Up Close With Dr. E

Educational reform remains possible


Today’s column is about educational reform. It begins with a quote by former President Bush (the first), when he accepted his party’s nomination, in August of 1988.

“Learning is good, in and of itself ... The mothers of the Jewish cities of the east would poor honey on a book so the children would know that learning is sweet. The parents who settled Kansas would take their children in from the fields when a teacher came.”

This quote captures the basic building blocks of learning: A child, a teacher, a school. It also touches on the relationship between a child and a teacher, which may be good (sweet) or bad (sour). When this relationship is good, the child’s motivation to learn is magnified. Why?

When a child enters their school and sits down in their seat, we (parents, teachers, professionals) assume that it is the child’s intellect, brain or cognitive abilities that are being taught. Using math as an example, the child is taught symbols, called numbers, and how to add, subtract, multiply or divide these symbols. When a student does well in math, we say they are capable, smart or able to learn math. But what do we say when a child is unable to learn? When they fail test after test, or quiz after quiz?

Here is what we say: This child is lacking something, such as the ability to focus their attention, or to hold numbers in short- term memory. We assume (wrongly) that 100% of the problem is located within the child.

When a child fails to learn, we begin a diagnostic process of locating the problem. Thus, you hear words such as: Attention Deficit Disorder, Learning Disability or Dyslexia (a reading disorder). In no way is the diagnostic process bad. It is an honest attempt to help the child so they can learn. However, it does miss something. In my opinion, this “something missed” is a vital ingredient to learning.

When we assume that a child’s mind, brain or cognitive processes are the target of education, the link between the teacher and the student is established in a brain-to-brain connection. This is critical for learning. However, a “sweet connection” between a child and a teacher is much more powerful. Why?

A sweet connection magnifies the child’s motivation, or desire, to learn. When this is combined with the already established brain-to-brain link, the child’s total learning power doubles.

In my opinion, it is the latter one, the emotional one, which, in a learning situation, carries the day. This is because the heart-to-heart connection allows the child to say, “I can do this math problem and I won’t give up. If I get confused, I can count on my teacher to give me help.” Of the hundreds of children I have worked with who were failing or underachieving in school, I have witnessed the breakdown of the child/parent relationship, as well as the child/teacher relationship. I have also seen the reverse: When the child/parent, child/teacher and the parent/teacher relationships are good, the student’s ability to learn increases dramatically.

Using a story of my own, see if you can identify what my teacher did to reverse my own pattern of academic underachievement.

When I was 14, it became clear to my father that my declining grades resembled that of a sinking submarine: Down, down, down they go, but to what depth, nobody knows. Alarmed, he took action: He sent me to Western Military Academy.

My first exam in Math class was graded and returned. When I saw my grade, I was confused. The test had 50 problems, I only completed 10. My grade said, “A.” So, when I asked my teacher, he replied, “Cadet, I graded you on what you did, not on what you didn’t do.” Stunned, I left his room. Math would become my best subject.

Our country has begun an educational revolution. Breathtaking discoveries in neuroscience have borne fruit: how children learn, or fail to learn, are now part of the engine driving school innovation. But my fear is that the reform will, “throw the baby out with the bath water.”

I believe that our children have tasted way too many sour learning experiences. It is clear to me that if teachers were allowed to return to the core of their calling — building healthy and nurturing relationships with their students — then the honey spread upon the total learning experience of our children will taste sweet.

The ideas in this column came from conversations I’ve had with two very special teachers, my aunt and grandmother, who taught in a one classroom schoolhouse for the children of rural farmers. How did she do it? Well, with a whole lot of sweetness.

The content of this article is for educational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for treatment by a professional. The characters in this story are not real. Names and details have been changed to protect confidentiality.


Dr. Richard Elghammer contributes his column each week to the Journal Review.