JB and the Benelux Boys: Flying over the Radar of Value-added Learning

Years ago we had a new American 9th-grade student whom I’ll call JB. His father was in business development for a large international firm, and whether JB remained in our school or not would depend on whether his father’s efforts were successful. From the start I thought that the boy had something special either to offer or to take away from an English class.

I was right, but sometimes what he had to offer was more than I felt like taking. He had an astonishing facility at classroom leadership that quietly but firmly challenged his teachers. One day he and almost every one of his classmates arrived in class tardy. As usual, his presence was unobtrusive as he sidled in, not at all exultant in successful mass action. My usual punishment for tardies was to have the offender sit in the school yard outside the classroom to meditate for half an hour or 45 minutes on the need for punctuality.

A tardy student had the choice  of sun or shade. For the time stipulated, he or she would sit in a chair without books or electronic entertainment for the course of the meditation. After ten or fifteen minutes of silence and nothing to do, meditation would usually lead the latecomer to a bit of regret that he was alone, silent, and idle. Views that had tantalized the tardy student when they lay on the other side of a beckoning window palled when they surrounded him. Passersby would tease him or her for having to meditate. Thirty to forty-five minutes thus spent usually led meditators to a firm resolution to be on time in the future: it was not the kind of school where punished students meditated and then enacted violent revenge on The Enemy.

But a whole class! Students must learn to expect a certain consistency and firmness from their teachers, yet I wondered whether having them all “meditate” would be an instance of that foolish consistency which is the hobgoblin of little minds. No, I decided, it wouldn’t be, so I quietly told them to take their chairs and follow me outdoors. I placed them without fuss at some distance from each other one by one. When JB’s turn came to sit in mediation, he looked at me incredulously and said in his usual quiet way, “You are going to have an entire class meditate?” “Well,” I answered, “The entire class was tardy.” It was the last time he engaged in one of his exercises in alternative leadership.

That was good because it meant that he could give his entire effort to improving his writing. One knows that some students have a latent talent for writing that has been warped by uncorrected bad habits. JB was one of those. He could find ideas, good ones, but he always had to track in a lot of rubbish with them: clichés, paragraphs that wrote themselves only slowly and tentatively into a topic, the too-frequent use of it is and there as expletives, too much passive voice, and rhetorical inflation.

When he brought a draft in for the doctor’s visit, we spent some time at it. He was, as I guessed he would be, a quick study; and he rebelled much less energetically against rules and strictures of usage and editorial advice than against the demands of punctuality and regular attendance at class. I don’t usually expect 9th-graders to be sensitive to all the stuff that he got—and was evidently getting for the first time. In the course of the year his writing improved remarkably, going way beyond where 9th-graders usually go.

His father didn’t turn up the hoped-for business, so JB left our school after only a year—something that I heard he had done before. Maybe a feral style in one so talented was the result of transferring from school to school before his long-term instruction, as opposed to his annualized value-added learning, could add up. Maybe the schools he attended concentrated on averaged additions of value without regard to individual sums, as it were, or to dividends to be gained by individuals in the future. I was sorry to see him go.

A number of years later I had an email from—who else?—JB, who now writes for a living. He credited me with turning him towards the long-term concern with his writing that ultimately determined his choice of a career. I report his story not to toot my own horn but to suggest how some important conditions of teaching and learning can escape the various nets of value-addition, the obsession with skills instead of skill, and a counterproductive present-mindedness of concern that ignores what my former colleague called “seed-planting.” I am sorry to think that under value-added learning the main satisfaction that a year with JB would bring a teacher is relief at an end to adolescent rebelliousness and a minuscule rise in “average scores.” I am sorrier to think that much of what JB accomplished during that year would escape the standardized tests set to capture evidence of 9th-grade learning.

Lest my readers think that these conditions matter only for kids headed in writerly directions, I want to mention the Benelux Boys. One was from Holland; the other was a Dutch-speaking Belgian. I had them both for the International Baccalaureate Program’s course in Theory of Knowledge. Both were capable and diligent, one of them more so than the other. They didn’t start to study seriously in English till they were in high school.

I taught ToK, as it is known, using among other things a somewhat difficult reading-list drawn from all kinds of writers of the present and past: Aristotle, St. Anselm, Bertrand Russell, Thomas Kuhn, Susan Sontag, Karl Popper, Malcolm Gladwell, Isak Dinesen, William James, Jacob Burckhardt, Hannah Arendt. The class was fundamentally a colloquium with lots of discussion and Socratic questioning, though we did many things other than read, parse, question, and discuss. They included writing, which I examined and commented on closely.

The Benelux Boys acquitted themselves well in that course and were graduated, the Dutch boy with high honors, and were both accepted for the international business program offered in English at the University of Maastricht. After their first year they showed up in my classroom for a visit. The purpose was to thank me for the ToK course.

In the chapter “The Road to Life Adjustment” from his classic Anti-intellectualism in American Life Richard Hofstadter deplores the persistent deprecation in American education of the “transfer effect,” by which intellectual attainments taught in one course transfer their effectiveness to efforts made in others. He notes this persistence in the face of solid evidence and the authority of such respected educators as Jerome Bruner. That book, forty-five years old and fresh as May, should give pause to today’s narrowly focused educational efforts to establish a curriculum for the “delivery” of instruction aimed at “adding value” over the course of a year instead of a lifetime, and at educational demands made for the sake of vocational training taken narrowly.

The Benelux Boys told me that ToK gave them a better preparation for their business course than anything else they had studied because it taught them how to work productively within a language, how to read and parse, how to ask questions of a reading and of each other, and how to evaluate what was presented to their consideration. They also said it conferred an advantage on them over their European classmates whose education had been more overtly a kind of  “vocational preparation.”

With all the benefit to be gained in high school by the marvelous reading available, it seems a deep, deep shame that some schools and districts are spending their book budgets on books of test preparation instead of novels, histories, or anthologies like the Introduction to the Great Books, and that they can claim it is better for their students to have read such stuff than to have worked their way through the writers I named above. I mean not just in preparation for careers in the clouds but careers as writers, businessmen, and human beings who lead good lives.

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