BGUTI Principle – This Is Important

Posted on December 4, 2011


I think the ideas described in this article: Getting hit on the head lessons

are some of the more important ones to grapple with as we discuss education today.

The basic idea that Alfie Kohn, the author of the article, describes is the BGUTI (better get used to it) principle, where we have children do things that are not beneficial to them simply because they need to be prepared for such things later in life.

This idea annoys me to no end. It is similar logic to what I observed the other day with an instructor asking his students to do what they were told simply because he wanted them to follow his orders at least once that day.

Here’s an excerpt from the article with examples of this in education:

This kind of reasoning is especially popular where curriculum is concerned.  Even if a lesson provides little intellectual benefit, students may have to suffer through it anyway because someone decided it will get them ready for what they’re going to face in the next grade.  Lilian Katz, a specialist in early childhood education, refers to this as “vertical relevance,” and she contrasts it with the horizontal kind in which students’ learning is meaningful to them at the time because it connects to some other aspect of their lives.

Vertical justifications are not confined to the primary grades, however.  Countless middle school math teachers spend their days reviewing facts and algorithms, not because this is the best way to promote understanding or spark interest, but solely because students will be expected to know this stuff when they get to high school.  Even good teachers routinely engage in bad instruction lest their kids be unprepared when more bad instruction comes their way.

In addition to forcing educators to teach too much too early, the current Tougher Standards craze has likewise emphasized a vertical rationale – in part because of its reliance on testing.  Here, too, we find that “getting them ready” is sufficient reason for doing what would otherwise be seen as unreasonable.   Child development experts are nearly unanimous in denouncing the use of standardized testing with young children.  One Iowa principal conceded that many teachers, too, consider it “insane” to subject first graders to a 4½-hour test.  However, she adds, “they need to get used to it” – an imperative that trumps all objections.  In fact, why wait until first grade?  A principal in California uses the identical phrase to justify testing kindergarteners:  “Our philosophy is, the sooner we start giving these students tests like the Stanford 9, the sooner they’ll get used to it.”

What we might call the BGUTI principle — “Better Get Used To It” – is applied to other practices, too:

*  Traditional grading has been shown to reduce quality of learning, interest in learning, and preference for challenging tasks.  But the fact that students’ efforts will be reduced to a letter or number in the future is seen as sufficient justification for giving them grades in the present.

*  The available research fails to find any benefit, either academic or attitudinal, to the practice of assigning homework to elementary school students.  Yet even educators who know this is true often fall back on the justification that homework – time-consuming, anxiety-provoking, and pointless though it may be — will help kids get used to doing homework when they’re older.  One researcher comes close to saying that the more unpleasant (and even unnecessary) the assignment, the more valuable it is by virtue of teaching children to cope with things they don’t like.

*  Setting children against one another in contests, so that one can’t succeed unless others fail, has demonstrably negative effects — on psychological health, relationships, intrinsic motivation, and achievement – for winners and losers alike.  No matter:  Young children must be made to compete because – well, you get the idea.

All of this infuriates me as none of these strategies (being told what to do, being ineffectively assessed on your abilities and constantly compared to others, etc) are not effective strategies at any level. I doubt there is anyone that enjoys being told what to do, be it at school, in a job, in a relationship, etc. and yet we consciously force it on our children so that they get used to it. That’s completely ridiculous. We don’t want them to get used to it. We want them to have the strength to challenge it. Is our ideal for our children to prepare them to be slavish drones in a poor work environment?

I want my daughter to grow up to be an independent thinker who is creative, empathetic, can communicate well, and cares about others. I don’t see how any of the strategies described above help her to develop these skills. If they’re not helping her develop these skills or other, equally positive skills, then the strategies are not good strategies and should not be used.

I don’t care about her ability to take a test, and I don’t want her to spend any time practicing taking tests. I’m sure she will have to take a few tests in her life. We all do. But I’ve failed my fair share of tests (including almost every job interview I’ve ever had) and it’s made me a better, more successful person because I had to figure out on my own had to do without the opportunity that I failed to get. If she passes those tests I hope it’s because she has a deep and holistic understanding of the material she’s working with, not because she stayed up all night memorizing a bunch of facts that she’ll forget the next day.

If this means that she is less prepared to get in to a good college (and I actually think it will make her a better candidate for a great college) then so be it. I don’t want her success and happiness in life to be contingent upon getting in to a good college. Frankly I think the ability to make your way in the world without the help of a great college may be far more valuable than a great college education, but maybe that’s just me.