Tuesday, August 16, 2005

You *Don't* Get Something For Nothing

Now here's something that disappoints me.

New parents and even old teachers have heard about the so-called "Mozart effect", wherein a child's inate intelligence is activated or augmented by listening to some of the classical music of Mozart. Researchers at the University of California (most likely the flagship Berkeley campus, although it isn't specified in the article) published a study about the effect in 1993 but no one has been able to replicate the results since. That's quite irrelevant, though, to the gushing parents of newborns who want to give their child a leg-up on every other child, and to do so on the cheap. Pop in a cd, kid gets smart, what could be easier? The same goes for teachers, who too often look for the "royal road" to easy learning instead of getting down to work with building from fundamentals.

Hard work isn't any fun. Why do it when you can take the easy way?

I'll pause for a moment and say that when Austin was born, the hospital sent home with us a cd of classical music. Mozart's work was heavily represented. It was soothing, and even today Austin enjoys classical music on occasion. And yes, I harbored hopes that it would be even slightly helpful. Still, listening to such music could do no harm and if it helped just a little, so much the better! Apparently my hopes were misplaced, but again, no harm done.

But how many other "get smart fast" fads have come and gone which have harmed kids? Whole language: just read to them and eventually they'll get it. Fuzzy math: let the children invent and discover for themselves the math that it took the greatest minds of the human race to invent and discover for us. Self-esteem: how can you expect a child to do well if they feel bad?

Here are some fads that might not do any direct harm to children, but whose effectiveness hasn't been scientifically demonstrated: small learning communities, block scheduling, ubiquitous technology, and/or multi-grade classrooms. I'm not saying any of these are inherently flawed (although, as a math teacher, I have reservations about block scheduling), but there's certainly no incontrovertible evidence that these concepts are effective, either.

Why single out education, though? Remember the split-end spark plug? or weight loss belts? or ab muscle-developing belts? or echinacea or ginkgo biloba? or stock market timing? or cold fusion? or "learn while sleeping" tapes?

Sometimes, results are achieved only through achievement, through work. "There is no royal road to geometry", nor is there a Mozart road to intelligence. Play the tapes and cd's in the nursery or the classroom if you want to, but be honest about why you do it. And know the facts, not the fads.


steve O' said...

Darren: If you haven't read it yet, "Freakonomics" spends quite a bit on teachers and child development.

Darren said...

I have *not* read it. Have to add it to the list.

Gabriel Crews said...

Just saw it at the store. Glanced at the first chapter and found interesting discussions on cheating stat-mandated tests. I am looking forward to reading your thoughts on the book.