Bryan Caplan  

Touchy-Feely Bull in a China Shop

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I'm delighted to report that - after experimenting with conventional high school - my elder sons have resumed homeschooling.  Their complaints were numerous, but our whole family was taken aback by their school's disinterest in academics.  Math aside, every class was infused by a pedagogical philosophy I can only describe as "touchy-feely."  This philosophy was so pervasive that teachers seemed unaware of the possibility that other views even exist.

On the surface, admittedly, touchy-feely pedagogy seems unobjectionable.  The teachers warmly express their affection for the students.  They believe in treating students like human beings - and making learning fun.  Most seem quite sincere: They're convinced that their methods are great for everyone.  Alas, they're mistaken.  Our chief objections:

1. Some subjects simply don't lend themselves to a touchy-feely approach.  Math is the obvious example; you can't teach math by asking kids "How do the numbers make you feel?"  But the same goes for writing.  If you want to improve students' writing, you must make liberal use of your red pen.

2. The touchy-feely approach crowds out measurable learning.  Teachers in virtually every one of my kids' classes (none of which had "Art" in the title) assigned art projects - posters, name tags, flags, and so on.  The voluminous time the students spent on these projects could have been focused on techniques that actually yield knowledge: reading the textbook, solving problems, writing essays, and taking tests.

3. Some students clearly enjoy the touchy-feely approach.  But plenty of others resent it.  A few - like my kids - find it humiliating.  So contrary to the party line, touchy-feely is not "Better for everyone."

4. The party line is especially galling because the practitioners of touchy-feely pedagogy don't settle for passive obedience.  In a traditional academic program, students are expected to complete their work, but no one says they have to enjoy it.  In a touchy-feely program, in contrast,  teachers keep insisting, "This is fun!" and "Students love doing this!"  And every student's supposed to play along.

5. I didn't bother sharing my concerns with my sons' teachers because I deemed it fruitless.  But if I had vented, I bet they would have replied thusly: "But all the kids I talk to love my approach."  Plausibly true, but deeply misleading, due to two powerful psychological forces: Social Desirability Bias and confirmation bias.  Long story short: students keep negative opinions to themselves, and teachers misinterpret mixed evidence in their own favor.  Just like humans generally.

I don't expect the world to revolve around me or my kids - and lashing out at touchy-feely people is hard because they're so nice.  Still, as we economists emphasize, nice people often do bad things.  Good intentions are not enough; if you really want to do good, you have to calmly weigh the actual consequences of your actions.  You may find drawing posters more fun than reading textbooks, but that's a reflection of your personality type, not a universal law of human nature.  Forget these truisms, and you risk being a touchy-feely bull in a china shop - loudly expressing philanthropic sentiments as you trample all over the feelings of hapless studious children. 




COMMENTS (21 to date)
John Hall writes:

I absolutely hated touchy-feely assignments, but it wasn't really THAT common when I was growing up, perhaps it has become more popular. I recall off the top of my head once in 6th grade and once in 10th grade. Of course, I also had a political philosophy class in college taught by a feminist who made us also write poetry.

What I really hated was when the touchy-feely assignments were basically art projects. I hated art and sucked at art for all of my life. It wasn't until recently that I realized I have a condition called aphantasia, which means that I don't have a visual imagination. It affects at least 1% of the population, though maybe a little more than that. This means that there are at least 1% of us out there who are going to suck at these kinds of art projects.

Nowadays they offer kids extra time on tests because of ADHD, but they never let me out of art class or out of these stupid touchy-feely assignments.

TerriW writes:

Long time reader, first time poster -- and fellow homeschooler. (Oldest is 13.)

I was *very* curious when you posted that your time homeschooling was coming to an end -- after hearing about your experience, my hunch was that you had been spoiled and would find it difficult to go back. But hey, Social Desirability Bias and all that, I wasn't going to say anything.

My oldest has gone back and forth a few times on whether she would like to continue being homeschooled, but she is making more and more friends from the local school. Having seen their homework and texts, she is now completely uninterested. ("They're not exactly reading Billy Budd, Mom.")

Hazel Meade writes:

This reminds me of an Onion article from many years ago. "Students complain: 'Classes unchallanging, students bored'"
To which a friend of mine announced "Somebody finally talked!"

Mark writes:

This style of teaching seems to be very much encouraged (and practiced) in education schools. From listening to teachers-in-training talk about their programs, it seems like many classes closely resemle group therapy sessions. This is of course entirely anecdotal though.

JFA writes:

This isn't the impression I have of schools in the northern Virginia neighborhoods a well-paid econ professor would live in.

Steve J writes:

Sounds like you are taking a touchy-feely approach to evaluating the conventional schools. You may not like the methods but what are the results? Can't you just look at test scores, etc to see how your local schools are doing? Try using some sort of objective evaluation.

Lewis writes:

At the university where I work there is a program to teach the graduate students how to teach. It is mandatory for them to be teaching assistants. It has almost nothing to do with teaching except they show you how to use the grading software, but the rest of it is kind of vague diversity stuff. For a lot of the foreign grad students from, say, Tsinghua or Sharif or one of the other great schools in poorer countries, it is their first exposure to American touchy-feely norms. They all describe the program as bizarre and unbearable. The program has no impact on the professors' or grad students' behavior.

Steve Z writes:

Great post. Thank you for sharing.

Lex writes:

"Math is the obvious example; you can't teach math by asking kids 'How do the numbers make you feel?'"
Au contrarie: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=wNw6LINafQU

Thomas writes:

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AaronG writes:
Sounds like you are taking a touchy-feely approach to evaluating the conventional schools. You may not like the methods but what are the results? Can't you just look at test scores, etc to see how your local schools are doing? Try using some sort of objective evaluation.

It seems to me that Bryan was quite specifically saying that the school's approach is not working for his kids. Given that, what could he learn from local test scores that would make him rethink the family's decision (leaving aside the fact that pedagogy is only one of many important inputs to the test scores)?

Steve Bacharach writes:

As a high school math teacher in the US, I can sum up my thoughts about your post, Bryan, as "Amen!"

T Boyle writes:

Having had some extended second-hand exposure to modern education, this is an area where I think perception hurts execution, and execution hurts perception.

There is a broad class of teaching techniques that can be described as "project based learning". Implemented effectively, there is evidence these approaches can deliver comparable amounts of informational content, much longer retention of the information, and - critically - very much better development of learning skills applicable to the real world (rather than study techniques applicable primarily to exam taking - i.e., what I learned in school).

Often, these projects involve an "art-like" component: in younger grades, because (most) kids are attracted to that and it's a way for them to work through the problem; in older grades, because presentation is a major success factor in the real world (it's why we learn to write, too).

Implemented poorly, these projects come up short on information transfer and can degenerate into an art (or, often, tech) project with little relationship to the curriculum.

Parents tend to lump all of them in together, push back on or reject the whole idea, and demand that their children be taught in more traditional ways.

Which is partly why we're still trying to train 19th century factory workers in our schools. Teachers unions may be part of the problem in American education, but traditionalist parents are right up there too.

Steven Hankin writes:

Bryan, your comment would seem to call out for more school
choice, and that would happen if we could get rid of government schools and get government completely out of Education.

Floccina writes:

How I got a D in geometry.
I had my home room teacher for geometry, so I thought that she would not give me a bad grade no matter what. She had decided that some good students just couldn't get a good grade in geometry without a little help, so she added an art project to the program. You had to do some geometric figures in it. She would count the project as 50% of your grade! I had an A average on my tests. I was a bit of slouch and a rebel in a way and I decided that I would just not do the project and rely on her being my home room teacher and not wanting to give a bad grade to a student with an A average. She could have given me an F but she gave me a D. All my other math grades where A's. I got by.

Mark Bahner writes:
5. I didn't bother sharing my concerns with my sons' teachers because I deemed it fruitless. But if I had vented, I bet they would have replied thusly: "But all the kids I talk to love my approach." Plausibly true, but deeply misleading, due to two powerful psychological forces:...

Soooo...you didn't share your opinions. But you've guessed what the teachers would have said if you had shared your opinions. And your guess is that what the teachers would have said would have been wrong.

Hmmmm...I hope your sons are learning somewhere the value of testing hypotheses. ;-)

robert writes:

Due to dyslexia and ADD, I did not truly begin reading until I was 12 years old. I bounced from school to school until sixth grade. My parents sent me to an expensive private school where I had to repeat fifth grade, and the school had an instructor who was extremely professional. It was similar to a lab experiment. Kind of reminds me of Sesame Street from 1969. One should see their pilot/proposal on Youtube to understand what I mean. I made great strides in middle school. Unfortunately, my father lost his job and lost his life savings, so I had to attend public school, which had a good reputation.

I was sent to the resource room that truly believed in “touchy-feely”. “How do you feel about your homework?” I was and am ambitious, and I was extremely frustrated because it was not effective, condescending, and belittling. When I became frustrated, I would be reprimanded. Gradually, I became more and more depressed, and I was extraordinarily depressed by graduation. I believe that the “retard” room made it worse. I also feel that getting off the ADD meds made my integration with the rest of the student body was also a factor. Oh, “retard” room is what the other children called it; however, it is also how I felt I was being treated by the staff. It was not about being effective. It was about how the work made the staff feel, and they wanted my reinforcement that they were doing a good job when they were not.

It was like the difference between the current HBO Sesame Street and the original scientific based Sesame Street. I also wish schools would teach project / time management and accelerated learning techniques.

On a positive note, after failing out of college, I started over and graduated from Columbia University where I studied economics under Robert Mundell, who I thought was arrogant and a good teacher.

Shawn writes:

When I student taught 9th and 10th grade history, I assigned an activity in which students had to summarize the day's lesson in 4 to 5 sentences. During the planning period, my cooperating teacher told me I should never give the assignment again because it is college level work. He preferred assignments in which 14-16 year-old students use crayons and colored pencils.

Troy Camplin writes:

I wish I could home school my kids. Actually, that's only half true. I am in fact having to home school my kids after they get home from school because they aren't learning the things they need to learn. Like, in the case of my 2nd grader, read.

IronSig writes:

@ Floccina

In 10th Grade geometry, our last assignment before Christmas break was a 3'x4' poster covered in a tessellation of the students design. The results would be posted around the classroom and into the hall. I can't recall if all the submissions were daft or mine was the only ugly submission, but I do know that I had to buy new colored pencils for the project and I had no need to use them again.

Isaac Kogure writes:

There are some aspects of the “touchy-feely” method that I believe work. On the other hand, there are teachers out there who make class way too easy with this method. There are also teachers who make class way too hard. It all depends on how a student learns best.

I can see how people are against the “touchy-feely” method. If a teacher only gives out effort grades easy assignment, or art projects for example, students cannot learn. They are not forced to learn the material. I have had those classes where I was forced to basically teach myself. I admit it makes it hard when it comes to final exams. In the lower grades like the elementary grades, this method could potentially not allow students to learn vital skills needed for more advanced learning.
An aspect of the “touchy-feely” method is getting feedback from the students on how they feel about certain assignments they believe are too difficult. Teachers may use this information to improve how they teach the material which could maximize the absorption of information by students. Another, Aspect would be the visual aspect. Things such as posters allow students to mentally visualize thing and have something for them to associate information with. Too many of those things does indeed waste valuable time that could be used for getting information.

In all, I do not believe that fully going with the “touchy-feely” method works. Being able to balance aspects of easy assignments along with strictly graded assignments is key. Students also need to know how they learn best so they can relay this to their instructor. A good teacher is someone who listens to their students, so this should work. For any profession, in fact, people should be able to adjust and improve to maximize the quality of their product.

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