"Kids' Brains Must Be Different..."
"Kids' brains must be different these days," I remarked half jokingly as I graded student essays in the faculty room late one afternoon.
"If I didn't think it was impossible, I would agree with you," chimed in a colleague who had experienced a particularly frustrating day with his English classes. "These kids are so sharp, but sometimes I think their minds are different from the ones I used to teach. I've had to change my teaching a lot recently, and I still wonder how much they're learning. But a human brain is a human brain. They don't change much from generation to generation -- do they?"
"Changing brains?" mumbled a math teacher, putting on her coat. "Maybe that accounts for it."
Changing brains. The idea kept returning as I taught and watched students at different grade levels. I began to observe more carefully; these youngsters did seem different from those we used to teach -- even though the average IQ score in our school had remained solidly comparable. Today's students looked and acted differently, of course, and they talked about different things, but I became increasingly convinced that the changes went deeper than that -- to the very ways in which they were absorbing and processing information. Likable, fun to be with, intuitive, and often amazingly self-aware, they seemed, nonetheless, harder to teach, less attuned to verbal material, both spoken and written. Many admitted they didn't read very much -- sometimes even the required homework. They struggled with (or avoided) writing assignments, while teachers anguished over the results. When the teacher gave directions, many forgot them almost immediately; even several repetitions often didn't stick. They looked around, doodled, fidgeted.
Were kids always like this? I started to listen to the veteran teachers -- not the bitter, burned-out ones who complain all the time about everything, but the ones who are still in the business because they love teaching and really enjoy being around young people. I visited schools. In every one, from exclusive suburbs to the inner city, I heard similar comments:
Yes, every year I seem to "water down" the material even more. I request books for reluctant readers rather than the classics we used to use in these high school courses. I use library-research worksheets instead of term-paper assignments. I have to start from the beginning on conjugating verbs and diagramming sentences -- and most of them still don't get it. Lectures can't exceed fifteen minutes. I use more audiovisuals.
I used to be able to teach Scarlet Letter to my juniors; now that amount of reading is a real chore for them and they have more trouble following the plot.
I feel like kids have one foot out the door on whatever they're doing -- they're incredibly easily distracted. I think there may have been a shift in the last five years.
Ten years ago I gave students materials and they were able to figure out the experiment. Now I have to walk them through the activities step by step. I don't do as much science because of their frustration level.
Yes, I've modified my teaching methods because of their lack of attention span and their impatience. I don't do much of the lecture-notetaking method. I'm using student workbooks, prepared worksheets and tests because they are readily available.
I teach biology and I have them spend more time on paperwork just to get them to look at the material. They refuse to read the book, so I must keep trying techniques to get them to read it.
I've been hoping someone would notice! I've been worried about this for some time. Kids' abilities are certainly different -- I use with gifted sixth graders a lot of what I did with average fifth graders in '65-66. They complain of the workload.
It's scary! When I started teaching here [a "fast-track" private school] in 1965, I used Evangeline with the seventh grade. Imagine, Evangeline! And the kids loved it and understood it. Now there'd be no way...but I'm supposedly teaching the same kind of kids in the same grade!
Scary indeed I became increasingly convinced that I was tapping into a major phenomenon with profound implications, not only for teaching and learning, but also for the future of our society. Scariest of all was the growing discrepancy between what children were apparently equipped to do and what teachers thought they should be capable of doing. Teachers of the youngest children, claiming they see more pronounced changes every year, warned that we haven't seen anything yet!
Changing brains? Could it be possible? As I went from school classrooms to professional meetings where neuroscientists were excitedly starting to discuss new research on the subtle power of environments to shape growing brains, I began to realize that it is indeed possible.
"Of course, experience -- even different kinds of learning -- changes children's brains," I was told again and again. If children's experiences change significantly, so will their brains. Part of the brain's physical structure comes from the way it is used.
"But," everyone always added, "there's no way to measure subtle neurological differences between past generations and this one. You can't prove such changes because the technology has not been available to measure them."
No "proof," but plenty of circumstantial evidence. I developed a questionnaire requesting anecdotal information on cognitive changes observed in students. I handed it out at national meetings and conferences to experienced teachers in schools where population demographics had remained relatively stable. Approximately three hundred teachers responded, and I was amazed by the unanimity of response. Yes, attention spans are noticeably shorter. Yes, reading, writing, and oral language skills seem to be declining -- even in the "best" neighborhoods. Yes, no matter how "bright," students are less able to bend their minds around difficult problems in math, science, and other subjects. Yes, teachers feel frustrated and would like to do a better job. This was a long way from "proof," but I found it provocative -- and troubling.
Meanwhile, newspaper headlines screamed daily about declining test scores. International assessments comparing math and science performance of thirteen-year-old students from twelve countries found U.S. students at "rock bottom," particularly in understanding of concepts and more complex interpretation of data. Analysts from the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development suggested that test scores do not even reveal the total extent of the problem, as they are poor measures of the type of thinking abilities today's youth will need on the job. "Will our nation's young adolescents be able to function as the foundation for America's ability to compete in the global economy?" they wondered.
News programs featured a report concluding that most American seventeen-year-olds were poorly prepared to handle jobs requiring technical skills and that only 7% could handle college-level science courses. A numbing national march toward mediocrity was predicted. A cover story in Fortune magazine compared the "crisis" in education to the attack on Pearl Harbor. "In a high-tech age where nations increasingly compete on brainpower, American schools are producing an army of illiterates," it proclaimed. A survey found 68% of major business firms "encumbered" by the educational shortcomings of their employees; 36% were already offering remedial courses in reading, writing, and math, with another 28% acknowledging they were considering the possibility.
In a special issue focusing on problems in education, the Wall Street Journal documented the growing incompetency of high school graduates by surveying managers who have trouble finding even minimally competent workers to hire. "I'm almost taking anyone who breathes," said one bank manager whose new tellers can't add and subtract well enough to balance their own checkbooks. An advertising firm in Chicago admitted that only one applicant in ten meets the minimum literacy standard for mail-clerk jobs, and Motorola, Inc., provided statistics showing that 80% of all applicants screened nationally fail a test of seventh-grade English and fifth-grade math. Clearly, opined the observers, schools are not doing their job.
Inadequate schools may well be a problem in a land where neither teachers nor the educational enterprise itself get a great deal of respect. Moreover, inferior graduates may well become inferior teachers. But is this the whole problem? Our knowledge about how to teach has actually improved during the last twenty years. I have been hanging around university education departments since the fifties; during that time professional training has been considerably upgraded. Thoughtful research on how children learn has paved the way for dissemination of better classroom methods and instructional materials as well as a much clearer understanding of students who have trouble learning in traditional ways. It hardly seems reasonable to believe that the majority of teachers have suddenly become so much worse. In any school I visit I find many good, dedicated professionals. They claim tried-and-true methods aren't working anymore. Why? Are children becoming less intelligent? Could changes in mental abilities reflect underlying changes in brain development as much as bad pedagogy?
What's Happening to the Test Scores?
In a highbrow private school in Manhattan, a college counselor laments, "Look at these verbal SAT scores! How am I ever going to get these kids into the colleges their parents want?" While this counselor has good reason for concern, he may be somewhat comforted by the fact that his students are certainly not unique.
Very few tests in the United States have stayed the same long enough to provide a long-range view of young people's abilities across the past few decades. Three organizations producing the most consistently standardized measurements have been the College Board, which publishes the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) taken by students who intend to apply to college, the similar American College Testing program (ACT), and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tests academic achievement of school children at representative grade levels. As anyone who even scans the headlines knows, they have shown drastically declining scores, particularly in the areas of higher-level verbal and reasoning skills.
Although the SAT has been criticized for a number of failings, including various types of bias, it provides a consistent source of data over a period of years. Purportedly a test of ability rather than of what has been learned, the test is, in fact, highly dependent on background experiences such as vocabulary exposure, reading facility, and math courses taken. By the time students are in high school, it is difficult to separate out the various effects of school learning and native ability. Thus its scores reflect both basic intelligence and experience.
Starting in 1964, average SAT verbal and math scores declined steadily until the mid-1980s, when they leveled off and then experienced a very slight rise. Subsequently, math scores have remained stable and verbal have begun another gradual decline. Overall, verbal declines have been considerably greater, 47 points by 1988 (from 475 to 428) as opposed to 22 for math (498 to 476).
Losses of this magnitude have caused justifiable concern, and many reasons have been proposed for this apparent erosion of national brainpower. The fact that a less rarefied group of students, including more from less "privileged" educational backgrounds, now take the test has been shown to account for some, but not all, of the decline in average scores. Recently, in fact, scores of minorities are the only ones showing consistent improvement, with black students particularly making impressive gains. Moreover, the past few years have seen the growing popularity of courses that claim great success in coaching students in test-related subject matter and test-taking "tricks." These should have raised scores at least a little, particularly for the more privileged group who can afford the courses. Is it possible that without their influence, overall declines would be even greater?
For all students, steady increases in television viewing and less time spent reading are accepted as negative influences on verbal scores. The culpability of those factors, as we shall see in later chapters, goes far beyond what most people are willing to admit. Schools have also been blamed for giving less homework, lowering academic standards, and using less challenging materials. Of course, teachers complain they have been forced to these expedients because of skill deficits in the students they are attempting to teach. In short, no one really agrees on the reasons. Everyone agrees, however, that the situation is serious. Most alarming is the suggestion that the "top" layer of students, our potential pool of future leaders, is being seriously affected.
The "Best and the Brightest"
To investigate this possibility I contacted The Educational Testing Service, which publishes results of Graduate Record Examinations which are taken by a self-selected group of students who intend to pursue graduate study. I learned right away that it is hard to extract any firm evidence about scoring trends on these tests for several reasons, which I will explain shortly. Nevertheless, in digging through the data from the last fifteen years, I did find some interesting clues indicating that both interest and ability in primarily verbal fields of study appear to have declined rather startlingly.
The GREs include general measures of verbal, quantitative, and analytical ability as well as subject area tests in a number of disciplines such as history, English literature, psychology, math, etc. The subject tests are optional, as they are required for admission only to certain departments in certain schools. GRE scores must be cautiously interpreted in terms of general trends, since rising scores may indicate simply that brighter students, on the whole, are choosing to apply to graduate school, and vice versa. Moreover, the growing use of"prep" courses may also mask declining ability of GRE applicants.
Increasing numbers of students whose primary language is not English have unquestionably affected verbal scores on the general intelligence tests which all applicants are required to take. The percentage of total GRE test-takers who are not U.S. citizens has more than doubled since 1975 to about 16%. Since a large proportion of these students are math and science majors, math and analytic scores would be expected to rise, which they have. Between 1972 and 1987, average quantitative scores rose from 512 to 550; analytic scores have also increased. In the same period, however, verbal scores fell from 497 to 477.
This overall decline in verbal abilities may not be totally attributable to foreign-born applicants, since the same trend shows up on subject tests which are chosen only by students intending to study a particular field -- in which they presumably consider themselves competent. Between 1972 and 1987, average scores of students choosing to take the English Literature test (who are overwhelmingly of English-speaking origin and have usually been English majors) declined from 545 to 526, while those on foreign language tests in French, German, and Spanish also tended downwards. The number of students taking tests in language or literary fields also declined precipitously; only one-half of the 1972 number took the English Literature test in 1985; the pool of French language test-takers declined to approximately one-fifth of its previous size. The same trends were evident in other fields heavily weighted toward verbal skills: History, Political Science, and Sociology scores fell off dramatically, as did the number of test-takers. In 1972, 1,354 students took the philosophy test; in 1984, only 252 signed up, and the test was subsequently discontinued.
These apparent declines in verbally oriented fields -- even by native English-speaking literature majors -- has troubled many observers who feel that a society needs good philosophers, statesmen, and writers as well as outstanding technological minds. In direct contrast, the same years have seen relatively large scoring gains in the fields of engineering, mathematics, psychology, and economics. For example, more students took the engineering test in 1987 than in 1972, and the average score rose from 593 to 623. The number of non-U.S. citizens in these technological fields who will decide to leave the United States after they obtain their advanced training is, of course, unknown.
Let me speculate for just a moment about what these changes might suggest. For reasons which I hope will become clear later in this book, sequential, verbal-analytic reasoning (such as that needed for fluent, accurate reading, writing, and oral language expression) depends on quite different uses of the brain than do skills depending more heavily on nonverbal, "simultaneous" mental processes (e.g., engineering, some aspects of higher mathematics). No clear statement, much less any conclusions, can be drawn from this spotty scenario, but one might be tempted to ponder whether, whatever the reason, we are seeing some sort of shift in abilities -- or at least interest -- among our future academic leaders.
...and Back in the Trenches
Of course, few of our students make it to graduate school. For the vast majority of American youngsters, declines in math and science achievement as well as in verbal skills are a source of national alarm. Recent scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have shown particular deficiencies in higher-order reasoning skills, including those necessary for advanced reading comprehension, math, and science. Although younger students, in the wake of a clamor for educational reform, seem to have improved test scores slightly, "most of the progress has occurred in the domain of lower-order skills." Math scores, according to the NAEP findings, are particularly dismal when students are required to sustain attention for problems requiring more than one step. For example, only 44% of high school graduates could compute the change that would be received from $3.00 for two items ordered from a lunch menu.
The same deficiencies in sustained reasoning are found in other subjects. Thus, according to Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, only 20% of seventeen-year-olds could write an organized job-application letter, only 4% could make sense out of a sample bus schedule, and only 12% could arrange six common fractions in order of size. Dr. Shanker goes on to comment that only 20 to 25% of students currently in school can learn effectively from traditional methods of teaching.
Particularly troublesome is the fact that, with the exception already noted of foreign-born math students, older and better students are falling behind similar students of previous decades. Eroding abilities in the "best" students first started to show up in the NAEP results in the seventies. A similar trend showed up when a well-recognized test of basic skills for grade school students was revised in 1977. Scores of a nationally representative sample of 40,000 fourth and eighth graders were compared with those of their 1970 counterparts. "Average" fourth graders in 1977 were slightly worse in all areas than fourth graders of 1970, and "language usage" among the better students had dropped significantly. "Average" eighth graders of 1977 had fallen half a year behind those of 1970 both in language usage and mathematics concepts; the "fast" eighth graders had declined most of all. They scored significantly lower in all subjects, with a full-year drop in language usage ability. As will be shown later, the effects of these universally noted trends have begun to show up even in highly selective colleges, as professors find they must water down both reading and writing assignments as well as expectations for analytic reasoning. Despite a serious effort on the part of elementary and high schools to beef up the curriculum, students of all ability levels show virtually no gains in higher-order skills.
Exhibit A in the current academic crisis is the state of reading abilities. Although declines in reading ability have already raised a loud outcry among educators and employers, most people are not aware either of the breadth of the problem or how the manipulation of test procedures are masking its real dimensions.
Exhibit A: The Crisis in Reading
Some of my seniors will graduate from high school reading on a lower level than the students who graduated from junior high school in 1970.
English teacher, suburban school, Virginia
My students? Well, they don't read. The culture doesn't read. They don't use language above the colloquial expressions because the mainstream culture is dangerously indifferent to the importance of precise language. I don't have much hope of producing readers in the classroom until we can produce readers in the larger social context. I used to be able to use Tale of Two Cities in a good eighth-grade class; now, even with ninth graders I approach it warily. If they read it on their own, they miss the connections and so much of the meaning -- particularly the subtle ideas. The syntax is just like a foreign language to them.
English teacher, independent school, Ohio
Toward an Inarticulate and Aliterate Society?
The state of literacy in the United States today is declining so precipitously, while video and computer technologies are becoming so powerful, that the act of reading itself may well be on the way to obsolescence. The alarming incidence of illiteracy in the United States has been widely publicized, alerting the public to the fact that up to 23 million Americans in the work force lack the reading and writing skills necessary to compete in the job market. No so readily recognized, or admitted, is a growing decline in skill and interest in reading among the functionally literate. Those who can read (or at least pronounce the words) -- do not.
Approximately 90% of young people can read simple material. Yet the majority have difficulty understanding text above elementary school level, drawing inferences beyond simple facts, following an author's point or the sequence of an argument, or using facts to support an argument of their own. As in other subjects, college-bound students have declined in both reading ability and interest, despite national and local initiatives toward improved instruction for them. The NAEP's most recent report found that only 5% of high school graduates could satisfactorily master material traditionally used at the college level.
The situation may get considerably worse. Many of the upcoming generation of teachers dislike reading and avoid it whenever possible. One study conducted by two Kent State University education professors in a children's literature course found surprising changes in prospective teachers' attitudes. "Many students enter our courses with negative attitudes toward reading in general and, more specifically, toward the types of literature that make up the main content of our courses" (i.e., "good" books for children and adolescents). More than one-fourth of these potential teachers confessed to a "lifelong discomfort with print," and many acknowledged that they made it through English courses by relying on "Cliff Notes, book jackets, or cursory reading to supply them with just enough information to pass tests or to prepare book reports." Others of us who are teaching teachers can unfortunately confirm that this observation is not an isolated one.
These young people, who will convey to the next generation not only the higher-level reading and reasoning skills they have so handily circumvented but also their own attitudes toward reading, are reflections of the society in which they live. Americans, on the whole, are not particularly entranced with the written word. Although sales of children's books to affluent parents, who want to give (perhaps literally) their child every educational advantage, are growing, no one is really sure who -- if anyone -- is actually reading the books. Despite incontrovertible evidence that children who read well come from homes where reading is a prominent part of life, most parents do not read themselves. Eighty percent of the books in this country are read by about 10% of the people.
The proportion of readers in the United States is continuing to become smaller with a steady and significant decline in the number of book readers under twenty-one, according to Dr. Bernice Cullinan of New York University. She reports on one large group of "typical" fifth graders queried about the average amount of time they spent reading outside of school:
50% read four minutes a day or less
30% read two minutes a day or less
10% read nothing
This same group of children watched an average of 130 minutes of TV per day. Yet, as Dr. Cullinan reminds us, children become good, insightful, analytic readers only by lots of practice with reading.
Our society is becoming increasingly aliterate, says Cullinan. "An aliterate is a person who knows how to read but who doesn't choose to read. These are people who glance at the headlines of a newspaper and grab the TV schedule. They do not read books for pleasure, nor do they read extensively for information. An aliterate is not much better off than an illiterate, a person who cannot read at all. Aliterates miss the great novels of the past and present. They also miss probing analyses written about political issues. Most aliterates watch television for their news, but the entire transcript of a television newscast would fill only two columns of the New York Times. Aliterates get only the surface level of the news."
The serious audience for books in this country is getting steadily older and shows no signs of growing, confirms Jack Shoemaker, the editor in chief of North Point Press. "I think that a quick survey of some of the big independent booksellers will confirm my sense that there is no meaningful audience in their teenage years or people in their twenties. These [book] stores are largely supported by people in their late thirties to mid-fifties," he remarked recently.
Similar although less dramatic trends are appearing in other countries as well. The Japanese publishing industry reports a steady decline in hardcover sales despite the fact that, comparatively speaking, the Japanese are voracious readers. Literary critics in that country complain that young people are not as interested in literature as previous generations.
Despite similar murmurs from other countries, publishers in the United States have particular reason to be concerned that readers are an endangered species. Book sales in this country are twenty-fourth worldwide, and figures on newspaper sales show significant loss of readership; fifty-four daily papers have died since 1979, and papers sold per thousand residents are only half the number sold in Japan. A proliferation of pictorial and technically oriented magazines (e.g., fitness, home design, motorcycles, computers) fill the newsstands.
The problem results not only from disinterest in reading but also from increasing numbers of students with poor reading skills. Curiously enough, many of these poor readers do not recognize they have a problem. A survey of 443 students entering a community college showed that although a horrifying 50% were reading below ninth grade level, only 80 acknowledged that they needed any help with reading! Even among the 221 who scored anywhere from third- to eighth-grade level, 178 believed they were doing just fine. This all-too-typical statistic certainly hints at major inadequacies in the expectations of their previous schools. Even more, however, it may reflect on the value the students place on reading or their ability to take responsibility for and look inward at their own mental processes.
The Two-Minute Mind
Why don't -- or can't -- most young people read? One of the most common complaints among this generation is that books are "too hard" or "boring." Many have trouble with the mental organization and sustained effort demanded by reading. Coming to grips with verbal logic, wrestling one's mind into submission to an author's unfamiliar point of view, and struggling to make connections appear to be particularly taxing to today's young intellects.
Informal reports help explain the reality behind the statistics. Even some English majors now find sustained prose a drag. Kristin Eddy, a news aide at the Washington Post and a literature major at George Washington University, reported recently on a hands-up poll revealing that only half of her upper-level classmates had bothered to finish the assigned All the King's Men, a best-selling favorite of a previous student generation. Why? "Boring!" "Too hard to follow." Another classmate commented that Sarah Orne Jewett's beautifully written The Country of the Pointed Firs "went so slowly that it seemed like it was written by a retarded person."
To read well, minds must be trained to use language, to reflect, and to persist in solving problems. Students may learn to sound out the words, but unless they possess the internal sense of responsibility for extracting the meaning, they are engaging in a hollow and unsatisfying exercise. With major efforts, we have succeeded in teaching students in early grades to "read the words." Test scores jump off a cliff, however, when students must begin to plug the words into language meaning and grapple with the more advanced grammar, vocabulary, and the sustained intellectual demands of a real text.
Reading Abilities: Worse Than We Realize
Starting in the 1970s, reading test scores in American schools took such a dive that major initiatives were launched to improve instruction. Educators developed new materials based on research about how children learn to read, better training of teachers became a focus in many schools, and instruction in "phonics" (systematic sounding out of words) was stressed. A slight rise in reading test scores in the early grades resulted.
However, as Fred M. Hechinger points out, young students may be sounding out the words better, but they are actually understanding less. Children cannot comprehend, remember, and apply what is read. The 1986 NAEP report found, as have other recent assessments, that students' related problems in reading and expressing ideas in writing stem mainly from difficulty with verbal reasoning.
"Reading instruction at all levels must be restructured to ensure that students learn to reason more effectively about what they have read," states the report, which showed such a drastic and "baffling" decline in reading performance of nine- and seventeen-year-olds that the report was delayed for five months while researchers re figured the statistics and reexamined the test items. They still could not explain the decline. NAEP officials had planned to publish a study showing trends in students' reading performance since 1971, but these plans were canceled because no one wanted to believe the results.
Why We Shouldn't Trust the Tests
This fiasco only illustrates what educational psychologis