Coercion in the Classroom Won't Work

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

Some academic teachers in high school are snobbish about “practical” subjects like driver training, typing, electronics, and human relations. (Universities are even more prejudiced against such practical courses.) This attitude is based on the belief that the head is the only worthy part of the body, that intellectual achievement is the only truly admirable kind, and that practical subjects pollute the academic atmosphere. This view ignores the most important aspects of human existence and the fact that the complexity of technology is rapidly erasing the old distinctions between mental and manual work.

A sad fact is that the liberal-arts departments (literature, history, anthropology, sociology, psychology, economics), which used to dominate the universities, are being undervalued as students demand more and more of the courses that appear promising to them, in technology and in business administration. But, as the working world becomes more complex, more specialized, the need for teaching the humanities increases, chiefly to keep students from losing their awareness that they are flesh and blood and must get along with other similar creatures.

Moreover, the humanities, in the broadest sense, keep students from burrowing prematurely into their feature specialties and closing off all other avenues of inquiry, as happens, for example, when admission to medical school is determined primarily on the basis of grades in the pre-medical subjects. The eager beavers take as many of these sciences courses as the undergraduate college will allow and shun the humanities as a waste of time. Thus, some students enter medicine literal-minded, uninformed about the world, and insensitive.

Excessive, early specialization in one’s education may also lead to a dead end. Modern high-technology industries are staffed mainly by engineers. But when higher-level administrative positions have to be filled, those jobs are often offered to candidates with backgrounds in law or finance, because the engineers can’t see beyond the engineering.

Breadth in education helps a worker to see the faults and limitations in the way he does things and to conceive of improvements, to see the connections between his particular job and the ones related to it laterally and vertically, to understand the feelings and insecurities of fellow workers and clients—so that in dealing with others he can bring out the best in them.

The present distinctions in education between practical or technical subjects, the sciences, and the humanities are outmoded and should be reduced to the minimum. All high school students—even those firmly intending to study and work at computers or dress design—should be seduced, by inspired teaching methods, into studying the sciences and humanities that have a bearing on their chosen fields. And students who are bound for college—or are already there—should not be dissuaded from taking some courses in practical fields.

All students by the time they leave high school (or technical school) should have learned, I believe, something about the principles of mathematics, physics, and chemistry; the way our bodies work; why we behave as we do in our communities, in our families, and as individuals, and why we need to be ethical; the past, through history and literature; how to express ideas through speech and writing; and the practice of at least one art (such as dramatics, music, painting, sculpture, ceramics), so that they can feel the excitement of creation and gain some respect for the arts in general. In addition, I think schools should be prepared to give training in all technical skills.

Obviously, the depth of the teaching will depend greatly on the capabilities and motivation of the students as well as on the skills of the teachers. But even when courses are relatively brief and simple, they should not be in the traditional survey-lecture form but should involve the students in activities and projects that demand their participation and leave a lasting impression.

As for specific educational methods, John Dewey emphasized learning by doing (rather than by being told and memorizing). He meant that when you are confronted by a new learning situation in which you yourself must find the way to accomplish the task, the learning goes deep because it involves a sense of responsibility, at least a touch of anxiety and perhaps excitement, weighing alternatives, and activity of some kind—going to the library, for example, or interviewing a person, or visiting an industry. You may give or write a report. Each step is engraved on your consciousness; it gives you a sense of accomplishment or frustration. This process of groping and acting is very different from listening—or not listening—to a teacher talk.

Students in an elementary school class can learn arithmetic by acting as salesclerks in the school store. They can focus on some aspects of health by making scrapbooks of clippings from newspapers and magazines. Junior high and high school students can discuss ways in which an actual community problem might be solved, or choose and organize an educational expedition—to an industry, a hospital, a police station, a courts, or a convalescent home—talking to the people there, taking notes, discussing and writing up reports. Students can think up and carry out experiments in science. These are examples not only of learning by doing but also of taking the initiative and accepting responsibility for work.

The teacher doesn’t sit by but enters the discussion, asks questions that have to be considered, makes suggestions, and acts as the presiding officer; though as far as possible he leaves the initiative and the decisions to the group members—even when they seem to be making mistakes. The teacher must keep order, not by being overbearing but by creating an atmosphere of mutual respect. A productive atmosphere does not require that pupils all sit docilely at their desks. They can be allowed to move about and talk, when necessary for their projects, as long as they don’t disturb others.

John Dewey also emphasized the value, in elementary and secondary school, of linking several of the topics to be taught each year to some central project or theme that naturally appeals to children and inspires their learning. A simple example at the third-grade level would be native Americans. A class can use for readers books on native Americans, study nature as they did, discuss in social studies how and where they lived. They can cooperatively paint a mural or build a model of a native American village. They can select classmates who are more advanced readers to go to the library for more information.

The project method works particularly well to stimulate pupils whose skills or enthusiasm is below average, since it allows the teacher to ask from each child a contribution appropriate to his capability.

Another way to capture the interest of students is to start where their readiness is—rather than where the textbook happens to start. College textbooks on psychology, like the one I had to read, begin with definitions of consciousness, illusions, and hallucination, and go on to the history of the subject, next to a diagram of a neuron, and then to the nervous system of a single-celled paramecium. The human being is at the back end of the book. All this seems logical, even obligatory, to the professor. But to the student it is boring, and it kills interest in the subject. The instructor might start the introductory course with a book (maybe a novel) and classroom discussions focused on the interests, problems, worries, mental diseases, sex life, concepts of marriage, causes of divorce, career motivations, of young women and men. If the students get involved and curious, they may want to get back to definitions, history, and the paramecium.

Elementary school pupils are fascinated with nature, computers, space exploration, the power of the atom, cartoon characters, far more than they are with abstract  numbers and the namby-pamby adventures of the children in traditional readers. The smart teacher takes advantage of these preoccupations to motivate reading, writing, math, and social studies. A class of black children, deprived by poverty, were slow to warm up to reading. But they caught fire when the teacher told them—and then encouraged them to read—about heroic slaves who had defied the law in order to become literate.

I remember an imaginative high school teacher whose pupils were from the most deprived, crime-infested part of town. She encouraged them to write themes, a task that is often distasteful or impossible for such students, b telling them they could write about the worst experiences they had ever had or had heard about, and could use the vilest language. Soon all the members were writing sordid stories. The teacher’s comments were predominantly positive and focused on originality, ability to portray character, and so forth. Spelling, punctuation, and neatness were not mentioned. After weeks of telling dirty stories, the students began to branch out into other topics, which they found could also be fun to write about. And after a couple of months, the teacher started calling attention to the values of grammar and spelling.

Progressive educators emphasize that children learn by feeling as much as they learn by doing and by thinking. This is clear in the dramatic play of children at home or in a good nursery school. A child will try to overcome the fear she experienced in the doctor’s office—and the shame of having been afraid—by pretending to be a doctor to a doll and jabbing it with a needle. She will digest the scoldings she has received from her parents—and will learn to be a parent—by playing “house” and dealing out similar scoldings to a doll or to a smaller child.

All students in professional schools—law, divinity, engineering, education—should study the kinds of interpersonal problems that seem characteristic of their chosen occupations. High school students need to understand better through discussions in class—with the guidance of mature teachers of English, history, sociology, psychology—the tensions they experience, or will experience, with one another, with their parents, with employers. Elementary school pupils can be helped to understand their quarrels. Even the most highly trained experts will prove ineffective if they can’t get along with others.

Other permanent qualities of character that schools should try to develop are creativity or originality, so that people can imagine better and more beautiful ways to do things; initiative, so that they can get started on solving problems without waiting to be prodded; responsibility, so that they can be counted on to do the right thing whether or not someone is watching.

These qualities cannot be inculcated by lecturing or preaching or teaching mottoes. (Young children who have been taught to recite the Pledge of Allegiance or the Lord’s Prayer every day rarely have the vaguest idea what they mean.) These qualities will be absorbed to a degree through identifying with parents and teachers whom children love and respect. But they can become firm aspects of character only through being deliberately and consistently encouraged (by parents and by teachers), and by being practiced by children—hour by hour, day by day, year by year—not in special exercises but as part of all their activities.

I’d like to summarize an experiment done many years ago that dramatically brings out this point. It was designed to show the difference between imposed, authoritarian discipline and inner discipline fostered by responsibility and democratic leadership.

An after-school activity program for boys ten or twelve years old was set up by psychologists who played the role of the authoritarian or the democratic leader. The authoritarian leader announced that the purpose of the club was for each boy to build a single piece of furniture, such as a chair-side table. He told the boys exactly how to proceed at every step and he kept strict order. The democratic leader explained that the club belonged to the boys, and that they should decide what to make. The boys held lengthy discussions about the possibilities, with the leader helping them to discard totally impractical suggestions 9by asking questions), and they reached their own consensus. When they finally decided on building birdhouses, he guided them in answering such questions as what tools would be necessary and how they could be secured, what size and style of birdhouses should be built, how much lumber would be needed, where the lumber could be found and which members of the group were to get it, and what would be the sequence of the steps to be taken.

As you may imagine, building by the democratic method took much longer. But when the leader went out of the room, the work went on almost as efficiently as it had gone on when he was there, because the boys felt the project was theirs. They knew the next steps, they had been trusted with responsibility, and they had been shown respect. By contrast, when the authoritarian leader left the room, the boys began to horse around, pick on the timid members, and abuse their projects. Plainly, they did not feel that these were really theirs, and they expressed their pent-up resentment against the bossiness of the leader.

A third style of discipline was also included in the experiment. It was labeled laissez faire, let them do what they want. The leader stayed in the room and answered questions but offered no leadership at all. No project was ever developed, no work was done. The more mature members tried every once in a while to get the group to organize, but their leadership was not strong enough to control the anarchy of the least mature ones. The nonleading adult proved to be, if anything, a disturbing factor. Things were a little more calm when he was out of the room than when he was in. The implications seems obvious. Progressive education and learning by experience in the school and wise parenting at home do not require that teachers and parents sit by and leave children leaderless. Good democratic leadership may be less obvious than authoritarian leadership, but it is no less real or constant, and it demands more skill and effort.

True excellence in education has little to do with the quantitative recommendations of the commission. It requires teachers who challenge students of various capabilities; it requires stimulating projects, learning by doing, and the conferral of responsibility; it requires relating classroom subjects to the students’ lives and feelings.

Excellence means selecting mature candidates for teacher training. It means giving teachers the same respect teachers should give children.

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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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