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Change That Doesn’t Last

Yesterday morning I heard a story on NPR’s Morning Edition about attempts to use cognitive behavioral therapy to reduce teen crime. It was an interesting story in several respects, but I want to focus on one of its minor themes.

Here’s the heart of the story:

The solution to the problem, Ludwig, Pollack and their colleagues surmised, might lie in getting kids to slow down and think about their actions. The researchers conducted a randomized controlled experiment to test their hypothesis. They had about 1,400 school kids in grades seven to 10, drawn from high-crime areas of Chicago, undergo a 30-week training course called Becoming a Man. A similar group of students, also chosen at random, was tracked, but did not go through the course. At the end of the year, Ludwig said, researchers found 44 percent fewer arrests among the students who had been through the course.

But here’s the part I want to emphasize:

Unfortunately, within a year after the program ended, its effect seemed to fade. Teens in the group who had gone through the training went back to having the same arrest rates as kids who hadn’t gone through the program. Ludwig says the researchers are still exploring how to help young people retain the powerful benefits of this sort of psychological training, as part of a range of efforts in Chicago to stem homicide.

I want to emphasize this because it marks a problem that most teachers are familiar with: students’ general inability to retain what they’ve learned in the classes and transfer that learning to other situations. James M. Lang wrote about this a while back in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

For two years I taught in a special program in which the same cohort of students took two consecutive courses with me: freshman composition in the fall and introduction to literature in the spring. In the composition courses, I worked hard to help students move beyond the standard strategies they had learned in high school for writing introductory paragraphs: Start with a broad statement about life (“Since the beginning of time, people have been fighting wars …”) and narrow down to a specific topic.

In both years that I taught the two-course sequence, I was startled to see many students come back from winter break and—on their very first papers in the spring class—revert directly back to those tired strategies that I had worked so hard to help them unlearn in the fall.

One such student came into my office early in the spring semester to show me a draft of her paper, and it included a lame reverse-pyramid (i.e., general to specific) introduction. “You have to rewrite your introduction,” I said to her. “Why aren’t you using any of the introductory paragraph strategies we worked on last semester?”

She looked up at me in genuine puzzlement: “You mean that the stuff we learned last semester applies in this course, too?”

Because students compartmentalize in this way, faculty members in other disciplines often come up to those of us who teach English writing to complain that we haven’t taught students the basics of research, organization, grammar, and style. When we say that we do indeed teach all those skills, and that the very students who are so manifestly incompetent in their classes were once competent in ours, we’re greeted with disbelief. But it’s true. Students forget what they’ve learned — often.

But here’s the thing: when college students forget what they learned about writing in their freshman comp class, or when Chicago teenagers forget what they learned about nonviolent options in their group therapy sessions, they don’t do nothing: instead, they do something that they learned to do at an earlier point, something that they fall back on as natural. So, for example, college students frequently set aside everything they learned in their freshman-year composition class and resume the way they were taught to write in high school.

Now, this is not all just a matter of age and mental development. One reason high-school models of writing stick with students is that that tend to be inflexible and highly rule-based, and so are relatively easy to follow. But still all these examples raise for me a key question: when and how do young people form those strong and lasting habits — the ones that prove so difficult to dislodge later on?

Nobody is ever too old to learn, and I feel that I have had a good deal of success over the years in teaching my students new habits, but by the time people reach their nineteenth year they are remarkably, and often alarmingly, fully-formed in their mental approach to the world. So who are the teachers, and what are the social and familial and cultural forces, that are getting to young people at the age of maximal impressionability? And what might that age be for the various skills and tendencies that we want young people to form — or not to form?

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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