Why we don’t shout at babies
The reason why nobody has done research on the effects of shouting at babies is because it would be so unethical. Without clinical research, we already know it wouldn’t be a good thing. Curious then is why shouting at students is consistently used to the point of being considered a standard method to make students listen.
I’ve seen students as they morph into teachers. I’ve known them as inaudibly timid students, whispering as if it would ease the impact of making a mistake. Then they become teachers and assume a authoritative persona far beyond expectation. How can they so suddenly bellow so loud and find fault in students so easily? Of course, when 80 students are boisterous and inattentive, it’s easy to resort to bellowing, but it’s curious that nobody has tried anything other than shouting oneself hoarse.
The most harmful bark to a baby would be the explosive, “HEH?” “Huh?” in contrast is used when someone doesn’t understand or can’t hear, but “HEH” is a bark to try to elicit a response. It is used when students are stuck and can’t give an answer so it’s more of a one-sound rebuke of someone’s ignorance. The “huh?” for the baby would be traumatic in its post-fetal stage as it only knows how to kick and cry to send a message back. More damaging is the “HEH?” as it’s hurtled out as if their existence is a mistake.
The premise in English class seem to be that repetition and volume are the ways to imprint something into students’ brains, in the way a dentist drill sinks into the tooth. The discomfort is equivalent and I don’t think it works. The mind shuts down when a word is repeated like a punishment. “VEGETABLE! VEGETABLE VEGETABLE!” I have experimented. I’ve told students I will say a new word only three times so they’d better listen carefully. I don’t say it louder than a whisper. Students listen, they focus and they remember.
Mouthing words work well too. It’s less stressful to watch a teacher’s mouth move than to hear the reprimanding sound of a repeat-after-me drill. It also gives students a chance to say rather than mimic.
The best yet though is something a young teacher developed. She would sing whole lessons. Not necessarily songs, but thin quivering lines of harmonious words. Students replicate them with eerie accuracy so the whole room hums with a golden happy and harmonic calm. “I like papayas.” sung by a classroom of 10 year-olds is to hear the Vienna Boys Choir in a Lao rural school.
Vigorous rhythmic chants work too. It comes naturally for children and should still be natural for adults except that we’ve worked ourselves into an adult unnaturalness.
Class had finished and I was surprised to hear our lesson continue in full glory. “Who could possibly be teaching them now?” Someone checked and reported that the students were doing it on their own. The day is finished and I might go home and still hear quivering couplets with a strong afterglow.
As a large component of teacher training, I will focus on the voice. Is this how you would talk to a baby, to a child? There is a shrill teacher voice that needs to be replaced with something else, something compassionate, loving, joyful, fun, curious, and anything else that most young humans respond to.
When I read somewhere that the date to end all poverty had been extended I could hear the sigh of relief as policymakers returned to their numbers and budgets. We should be fair though. Goals to end poverty are extremely ambitious and we should congratulate ourselves for at least trying. Such is the case with the noble goals of inclusive education.
I had always understood “inclusive education” to mean that students with disabilities should have access to an education. The first image that comes to mind is the wheelchair-bound student and the ramps up to the classroom. Defining who is disabled, however, excludes anyone left off that list. Certainly we are considering the deaf and blind, but do we include the autistic and mentally challenged? As we try to include everyone, we start to suspect that doing so is impossible so we stretch the borders far enough to make the whole effort fuzzy enough. UNESCO uses the term to cover students potentially excluded because of religion, race, ethnicity, language, economic status, gender, HIV/AIDS, those who live in remote areas or who are immigrants. Rather than a strategy to address students with special needs, it becomes a non-discriminatory clause and sure enough, like to the sound of a politically correct slap on the wrist, teachers must be “culturally responsive” to achieve inclusiveness in the schools.
Contrary to what it might seem, this is no parlor game of words. The idea has bite and is substantiated by the Convention against Discrimination in Education (UNESCO), The UNESCO Salamanca Statement (1994) and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006). How is inclusive education measured? Terms like “mainstreaming” and “integration” sound patronizing in this world of perfect diversity, but anything is better than the dirt attached to the word “segregation” so one convenient way is to simply count how many special needs students are sitting in regular schools. In most developing countries, such a student would be lucky to have space on a bench to sit on, much less expect that the teacher will be culturally responsive to their needs.
Though I’m not a proponent of cloistering special need students away in separate facilities, I also don’t see how increasing the number of mainstreamed students achieves the goals of inclusivity. Is the average education something they really want to be included in?
A deaf student is better off in a deaf school where signing is their first language than in a school where a teacher might shout or mime to communicate. Autistic students can thrive when provided with the right environment, but most mainstream classrooms would be a sensory nightmare.
What does this mean for resource challenged countries? Other than nice numbers on paper, how could they possibly achieve these goals? In regularly held formal conventions, time and thought shouldn’t be spend on how to craft words so that numbers can be met. Inclusive education should be discussed in a way that upholds the principal that education is for all and is not to be used as a tool to enhance privilege. The thought is almost counter intuitive, but when thinking globally while acting locally, policy makers could figure out how to make sending children to public schools a good choice, even for their own.
Part of my job is to review textbooks and to try to figure out the logic behind them. Almost all English programs start with ABC and in that order, usually with an example word like “ant” even though later students have to figure out why the same letter is pronounced differently in “aunt”. Then, there is often a large leap to short sentences which might appear simple, but really aren’t. They look like essential things we all need to say, but we actually rarely say them. These are the ubiquitous, “This is…, these are…, that is…, those are…” sentences. Or how about the accusatory, “You are a boy.” The verb to be comes early or might even be the first lesson, as if all linguistic existence begins with it. I’d much rather confirm my existence by doing something like eating or sleeping.
I think I remember the first day I was taught to read in a US school. Wasn’t the text about the dog names Spot? I remember the comfortable rhythm of a three-word sentence and its inherent SVO form. I think I was conscious that the words were chosen for their digestible sizes of three-letter like d-o-g and r-u-n. The teacher used a picture book so even if we couldn’t read yet, we could at least follow along. Shouldn’t second languages be taught in this way?
After that first day, I don’t remember anything else about learning how to read because it felt like learning how to ride a bicycle. Once you get the hang of it, you just ride wherever you like. The key was unlocked for associating text with meaning. Of course, this isn’t the case for everyone. For those who have trouble learning to read, the graphic and the aural don’t easily connect and that is why teaching through phonics has proven to help considerably.
The reason is because there are so many exceptions when reading and pronouncing English like “cough” and “island”. Those who are able to read quickly are not bothered by the ant/aunt inconsistency. Whereas many people have brains that don’t like to swallow things whole until something is convincingly consistent. There is a rhyme and a reason when teaching phonics, even if it simply means putting sounds and spellings into groups. Then, there is drilling and practice until the ears and the mind can make the print and sound associations.
When we learn a second language, we’re all challenged readers except for the super savant. We haven’t heard these sounds from day one and we might even be using a script we’ve never used before. So many ESL books are written by native-English speakers who seem to think, “Oh, they’ll get it soon enough.” Or by second-language masters who seem to think, “If they don’t know the verb to be, they can’t exist in this language.” Are we using phonics for second language learning?
When people start Japanese, they practically learn phonics by default because the consonant-vowel consistency reads as a simple chart that becomes an easily memorized rhyme. In other languages, such as those with tones and vowels that become long or short depending on the ending sound, teachers usually don’t teach phonics systematically because they can’t. We usually speak our own language without knowing how it works.
So much has been done on teaching English that the phonetic system has been pretty much ironed out. Now, all it takes it finding a good way to teach it. It’s not as dreary or mindless as people think. And delivering results, I’d much rather “See Spot run,” than to sit in existential confusion waiting to be.
I don’t remember how old I was, but I clearly remember a plastic toy that could make a tubular clown dance by pressing on the bottom plate. Doing so would slacken the strings that held the tubes together so the clown would slump into a heap. Releasing the bottom plate allowed a spring to pull the strings taught and the clown would pop back up into position.
I was at an age at which making a clown collapse and pop up repeatedly was not very interesting. What did fascinate me was the thought of what would happen if I pulled the plate off completely. Hiding behind the couch didn’t help when 80 tiny plastic tubes released the clown into cosmic chaos. This wasn’t a lesson in big bang theory or the physics of propulsion. I was only terrified of what I’d done and what punishment would fall upon me.
From an adult perspective, I was naughty. I hadn’t taken care of property properly. I hadn’t followed the intentions of the toy manufacturer. From a child’s perspective, it was the most natural thing to do. Pull off the plate and see what happens. As a compromise, adults have to vacuum up destroyed toys in exchange for letting a child learn to be a child. We will never understand because we can never go back.
The book “Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom Ages 4-14”, (Wood 2007) reminds us of what a child’s world is and what is universal. It helps to know what to expect at what stage. A Lao and Latvian child of the same age are more similar than five and eight year-olds of the same culture. Physical, social-emotional and cognitive developments happen by the day and though the pace is different for every child, it’s unreasonable to ask a five year-old to sit for long hours and copy from a blackboard. It’s not about discipline or being a “good student”. It’s about child-nature.
The book describes what’s expected for children from 4 to 14 and for each age. There are humorous consistencies such as the proclivity for 5 year-olds to fall out of their chair sideways while at 6 it’s more common to fall out backwards. Likewise, perceptions of past, present and future are things that change and develop well as topics and activities that they like or dislike.
Understanding stages of development have strong implications for teaching practices, not only for class management and the sanity of the teacher, but for the overall mental, social, emotional and cognitive growth of the child. We know what food is appropriate to feed children at different ages. The same goes for what we feed children’s minds and spirits in schools.
It’s healthy to praise the child for the size of the bite they’re ready to chew. If they’re at the age where coloring within the lines is the thing to do, they’ll be happy with that accomplishment. At an earlier age, they need to be praised to be able to hold a crayon with a fist and scribble within the limits of the paper.
National agendas throughout the world are either stuffing more into the daily curriculum or cutting it down. The first comes from a concern that students are not learning enough. The later comes from a concern that children are burdened with too much schoolwork. The pendulum swings according to who signs the mandates, but child development will remain consistent. If an old dog can’t learn new tricks, look to the young child for the magic they can do.
This is the fourth time I’ve visited this remote school. Getting there’s not easy. Now in the rainy season, the roads become deep trenches of mud. At the same time, the rain helps the forest flourish into hues of emerald and jade. Other than a few electricity lines, the village is pristine enough to attract tourists on treks. Visitors love the remoteness and probably go home with the revelation that, “Children are so poor but so happy.”
We cross the last pass and reach the village just as a curtain of rain rolls down the mountainside. With no wifi or phone signals there is an astonishing peace. This village will only become more attractive as plugged in people seek ways to detox from online overload. I’ve heard that a new trend in boutique hotels is to offer units with thick walls that make signals impenetrable.
The food is always good here and we manage to get it all cooked without MSG. We have fresh bitter bamboo, free-range chicken, local greens and I assume everything else that comes from the surrounding earth and water. For the first time, many people at the table seem to be convinced that food can taste good without spoonfuls of MSG.
The children, however, come in a steady stream to buy junk food at a little stall. I see one pudgy boy come three times in an hour as if he’s addicted to vending machines and convenience stores before knowing what they are. They must be hungry, or they’re just not interested in fresh mountain vegetables anymore. The trail of candy wrappers leave littered evidence of Hansels and Gretels who will never find their way home again.
The children look healthy, but they’re not. Many suffer from skin rashes and boils. Someone explains matter-of-factly that it’s from the herbicides that they’re using on the fields. They know how strong it is. One person told me the wrong dose killed all the teak, corn and bamboo on his land. Still, it makes farming easier and it’s not the only thing that’s damaging their health anyway.
I ask who is smoking all the fresh tobacco in plastic bags being sold at a stall. If they’re rolled, they’re no filters. I’m told that many of the smokers are young boys who start as early as 11 or 12. That’s about the same age that some start drinking hard alcohol. The vendor laughs and admits that kids can’t consume unless someone sells, but also admits she’s not going to be the first one to stop.
Girls don’t smoke, but some get married off at 13. One used to be our student. She sat with the other girls who were intent on studying. It’s taken for granted that her education stops now. We hear of another very young girl who had twins that died in childbirth.
We’re talking about all this while filling tobacco bags and watching TV. The program is a typical Thai drama in which women are screaming in jealous brawls or being attacked and abused. I just can’t help but comment in a way that spoils the party. “Nothing remotely good goes into these children.” Their daily dose of sugar, MSG, agricultural chemicals, tobacco, alcohol and misogynist TV is not helping them to learn many things useful in life. We’re sobered by the thought of how desperate it is to make education the one good thing that goes in.