Coercion in the Classroom Won't Work

Learning by doing and sensitivity to feelings are the keys to academic progress

The recently released report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education has, to my mind, little to do with excellence. Its recommendations—more homework, and longer school days and longer school years—could better be labeled “A Plea for More Coercion in the Schools.” Yet a chief reason why so many schools achieve so little education of value is that they already rely too much on coercion. They ask students to read a text or listen to the teacher and then to regurgitate what they’ve read or been told, or risk a failing grade.

Attitudes about the rearing and education of children vary between two extremes. One, which might be labeled “authoritarian” or “coercive,” rests on an assumption that children are by nature irresponsible and lazy, and will do their schoolwork only if they are penalized for a poor performance.

The opposite view might be labeled “progressive” or “democratic.” It rests on the assumption that children who are brought up with love, trust, and clear but kind leadership are eager to grow up and be like their parents, eager to explore, learn, master skills, and take on responsibility; they need guidance but not sternness or punishment.

Teachers and parents who incline toward the authoritarian attitude are scornful of “frills.” They consider lecturing, memorization, recitation, and grading to be the basics, as they remember them from their own school days. They believe in withholding promotion form children who have not satisfactorily completed the year’s work in all subjects, despite the evidence that when children are made to repeat a grade, they do not do as well in the following years as similar children who were promoted. To authoritarians, education is not a means to help each child to mature but a series of hurdles over which everyone, of no matter what capability, must jump. A policy of withholding promotion means ignoring the fundamental and complex question of why the children failed and what needs to be done to correct that problem.

Children whose measurable intelligence falls moderately below the class average may be unable to keep up with their classmates, though this need not be a problem when a resourceful teacher individualizes work so that the child can be kept productively busy, happy, and learning. Specific learning disabilities, such as the fairly common handicap in visual memory that keeps a child confused between god and dog, was and saw, can powerfully discourage all schoolwork. These disabilities call for special teaching or tutoring methods.

Many kinds of emotional problems interfere with learning, such as fear of failure, preoccupation with family crises, and neglect by parents. Laziness is often blamed—but I’ve never seen such a case. Children are born curious and eager to achieve. When these qualities are missing, investigation shows, some hurtful influence destroyed them.

Poor teachers are ready to condemn pupils who don’t fall in line, without trying to find motivation in them. Teachers both of Winston Churchill and of Charles Darwin complained to the boys’ parents that they were hopelessly poor students and would never amount to anything.

The Commission on Excellence has recommended more homework, though the amount of conventional, repetitive homework has been found to make little difference in pupils’ mastery of subjects or in their final grades.

I’d make a sharp distinction between that kind of homework on the one hand and library research or a scientific project that the student selects and carries out on the other. The second kind of work fosters self-reliance in thinking and acting, which in turn becomes part of the student’s character. With the right teaching methods, this quality can be developed not only outside the classroom but also in it.

Now for grading. A study that measured the relationship between grades achieved in medical school and the level of competency of general practitioners a dozen years after graduation found, amazingly, no correlation whatever between grades and competency. Those who were practicing superior medicine came equally from the top, middle, and bottom of their medical-school classes. And those practicing poor medicine also came equally from the top, middle, and bottom.

I believe that grading is an abomination. It misdirects the efforts of students into memorizing for recitations and tests. It misleads teachers into thinking that the grades they give represent something gained from the course. What grades do measure, I’d say, is the ability to memorize, freedom from learning disabilities, and conformity in thinking, which is not a valuable trait, to my mind.

The commission has recommended longer school days and years. That might make sense if evidence were available that students felt challenged by their present curricula. But in a majority of schools, particularly high schools, the students are bored because they feel so little connection between their interests and their schoolwork.

If the recommendations of the commission are carried out without spending the vast amount of money and undertaking the vast amount of training necessary to improve the quality of teaching, the only result will be greater boredom and more dropouts.

Medical education provides a useful focus for evaluating teaching methods because we can find out whether medical curricula are creating the kinds of physicians that people and the hospitals feel they need—in contrast, for example, to liberal-arts programs, whose aims are more difficult to assess.

Competence in medicine cannot be achieved by memorizing lectures or textbooks, though this has a role. Students can learn anatomy in a usable way only by dissecting cadavers. They can learn to diagnose and treat disease only by working with sick patients—fitting together histories, physical examinations, and laboratory tests. Then they must think through the various alternative diagnoses, under the supervision of an instructor. They must do this again and again, in school and during internship and residency training. This is the learning by doing that John Dewey, philosopher, educator, and inspirer of the “progressive-education” movement, advocated as the key element in his concept of usable, lasting education.

In the 1920s, dissatisfaction with physicians was widespread. When asked in public-opinion polls how they rated their doctors, many people gave answers like “He seems to know what he is doing. But I can’t talk with him about the things that are bothering me. He looks embarrassed or he asks me a question about something else.”

This discomfort with personal or psychosomatic matters, though these account for more than half the problems for which people consult a physician, was traceable to the rapid development of the basic sciences of medicine—physiology, biochemistry, microbiology, and particularly pathology (the study of diseased tissues)—in the last half of the nineteenth century. The German pathologists, who were leading the crusade for scientific medicine, scorned anything that seemed to them inexact, unprovable, or mushy. Medical schools everywhere fell in line.

In the 1930s, in response to criticism, medical schools had to call on the members of their often meager departments of psychiatry to teach not only about mental and psychosomatic illnesses but also about human relations and the doctor­–patient relationship.

But the psychiatrists found it tough going. Students who had spent two years studying only the basic sciences, without ever seeing a patient, and had been taught by instructors who had chosen careers in these impersonal fields of medicine, had become so desensitized that it was difficult to get them to recognize the feelings of their patients—or the feelings in themselves.

The most effective method I saw for preventing this desensitization was at Case Western Reserve Medical School, where I taught for twelve years. Each student was assigned to one family, from the beginning of the first year, to follow a mother during the last trimester of her pregnancy, stay with her throughout her labor and delivery, and then serve primarily as a pediatrician (in training) for the baby. The students’ sense of responsibility kept them keenly alert, hastened their learning, and intensified their sensitivities.

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Benjamin Spock was a pediatrician, a child psychologist, a medical school teacher, and a political activist. His book Baby and Child Care, now in its eight edition and co-authored with Dr. Robert Needlman, is one of the biggest sellers of all time. Dr. Spock died in 1998; his writings can be viewed at

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