Briefly Noted: Why Tough Teachers Get Good Results

Well now. Here is a politically incorrect take on pedagogy. In a recent piece for the Wall Street Journal, Joanne Lipman argues that there are more than a few clues that tough teachers get better results than softies.[1] She begins by reminiscing about her high school music teacher who, apparently, was one arduous abecedary. “He made us rehearse until our fingers almost bled. He corrected our wayward hands and arms by poking at us with a pencil.” She notes—accurately, in the opinion of your scribe—that today he would be fired. “But when he died a few years ago he was celebrated.” Forty years worth of former students came to his funeral. Not all music pros, but all appreciative because Mr. K had made them work hard and in so doing made them believe they could achieve what they worked at.

In deference to Mr. K, Lipman argues, “It’s time to revive old-fashioned education. Not just traditional but old-fashioned in the sense that so many of us knew as kids, with strict discipline and unyielding demands. Because here’s the thing: it works.” And again, “The conventional wisdom holds that teachers are supposed to tease knowledge out of students, rather than pound it into their heads. . . . But the conventional wisdom is wrong.” Toward the end of resurrecting Mr. K’s style of stern and stringent pedagogy, Lipman offers eight clues to highly effective teaching. I note the eight clues, while offering a comment here and there.

1. A little pain is good for you.

Malcom Gladwell in his book Outliers made famous the research of psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, that about 10,000 hours of practice makes one an expert. This seems true enough. Limpan argues though for another point from the same study: “True expertise requires teachers who give ‘constructive, even painful feedback.’” Dr. Ericsson’s study found this to work out in violin performers, surgeons, computer programmers and chess players.

Lipman makes a good point, but not all painful feedback is constructive. One thinks of Roger Ebert’s movie reviews. Take, for example, his review of Transformers: A Revenge for the Fallen: “A horrible experience of unbearable length…. If you want to save yourself the ticket price, go into the kitchen, cue up a male choir singing the music of hell, and get a kid to start banging pots and pans together. Then close your eyes and use your imagination…. Those who think Transformers is a great or even a good film are, may I tactfully suggest, not sufficiently evolved.” Ebert’s feedback was, one suspects, painful but not constructive. A teacher’s feedback might be painful but must always be constructive.

2. Drill, baby, drill.

Rote learning has been increasingly downplayed and even avoided in American education. Yet Lipman points out that students from India, for instance, who specialize in repetitive learning and memorization “ . . . are creaming their peers in the National Spelling Bee Championship.” American students meanwhile struggle with math problems because so few actually nail down the basics; few were made to memorize the multiplication tables.

I couldn’t agree more. E. D. Hirsch, Dorothy Sayers, and many others have argued that content comes before analysis and communication. One of the silliest moments of the pedagogical silly season which we know as the twentieth century is the ascent of various pedagogical paradigms which denigrate the value of content pedagogy, of received tradition, and of memorization.

3. Failure is an option.

“Kids who understand that failure is a necessary aspect of learning actually perform better.” Lipman cites a French study from 2011 that gave students an exam beyond their capability. The group that was told failing and trying again is part of the learning process consistently outperformed their peers.

Agreed. Young men and women who have not been forced to grapple with failure are uniquely poised to be thoroughly mistaken about the world of which they are a part. Life in this world is not an unbroken succession of victories. The sooner they learn that lesson, the sooner they are prepared to learn from their failures and rise above them. As C. S. Lewis put it, “Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement.”

4. Strict is better than nice.

In 2005, Mary Poplin from Claremont Graduate University found that the 31 most effective teachers in a selection of the worst schools of Los Angeles had one thing in common: they were strict. “The researchers had assumed that the most effective teachers would lead students to knowledge through collaborative learning and discussion. Instead they found disciplinarians….” A fourth grader from one of these schools summarized Poplin’s research better than she ever could: “When I was in first grade and second grade and third grade, when I cried my teachers coddled me. When I got to Mrs. T’s room, she told me to suck it up and get to work. I think she’s right. I need to work harder.”

I’m not sure strict is always better than nice, but at least sometimes it is. The single best teacher I’ve ever encountered was Milton Conrad Jordan, a professor of journalism and professional writing (teaching at Campbell University at the time) who never once to my memory was satisfied with my writing. He articulated clearly and regularly the manifold ways in which I was a boring and ineffective writer, and then showed me how to improve.

5. Creativity can be learned.

Temple University psychology prof Robert Weisberg’s research suggests that traditional education does not stifle a child’s creativity. After studying geniuses such as Edison and Picasso, Weisberg concluded that “ . . . there is no such thing as a born genius. Most creative giants work ferociously hard . . . .” Weisberg told Lipman, “You have to immerse yourself in a discipline before you create in that discipline. It is built on a foundation of learning the discipline, which is what your music teacher was requiring of you.”

Weisberg and Lipman are right. In my own chosen discipline, theology, the most constructively creative theologians are those who operated firmly within a received (orthodox) theological framework. Perhaps Augustine is an exemplar here. He is the only theologian or philosopher to have invented two genres—the theology of history represented by City of God and the philosophical autobiography represented by Confessions—and he is a theologian who operated firmly within a theological and philosophical tradition.

6. Grit trumps talent.

University of Penn professor Angela Duckworth has recently developed a “Grit Scale” based upon several years of research. She studied over 2,800 subjects at Ivy League schools, the U. S. Military Academy, and in spelling bees. She found that “grit––defined as passion and perseverance for long-term goals––is the best predictor of success.” Her “Grit Scale” did a better job at predicting those who would remain at West Point than West Point’s own measure––an index of SAT scores, class rank, leadership and physical aptitude. Thus, grit trumps talent.

Yes. In the realm of Ph.D. students, I’ll take one who is scrappy and determined over one who is analytically superior but not as gritty or determined. Any day.

7. Praise makes you weak . . .

Lipman’s old music teacher seldom praised her or other students. A Stanford psychology prof, Carol Dweck, found that kids who were told they were “hard workers” became more confident and performed better in school than those who were told they were smart. Dweck states that those “smart” students began measuring their identity by performance. “If success meant they were smart, then struggling meant they were not.” It seems that Mr. K was on to something.

Agreed. Although it is fine to let students know if they are talented, it is far better to compliment them on what they are doing with their talents.

8. . . . while stress makes you strong.

Lipman cites here the most extreme study of any so far. A psychology professor at the University of Buffalo studied 37 students, some who had recently experienced a stressful or significantly negative life event, e.g., serious family illness, and others who had not. “Then he plunged their hands into ice water. The students who had experienced a moderate number of stressful events actually felt less pain than those who had experienced no stress at all.” Stress builds perseverance.

Agreed. That which does not kill us can make us stronger.

Lipman notes that any of these principles taken individually doesn’t mean much, and some could be applied in a mean-spirited or otherwise-errant manner. But “collectively they convey something very different: confidence.” Students who are challenged often grow up to meet the challenge. Good teachers present a challenge and then help all students grow into the type of person who can meet life’s challenges.



[1] Joanne Lipman, “Why Tough Teachers Get Good Results” in Wall Street Journal online (Sep 27, 2013).