Eight Reasons the Challenging Classroom Pays Off

Academic institutions are often defined by the extent of their rigorous curriculum. In many ways, it is what sets schools apart. Rigor is the key to learning. However, it is one of many things that promotes good teaching and learning. A departmental colleague of mine shared this WSJ piece:

In this thoughtful Wall Street Journal article, Joanne Lipman remembers Mr. Kupchynsky, her tough-to-the-point-of-abusive orchestra teacher at East Brunswick High School in the 1960s. Mr. K, as students knew him, would call students “idiots” if they messed up and shout “Who eez deaf in first violins!?” if someone played out of tune. “He made us rehearse until our fingers almost bled,” she says.

But when Kupchynsky died a few years ago, there was an outpouring of love and respect from hundreds of former students who had gone on to success in a variety of fields. “Research tells us that there is a positive correlation between music education and academic achievement,” says Lipman. “But that alone didn’t explain the belated surge of gratitude for a teacher who basically tortured us through adolescence.”
Lipman’s question: “What did Mr. K do right? 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?” Stressing that she doesn’t support abuse (“I’d be the first to complain if a teacher called my kids names”), she lists the following:

• A little pain is good for you. The much-quoted study by psychologist Anders Ericsson showing that 10,000 hours of practice is needed to attain true expertise also found that the path to proficiency requires “constructive, even painful, feedback.” High-performing violinists, surgeons, computer programmers, and chess masters “deliberately picked unsentimental coaches who would challenge them and drive them to higher levels of performance.” [See Marshall Memo 192 #3 for a related article.]

• Memorization pays off. Fluency in basic math facts is the foundation of higher achievement, but many American students aren’t learning their times tables and basic math facts. Lipman says one reason Asian students do so much better in math is the hours of drill in their schools.

• Failure is part of the learning process. In a 2012 study, French sixth graders were given extremely challenging anagram problems. One group was told that failure and persistence were a normal part of the learning process, and this group consistently outperformed their peers on subsequent assignments. Lipman says American parents and educators worry too much about failure being psychologically damaging and haven’t given children the right messages about failure being intrinsic to the learning process.

• Strictness works. A study of Los Angeles teachers whose students did exceptionally well found that they combined strictness with high expectations. Their core belief was, “Every student in my room is underperforming based on their potential, and it’s my job to do something about it – and I can do something about it.” A fourth grader summed it up: “When I was in first grade and second grade and third grade, when I cried my teacher coddled me. When I go to Mrs. T’s room, she told me to suck it up and get to work. I think she’s right. I need to work harder.”

• Creativity is not spontaneous combustion. “Most creative geniuses work ferociously hard and, through a series of incremental steps, achieve things that appear (to the outside world) like epiphanies and breakthroughs,” says Lipman. Creativity is built on a foundation of hard work on the basics.
• Grit is more important than talent. Angela Duckworth’s study of 2,800 high achievers found that the best predictor of success is passion and perseverance for long-term goals, not innate talent. Another key element of grit is students’ belief that they have the ability to change and improve, and this can be inculcated by teachers who share that belief.

• Praise must be strategic. As Stanford professor Carol Dweck has found, complimenting students for being “smart” has negative consequences, whereas praising a student for being a “hard worker” leads to greater effort and success.

• Moderate stress makes you stronger. Researchers have found that being exposed to challenges – including “a hardass kind of teacher” – builds resilience and confidence. What’s going on here? Lipman believes it’s that students are picking up an underlying faith in their ability to do better. Thinking back to Mr. K’s super-tough approach to his orchestra, she says, “There is something to be said about a teacher who is demanding and tough not because he thinks students will never learn but because he is so absolutely certain that they will.”

“Why Tough Teachers Get Good Results” by Joanne Lipman in The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 27, 2013,

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4 thoughts on “Eight Reasons the Challenging Classroom Pays Off

  1. WHATUP CARSON!? Basically I got bored in one of my writing classes and decided to look at your blog and I came across this one. Honestly, I fully agree with everything and it made me think of both of your classes that I took. I feel like I got so much more out of AP Euro than any other class even though I didn’t get the highest grade in the class. Why? Because I was challenged in ways that I didn’t even think were possible for me. Yes, for me your class (well both APUSH and Euro) were stressful, even painful at times for me, however that stress and pain only made me want to work harder. Also after papers or DBQs we would turn in, you would tell us that we worked hard and you could see that. Most students would want to be praised and hear, “you’re so smart” or something along the lines of that, but I feel like when students hear those types of things, they get too comfortable in their work ethic. However, when you said that I worked hard, it motivated me to work harder and harder. You’re a tough teacher no doubt, but your teaching methods helped me to mature a lot academically.

    • You are such a great student. You met my expectations and always brought so much to every class. Look at what you are doing now. I feel like a success looking at you, my student and friend.

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