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.

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.

Presented by

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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