Teaching as Shouting (or Tough Love Gets the Best Results)

Studies show that students flourish best when under constantly under a moderate amount of stress. 

So I’ve gotten several emails about this article by Joanne Lipman in the WSJ. The bottom line is that the teachers who get the best results are all about really tough love. The best way to motivate students is to challenge them with realistic (and therefore tough) assessments of their shortcomings. It’s a good idea to shout at them when they’re slacking off. And to let them fail when they’ve actually not made the grade through lack of effort or natural gifts.


Studies show that students flourish best when constantly under a moderate amount of stress. Those are the students who don’t think of themselves as stressed at all. The best way to handle stress is to routinely experience it. As Aristotle says, the best way to come to possess the moral virtue of courage is actually to be in situations where courage is required to live well. The more the virtue becomes you’re own, the easier it is to keep your head, choose well, and even be happy in risky situations. Now we should be happy that today’s students almost never find themselves in situations (such as battle) where their lives are on the line. The downside is that they really are a little less than than they might be. But they all face situations where they can display grace under pressure. The more they experience the pressure, the more they can handle the pressure, the more virtuous or self-possessed they really are.

Studies also show that catering to or flattering students actually undermines their self-esteem. Real self-esteem—pride as opposed to vanity—comes from pleasurable reflection on real accomplishments, on meeting real challenges, on magnanimously or generously displaying one’s personal greatness. So the best teachers are stingy with praise in order that it really mean something. And they praise students not only or even mainly for their intellectual accomplishments but for their “class.” Being classy is just knowing how to act as a responsibly relational being in a particular situation. It’s not some pretension of the privileged, unless by being privileged you mean having been given the challenge of living well as a free and relational person. Poverty is no barrier to being classy, as anyone with classy eyes notices every day.

Studies also show that the best teachers typically use what are viewed as relatively old-fashioned “teaching methods.” Those who do the studies expected the stellar educators be all about collaborative learning, high technology, and other allegedly “powerful” practices. But effectively tough teachers actually focus their efforts on challenging students by giving them personal responsibilities—attentively listening to lectures, memorization, and one’s own reading and writing. Mathematics—numerical calculation—doesn’t become one’s own without really knowing the multiplication tables. And the more of Shakespeare you’ve memorized, the more his poetic narratives really become a part of you. It’s not that memorization is everything, but it turns out to be foundation on which “higher order” learning is built. Those who write memorable novels or music know how indebted they are to their hugely time-consuming acquisition of the disciplined craft and insight of others. They know that “critical thinking” or “problem solving” can’t be divorced from the content of who we are and what we do.

Creativity, it turns out, has to be learned or, better, always depends on a huge amount of disciplined learning. What passes for creative innovation is sloppy and fashion-driven without really knowing what there is to know about history or philosophy or music. Telling students to “be your own person” or “be creative” without being clear on what you really have to do to achieve such high possibilities is especially pernicious flattery. It’s better to tell students to do as well as you can, do the duties you’ve been given, and even “make the difference” you really can make in the place where you live.

So the Aristotelian point of this article is that intellectual virtue depends on moral virtue. It’s relevant everywhere from grade school to graduate school. It’s the only point that can justify, for example, the continued existence of residential college these days. It explains why it’s only those colleges that have real missions that aim higher than productivity or wealth and power have much of a future.

I now have to admit that I really don’t teach like this. I’ll explain why later. But for now let me say that the article is a riff on the experience of a legendary teacher of music. It turns out to be a great argument for teaching music these days. Some say that nobody much need play music anymore, because it’s so easy to be a consumer of the productions of others. All we need do is to teach kids to appreciate music. But excellent musical performance requires all the virtues that I’ve been talking up, including grace under the pressure of performance. Maybe students these days should be pushed—even shouted at—to work on making their musical potential real, just to give them a realistic assessment of what’s required to be all you can be, as well of what’s required to be really creative and innovative. It's also, of course, a realistic assessment of what you can't be.

Those who possess musical excellence are a true meritocracy of talent and virtue. So too, it just occurred to me, are those who display excellence in competitive sports. So I’m tentatively dissenting from those who say high school and even non-scholarship college sports are nothing but an expensive diversion from real education. If you want to know more, watch the teaching method—including shouting—employed by the noble philosopher-coach Eric Taylor on the classic TV series Friday Night Lights. “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.”

I actually long for the day (which comes after I die) when lots of teachers of philosophy and literature can convince their students that what you’re doing in my class requires even more discipline—the right combination of intellectual and moral virtue—than football or music.

One reason for what might be regarded as my untough, unloving, and otherwise inferior teaching method is that I both stink at and was never pushed in sports and music.

A still from the film "We Became Fragments" by Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller, part of the Global Oneness Project library.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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  • Global Oneness Project is a free library of stories—containing short documentaries, photo essays, and essays—that each contain a companion lesson plan and learning activities for students so they can expand their experience of the world.
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It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

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  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
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Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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