Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Is Laziness Just a Myth?"

I am now reading a book by Dr. Mel Levine, and I must admit that my mind is not completely open. The name of the book is The Myth of Laziness, and it argues that no one is truly lazy. After all my years of teaching, I find that argument very hard to buy.

I'm only about half-way through the book, but my skepticism has not been eased. Dr. Levine argues that every child yearns to be productive, and if they're not, it's because they are suffering from "output failure," which he says can be caused by various neurodevelopmental disfunctions. Wow, is that a mouthful! One of those specific neurodevelopmental disfunctions is "low mental energy." To tell the truth, that sounds an awful lot like laziness to me.

I had thought about buying this book for a couple of years because one of my strongest beliefs is that effort is the greatest determinant of a student's performance in school. The lack of effort of some kids always amazes me, and I had usually viewed that lack of effort as laziness. Dr. Levine is telling me that there is no such thing.

Dr. Levine seems oblivious to the efforts schools have been making to identify and accommodate children with learning disabilities, and his treatment of schools and teachers ranges from condescending to insulting. He is not afraid to blast a school based strictly on what he is told by parents. In one case, he describes a boy he calls Clint who is a terrible speller and is unable to remember things that he has learned. The boy had been adopted by parents who seemed to have high expectations for him, and who also had a biological daughter who was a very good student. Levine gives no indication that he ever had any contact with the school, which is hundreds of miles away from his medical center, but he tells us as fact that the boy's teachers "had convinced him that laziness was his moral crime in school." Never fear, though, because it's Dr. Levine to the rescue. He also tells us, "Our center had found him innocent."

It seems to me that this child's learning problems would quickly become apparent, so I can't imagine that teachers would jump to the conclusion that he was lazy. Reading between the lines of this case led me to suspect that the laziness charge might actually have been leveled by the parents who wanted the boy to do better academically. Levine tells us that the boy expressed concern that his parents would regret having adopting him. But, let's face it, it's much more prudent for the good doctor to criticize a bunch of people who work at a school hundreds of miles away than it would be to criticize the parents who are paying his bills.

Of course, Levine has the luxury of working with his clients one on one, while teachers work with 25 or 30 kids at a time, and he is not adverse to preaching to those of us in the trenches from his ivory tower. My favorite example of this is in a paragraph that he begins by telling about a girl who would frequently ask her teachers if she could leave the room to go to the bathroom despite not really having to go. He concludes the paragraph by saying, "Isn't it odd that kids get criticized for being fidgety when they should be commended for implementing a strategy that significantly elevates their attention." Gee, why have I never looked at it that way?

I really believe that the setting in which Levine works with kids prevents him from seeing an unpleasant reality--some kids are lazy. He does a marvelous job explaining why learning can be painfully difficult for some kids, but every year I see some kids work hard despite that. In my experience, I've seen kids who will try hard in almost any situation, and others who won't. This summer I am working in our high school weight room for five hours a day. Dr. Levine does a great job telling us why it is so hard for some kids to write essays and spell words correctly, but I wonder if he could explain why it is that the kids who are the most consistent at coming in to do their workouts are also the kids who most consistently did their school work during the school year, and why the kids who are the least consistent at coming in for their workouts are the same kids who were the least consistent at turning in their math, English, and history assignments. My answer would be that some kids have a better work ethic than others. Some kids make the decision to do the work, and some make the decision not to do it. Dr. Levine makes it sound as if their is no personal choice involved in these actions at all.

It might surprise you to know that I actually think that this is a good book for educators to read. It can be damaging to label someone with legitimate learning problems as lazy, and Levine clearly makes this point. His explanations of how the brain works are interesting and valuable, and the book is loaded with ideas for helping kids with various learning problems. I also think that most teachers have enough experience and common sense to take what Levine says with a grain of salt.

On the other hand, I shudder at the thought of parents reading this book, and I'm afraid that, overall, it does more harm than good. There are a lot of frustrated parents of students who perform poorly, some because they have learning problems, but very often, laziness is a factor. Many of these parents will see Levine's message that nobody is lazy as gospel truth, and they will latch onto it like a drowning man reaching for a life preserver. I have no doubt that this will end up providing excuses for a lot of students who could perform better if they ever decided to try.

In the book that I wrote, I described a student who was diagnosed as being ADHD. The girl was doing very poorly in her classes, so we had a meeting with her parents. I had her in class, and she didn't do one reading assignment during an entire marking period before the meeting. That's about twenty-five reading assignments and, to top it off, the parents insisted that this girl was a speed-reader. Every teacher at this meeting was convinced that a big part of this girl's problem was that she was very lazy, but her parents insisted she was not. They were adamant on this point because, they told us, the doctor who had diagnosed the girl had emphasized to them that she wasn't lazy. I'm sure Dr. Levine would have agreed with that assessment.

The parents of the student in this case were responsible people, and I don't doubt that this girl was legitimately diagnosed with ADHD. But I also have no doubt that she was lazy. The doctor may have seen her for an appointment or two, but the other teachers and I saw her day after day for nearly a year. I'm willing to concede that her medical condition could have caused her to miss some of those reading assignments. But all twenty-five? She also never took notes. Did her condition make it impossible for her to do that? Every day? I don't think so. I believe this fairly bright girl used her disability--and her parents concern about it--as an excuse to do nothing. Once she had the authoritative word of a doctor that she wasn’t lazy, she had it made in the shade. The only problem was that the person who ended up being hurt the most by this was not the doctor, or any of the teachers, or either of the parents--it was the girl, herself.

I know it's not easy to be growing up today. There are some problems for young people today that weren't nearly as prevalent in the past, and there are some problems today that didn't used to exist at all. Nevertheless, I think one of the biggest problems we have in public education is that we make too many excuses for kids. Dr. Mel Levine seems to think we don't make enough. If he was put in charge of education policy in America, he would probably replace "No Child Left Behind" with "No Excuse Left Behind."

Well, I hope I've made my point. I'm going to have to be getting back to the weight room tonight, and I've got just enough time to either mow the lawn or take a nap. I think I'll opt for taking the nap. My wife probably won't be very happy about that when she gets home and sees the lawn never got mowed, but what the heck--I'll just explain to her that I had a little output failure. I'm sure she'll understand.

11 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Dennis, Liz here from I Speak of Dreams.

I think both you and Levine make some really good points. There are students with LDs who have given up--which looks a lot like laziness, instead of hopeless resignation.

I don't agree that schools uniformly are doing a good job with students with learning disabilities. Yes, efforts have been made, and some schools do a great job on identifying and remediating and accomodating LDs....but it is not every school and every classroom. For example, in my home district, they are still using Reading Recovery for non-readers, despite its' shortcomings. The lead literacy person has refused to attend any of the presentations by Lindamood Bell or Susan Barton, saying that my home district's (spotty, disorganized) method of teaching phonics is superior. So they send on kids who are weak readers (with LDs or not) and wonder why the kids lose heart in 5th grade and above.

You are clearly involved with athletics -- it's like this. Telling a kid to "try harder" in athletics is useless, unless the kid has a pretty good idea where to direct his or her efforts.

I'd recommend Levine's Educational Care over "The Myth of Laziness". You can order the second edition here:

http://tinyurl.com/posrt

To me, the advantage to Levine's approach is how thinly he slices educational challenges--avoiding the label (for example) of "dyslexia" in favor of phonemic awareness, memory deficits, sound-symbol correlations, and visual memory (for word shapes and proper vs. improper spellings, as examples.)

You might also want to read these two essays from SchwabLearning, on learning disabilities and anxiety:

http://tinyurl.com/m4t3b

small quote:
"Early in the elementary years the stress really rises for children with learning disabilities. And developmentally they don’t have a whole lot of coping skills, so they have very limited means of dealing with the stress. Typically, parents don’t suspect a learning disability yet, so they think the child just isn’t trying hard enough.

The children themselves can’t tolerate the fact that they can’t do something that they think they should be able to do. They know they saw it done in class that day where it was discussed at length. If they’re older they maybe took a note or two, but they can’t read their notes very well. They can’t take the information from school to home and duplicate it. As soon as the external structure of the teacher’s words leave, the child can’t retain that structure, and it just crumbles."

How Parents Can Help Children Who Are Anxious

http://tinyurl.com/n2t5a

I enjoy your blog, by the way.

7/19/2006 2:10 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Thank you for your comment, Liz, and I'm really glad you enjoy my blog. You are right! I should be careful about generalizing. It's just as inaccurate for me to imply that all schools are doing something well as it is for critics of schools to imply that we are all doing something poorly. I stand corrected.

I read some more of The Myth of Laziness today, and I decided that I was probably a little too hard on Dr. Levine. I still disagree with him on his point that students are NEVER lazy, though. In fact, a lot of teenagers think it's perfectly okay to be lazy; their big fear is that people will think they are "dumb." For example, I don't know how many times I've heard kids boast that they didn't study for a test.

I guess some of this all depends on how exactly one defines "lazy." I see it as a choice not to do something you are capable of doing that know you should do. Levine says some kids aren't capable of doing certain things, and then I would agree with him. Those kids aren't lazy. But in some other cases he basically explains that kids had reasons not to do something. I would call that laziness.

In any case, I really appreciate your comment. I need someone to keep me on the straight and narrow!

7/19/2006 7:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your are Nice. And so is your site! Maybe you need some more pictures. Will return in the near future.
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7/20/2006 6:31 AM  
Anonymous MellowOut said...

Don't forget about the fear of appearing "smart", either. I've seen many students and a few family members (teens) who act dumb in order to avoid being labeled a "geek" or worse. The message of popular culture, for boys especially, is that it's okay, if not the norm, to be a complete idiot with no regard for personal safety or responsibility.

And I don't think you need any more pictures on your site.

7/21/2006 12:00 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Great point, Mellowout! I've seen reports on TV that in some communities, Latino and African-American kids who try to do well in school are accused of being "white." Not good!

And thanks for your vote of confidence on my lack of pictures. Liz got my attention, so I might try to throw some in once in awhile, but I promise I won't go overboard.

7/21/2006 1:35 PM  
Anonymous Laura said...

I agree that Levine's assessment of "optout failure" is too close to laziness for my comfort. However, I believe there have to be factors that influence this. I related it more to a lesson learned in 3rd grade economy: opportunity costs.

The students would prefer to go socialize and try and catch people in the hall on the way to the bathroom than have to sit in class. It is easier to just quit than to keep learning a tough subject. They have more experience failing, and they are not the risk-taking type, don't want to put themselves out on a limb and risk looking weak.

I suspect for some of my puzzling lazies, that time where they sit and stair at their desks doing not one blessed thing may be the only time during that day that they will GET to not do a blessed thing. I suspect that gives them a small sense of power, just like choosing not to mow the lawn gives me a small sense of control!

Is there laziness? Of course. Are there reasons for it? Probably so.

7/23/2006 8:41 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Hi Laura! I'm going to do another post on Levine's book this week, because after I read the second half, I changed my mind about it. Nevertheless, I agree with everything you say. My dictionary defines lazy as "disliking activity or exertion." I think that could be paraphrased by saying, "someone doesn't feel like doing something." Towards the end of the book, Levine talks about inner qualities of people such as lacking motivation and lacking initiative. Most of us associate those things with being lazy. As you say, there may be reasons for it, but it's still lazy.

7/23/2006 8:56 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

To Laura and Liz: Speaking of lazy, I finally got off my butt and added your sites to my blog list. (Well, actually I was on my butt when I did it, but you know what I mean.) Now I can check you out more consistently.

7/23/2006 9:05 AM  
Anonymous kate q said...

Refusing to do what someone else has decided you should do...that's laziness?

I suspect that if you followed one of your lazy kids around on his own time (assuming he has any), you'd find that he puts enormous effort into things he thinks are important.

I know that I'll spend days getting a little detail right on a project I'm doing, but in school I couldn't be bothered to rewrite a paper (yet AGAIN) that hadn't been my idea in the first place.

Things would be so much easier for institutions if people were all the same, and all obedient. But if Thomas Edison had been subject to our current schools and their associated laws (and drugs, and counselling, and special programs), would we even have electric lights?

Sure, it's supposed to be 'for his own good.' But that's an awfully tenuous assertion, and an incredibly long time frame, especially when you consider how much slower time passes when you're young. Not to mention the dictatorial chutzpah.

What if you saw the student as a customer, rather than as a captive? Tried to develop his actual potential, rather than make him fit your program? I know, the way schools are set up now that isn't possible. Sad.

Rather than accusing a student of being lazy, you might as well accuse a teacher of being bossy.

How much potential are we destroying by insisting that kids do what the schools say? Teachers as a group (no matter how well-intentioned) are not the best and brightest. Some of their students of course are...and so many of them will never know it.

Well, at least we're turning out legions of more-or-less tame factory workers. Too bad so many factories are moving to India.

There are students without LD who have given up in hopeless resignation.

7/23/2006 4:27 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Kate Q., I don't know about your school, but ours has turned out doctors, lawyers, biological engineers, computer programmers, web developers, nurses, teachers, mechanics, and you're right--some factory workers. But they were usually the lazy ones.

7/24/2006 7:39 PM  
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