Teaching students to grow taller

Imagine that we decided that one of the objectives of school was to make kids grow taller. Let’s set aside any questions about how we might do this. I don’t much mind whether we utilised inquiry learning or explicit instruction; whether students teach themselves or educators take the lead. The key assumption that we have made is that growing taller is somehow susceptible to training, however we go about it: It is trainable.

I think we would all concede that the height of a person may well be affected by outside factors. For instance, a malnourished child might not grow to her full potential. An accident or disease might damage the legs or spine. The medical use of growth hormone might increase height. Yet none of these external factors could be described as ‘training’. They are quite extreme interventions of a positive or negative kind. It is hard to picture how a series of lessons might affect a child’s height. And yet we might also observe, as we teach these notional lessons, that the children do indeed gradually grow. We might falsely attribute this to the training.

The cognitive aims of education are relatively easy to define and measure, despite what some might claim. If we decide that students should be able to solve a certain type of maths problem then I think it’s pretty obvious that this is trainable and we can get some measure of success by seeing if students can solve such problems under test conditions. I also think there is plenty of evidence that we are not yet good enough at meeting many cognitive objectives such as students being able to read, write and do basic maths, so there is plenty to focus on.

When experts come along and instead suggest that we should focus on non-cognitive goals, perhaps by teaching character – whatever that is – or resilience or creativity or collaboration, I think we should do two things. Firstly, we should ask whether these kids can read yet. If not, I think that meeting this much more clearly defined, basic goal of education should be the priority. Secondly, we should question whether this new goal is actually trainable, like the goal of solving maths problems, or whether it is not, like the goal of trying to make kids grow taller.

By MCSN Mark Hays [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By MCSN Mark Hays [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


7 thoughts on “Teaching students to grow taller

  1. Put the taller kids at the back (they seem to be growing nicely) and the shorter ones (who need more of my attention) at the front. My school is very into seating plans. It all makes perfect sense now!

  2. I am a bit confused, is this a nature vs nurture debate? Such that, some students are naturally better at learning, or a debate over teaching skills or knowledge? Maybe they are linked in some way. Are we trying to overcome a student’s natural ability to learn when the only solution could be some advanced genetic engineering?

  3. There is no point in training anybody to solve quadratic equations (for example) unless there are additional benefits of more general application. If we test them directly on their training we will get useful and simple results, but won’t learn about the additional benefits they have gained. If we wrap up the problem in “words” and they cannot get anywhere we haven’t learned anything specific at all. We don’t know if it was the words or the equation that were causing the problem.
    So “When experts come along and instead suggest that we should focus on non-cognitive goals” just ask them to be more specific !

  4. Stan says:

    There is an excellent documentary on one English school’s efforts to build character. It’s available on youtube. Search under Tomkinson’s Schooldays.

  5. Ann in L.A. says:

    I posted this elsewhere, after a suggestion that teachers should be graded based on how well they do teaching their class non-cognitive skills:

    Either you’re a teacher, or you’re are psychologist. Pick one.

    Do not expect teachers to magically know how to be psychologists, and be able to perform that profession–along with their own–for 20 students at a time. A fully trained child psychologist has dedicated themselves to studying their profession through 7 years graduate school and has been licensed by their state and has professional certification.

    “Non-cognitive” skills; such as grit, resilience, self-control, and emotional intelligence; are skills most kids will pick up naturally. If a child is having trouble with these, then they should be referred to a psychologist.

    Teachers should be trained to know when a child might need to be seen by a psychologist and make that recommendation, but they should not be asked to do what they are clearly not trained to do. Nor should they be graded based on their student’s progress in gaining skills they are not trained to teach.

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