Work Hard, Be Good

by Robert Pondiscio
September 29th, 2009

Schools should stop telling children to be nice and start teaching them to be good.

So writes Diana Senechal at DoubleX.  Reviewing Charles Murray’s recent book Real Education, she seizes on an unremarked upon quote in which the controversial author observes that schools “tell children to be nice but not how to be good. It tells children to be happy but does nothing to help children think about what happiness means.”  When Murray is right, she notes, “he is awfully right.”

Being nice is something of a bromide in education.  It’s enshrined in KIPP’s “Work Hard. Be Nice” slogan, and is the focus of a lot of group activity that revolves around “pleasant, uncontroversial subject matter” with familiar social messages  “Being good is more complex than being nice,” Diana observes. “It requires that we recognize our own faults and complexities; that we forgive each other; that we say what we think; that we make difficult decisions and face the consequences.”

When we read literature and history, we begin to glean what it means to be good. We see how people with the best intentions can fail; how people struggle with conflicting desires and values and make the best choices they can; how people overcome their limitations when put to the test. From works like Antigone, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Chekhov’s short stories, we learn about selfishness, cruelty, cowardice, and confusion, as well as grace, generosity, and patience. We come to see elements of all these traits in ourselves.

When the curriculum has substance, “students learn not only how to behave, but how to think and feel deeply,” Diana writes. ”They come to understand what humans are made of, what choices we have, and what reason, artistic gift, and imagination can do.”  By contrast, when the emphasis is on group work for its own sake, ”it becomes more important for students to work together than to learn something important.” 

If we only teach children to be nice, they will be at a loss when life calls for more than niceness. They will be at a loss when faced with problems—intellectual, practical, or emotional—that they have to solve on their own. And when the niceness wears out, they will reach for the next thing they know, the knee-jerk reaction. Murray is right: There is a wide gulf between being nice and being good—and while no curriculum can produce goodness, an excellent curriculum can give students a vision of what it might be.

The Importance of Solitude

by Robert Pondiscio
May 28th, 2009

A favorite canard in education is the one about Rip Van Winkle waking up after one hundred years’ sleep and easily recognizing a classroom.  It’s probably more accurate  to suggest, however, that if old Rip were suddenly jarred awake, it would be due to the noise from a nearby elementary school, with its incessant hum of group work, collaborative learning, and nonstop “turn and talks.” 

What our classrooms have lost, writes Diana Senechal in an Education Week essay, is badly needed quiet time for thinking, reading, and problem solving.   “It is not at all good to be visibly ‘engaged’ at every moment,” she notes.  “One also needs room to collect one’s thoughts and separate oneself from one’s peers.”  She wonders why there is so much emphasis on socialization in education and so little on solitude, when both are important to learning?

Solitude should not become a fad; that would make some of us wish we had never brought it up at all. The shift toward solitude should be subtle, not screeching. Don’t abandon group work, but take it down from its altar. Make room for quiet thought and give students something substantial to think about. The children will respond. Also, recognize teaching as a thinking profession. There is no reason for teachers to sit in groups filling out Venn diagrams during professional-development sessions when they could be doing something more interesting on their own.

It’s an excellent point.  Now, turn to your neighbor and tell whether you agree or disagree…

Diana is a teacher at a Core Knowledge school in NYC.  And if you haven’t been reading her thoughtful guest posts for Joanne Jacobs over the past week, take a look.