Florida’s rejection of 42 math textbooks to include “forbidden” subjects obscures one more subtle and important point: decades of educational research are at odds with the American view of freedom and ethics.
The books were rejected to include new taboo subjects, such as socio-emotional education and critical race theory. At a recent news conference, Republican Florida Gov. Ron Descentis announced that “math is about finding the right answer … not about how you feel about the problem.”
Yet educators point to a large portion of the research that shows how students feel about math problems is really critical.
American education combines content with character, and we mostly agree that both are the foundation of success. Although the agreement on core values has eroded, teachers find themselves in the cross-hair of a new political battle that emphasizes the role of emotion in learning – and especially learning to think for themselves – against the will of students to control what they learn. Should the school learn more about how to think, or the content, the correct answer, and the process of learning what to think?
Research tells us that confidence and mood are the result of how we talk to ourselves about what happens to us. Confidence and optimism need to be created temporarily and continuously: if we tell ourselves that our missed catches, social mistakes, sales errors or wrong answers are personal, permanent and pervasive (which psychologist Martin Seligman calls our “explanatory style”), then we are less resilient. And more likely to give up.
When a student gets one of the wrong answers that worries the Florida governor, the way they think about it is actually critical. Stanford’s Carol Duke calls what he calls the “growth mentality” an opportunity to learn and grow the wrong answer – and that mindset opens another door to that growth.
If you believe you can make yourself smarter, stronger or better, research says, you can.
Students with a “steady mindset”, however, believe that intelligence, skills and talents are fixed, and each failure ensures the limits of their abilities. They believe that they cannot do good to themselves, and that belief becomes self-fulfilling.
The mentality, explanatory style, and what psychologist Angela Duckworth calls “grit” are important predictions of what you will try and achieve next.
Teachers have long known that perseverance is essential for learning in the face of failure, and in the past, parents seemed to agree. Whether it’s the new label of “socio-emotional education” or the increasing politicization of the school curriculum, there is a new skepticism surrounding this established science. Most Americans don’t want educators or government officials to tell parents what they can say to their children, and some parents are starting to see teachers and textbooks that support and promote a positive attitude towards a successful life as a limitation on their parental rights.
Related: Social and psychological education is the latest flashpoint in the education war
There is a real tension that we should discuss between parents who want to raise their children as they see fit (even if they tell them they are stupid and will never be good at maths) and teachers who oppose it (telling them that they Not stupid and can learn math).
Most teachers don’t want to teach students what to think: We want to see our students go beyond us and learn to think independently. Democracy is needed and teachers want students to learn how to think and when they graduate, they don’t need any more teachers to tell them which is true and which is fiction.
Education is a bit like fitness training. The person who works gets the benefit, and seeing a teacher do pushups is not as helpful (although they are intellectual pushups). Some of the best ways to do pushups are helpful, but in the end, the way to learn or fit is to do the work. Good instructors and teachers inspire students to do more pushups.
Teachers want to make sure that students have the right answers, but also develop character to be consistent in the face of mistakes.
What Florida calls “socio-emotional education” is actually a form of inspiration, and it stems from research that confirms the connection between success and grit, or what some call character (and indeed, so far, grit and much of its critique) mentality. Some people on the left argue that the ideas blame the victim). As Einstein said, “I never teach my students; I just try to give them the conditions where they can learn. ” These terms, even, and perhaps in particular, mathematics, include confidence, confidence, and resilience.
Scientists like Seligman, Duke, and Duckworth have given us a better idea of how thoughts and feelings about our failures affect our perseverance and future success. Although it seems reasonable that teachers should only teach 2 + 2 = 4, the real problem is, what happens if we answer 3?
Shall we stop trying? Shall we memorize the correct answer (temporarily)? Or do we just have to be more discriminating with the help we render toward other people?
Related: Jargon may have turned parents against social and psychological education
Some parents and politicians, however, see all this emphasis on self-confidence as crossing an educational boundary from content to character, and they are right. One or two generations ago, there was a broad consensus about the values that American education should create: sharing, telling the truth, working hard, and freedom and justice for all.
As parents and schoolboards become more polarized around the causes of injustice (opportunity or character), understanding how emotions and identities affect and what we think has led science and teachers to clash with some parents and politicians. But self-confidence, perseverance and the ability to think for oneself contribute to character building blocks and education. Who can teach these values (parents or teachers) should and will compete. Traditionally, the Left has objected to the inclusion of character in the discussion of inequality (seeing opportunity and fairness as the real problem), but now the right is also objecting to the teaching of positive character traits.
Teachers have long tried to teach students how to think without teaching them what to think. This is not a fully achievable goal: teachers have real influence! Americans now need to have a real conversation about the values we share that can help students and democracy improve in the future.
Joseph Anthony Bowen Author ofChanging education: how to develop individual thinkers using relationships, resilience and reflection. “
This piece about the Florida textbook ban and is produced by SEL Hatchinger report, A non-profit, independent news organization focusing on inequality and innovation in education. For registration Hatchinger’s newsletter.