Ten Things Our Grandparents Got Right #5: They Didn’t Treat Teenagers Like Infants

Picking up from my last post’s ellipsis, I feel I need to address the infantilisation and outright ageism displayed by adults toward teenagers. This rather repugnant reincarnation of genetic determinism (for which there is no good evidence, and against which Stephen J. Gould spent much of his career combatting) is particularly dunderheaded when you take into account the plasticity of the brain, just now beginning to be understood. “Don’t talk for more than ten minutes on any subject”, we were told in teachers’ college, “because the adolescent brain has an attention span that tiny, and there is nothing anyone can do about it”. The contradictory complaints that attention spans are getting smaller, often iterated by the same people, never seemed to present a serious challenge to the accepted wisdom. Surely if they can shrink, they can also grow.

Under the deterministic model, adolescents’ potential is viciously undercut, and a condescending attitude of pandering to existing biases, tastes, knowledge, interests, and capabilities is adopted, with real change or growth is almost completely negated. “Teenagers are lazy and surly because of physiology, or perhaps hormones”, people say, though there is absolutely no record of this being true  either in historical records or even in other cultures existing today. And the list goes on: teenagers are incapable of making rational decisions because of brain chemistry, not because they are systematically denied the opportunity to practice making good decisions on a daily basis. Teenagers are not punctual because of circadian rhythms unique to them, and not because of poor sleep and nutrition habits that are actively encouraged by our society.   Here’s an article that actually suggests that teens’ supposedly biologically based inability to process risk effectively might be the result of sleep deprivation!   Knowing the effects of sleep deprivation on the human psyche (I am an ex-soldier), it surprises me that nobody has made that link earlier.  I have heard more than once the lament that “if we really wanted teenagers to pay attention, we wouldn’t hold classes before ten o’clock”. Recently, this has been challenged, the only question remaining being how such a parochial view could have survived this long. Anyone who travels outside of North America or who has read history (think Alexander the Great, Joan of Arc, Augustus Caesar, Mary Shelley, Louis Braille, et al.) will shake his head at such statements of the inevitability of “the teenage brain” and its limitations. The list of historically significant teenagers is as long as my arm, at least until about the middle of the twentieth century, when they suddenly became incapable of surviving the most basic of situations, such as wearing hats that light up .  This photo is taken from the wonderful Free Range Kids blog, which also has so many first-hand anecdotes of infantilising in America that it sometimes makes me afraid to read it.

Fourteen-year-olds would burst into flames.

For starters, the concept of the teenager as a separate class of individual, or a distinct stage in life, is a very recent coinage – nobody used the term before 1941. Now the invention of the ‘tween’ is pushing it even further: it is only attested to since 1988. The theories as to exactly what purpose the invention of such a repugnant, incapable figure was supposed to serve vary, but John Taylor Gatto, Neil Postman, and Dr Robert Epstein have some suggestions.

Postman, in The Disappearance of Childhood, argues eloquently for the phenomenon of childhood in general being a socially constructed event. He points out that the idea of childhood, a time of life in which one is supposed to be controlled by a sense of shame and protected from such things as knowledge of adult sexuality, was a product of the end of the Middle Ages and the rise of the printed word. A boy of seven years old was, for all practical purposes besides “making love and war”(p.15), capable of every meaningful act in Mediaeval society. He could speak, and do labour, and in a predominantly oral culture, these are all that are needed for maturity and inclusion in the social structure. There is no need or possibility in a Mediaeval culture for the keeping of secrets; privacy was hardly a concept at all, and close quarters and the lack of any need of reading skill made knowledge a general commodity.

But when the written word became the new means to record, keep, and guard the culture’s knowledge base, institutions like educational systems were needed to induct the child into the world of adults. This effectively stretched the time of childhood from seven years to the end of schooling. As Postman points out, before the 16th century, there were “no books on child-rearing, and exceedingly few about women in their role as mothers […] There was no such thing as children’s literature […] , no books on pediatrics. […] Paintings consistently portrayed children as miniature adults […] The language of adults and children was also the same. There are […] no references anywhere to children’s jargon prior to the 17th century, after which they are numerous.” (18). Children did not go to school, because there was nothing to teach them. But now the definition of childhood changed, from one based on linguistic incompetence to one based on reading incompetence. Instead of just becoming an adult by ageing, children had to earn adulthood through education – and the European states invented schooling to accomplish this new process. Childhood, as Postman notes, became “a necessity” (36).

Later, with industrialisation, threats to this newfound idea of childhood emerged. The new urban demand for factory and mine workers supported the “penal” aspects of schooling to break the will of the child and accustom him to the routine labour of factory work. In response, child labour laws were introduced, enshrining the concept of the sacrosanct nature of childhood. Though Postman sees the growth of elementary education after 1840 as evidence of the triumph of the notion of childhood over industrial capitalist concerns, J.T. Gatto sees it somewhat differently.

Gatto, an award-winning teacher who speaks now against institutionalised education, argues that the modern American education system never outgrew its penal origins, and in fact goes further, saying that the system is set up more or less deliberately to bring about the class of uncritical, bored, dissatisfied consumers that is important for the corporate model of capitalism to flourish. Children were being actively groomed by industrial influencers of education systems to become not citizens or human beings, but “human resources”, to be moulded to fit something called a “workplace”, “though for most of American history American children were reared to expect to create their own workplaces.”

The subdivision of childhood into adolescence, and now, pre-adolescence (the “tween” phenomenon) is something that Robert Epstein has written on. Epstein, in his book The Case Against Adolescence , argues from the point that Postman and Gatto leave off, during the industrialisation of America. He sees the creation of the adolescent as a kind of benevolent but destructive side effect of the social reforms that were reacting against the admitted evils of the Industrial Revolution with regards to children’s rights. The creation of institutions such as child labour laws, compulsory education, the juvenile justice system, and the age-specific restrictions of “adult” activities such as driving, drinking alcohol, and smoking, according to Epstein, had the effect of isolating the child’s world from the adults’ almost totally. They are confined to a mostly (by definition) developmentally incomplete peer group, and their dependency is extended by more than a decade before they are required to enter the adult world after school – this despite the fact that their sexual maturity and mental readiness for such a transition are evident from a much earlier age. In a study, Epstein found that teenagers have ten times as many restrictions placed upon their behaviour as normal adults, and twice the number as felons and soldiers! The rise of incidences of such restrictions exactly parallel industrialisation, and jump significantly after World War II.

Epstein picks up an argument from Postman, and suggests that the studies that purport to “show” the biological cause of the supposedly innate surliness and incapacity of teenagers are flawed, in that they show only correlation, not causation. In fact, given the plastic nature of the brain, I myself would expect to find that such correlations are in fact backwards, meaning that the social restrictions on teen behaviour are in fact to blame for the state of their brains. The argument that brain scans “prove” the innate uselessness of teenagers in such areas as risk assessment or impulse control sound to me about as useful as “scanning” the musculature of a teenager who has never lifted weights, and declaring them “unfit” and biologically incapable of ever being an athlete.

In fact, the list of famous “characteristics” of teens proves to be mostly made up. Margaret Mead points out in her studies of adolescents in Samoa that the traditional “storm and stress” of North American teenage development is nowhere to be found in that culture, or any other preliterate culture. There is no term for adolescence in the majority of such societies. Even the list of undesirable teen behaviour in our own society, summarised by Philip Graham as “identity confusion, extreme moodiness and high rates of suicide, violent discord with parents, aggressive behaviour, intellectual and emotional immaturity, risk taking, and sexual promiscuity arising from the raised secretion of sex hormones” has been shown to be common to less than 20% of the age group in question. Hardly a useful list of descriptors, then.

And as to other biased assumptions about teenage behaviour, such as the idea that they are addicted to, and are misusing, technology?  Turns out we ought to have a good look in the mirror here too:  Adults were found in a study to abuse technology at a higher rate than their kids.  

Why are these ideas so pervasive and so tenacious? The original study of adolescence was done in 1904, by G. Stanley Hall. He observed the turmoil on American streets due to industrialisation and massive waves of immigration, unsupported by proper social structures. Concluding from this that all adolescents necessarily exhibited those nasty characteristics mentioned above, he drew on the now-long-debunked theory of biological “recapitulation”, in which the development of the individual mirrored the development of the species. In that model, adolescence “recapitulated” a savage, pre-civilised phase of the development of Homo Sapiens, and it would be expected that such a period would bring with it turmoil. He borrowed from the German Romantic idea of Sturm und Drang and applied it universally to all teens, claiming biology as the cause. Though the field of biology has long since abandoned such theories, the general public has not kept pace.

Of course, I have also found through my years of teaching that what is expected of a person is generally what one will get. As Eliza Doolittle says in Shaw’s Pygmalion,

“You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up (the dressing and the proper way of speaking, and so on), the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me as a flower girl, and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you, because you always treat me as a lady, and always will.”

Sadly, we live in a culture where the treatment of young adults is infantilising (do the test here!), demeaning, controlling, and stultifying. Perhaps it’s not entirely adults’ fault, though; as Postman points out, adults are the result of the same process of education that we subject our children to. Whereas once literacy was the dividing line between childhood and adulthood (ideas that were enshrined into the notion of the creation of a free state during the American Revolution), industrialisation also brought with it technologies that made actual familiarity with the written word obsolete. The telegraph, radio, television, and the Internet have taken over from where literacy left off, producing generations of adults who have had unfettered access to information, but no sequential, age-appropriate introduction to discerning its meaning. The very definition of childhood as an idea, not just a biological stage of individual evolution as it is now conceived of, depended on slowly being indoctrinated into greater knowledge through increasingly complex mastery of literacy. Now, who actually reads anything by people like Barack Obama, Stephen Harper, George Bush, or Ronald Reagan? Would they be rewarded if they did? Though our Canadian society has succeeded in producing generations of functionally literate people, we are increasingly reverting to a Mediaeval-style oral culture, in which even people who can read, generally do not, and most of those who do, cannot do so very well. The line between childhood and adulthood is blurred, and brain scans show an adolescent development well into the mid-twenties of North American subjects — “coincidentally”, this is about the same time as many post-secondary students are leaving school.   I would dearly love to see brain scans of people other than the Westernised college students who are the typical subjects of such studies. My intuition is that they would be vastly different at comparable ages.

The assumption that the tastes and interests of a teenager are equally fixed, never to grow, was made clear to me in a textbook on English grammar much in use several years ago, in which every sentence, in order to be palatable to what grammar-textbook publishers assumed teenagers’ interests were, had to have something to do with skateboarding. To me, this attitude is no better ethically speaking, and has just about as much science behind it, as the old idea of the genetic inferiority of slaves. The problem is, with bandwagoning, it’s difficult to get off the wagon, or out of its way. I once had a principal (a fellow with a science background, who ought to have known better) who hawked these unpleasant wares at every staff meeting and P.D. day, much to my annoyance. Years later, after his retirement, he admitted to me that he knew full well all along that it was bunk, but claimed that he found it a useful tool for management. He told me that “we have to work with something” – a foolish imperative that always makes me think of the show Yes Minister, where it was put in syllogistic form:

1. Something must be done.
2. This is something.
3. Therefore, this must be done. 

Teaching is often a surreal experience.

We were presented in Teachers’ College with the interesting model of Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, and told that we must adjust our teaching techniques to all of them, regardless of their relevance or applicability, because “students can only learn in certain ways”. Every lesson had to touch on as many of the Intelligences as possible, and administrators’ evaluations of teachers would be based on a handy checklist and cursory observation. Imagine trying to incorporate kinaesthetic learning into a lesson on punctuation or grammar! This led to all kinds of silliness , like hopping up and down to simulate semicolons, from which the better teachers miraculously managed to salvage some memorable learning experiences. Since then, Gardner’s theory has come under closer scrutiny, and has been largely debunked, at least in the absolutist terms under which it was adopted in schools. Here’s a quick video outlining the basic flaws in the theory: 

Far from being deterministic learning “styles”, they appear to be mere preferences, and there is no good evidence that pounding a round lesson into one of its square holes does anything to help learning at all. Instead, a good teacher will understand which kinds of tools are applicable and effective, given the nature of the ideas or skills being taught. In other words, according to Professor Daniel Willingham, “While there’s little evidence that matching one’s teaching style to one’s students’ learning styles helps them learn, there’s much stronger evidence that matching one’s teaching style to one’s content is wise.”

Why this obviously silly meme has stuck around for so long, and had such an impact on systems of education is a bit of a mystery, but I have the following observations, which might shed some light: The first half of the equation comes from good intentions, I think: most teachers or educators feel a calling and a social responsibility to their profession. We’re often caring to a fault, and this is an example of the ‘fault’: our predisposition to believe that our job involves finding the “hidden learner” in every student blinds us to the lack of evidence for this particular incarnation of that impulse. A kind of Confirmation Bias, if you will. The idea of Multiple Intelligences (which is a description of ability, not of style), bent slightly to suit our notion of being teachers who care deeply about individual students’ learning, is powerfully appealing. We want to believe in it, because it reinforces pre-existing beliefs that we have brought to our profession, but regardless of how admirable those beliefs might be from an ethical standpoint, if they do not fit the actual facts, they ought to be altered or abandoned. Recently, a study by Daniel B. Klein of George Mason University uncovered what he thought was a type of intellectual bias in Liberal-minded respondents to a survey. When it was pointed out to him that the survey he had provided might be biased, he re-wrote it, and found bias in those of Conservative bent. Then he wrote with some humility and intellectual frankness about his own Confirmation Bias – two attributes that my profession could certainly benefit from.

The second part of the reason this meme is so prevalent in schools, in my opinion, is not because it is correct, nor because it is touted by teacher ed. texts, (Daniel Willingham has looked at the course syllabi of Teacher Ed. Courses and found no evidence of it being ‘officially’ sanctioned) but because of the management models of evaluating teaching ability. When a principal is charged with evaluating the prowess of the teachers in his or her school, and has to report those findings upward to his or her own “managers”, the same silliness happens as when we are evaluating our students: we want to fall back on measurables. It’s a lot easier to carry a clipboard into a teacher evaluation and tick off “yes” or “no” to a question like, “Does the teacher address the students’ learning styles individually?” than to actually make complex judgements about a very fluid and complicated problem like evaluating “good teaching”. So it’s partly a question of efficiency, just as being forced by the requirements of reporting student learning (a vastly complex and mostly abstract concept) in terms of percentile grades results in us asking stupid questions on tests that focus only on measurable, concrete facts, rather than on the rather more important aspects of higher-level thinking. I once asked a question on a test that required students to place in order several events from a novel we were studying in class: something that assessed both their memory of the details of their reading, as well as their understanding of the cause-and-effect relationship between the events. I was forced to abandon the perfectly valid question because it is essentially ungradeable – as soon as one event is out of order, a domino effect takes place and makes it impossible to give a numerical evaluation of how close to being ‘right’ the student was. If anecdotal comments, or even a conversation, were the method of relaying to a student the quality of their understanding, I wouldn’t have lost a potentially valuable assessment tool. A managerial model of reporting quantifiables upward on a chain of command, ultimately to a political bureaucracy, just does not work when dealing with something as complex as human learning.

Partly, though, it’s more insidious than just the self-perpetuating efficiency of a system. Sadly, the two halves of the equation often come together in unsavory ways: when the principal asks “Is the teacher hitting enough of the learning styles in his lessons?” the implied subtext is often, “Is the teacher caring enough toward his students?” This puts a lot of pressure for the meme to become accepted, or at least unquestioned, in teacher circles, at least when administration is present. It’s an unspoken type of ad hominem : between the lines is the question, “Do you really care about children?” I think this is the method of preservation of a lot of silly educational buzzwords, actually: they’re tied to teacher performance reviews. A lot of it is just lip service, as is suggested by the number of teachers who in private conversations will question the meme, but it still has an effect.

I am calling here for a greater intellectual and moral courage on the part of teachers to stand up against policy that is not evidence-based.  Here in Canada, under a government that is apparently actively anti-evidence, this is a tall order.  But we’ve got to start.


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