral or character failings – and there’s little lesson there except anger or submission.  We fail because the other side cheats.  We failed, quite simply, because the task was impossible, or unfair, or out of our control.

There’s no ‘lesson’ in that.  There’s no strengthening of our skill, just a hardening of our heart.

Kids don’t really learn through failure.  Kids learn through success.  Failure, a good deal of the time, isn’t instructive at all.  Students don’t make mistakes on a math problem and then ‘learn’ the correct answer from the error.  They don’t write a shitty essay and then fix their mistakes.  Any teacher can tell you that kids glance at the grade, ignore the comments, and move on.  If failure were so very instructive, the most effective education would be guided failure, which it most assuredly is not.  Education is guided success.  We reward the students who succeed.  We only punish the students who fail.  We don’t reward them at all for it.  And rarely, rarely is that failure much responsible for how they improve.

I know, from years of experience, not to mention my own intimate friendship with failing, that nearly all students fail because they simply don’t really do the work.  For some, the absence of effort is extreme, and the failure equally severe.  Most teachers will tell you that it takes a lot of work to fail a class.  It takes consistent and persistent absence, because the system is designed to get them working, to keep them succeeding, in however small a capacity.  The threat of failure, and the actual presence of it, is fundamentally, almost universally, an attempt to get students to do the work through fear or suffering.  The threat of failure is not about learning, it’s about motivation.  But does it motivate?  And more importantly, does failure create learning?

Failure does not instruct.  Failure may drive, it may motivate, but even this subtext is wrong.  Because teaching is about instruction.  Students learn through investment, through care, through diligence and concentration.  The goal is to learn and grow.  And failure, however you frame it, is rarely growth.  The threat of failure will motivate a student to invest more time in studying, or writing and revision, or practice, but it really doesn’t motivate a student to actually learn.  Students learn through the success that stands opposite failure.  Our job as teachers is not to instruct students through failure, but to encourage students through success.

The subtext of all these little editorials we keep reading about the spoiling absence of failure aren’t really about learning at all.  They are about character, and if we want our education system to be ‘teaching’ character, we probably ought to start saying so.

How ‘Tolerance’ Undermines Writing Skill

It is sometimes surprising how genuinely modern, even Existential, most students are.  When asked to support an opinion, they fall to that most current of defenses: You can’t judge my belief.  What they believe is what they believe, unassailable because it is belief, from the sacred heart, the pure soul, unique and holy.  Of course, this what we want, what we’ve asked for.  Schools have made it their mission to teach acceptance, to counter prejudice, to expose those isolated lives to the vast world of difference.  We have made it a mission to eliminate prejudism, the cornerstone of that belief being more than tolerance, but accommodation.  

And we have succeeded.

Our youth are now Religious Existentialists.  A glut of cultural difference and a deep penetration of relativism – in movies and t.v. and music and, especially, school – has had the desired effect.  Prejudice is low.  Tolerance, of a sort, is high.  Awareness and acceptance of other religion, ritual, and lifestyle is widespread.  But asking people to tolerate difference does not mean students will question their own belief systems, much less other’s.  Nor should they.  After all, the goal is tolerance and acceptance, not questioning.  It is, in fact, hypocritical to ask students to tolerate everyone who is not like them and simultaneously critically question religious or cultural traditions.  (And if there is one sin that teenagers are sensitive to it is hypocrisy.)  Thus the urge to create tolerance and peace has undermined our desire to create reflective and analytical students.  It’s pretty clear which trait we favor more.

Belief itself demands conviction.  It demands at least an approach to an answer of yes or no, right or wrong.  Belief without grip doesn’t really accomplish what we need it for: among other things, a sense of purpose, an answer to the question of death, rules of behavior in an uncertain moral universe.  The conviction of opinion demands a response.  The stronger the opinion, the more immediate the response.  You can see the dilemma.  If no opinion is more correct than any other, then even reacting to an opinion is divisive; is, in fact, morally wrong, since the only real moral demand is to not judge at all.  But what do you do if powerful opinion demands a reaction you aren’t allowed to have?  One easy solution is to not have powerful opinions.   

What we get from our students are essays whose thesis statements are so bland, so hesitant to make a claim, that they are not thesis statements at all.  They are obvious statements of fact attempting to be ‘opinion’.  When writing about literary technique, for example, students will write: “The author of so-and-so uses literary devices to create mood.’  I used to write, all too boldly I fear, ‘DUH!’ next to such statements on essays, but I stopped because it hurt my students’ feelings.  It also seemed to confuse them, and try as I might, teasing from them an opinion that actually had any bite at all seemed more than simply frustrating.  Students react with more than ignorant confusion – they respond with moral resistance.  How, they ask, can I make a strong statement about ART?  It’s my opinion whether the poem works or not; it’s my opinion what the meaning of the story is.  (The only real opinions they willingly sink their teeth into are those that criticize or point out prejudice.)

Belief also demands support – at least if one has to defend it – which leaves students in another curious quandary.  First, their opinions – being opinions – don’t require support. Culture doesn’t require justification, or excuse.  Who we are, what we believe: nobody is obligated to explain themselves, to justify who they are, what they are.  A person should not be required to support their beliefs, since support implies justification.  Second, and perhaps more impactful, support undermines the primary, unassailable authority of opinion, by actually forcing upon the opinion evidence, by grounding the opinion in reality.  As soon as one does this, the opinion is no longer unquestioningly true.  It has effect, a place, connections to actions and other ideas.   Support makes opinion vulnerable.

As an English teacher, one of the more difficult skills I struggle to teach is Support.  What’s so vexing and perplexing to me is how obvious the skill seems.  Any idea, no matter how insignificant, requires some sort of evidence.  A simple statement of mood, ‘I am sad’ for example, must be followed by specific detail.  In fact, if I should tell someone I am sad and they don’t ask why – don’t seek the support – I would be insulted, since clearly they don’t really care.  Every judgment, good or bad, requires proof.  She is lovely, he is mean, that is terrible – all these demand some form of specific detail for meaning.  This is a basic element to communication, to storytelling and human interaction and gossip and business.   Yet nearly  every weak essay I grade lacks support.  It’s as if students are deliberately averse to supporting their statements with evidence or support.  We often call this, simply, ‘laziness’, but I find even the best and brightest and hardest-working students often struggle with the fundamental concept of support.  

The irony is not lost.  It’s English teachers who push the tolerance maxim, through the literature, the class discussions, the reading selections and essay topics.  English class is where students analyze advertising for bias and propaganda.  English class is where students read and discuss stories that humanize the marginalized, spotlight the bullies, give voice to the hiding and hidden.  Tolerance – and an intolerance of intolerance – is learned in English class.  But English class is also where students are supposed to learn and practice the skill of argument, where they are supposed to strengthen their writing skills, skills that are fundamentally constructed on the use of evidence and support. Forced to make a choice between the sanctity of opinion and the authority of supporting evidence, it’s clear which opinion they choose to follow.