Cognitive Daily

How to educate those who seem uneducable

Is it really possible for child in a destitute situation to rise above it and become not only a productive member of society, but to excel? Jonah Lehrer discusses an important New York Times article that I had skipped over the first time I saw the headline on the site. Jonah was most interested in the research that shows the difference in childrearing in affluent versus impoverished homes:

By age 3, the average child of a professional heard about 500,000 encouragements and 80,000 discouragements. For the welfare children, the situation was reversed: they heard, on average, about 75,000 encouragements and 200,000 discouragements.

For me, another statistic cited in the article stood out:

In states with more poor children, spending per pupil is lower. In Mississippi, for instance, it is $5,391 a year; in Connecticut, it is $9,588. Most education financing comes from state and local governments, but the federal supplement for poor children, Title 1, is “regressive,” Liu points out, because it is tied to the amount each state spends. So the federal government gives Arkansas $964 to help educate each poor child in the state, and it gives Massachusetts $2,048 for each poor child there.

The states with the poorest funding of education get the least federal support. These also tend to be the states with the worst records in educating children and the highest poverty rates. The situation is exactly the reverse of what it needs to be: children from broken, impoverished homes need more governmental support, not less.

The article also mentions research by Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman showing that self-discipline is more important than high IQ in student achievement. This research, however, is being applied effectively in only a few schools, and the price tag for this level of education is high.

If you want a better sense of what it takes to really educate those most in need, take fifteen minutes and read both the Times article and Jonah’s post.

In other news:


  1. #1 etbnc
    November 29, 2006

    “self-discipline is more important than high IQ in student achievement”

    When I look around at my culture, in general, and at the culture of schools, in particular, I see “discipline” (and its association with “order”) highly valued and well rewarded. And it seems to me that our measurement of “achievement” reflects our cultural values.

    So when I read that quote what I get from it is:

    Behaving according to our cultural values is an effective way to get high scores on measurements of our cultural values.


  2. #2 Dave Munger
    November 29, 2006

    “Behaving according to our cultural values is an effective way to get high scores on measurements of our cultural values.”

    Sure, seems obvious when you put it that way. But when so many have claimed (and continue to claim) that high IQ is the primary factor in achievement (or “behaving according to our cultural values”), and that IQ is hereditary, then it becomes easy to give up on those who don’t appear to be “achieving.”

  3. #3 Chris
    November 29, 2006

    But if the “achievement” is actually “approval of those in superior positions”, which is actually based largely on being a good rule-follower, then doesn’t that raise the question of whether rule-following itself is a heritable trait?

    The dirty little secret of academia is that intelligence doesn’t really have all that much to do with “achievement” because that “achivement” is not based on, well, achieving anything – other than the social approval of peers and professors. Which you usually cannot do by being a *complete* idiot, but standing out too much in the opposite direction doesn’t do you any good either.

    To return to the original point: no child left behind, except those who are already behind?

  4. #4 etbnc
    November 29, 2006

    Dave, I hadn’t yet seen your excellent comment at Cortex when I commented here. I liked the way you shifted attention there toward a bigger picture with the statement, “I’d much rather try to figure out how to give everyone a truly equal education“.

    Bravo! My comment here was also an attempt to connect to a bigger picture. And perhaps I tried too hard to be pithy. Although I only quoted one tidbit from the end of this post, I was thinking about that item in relation to the body of the post and in relation to Dr. Free-Ride’s recent posts about her kids’ experiences in school.

    Have y’all read the comments following her recent elementary school science post?

    I’m pleased that Chris repeated the theme of this post, “no child left behind, except those who are already behind?” because it’s so important to think about. I’m not sure how to think about that in terms other than cultural values.

    But I’m probably not representative of this blog’s typical audience, so my approach to such questions may not work for other readers. I hereby remind myself that Dave knows his audience, and I’ll hush up now.

    Cheers, y’all

  5. #5 djexplorer
    November 30, 2006

    Any half way honest assessment of education among “disadvantaged minority groups” (i.e. blacks, Hispanics, Pacific Islanders) but hardly other minority groups (Koreans, Chinese, Vietnamese, S.Asian Indians) will conclude that among a great many of the lower half of this former group, they themselves are the ones who simply give up on education at some point in grade school of junior high school.

    The ones who are giving up on these kids really are the ones who insist on pursing a myth of a “tabla rasa” of abilities including mental ones at birth, all of which can be reshaped by “society” in the schools. It can’t be.

    It’s remarkable to me how extensively Occam’s Razor, or the rule of parsimony, is abandoned by those who consider themselves scientists and rationalists, whenever a matter of social policy they themselves are invested in, that is a matter of their own faith based belief system, is involved.

    By far the simplest explanation, with abundant support over decades of research when the vast majority of researchers where hostile to this conclusion, is that genetics is the primary or at the very least a very major contributing reason for why blacks (on average, with Gaussian overlapping distributions of all human population groups) do notably less well in academic and other highly g loaded endeavors.

    As well the evidence would further suggest that the cultural environment, that is that complex of socially mediated personal goals and priorities and degree of self discipline and codes of personal interaction formed by parent(s) (or parental ins at a very early age) in the first interest and peer groups in the second one, probably accounts for most of the rest of the variance, rather than family income, size of personal dwelling, amount of stuff at home and other indicia of wealth or poverty, and so on — so long as there’s decent (not great, just decent) nutrition. As just one illustration, it’s famously obvious that Chinese kids with family incomes no higher than blacks kids do on average vastly better in school, and all the sorts of jobs that school success leads to. (Of course true believers in the Dogma of Zero Group inherent Differences will not let evidence stand in their way, any more than fundamentalist Christians will in rejecting evidence for evolution, or the that life on earth is billions of years old.)

    The best why not to abandon blacks kids in the lower half of their intelligence range (whatever mix of genes and parental/peer group cultural socialization were causative in forming that IQ) would be to much earlier make their education less abstract and unrealistic, and more about teaching and then apprenticeship in useful trades and skills and technical education, according to their various abilities. Meanwhile, sure, research should go on to try to find the magic external societal bullet or sets of bullets than will write sufficently differently on those black “blank states” so as to durably erase the academic achievement disparities. It’s come up remarkably empty after forty years of efforts so far.

    Tracking should start pretty early, sometime in grade school though not at the very beginning of course, with lots of opportunity to jump from a trade and technical ed track to a more academic, professional one, if the kid in question becomes a late bloomer. If he has to come in a year behind say, so what, if he genuinely starts showing academic subject interest and achievement.

    But for most kids in the lower half, and of course this includes white and Asian kids who don’t show much academic interest or ability at some point in grade school as well, a more practically oriented education would be the opposite of giving up on them. It would instead be far more of an effort in public education to help them develop their own particular aptitudes and abilities towards being as “much as they can be”.

  6. #6 etbnc
    November 30, 2006

    In my experience, the attitudes expressed in such a comment are unlikely to inspire behaviors that bring about the sort of world in which I want to live, nor the sort of world I would wish upon future generations.

  7. #7 Stephen
    November 30, 2006

    “self-discipline is more important than high IQ in student achievement”

    I went to an engineering school. In the first week i started there, i was startled at how many of my peers were really, really smart. They all were. Then, us freshmen sat while the Dean of Acedemic Advising told us that only a third of us would graduate. These days, i think it’s one in four. So, what happened to all those really smart people?

    In my sophomore year, i took a course with 110 other smart poeple. There was alot of material. At first i didn’t think it could be done in the given time frame. I optimized the course by doing exactly half of the homework (i stopped passing it in when it became apparent that half of the homework was a failing grade, and it was clear that the half i did was right – so i didn’t need to have it graded). Half of the homework was enough to get through the exams. If i passed the exams, i’d pass the course.

    But the last week of homework came after the last exam. So this week’s work could not be included in that test. I did this homework (or half of it) anyway. The surprise came in the next course. Same room, same prof. But, he handed out an exam on the first day. It had four problems from the previous course, and one was that last week’s homework. I got a 97. The next highest grade was in the 60’s. Clearly, of 110 people, i was the only one to do even half of the last week’s homework. That’s self discipline.

    So, how does one teach self discipline? As a parent, i’m working on that now. It turns out to be a multi-faceted problem. The first step is always to engender the idea that hard work and fun are basically the same thing. What?

    For example. From age about 4 to present (nearly 10), i’ve been reading really engaging stories to my son at bed time. These are stories that are probably beyond his reading level, and maybe beyond his comprehension level (but i help him out with that). The main thing, though, is that he really, really likes them. For example, Harry Potter. So, though reading was very, very difficult for him, it showed him that there was something good at the other end of it. Last year (towards the start of 3rd grade), he finally crossed from struggling to read for five minutes, to reading for six hours at a time. And, he’s now read the first five Harry books himself. Yes, book five is 870 pages, and they don’t have big print and margins like Goosebumps.

    But, there are other problems to solve, and the lessons continue.

    So, many (most?) adults don’t get this work-is-fun idea. Essentially all the good engineers do. Almost none of the managers do. So, managers mis-manage engineers as a matter of course. They think that they have to cajole, threaten, etc., engineers to get them to do work. Engineers ignore this as best they can, and find interest in the tasks at hand.

    Back to the topic. My son is adopted. There’s no directly tracable genetic line. Clearly, the nature vs. nurture issues could be explored with adopted children and their families. Just as twins studies help with this sort of thing.

  8. #8 Alvaro
    December 1, 2006

    Stephen, what a great comment. Thanks.

    One minor point: I get that work-is-fun. I am not an engineer. What, in my experience, is a source of misunderstanding between “engineers” and “managers” is that the source of fun is different. Engineers may love as-complex-as-possible abstract and spatial problems; managers (at least good ones) love to synthesize and focus on bottom-line results, the simpler the better.

    PS: Dave, congratulations on this great conversation

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