In Why Tough Teachers Get Good ResultsJoanne Lipman fondly remembers a music teacher who called his pupils idiots, poked them with pencils, and screamed insults when they messed up. Despite this, when he died, so many ex-pupils turned up at his memorial that they formed an orchestra the size of the New York Philharmonic.

Lipman asks: “What can we learn from a teacher whose methods fly in the face of everything we think we know about education today, but who was undeniably effective?”

She answers: “It’s time to revive old-fashioned education. Not just traditional but old-fashioned in the sense that so many of us knew as kids, with strict discipline and unyielding demands. Because here’s the thing: It works.”

She rejects the softer, gentler, kinder methods of the past few decades and proposes eight principles, “a manifesto if you will, a battle cry inspired by my old teacher and buttressed by new research.”

1. A little pain is good for you: True expertise requires teachers who give “constructive, even painful, feedback,” Top performers in various fields “deliberately picked unsentimental coaches who would challenge them and drive them to higher levels of performance.”

2. Drill, baby, drill: Rote learning cultures like India and China are now outperforming Western students in many disciplines.

3. Failure is an option: Kids who understand that failure is a necessary aspect of learning actually perform better.

4. Strict is better than nice: A five-year study of the most effective teachers in the worst L.A. schools found that the common characteristic was “They were strict.” Instead of teaching through collaboration and discussion, “they found disciplinarians who relied on traditional methods of explicit instruction, like lectures. “

5. Creativity can be learned: Most creative giants were not born as geniuses. Instead they “work ferociously hard and, through a series of incremental steps, achieve things that appear (to the outside world) like epiphanies and breakthroughs.”

6. Grit trumps talent: In a widespread study of various career tracks, researchers found that “grit—defined as passion and perseverance for long-term goals—is the best predictor of success.”

7. Praise makes you weak: “Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck has found that 10-year-olds praised for being “smart” became less confident. But kids told that they were “hard workers” became more confident and better performers.”

8. While stress makes you strong: “A 2011 University at Buffalo study found that a moderate amount of stress in childhood promotes resilience.”

What do you think? Is the way back the way forward?

I’ve tried the modern teaching methods of group projects, debate teams, online discussions, and collaborative assignments, and found that they just frustrate gifted students and carry the less gifted. I’m also for more discipline and individual accountability. Some of these eight proposals are well-researched and well-tested.

School of Fear
However, I had teachers who terrified the wits out of me, so much so that I learned nothing from them, apart from how to skip classes. Three of them were male alcoholics, one a female alcoholic, one should probably have been in prison (he threw hammers at pupils across the workshop), and the others are probably incarcerated today. Yes, I went to a public school in Glasgow.

But in addition to these delightful influences on my life, I also had a few teachers who would fit the description of Lipman’s ideal teacher. And again, they scared some of us so much that many of us either “hid” in the class, or never went to class. It was a miserable experience – unless you were a star performer, and I was certainly not in that elite High School group.

Smashed Students
I also wonder about how many pupils did not return for the memorial concert. How many average and below-average kids did Lipman’s teacher smash to smithereens with his psychological and physical warfare? How many were put off education for life? How many still carry the scars of humiliation and demoralization?

I’m reminded of the words of the best ever teacher: “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29).

Now that’s the kind of teacher I can learn from.

  • Curtis Sheidler

    My goodness! What a reprehensible man! One wonders why on earth a teacher couldn’t follow the 8 precepts Lipman suggests without demeaning or insulting or inflicting physical pain on his students!

    • David Murray

      Yes, that’s what I thought too, Curtis.