Blogging the string in the labyrinth of Crete

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Paddling Pedagogy

A lot of the time, the edu-blogging verse (at least, what I see of it, which is admittedly a small portion) focuses on grand policy or curriculum changes, or whether the parents or children are to blame for children failing, or the detrimental effects of NCLB.

When it does get into the basics of how a classroom should be run, the views are often rather sophisticated. Ken DeRosa over at D-Ed Reckoning recently had guest blogger palisadesk do a four-part series on effectively managing a classroom. Ken has often discussed curriculum, and how the lack of proper presentation on the part of the teacher affects learning.

However, I recently found something which suggests more fundamental issues. While trolling through the forum discussion boards at a teacher's site, I found a post full of cautious optimism that teachers were no longer allowed to smack children on the derriere with a wood board. The original poster notes that while she's happy about the new policy, other teachers are "in an uproar" and convinced "all hell is going to break out".

Oh, and one thing I should note: the policy was changed so the teachers could no longer paddle. They now have to send the students to an assistant principal to get paddled. Ah, such social progress!

Sadly, the teachers probably will see a worsening of behavior. Punishment is a behavioral technique, but, as I've mentioned before, it's implementation is quite difficult. One of its effects is resentment. So now they'll have a bunch of resentful students who are itching to get back at any teachers who've had liberal foreswing. Now they know the teachers can only levy the punishment when they're able to send the student to an assistant principal. If the student knows it will be difficult or impossible to send them, they'll freely act out. The operational costs of sending the child to the assistant principal means a greater variety of escape behaviors will be available. The children will soon be testing them thoroughly.

It's also worthwhile noting that punishment on a variable schedule doesn't work well at all -- to actually prevent the behavior punishment should be meted out every time the behavior occurs. The operational costs of the policy decision will work against them here as well, as punishment becomes more erratically administered.

There is further the issue of the temporality of the punishment. With their new policy, the punishment will be delayed; not much, perhaps, but still enough to make it a less effective practice.

One poster recalls how it was legal in her state when she was a child: "Thankfully, I never had to go to the principal (apparently the teacher also could do it before my time) but my husband did. He said it didn't hurt. " I would dare say if it was known that the paddling didn't hurt, it wouldn't be a very effective punishment unless there was something else about it that was aversive (shame, perhaps).

The discussion above might sound like I'm advocating the district to let the teachers' arms swing freely. I am not. Using punishment is an erratic way to control behavior that can occasionally work, but which is largely incompatible with actually imparting subject matter content. A school system that allows corporeal punishment is essentially one that allows physical abuse.*

Further commenters to the post indicated that school-sanctioned beating is allowable in nearly half the states, and that it actually occurs in at least three. To their credit, the teachers posting almost unanimously decried the practice, which gives some comfort that it may not occur in many states where it is technically legal.

The original poster eventually follows up with

On one challanging day I didn't say a word, but took it [the paddle] out of the drawer and put it on the chalkboard ledge. I could hear the kids suck in their breath and they did get still and very much on task. I have to admit I liked the effect, but at the same time I knew they were only behaving out of fear... and I knew it was just a bluff on my part....What I've learned about the paddle is it puts fear into the souls of the children who don't need it and the ones who do seem to need it, don't really need a paddle to solve their problems. It may alter their behavior for the moment but not change it in the long run.

(emphasis added)

I find this to be a fairly wise statement for someone who's not familiar with the academic research on punishment (one might hope ALL teachers would be familiar with the research, and particularly those teachers where physical punishment is expected practice). I take it along with the realization that fear was the driving factor, she also realized she couldn't afford to repeat the performance often without carrying through. Punishment generally does not have a long-term effect of reducing the target behavior. This doesn't exactly mean it doesn't change their behavior in the long run, it just may not be a desirable change.

*Of course, a neat counter to this is that nearly all school districts allow mental abuse, which is likely worse. At least paddling is fairly consistent, compared with the uncontrolled use of humiliation and verbal insults currently allowed (I know -- most teachers try to avoid turning their kids into sobbing basket cases, but I don't know of anything actually stopping them).


Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Is Christianity the Problem?

I attended the debate last night between Christopher Hitchens and Dinesh D'Souza at Kings College. The topic of the debate was "Is Christianity the Problem?" This is a bit sketchy as an impression

I didn't previously have a particularly good impression of D'Souza; the only time I had heard of him he was using the VT massacre in a particularly morbid critique of atheism. He acquitted himself far better here.

Hitchens has a somewhat rambling and expansive style of debate, trailing into myriad topics with an answer. It contrasted sharply with D'Souza's more succinct approach. It also caused some friction as D'Souza accused Hitchens of using excess time at one point, exclaiming, "See, that's what atheists do! They hog the public square!" I take it the irony of saying this at Kings College, a Christian school where religious statuary adorned the walls, did not occur to him.

A lot of the debate was rather predictable for anyone with a passing familiarity with the arguments -- most of the points were tried and true, and they didn't have time to get long beyond the first salvos. During parts of the debate it felt as though they were going through a secretly collusive dance for the benefit of the audience. But perhaps that was just me.

Hitchens main point, at least the main point that focused on the titular topic of the debate, was the immorality of the methods of Christianity. Essentially, framing ethics in a hypothetical original sin relieved only by a "blood sacrifice", where the alternatives are heaven or hell, based on acceptance of this framework, is per se immoral. Pasquale's wager, whether posed by humans (as Hitchens believes) or God (as D'Souza believes) is an extortive attempt to control behavior. He backed up his statements with the evils that only someone bound by religion would conceive. In some Islamic countries, he related, a virgin cannot be executed. Apparently, these nations, in holding closely to their religious traditions, do not execute virgins: they rape them first.

Hitchens has something of a point here. Plenty of Christians over countless generations have played the threatening aspect of Christianity. The mere fact that Pasquale's wager exists suggests as much. The "fire and brimstone" preacher and ramrod nun are perhaps stereotypes, but not entirely imaginary ones. His unfortunate problem here is his own hyperbole: when an audience member asked him to justify his quote "Religion poisons everything", Hitchens reply was lacking in force.

D'Souza's point (the one that actually focused on the topic of the debate) was that Christianity has done a lot of good for the world, from inspiring scientists to developing values. He defended against the "religious wars" argument by noting the small numbers of people killed in the Salem witch trials and the Inquisition. D'Souza also tried to cut the Greeks mostly out of the ethical picture by noting some of the reprehensible practices of their day: leaving infants on mountaintops and slavery, without protest by important philosophers of the day.

The audience skewed more towards D'Souza than one might expect for New York City, with some young audience members giving fist-pumps to his statements. This was likely an effect of holding the debate at a Christian college. Both debaters received applause at their strongest points and laughs at the sharpest of their witty jabs, but most of the audience questions were directed towards Professor Hitchens.

Much of the debate, however, was pulled into a direct discussion of theism v. atheism. Hitchens had no particular motive to stick very close to the topic of debate, and while D'Souza remained somewhat closer, he also wandered a great deal from the alleged topic. Topics like whether miracles are possible or not is pretty much irrelevant to whether Christianity is a problem.
Frankly, I would rather have seen an actual debate on the topic of whether Christianity is a problem than a rushed rehash of atheist-theist arguments that you can troll through on a thousand internet fora. As an atheist myself, I'm not at all sure that Christianity is a problem, and it is an interesting idea to explore (though I believe theism to be false, it's not obvious that an idea is destructive purely because it's false).

Whether Christianity is a problem or not shouldn't really have to do with whether it killed people in the past, or did good in the past, but should be based on where it will go -- or avoid going -- in the future. There are likely arguments of some depth on each side here, but as yet they're largely unaddressed. Christians don't want to address them because they get into internal debates about topics like whether Christianity can accept homosexuality. Atheists don't particularly spend much energy addressing them either because atheism is not a value system at all (and most would argue that it should not try to be one).


Thursday, October 11, 2007

Celebrity Welfare Schools

I'm not really a big fan of Andrea Peyser, but occasionally her editorials are informative. In particular, her recent note about private schooling certainly interested me. The Churchill school in Manhattan is an elite private school catering to "bright kids, grades kindergarten through 12, who've been declared learning disabled". The kids there are usually wealthy and upper class -- examples include the offspring of Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick, fashion designer Dana Buchman, and filmmaker Julian Schnabel (also winner of 2007 Cannes best director award -- congratulations, Julian).

So, nothing wrong with the wealthy sending their kids to a top private school, right? After all, what good is money if you can't use it to help your children?

Except that the parents who send their children here get reimbursed for their $34,000 a year tuition from city tax rolls. The city paid out $57 million last year. Apparently, the right to a free and appropriate education has been taken a left turn somewhere.

Tom Freston, a former head of Viacom who received $60 million in severance, is fighting legally to assert his right to be reimbursed despite never attempting to send his son to another such elite school, "on principle". Oh, how generous of him to defend our rights that way.

Certainly, the disabled have a right to schooling tailored to their needs. And a lawyer, Neal Rosenberg, who gains clients entrance into the school for a living says he's never seen a parent present a disability just to get the Board of Education to foot their bill. I'm willing to believe him. However, what does it say about the system if these wealthy parents, who are fortunate enough that they could fairly easily send their children to school from their own pocket, are instead shifting out some of that money to a lawyer who enables them to get an expensive education at the expense of the general taxpayer, thereby reducing the money the public school system can spend on its own improvements?

Do other districts have these problems?

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