There are no excuses for letting children fail

John Mighton writes in The Myth of Ability:

As far as I am aware, no program in mathematics was ever developed with the expectation that every child in the program would excel. To most educators, the idea of an entire class doing well in any subject seems absurd.

That was published in 2003, but today it is still widely assumed that the “curve” in test scores is a “natural” result of innate differences in human intelligence.

Through a tutoring program that he later extended to classroom teaching, Mighton showed that in fact every child could excel. And he found that such a result requires only two essential ingredients (which match my definition of profound: obvious only in retrospect). They are:

1. The teacher must actually believe that every student can excel.

2. The curriculum and teaching methods must be designed, tested, and refined in a way that treats any student’s failure to learn as being a failure of the curriculum and teaching methods.

This is entirely analogous to creating usable software. Instead of blaming problems on “user error,” you blame the software — and, critically, use that knowledge as an opportunity to improve the design. Creating great software is not easy, but it’s also not rocket science.

Mighton has experimented with various best practices in teaching, many of which have been well documented elsewhere in the psychology literature (and popular literature by authors such as the Heath brothers, Malcom Gladwell, Carol Dweck, Martin Seligman, etc.). For example, he neatly sums up the research on the importance of flow:

Nothing focuses the attention of children more sharply than the feeling that they are meeting a series of challenges and succeeding brilliantly.

But the crucial thing that John Mighton has shown is not in the particulars of his curriculum or philosophy. Rather, it is the simple, incontrovertible fact that he made every single student succeed in math — without requiring extra money or super-human energy or even teachers who previously knew anything about math.

It is an existence proof.

And it means that all of the excuses are bogus. “They can’t focus.” “They don’t care.” “There’s not enough time or money to get through to them.” Every student brought to him as “unteachable” was in fact taught to excel. And it was not even particularly difficult. It was certainly not rocket science.

But if we know how to teach in such a way that every child succeeds, why are we not doing it? Mighton says,

I believe the answer lies in the profound inertia of human thought: when an entire society believes something is impossible, it suppresses, by its very way of life, the evidence that would contradict that belief.

I think it’s harder than that, and a good analogy is racism or sexism. When injustice is ingrained — when “that’s the way it has always been” — elaborate excuses and rationales must be crafted to avoid the conclusion that well-meaning people are perpetuating discrimination (in this case, discrimination against the very students they purport to help). It’s a terrible conclusion to come to. To accept it means admitting that for decades we have been undermining the potential of millions of eager young students.

After seeing how children flourish with even a modest amount of attention, I have come to believe that when a child fails a test it should be regarded as a failure of our system of education. And when millions of children, year after year, fail tests they could easily pass, it should be regarded as the failure of an entire society to care for its young.

Supporting change implies acceptance of this terrible conclusion: that for generations we have been letting students fail, letting poverty persist, and letting the economy correspondingly sink — and that there is no excuse for it. How can we live with that guilt? Especially as a student or teacher in the system that is perpetuating the injustice — someone who has the power to make change?

I think that Dweck’s “growth mindset” is a good place to start. It helps us accept the truth as a learning opportunity to do better.

Because the fact is, we already know how to do better. And putting it off is only making the situation worse. As Matt Wilka and I concluded, “just do it!”

1 Comment »

  1. Bob Collier said,

    February 16, 2012 @ 8:10 pm

    “One of the missions of Project Renaissance is to raise consciousness about the inadequacies of the traditional school system and its entrenched approach to education, which has squandered the gifts and potentialities of generations of human beings.” – Win Wenger, author of The Einstein Factor

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