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NurtureSchlock, Part 3/3

Examining the science in chapter 10 completes this discussion of how philosophy provides better guidance than social science. The studies covered in this chapter inform parents of which behaviors, methods, and materials “effectively” foster language development.

We must first distinguish between social scientific “effectiveness,” and aesthetic “appreciation.” The second is essential to all education, the first is peripheral. This is especially true for parents. Which do children need more–parents who are effective, or parents who are appreciative?

I can’t cite social science findings to support the central role of appreciation in the language development of children, but I can state my premise up front. Then we can see how it holds up to the science in chapter 10. Here it is:

Those who look at teaching and learning through an aesthetic lens believe children develop language as parents interact with them in appreciative ways (e.g. surprise, wonder, awe, satisfaction, encouragement, support, challenge, comfort, touch, and even praise, to name a few.)

Let’s look at chapter 10 to see what the research says. Does it offer insights that contradict or go beyond this?

Some of the old social science was so obnoxious it hardly needs debunking. Based on research findings that said language development would be accelerated if young children watched Baby Einstein or Brainy Baby DVDs, some parents bought these programs and sat their babies in front of the television. Later studies found “a dose-response relationship, meaning the more the children watched, the worse their vocabulary” (pp. 200-201). Eventually, more studies debunked the old science by “looking specifically at parent-responsiveness to infants, and its impact on language development” (p. 207).

According to Bronson and Merryman,

If there’s one main lesson from this newest science, it’s this; the basic paradigm has been flipped. The information flow that matters most is in the opposite direction we previously assumed. The central role of the parent is not to push massive amounts of language into the baby’s ears; rather, the central role of the parent is to notice what’s coming from the baby, and respond accordingly–coming from his mouth, his eyes, and his fingers.

This is a good description of appreciation. It suggests that parents ought to notice and respond to what their child is doing in ways that are understanding, imaginative, humble and generous.

Bronson and Merryman are saying the same thing I am saying. Appreciating a child’s natural growth and development is the key to language development. The authors’ language even sounds like mine. We seem to agree that language develops from interactions with appreciative parents. There it is–plain and simple.

But no–they couldn’t leave it at that. The premise of their book is that we need social science to tell parents how to overcome the “shock” of not knowing what to do in various child rearing situations. Parents don’t know how to promote language development until social scientific findings provide correct guidance.

So the authors looked at findings from language development research. They reported that, in a study of two girls’ language development, the one with the more responsive mother was developing language at a faster pace than the one with the less responsive mother. They summarized the study: “This variable, how a parent responds to a child’s vocalizations–right in the moment–seems to be the most powerful mechanism pulling a child from babble to fluent speech” (p. 209).

I explain the finding similarly, but more simply. Children develop language from interactions with appreciative parents.

To see if there is a causal relationship between parent responsiveness and the speed with which infants develop fluent speech, the authors looked at the studies of Michael Goldstein, who is famous for teaching parents to respond to a child’s vocalizations in ways that promote language development.

Goldstein conducted the following study with parents and their nine-month-olds. The children were dressed in denim overalls, with a microphone in their chest pockets. The mothers were in a small room with their children, wearing a head set that received audio from an attending researcher’s microphone. For the first ten minutes mothers simply played with their children, while the researcher was behind a one-way window, listening to the children’s vocalizations.

During the second ten minutes, when the babies vocalized, the researcher told the mothers to “Go ahead.” That meant a mother was “supposed to lean in even closer to her baby, pat or rub the child, and maybe give him a kiss.”

One of the authors described the results:

To my ear it was stunning — the children literally sounded five months older, during the second ten-minute period, than they had in the first. (p. 213)

Later they wrote:

To some degree, Goldstein’s research seems to have unlocked the secret to learning to talk — he’s just given eager parents a road map for how to fast-track their infants’ language development. But Goldstein is very careful to warn parents against overdoing it. “Children need breaks for their brain to consolidate what it’s learned,” he points out. “Sometimes children just need play time, alone, where they can babble to themselves” (p. 214).

So, what should parents do? Should the findings of these studies be tempered by judgments about when children need time to play alone? Of course they should. Parents simply need to “appreciate” their child’s development–in all the rich meanings of that term–and the child will develop language. On the other hand, children whose parents don’t communicate a rich appreciation will have slower language development. (I see “baby DVDs” near the television.)

Finally, Bronson and Merryman turned to Jennifer Schwade’s research on second year language development. They recognize that much of what parents do to “scaffold language for toddlers” is natural, but they devote pp. 216–222 to describing five techniques that do this particularly well.

At the end of chapter 10 Merryman reported that she was amazed by some of the interactions she had using these techniques with the twelve-month-old daughter of a friend. Merryman did some “object labeling” and then touched and moved close when the child vocalized. Then she did some of Schwade’s “motionese” activities. All worked as predicted, which was more evidence that this new science provides correct guidance for language development.

But throughout the chapter, including Merryman’s story, it was clear that these techniques are nothing more than different expressions of appreciation for a child’s development.

In other words, there was nothing in this chapter more valuable than:

Children develop language as parents interact with them in appreciative ways (e.g. surprise, wonder, awe, satisfaction, encouragement, support, challenge, comfort, touch, and even praise, to name a few).

This 3-part blog on the social science of child rearing is finished. Our society has a healthy respect for the natural sciences because they predict cause and effect in the natural world. Those predictions have been the basis for great technological advances. Unfortunately, over the last 50 years the same kind of respect has been given to social sciences, even though their findings predict nothing. It is good that we have psychological, sociological, economic, and political studies to inform our understanding about ourselves; but we should not allow social science findings to obscure the philosophy that is at the heart of education.

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NurtureSchlock, Part 2/3

The authors’ Acknowledgments begin:

We wish to thank Adam Moses and Hugo Lindgren at New York Magazine for encouraging us to “geek out” in our stories, trusting that readers would be turned on, not turned off, by the depth of the science we covered. (p. 241)

I am not surprised readers are “turned on” by social science. It is another example of our aphilosophical society. When I remind teachers and administrators that their own philosophy of education is the most powerful driver of their work; and when I tell them findings of psychological, sociological, and educational studies address the periphery of their work; it does not take long before they once again ask, “What does the research say about best practices?” They have been taught to believe in the social science improvement paradigm, even though few of them have ever applied research findings to their practice, or even know what that looks like.

This blog uses the social science described in NurtureShock’s chapter 1 to argue that philosophy provides better child rearing guidance than either old or new social science. NurtureSchlock, Part 3 does the same with the science described in chapter 10. Chapters 1 and 10 are examples of how the book uses “the fascinating new science of children to reveal just how many of our bedrock assumptions about kids can no longer be counted on” (p. 6). Is this new science really so fascinating?

Chapter 1, entitled “The Inverse Power of Praise,” argues that when it comes to building self-esteem and the belief that parents/teachers should praise children, “key twists” in social science studies were overlooked. The result was that we assumed (1) praise is good, (2) no praise is bad.

Actually, human experience and common sense tell us the second of these assumptions is true, but the authors did not address this common sense assumption. Instead they described the misinterpretations of science that caused us to believe praise is good. Chapter 1 described how Carol Dweck’s recent findings corrected that errant assumption.

But I get ahead of myself. Before examining the science described in chapter 1 we need to define what it means to be educated. A philosophical answer to this question is the essential first step that is overlooked throughout NurtureShock.

Readers of this blog are familiar with my definition. Educated people are those who develop the six virtues of understanding, imagination, strong character, courage, humility and generosity; as they overcome the vices of ignorance, intellectual incompetence, weak character, fear of truth, pride and selfishness. Keep these virtues and vices in mind as this blog and the next one discuss the “new science of children.”

Chapter 1 reported that Professor Carol Dweck and her associates conducted several experiments with New York City fifth-graders. The first explored the responses of two groups of students who were praised differently.

After students finished a puzzle-solving test, they were told their scores and given a single line of praise. Randomly divided into two groups, members of one group were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Members of the other group were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”

In the next stage of the experiment, students were asked to choose between solving a set of puzzles that was more difficult and more educative; or taking a test that was like the first. The findings were that: “Of those praised for their effort, 90% chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test” (p. 14).

Dweck ‘s analysis explained: “When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game: look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” Bronson and Merryman added, “And that’s what the fifth-graders had done. They’d chosen to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed.” According to the authors, these findings correct the errant assumption that adults should promote self-esteem and praise children.

But those who define “educated” as developing the six virtues don’t need experimental results to know what happens when one group of fifth graders is taught to be proud (praised for their intelligence), and another group is taught the value of strong character (praised for working hard). Common sense tells us that, all other things being equal, fifth-graders who are taught a vice (pride) will be less able to confront new situations than those who are taught a virtue (strong character).

Dweck’s experimental result matches what is predicted by the six-virtue definition of the educated person. Teach children to be virtuous and they will be more able to confront new situations. Teach them to be vicious, and they will be less able, and less willing.

Those who believe in the six-virtue definition of the educated person have never been persuaded that more praise is better than less praise because praise is NOT a central child rearing issue. The central issues are always the intellectual, character, and spiritual virtues children develop as they become educated. Dweck’s findings are simply evidence that promoting, modeling and teaching virtue is educative. Promoting, modeling and teaching vice is miseducative.

The experimental result from a second study of praise is also predicted by the six virtue definition of the educated person. This time the fifth-graders did not have a choice of a second test. They all took a test that was, “designed for kids two years ahead of their grade level.” Dweck observed the group praised for their intelligence: “Just watching them, you could see the strain. They were sweating and miserable.”

All students failed the second test, which set up the third stage of the experiment. They were required to take a third test “engineered to be as easy as the first round.”

The results were that:

Those who had been praised for their effort significantly improved on their first score — by about 30 percent. Those who’d been told they were smart did worse than they had at the very beginning–by about 20 percent (p. 15).

According to Bronson and Merryman,

Dweck had suspected that praise could backfire, but even she was surprised by the magnitude of the effect . . . Repeating her experiments, Dweck found this effect of praise on performance held true for students of every socioeconomic class. It hit both boys and girls–the very brightest girls especially (they collapsed the most following failure). Even preschoolers weren’t immune to the inverse power of praise. (p. 15)

Only by looking through a social science lens do these experiments explain “the inverse power of praise.” If we look through the lens of the six-virtue definition of the educated person, these experiments confirm the positive effects of teaching virtue and the negative effects of teaching vice. Furthermore, although I don’t need social science evidence, these studies provide evidence of the universal nature of this definition: “this effect of praise on performance held true for students of every socioeconomic class. It hit both boys and girls. . . ” (p. 15).

A third experiment was conducted to study children in relation to a different variable. This is how social science works. Social scientists conduct different studies to isolate different variables. The next study isolated “students’ perceptions of whether their intelligence is innate or developed.” It was conducted by Dr. Lisa Blackwell, one of Dweck’s proteges.

Junior high students were broken into two groups, both of which attended eight workshop sessions. According to Bronson and Merryman, “The control group was taught study skills, and the others got study skills and a special module on how intelligence is not innate. These students took turns reading aloud an essay on how the brain grows new neurons when challenged. They saw slides of the brain and acted out skits” (p. 17).

The question explored in this study was whether or not the students in the second group would have better study habits and math grades. Bronson and Merryman described the results:

It didn’t take long. The teachers–who hadn’t known which students had been assigned to which workshop–could pick out the students who had been taught that intelligence can be developed. They improved their study habits and grades. In a single semester, Blackwell reversed the students’ longtime trend of decreasing math grades.

The only difference between the control group and the test group were two lessons, a total of 50 minutes spent teaching not math but a single idea: that the brain is a muscle. Giving it a harder workout makes you smarter. That alone improved their math scores. (p. 17)

According to the authors, the difference between the experiences of the two groups was insignificant. According to the six-virtue definition of “educated,” however, the differences were great. The control group was taught to understand math and develop study skills (the first and third virtues). The test group was taught these virtues, plus the virtue of imagination. They also “saw slides of the brain and acted out skits.”

Believers in the six-virtue definition of the educated person expect that the test group would develop improved study habits, earn better grades, and be recognized by teachers because their imaginations were also engaged in the group activities. The differences between the two sets of group activities were significant because teaching and learning with imagination (the second virtue) is powerful. So these findings are not surprising to six virtue believers.

In summary, believers in the six-virtue definition of the educated person don’t need any studies to tell them that teaching students to be proud is less educative than teaching them to work hard. They also don’t need studies to inform them that students who are taught to be imaginative, understanding, and hard working, will behave better and achieve more than those who are only taught to be understanding and hard working. It is all part of the six virtue definition of the educated person.

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NurtureSchlock, Part 1/3

The bookstore had 50% off and NurtureShock was getting rave reviews.

The Introduction explains the title:

“Nurture shock” as the term is generally used, refers to the panic–common among new parents–that the mythical fountain of knowledge is not magically kicking in at all.

This book will deliver a similar shock–it will use the fascinating new science of children to reveal just how many of our bedrock assumptions about kids can no longer be counted on.

The central premise of this book is that many of modern society’s strategies for nurturing children are in fact backfiring — because key twists in the science have been overlooked.

The resulting errant assumptions about child development have distorted parenting habits, school programs, and social policies. They affect how we think about kids, and thus how we interpret child behavior and communicate with the young. The intent of this book is not to be alarmist, but to teach us to think differently–more deeply and clearly–about children. Small corrections in our thinking today could alter the character of society long-term, one future citizen at a time. (pp. 6-7)

This book shocked me; but not with the idea that some social science findings are naive, and others are enlightening. I was shocked that the authors don’t see that, just as “key twists” were overlooked in interpretations of yesterday’s studies, “key twists” are waiting around the corner for today’s findings.  The authors came to the wrong conclusion from their descriptions of wrong conclusions.

I call the book NutureSchlock because it not only fails to “teach us to think differently–more deeply and clearly–about children” (p. 6), but it also obscures the philosophical basis of child rearing. The most devastating “errant assumptions” are not those that emerged from past studies. They are those that presume social science provides correct child rearing guidance. Nurtureshock assumes this by arguing that new studies offer correct guidance because they restore common sense (p. 7).

I like common sense, too. Common sense tells me that, if we have not defined what it means to be educated, there is no such thing as correct or incorrect child rearing guidance.

NurtureShock is based on more than 100,000 pages of journal articles and hundreds of interviews with scientists. It has 62 pages of “Selected Sources and References.” Even after all these findings have been gathered and interpreted, the truest and wisest advice to parents and teachers is still: “In all situations, it depends on the situation and the meaning of ‘educated.'” Child rearing is essentially a philosophical endeavor, not a social scientific one.

How can the findings of researchers who have never been in a parent’s or teacher’s situation provide better guidance than the experiences of those in the situation? They would have to do two things: (1) provide insight that is not evident to those in the situation; (2) explain all the ways in which the experimental situations that produced the findings are similar to and different from the actual situation. Social science can do the first, but not the second.

Raising children starts with the philosophical question of what it means to be educated. Once that is answered, the right thing to do is always the same–model and teach that meaning.

The next two blogs use the book’s specific child rearing findings to illustrate why a deep, meaningful philosophy of education is more useful than either old or new social science findings.

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