The Rah-Rah Cheerleader Effect

One of the most pernicious aspects of the change in secondary and even undergraduate college education over the past generation has been the emergence, and even dominance in some areas, of the “cheerleader” school of teaching.  The devotees of this approach to teaching seem to believe that all it takes for student success is unbridled enthusiasm and support for students, reinforced by liberal amounts of praise, whether deserved or not [and of course, many feel that no amount of praise is excessive… or if they don’t feel that way, still act as though praise cannot be overdone].  I read recently about one highly placed individual in the education world who was appalled by a poster/sign in a school that observed that success also required application and dedication by the student.

The problem with this “ultra-positive” approach is that students leave secondary school with vastly overinflated ideas of their own importance, and their own abilities and levels of competency.  The majority also lack any understanding of what intellectual work really is. These observations are not mine alone, but the results of scores of studies over the past ten years, and the findings, as I’ve noted earlier, are not a reflection on the innate intelligence of students, but upon their ability to apply that intelligence in a constructive and focused manner.

Every year that has passed over the last decade has seen a greater and greater percentage of students entering college who are, as one psychologist termed them, “teacups” who shatter when faced with difficult tasks, demanding courses, or just plain accurate constructive criticism of their work.  Almost inevitably, many of these “teacups” complain that teachers who insist on their doing college-level work competently and on time are unfair, even “bullies,” and that there are “better ways” to teach – meaning that they don’t want to be reminded in any fashion of their shortcomings or to be informed of how to improve.

Education is not only about learning to think, or learning the basics of society, or the skills that will lead to the student’s ability to function economically in society, but it’s also about learning that in the “real world” most people are supposed to do their jobs well without praise, that praise only comes, if then, from going beyond the expected.

I’m not saying that the enthusiastic cheerleading form of education doesn’t have a place.  It does, and that place is in kindergarten and first and possibly second grade, roughly.  But cheerleading as an overall teaching style needs to be phased out through elementary school. Again, this is not a rant against praise or encouragement; it’s a rant against teachers and parents who create unrealistic expectations on the part of students by cheering them on regardless of circumstances and the students’ own abilities and determination.

I’m also opposed to the total gloom and doom outlook – now often manifested, interestingly enough, by the proponents of “hard” education, i.e., math and science and computers, to the virtual exclusion of anything else, who insist that education must be practical and that students should not be taught the arts and disciplines in which jobs are scarce, or that students should pay more for such fields of study.  That narrow-minded approach ignores one basic thing – not all students are the same, and not all of them have great ability in those fields.  It’s one thing to point out realistically the difficulties faced in attempting a career in any field of art or music or even writing or other fields where there are far more graduates than jobs. It’s another to decide that certain subjects shouldn’t be taught because they aren’t currently that economically rewarding.  The one thing that is certain is that economics and politics and society change, and channeling education too narrowly is just as much a road to disaster as blindly encouraging students to believe that any of them can do anything, and that everything they do is wonderful.

I’m considered a fairly successful writer, but I can guarantee that, if most college students had their work criticized by teachers the way some readers criticize mine, or assessed accurately by employers, those students really would shatter.  Cheerleading has its place, and it’s in the sports arenas and early childhood education, not in high school or college courses… and it seldom, if ever, occurs  in the world  beyond education.


16 thoughts on “The Rah-Rah Cheerleader Effect”

  1. j says:

    An acquaintance of mine has taught second grade for the past thirty years in an upper middle class neighborhood. According to her the students have gotten worse every year for at least the last ten years. If her perception is accurate, the fact that this is happening as early as the second grade indicates that there is something wrong with the general culture beyond the education system. My wife is a high school teacher, she says even the seniors notice that the 9th graders are worse than last year, and the middle school teachers say that next year’s class will be worse still. And there is still a long way to go downhill from the young adults who are graduating right now. Maybe it starts with overworked parents and daycare.

    Of course we all know that if university professors cheerlead and grade inflate they will get better student evaluations, maybe a better chance at tenure, more time to publish, and fewer problems if they already have tenure; and if their students fail in the real world five years later and figure out it was their teachers’ fault ten or even fifteen years later, nothing bad will happen to the professor at all, they will already be retired or in a senior position where they can’t be challenged.

    After thinking about this problem for a while, the only ‘solution’ that occurs to me is that we ought to be informing young people that the standards they are being judged by are far too lenient. They need to take it on themselves to ignore the false positivity around them and up their game before reality arrives. Mr. Modesitt is trying to do this but their teachers are not and who knows what’s happened to their parents. Maybe a novel about grade inflated youth?

  2. My wife does maintain standards — and she’s known as the toughest teacher in the department, and some students avoid her, despite the fact that she has almost single-handedly developed a program that has a track record for producing the most successful graduates from university in her field after college, and her students are the ones with the highest rate of careers and success. Yet despite an exemplary record, she’s never received a university award — those go to the professors who instill a feel-good attitude.

    1. Trish Henry says:

      I’m sorry to hear that your wife isn’t being recognized, although I am glad to hear that her methods and standards are making a difference in her students’ lives.

      Another aspect to this topic is when these people hit the workplace. Over the years I’ve had to train a lot of entry-level folk. It’s true that when someone gets their first “real” job, a lot of time and investment by the company is spent on training the person on how to work. How to navigate their working environment, whether it’s a job in a creative field or a corporate office. And just as everyone’s different, everyone picks up different lessons at different rates, but mostly they understand that they still need to learn about their new job if nothing else. What I’m seeing is more people feeling entitled. They assume they should be paid a lot for an intern or entry-level position. They assume they should be able to make calls and text on their cell phone at any time. They assume that they should be able to update their Facebook or Twitter, etc. at work and not during a break. They assume a lot.

      I can’t say it’s entirely a bad thing because life will swat them down soon enough and for many it works when they have the smarts and ability to back it up. But sometimes I do get tired of training/picking up after the ones that don’t. Especially if they are a third-party consultant wasting our company’s time and money.

  3. Wine Guy says:

    Too many people have their self-worth tied up in other people’s opinions regarding them. There is a certain “chicken and egg”: that’s how they grew up so that’s how they are and that’s how they continue to be and that’s what they pass on.

    Throwing facts (or truth… such as it is) into that cycle gets the speaker castigated, unless that person holds the purse strings AND is able to fend off lawsuits. Disturbing someone’s self image certainly doesn’t endear you to them, even if they end up better for it in the long run. HUmans are, after all, human.

  4. Tim says:

    Though this post is primarily about settling false expectation in education, it is not new. In corporate land, the “Rah Rah” approach was very prevalent in the 80s.

    When a major computer manufacturer launched a new computer system, those invited to the launch were expected to stand, clap and shout appreciation when the curtain swept aside to reveal the new hardware. If you did not do this, you would be considered as not being on-topic (modern speak)and your career would be at risk.

    Just as LEM describes for modern education, the adopted measures drive the behaviour of those who have to account for ‘success'(or more accurately, the applied management pressure). In turn this relaxes standards.

  5. Kathryn says:

    Having passed through the UK education system in the past decade or so, I’d like to offer my views.

    Our system, at least, is not focused on actually learning anything useful. It’s about cramming your head with figures and temporarily-useful bits of information to pass exams. There’s never really much talk about using it in the wider world, nor are problems presented in such a manner to give context to aid understanding, but instead about passing your exams with certain grades in order to go to college/university. We’re told continuously how we need to get This Basic Level in order to Do This Thing, but it’s never put in any way that actually benefits you.

    There’s too much emphasis, in my opinion, on not actually getting any life skills down nor a basic standard of mathematics. Look how many people, US and UK, leave without having any real competence in those areas. Enough to get by, not enough to succeed. Education should set you up to deal with the world, it should not be about just jumping through hoops.

    1. Tim says:

      Kathryn is so right. The life skills – especially leadership – are, however, being taught in the private and public schools which is why the people who are privileged to go via this route get places at the top Universities more easily than those people who have to suffer the state system.

      The government then tries to force quotas on these universities so they are more ‘inclusive’ (which will only arguably bring their standard down), instead of improving the state system.

      I know so many disillusioned teachers

  6. Bob Walters says:

    The most important abilities are no longer being taught in schools. Critical thinking and the ability to analyze is no longer being taught instead we have retreated to rote memorization and parroting of facts. People need to learn to think, unfortunately, this is a danger to the power base in many states so it is avoided. “Feel good” education is a great way to accomplish this as it is almost diametrical opposed to critical thinking and much easier to “teach” to useless testing standards.

  7. Brian says:

    I owe a large debt of gratitude to my Grade 8 teacher. In 1976, at the start of the school year, Mrs. Little temporarily postponed teaching the regular English course. She was so appalled at our lack of understanding of English grammar that she took it upon herself to teach us the basics for a few weeks. After that, how we applied these basics was up to us.

    Could this happen today? I seriously doubt that a teacher now would have the courage or inclination to do it. If they did, I expect that both the administrators and the teachers union would severely reprimand him/her for bucking the system.

    Today, I struggle to get what is in my head down on paper or on the computer screen. I struggle to get my sentences grammatically correct and the words spelled right. But with the help of a caring teacher who recognized a need in her students and did what was in our best interest, without false ego boosting and cheerleading, I have the basic tools to get it right most of the time.

    Thank you, Mrs. Little, for being a teacher. My gratitude knows no limits.

    1. Bob Walters says:

      Teachers in many districts no longer have the freedom to deviate that much from the established curriculum.

  8. Sean says:

    Mr. Modesitt is absolutely correct. Yet there is also another factor that is leading to educational failure: Parents who have turned their children’s future over to the school systems and take the course of little to no direct involvement.

    It’s still the responsibility of parents to, well, parent. Personally, I don’t expect the school district (and it’s one of the best in the nation, Montgomery County, MD) to raise my son, to instill values such as hard work, or to provide every possible opportunity and reward/discipline.

    That’s part of my job.

    After all, engaged parents can raise self-sufficient, capable adults with or without the school districts and teachers. Yes, engaged teachers can make a difference. But the parents need to step up.

    1. Brian says:

      I agree, Sean, that parents need to assume the responsibility of being involved with their children’s education. When I was in school, if the teacher had a problem with me, my parents backed the teacher and did I ever get in trouble. Nowadays, if a teacher has a problem with a student, most parents absolve their son/daughter of responsibility and blame the teacher for performance or behaviour issues. I’ve even read of parents consulting a lawyer in some cases!

      Then you have the recent case in the province of Ontario, Canada where the father of a pre-kindergarten student was arrested, strip searched and told he was being charged with illegal possession of a firearm because his 4 year old daughter had drawn a picture of a gun. These actions were perfectly acceptable because educators are “co-parents,” a school official in Waterloo told an interviewer from Sun News.

      In addition, three of his children were taken by Waterloo Region Family and Child Services to be questioned and his pregnant wife was also taken to the police station. The police also raided the family’s home without warrant or prior consent.

      The gun in question was a toy one.

      Alison Scott, executive director of Family and Child Services for the Waterloo Region, was unapologetic about what the Sansone family was put through: “I do not see any need for our agency to apologize for fulfilling our mandated responsibility.”

      Is it any wonder that parents may not get involved because they feel intimidated and powerless by an intrusive nanny state?

      1. Bob Walters says:

        That incident has been all over the right wing pseudo-press. What makes it ironic is that a bunch of right wing nuts were saying that they would move to Canada if President Obama was re-elected for a second term. It is important that parents be involved in their children’s education. A great many districts suffer from lack of funds and it is easy for a child to slip through the cracks. An involved parent can prevent this from happening. What we do not need is for parents and politicians to interfere with the curriculum so they can alter history and science to fit their own political agenda.

        1. Brian says:

          That incident may have been all over the right wing ‘pseudopress’, but it did happen. Even the Left Wing Liberal government supporter Toronto Star reported it accurately. The parent that got arrested above was a volunteer at the school where his daughter attended. So he well known and was active in his children’s educational life and yet the bureaucrats, er…sorry, ‘co-parents’, reacted like he was a criminal without proper due process. Guilty until proven innocent.

          1. Bob Walters says:

            Never said it didn’t happen or that it would not have been an egregious violation of rights if it had happened here in the US. I don’t know what the rights are in Canada but apparently they allow that sort of thing to happen. The last part of the reply is, however, the most important. In parts of the US, Texas most notably, textbook evaluation is controlled by the religious right for use in public schools. They base their evaluation on how favorably they treat Christianity and various conservative icons and causes. Because it is a large market this alternate history overflows to other states.

  9. Bill McKissack says:

    The cheerleading activity is a confusion between self-esteem and self-confidence. Self-esteem needs to be supported constantly since it usually is contrary to the facts. Self-confidence comes from successful accomplishments. Not necessarily large achievements but normal skills. Parents are often at fault in addition to the education system. Too many children aren’t allowed to do normal age appropriate tasks by themselves. They are “protected” from “dangerous” activities and they don’t learn basic skills.

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