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Teaching Violence?

by Bill Lauritzen

More School Testing--More School Violence


Probably the two major trends in American education currently are: 1) increased use of standardized testing, and 2) increased school violence. It was with a jolt that I realized that there might be a causal connection between these two. I decided it was worth investigating further

Some investigation of statistics on the Internet that assured me that both of these major trends were not illusory but real. Nowadays, almost every state has some form of standardized testing. Teachers and administrators are being held accountable for results, which in some cases may affect their pay, and even their ability to hold the job. (See Teacher June/July 2000) School violence has also gone up: One government survey (1998) of 10,000 reported that "overall crime rate" at schools is relatively stable while "violent crime" is on the rise. A Metropolitan Life Survey (1999) says that 1 in 6 teachers reported having been the victims of violence, while five years ago it was 1 in 9.

I am aware that a more complete statistical analysis could be done, however, after some consideration, I decided to take the easier step first. So I here suggest a theoretical basis for a “proposed” causal link between current educational trends and increased violence. It is my hope that this proposed theory will then stimulate myself or others to do further statistical analysis and research. I am also aware that some of what I say here has been said before, however, by giving it a theoretical foundation I greatly add, strengthen and unify.

The three reasons usually given for increased school violence are: 1) lack of parental involvement at school, 2) lack of parental supervision at home, and 3) exposure to violence in the media. Let’s add another reason. Too much abstraction. My thesis is this: The current emphasis on paper-and-pencil standardized testing causes undue emphasis in schools on abstract memorization and manipulation of words and symbols, which is unnatural to the species Homo sapiens, and which has by-products of frustration, anger, and sometimes violence.


Of course, a good way to measure the results of education would be to track a student after graduation and see if he or she is “successful.” However, lacking the money for that, there are two general ways to measure the results of education: One is called standardized testing (what I call, “which student is the best?”), and the other might be called reality testing (what I call, “what can a student do?”).

Standardized testing includes the infamous SATs, the newly famous Stanford 9, and other state and national tests that give a percentile ranking. These tests are mostly interested in comparing students. Students are ranked from 99% down to the 1%.

In the past, many educators questioned the validity of these paper-and-pencil-bubble-in-the-correct-answer-with-a-number-2-pencil tests. After all, when someone gets to a job, he is expected to do more than this. As a result, some educators began to use “reality testing.” This was also called authentic assessment, portfolio assessment, reality-based assessment, alternative assessment, oral assessment, and competency testing.

These educators were more concerned with questions like: When the students graduate what can they do? Could they build a bridge? Could they stitch up a wound? Could they fill out an income tax return? Could they write a business letter? Could they fill out an employment application? Could they make a floor plan of the building?

Just a few years ago, when I was at Adams Middle School in South Central, I was required to take a class in portfolio assessment as part of a LA Unified assignment. Now however, educators are enthusiastically embracing the antithesis: multiple-choice tests. In Glendale, kids have been carefully coached all year on how to take tests. Practice tests on content have been given weekly. By the time you read this the results will have been released, and I am sure the results will be high test scores, accolades in the local paper, people patting each other on the back, etc.

In fact, high-pressure test-prep activity is happening all over the country with even non-educators being brought in and paid big bucks to help raise a local district’s test scores. In an article in the current issue of Teacher, “It’s Come to This,” Chris Shea writes, “We are, it would seem, entering a new era of standardized-test prep, one in which educators become test coaches and vice versa.”

In order to demonstrate the inadequacy of paper-and-pencil tests, let me describe a test I have been giving to the students of the Glendale School District. (I do what I call “guerrilla testing and research.”) Of some 600 students I have queried thus far, less than 1% could correctly identify a “noun.” It seems incredible, as Glendale prides itself on having an excellent school district. (I have also given this test to students in LA Unified with similar results.)

I hold a pencil in my hand at the front of the room and ask, “Is this a noun? Raise your hand if you think this is a noun.” (It is not a trick question. The answer is either “yes” or “no.” Try answering the question yourself before reading further.)

Over 99% of them raise their hands. However, they are wrong. (Perhaps you missed this question, also.) At this point, I write the word “pencil” on the board, point to it, and say, “This is a noun!” and then I shake the narrow, wooden thing in my hand and say, “This is not a noun!” This usually leads into much further discussion in which I talk about the spoken word, “pencil,” which travels invisibly through the air at 750 mph and is also a noun. Or I walk across the front of the room and asking, “Is what I am doing a verb?” It isn’t. The students usually end by say something like, “You should be teaching our teacher.” What do we make of these results?

What would you think of someone who thought a cow was a tree? You would think that person was crazy. It is also crazy to think that the world is full of nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc. So what we have here, to a degree, is indoctrination (however unintentional) into insanity. I still remember the great relief I felt when I cleared this confusion up for myself sometime in my 20s. (Alfred Korzybski wrote about this theme in the 1930s in Science and Sanity.)

With my simple test I have yanked the student out of the paper-and-pencil world of education into the real world. I have taken the students “out of the matrix.” I do the same with other subjects. I will often ask a chemistry class if they know how much a “mole” of water is (about a third of a glass). Again about 1% can answer correctly, despite the fact that they are solving problems every day with moles and grams. I have taught mathematics as a long-term substitute many times, and, when I can, I teach my students to feel comfortable using a protractor. I have them go outside and measure the height of the tree, flagpole, or building.

Last year, after interacting with some 60 different Los Angeles schools (public, private, and adult) and some 60,000 different students in their daily activities over a 17-year period, I wrote up my observations and recommendations as a "Field Study Report," some of which is summarized here. (For those of you who are interested, it is published on my web site: www.EARTH360.com.)

Reading and ‘Rithmetic

An article in the LA Times (Oct. 18, 1998) pointed out that brain researchers have found that there is no area of the brain set aside for reading. Reading was dubbed “an unnatural act.” It uses several different parts of the brain that are normally used by other areas, in what I believe is a demonstration of the flexibility of the “software” of the brain.

A big part of one’s education is learning how to read. I ask elementary students if they could learn more from reading or looking, and they often answer “reading.” I tell them to imagine that a flying saucer landed on the White House lawn. Would they rather read about it or look at it?

However, the advantages of reading for Homo sapiens outweigh the disadvantages. Books, libraries, etc., are a compact storage system that record what the society has learned. Writing is one of the tools that societies have used in order to displace other societies (see the book Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond).

Mathematics teaching in the 90s was characterized by the “big debate.” Which is best for the student: exploring math or drilling math? Unfortunately, sometimes “exploring math” got a bad reputation because teachers who were not ready for these programs and didn’t know how to implement them taught them. However, when I taught Berkeley’s Interactive Math Program (IMP) and when certain other math teachers taught it, the results were amazing to see. Students actually became interested in math. Someday I’d like an administrator to say to me, “Forget about the curriculum and the standardized tests. Just interest these students in math!” (I am not blaming administrators. I have worked with some excellent and caring administrators. They are often under pressure from the community or the school boards to do things a certain way.)

One year, I taught mathematics at an exclusive private school in San Marino, California. The kids there, in general, are encouraged to think. These students would sometimes do a hands-on application problem, which could not even be attempted by the average public school student, in 5-10 minutes.

Unfortunately, under the current pressure to raise test scores, what many call “drill and kill math” is back in style. What I see is a boost in test scores, just like steroids can boost strength, but what about the side effects, like hating math, and never wanting to take another math class?

Education and Evolution

“Evolutionary psychology” (also called “sociobiology”) is still a new subject, still not generally taught in psychology textbooks. E. O. Wilson at Harvard, and Robert Wright are two writers that come to mind who have written books in this field. As they have attempted to merge evolution with human behavior, I am attempting to merge evolution with education (perhaps to be called pedagogic-biology?).

As I mentioned, reading and interpreting mathematical symbols are important in today’s society, but they must be balanced by looking, touching, etc. There should be a link between the tiny markings and the real things. An exceptionally good teacher attempts to link the words to pictures, events, motions, and experiences. This teacher educates for understanding rather than memorization.

A poor teacher merely requires memorization of the tiny markings in terms of other tiny markings. Learning degrades into just “getting through the class,” “getting through to graduation,” or “finishing the requirements.” This type of learning takes schools that can discipline heavily while promising “future rewards.” It takes lots of security and metal detectors, an expert police force, and plenty of prisons waiting for those who don’t behave.

This treats the student as if he or she were a recording device of some kind. “What is the date of the Battle of Gettysburg?” A machine could just as easily answer a question like this. “What is 23 times 456?” A calculator could answer this.

Billions of years of chance mutations created the complex, adaptive, biological systems which currently flourish on Earth. One branch of these systems is called Homo sapiens. It is not a machine. When you treat it like one you will get back a host of bad emotions such as boredom, hostility, anger, rage, frustration, fear, grief, and apathy. If students are not allowed to express these feelings they will lie beneath the surface, but, they will come out in the future, or in other ways, such as juvenile delinquency, tagging, rave parties, drugs, angry song lyrics, or various other forms of rebellion against the powers that dehumanize.

If you stop to think about it, it is a remarkable thing that the Homo sapiens civilization can force a young boy or girl to sit for five or more hours a day crowded together with 20-40 others, in a box-shaped structure. To make all of these youngsters focus their eyes for most of the day on tiny markings on paper is almost unbelievable. For the species Homo sapiens is not particularly adept at sitting for hours on end staring at relatively tiny markings on paper, that are about one thousandth as tall and one millionth as thick as they are. They are not even particularly adept at sitting in a chair.

Homo sapiens was chosen by the environment for its abilities in reproducing, thinking, walking, running, jumping, looking, kneeling, touching, manipulating, grasping, squatting, throwing, picking, and gathering. However, we have lost our connection to our original environment, where we gathered nuts, roots, fruits, and seeds, and scanned the horizon for predators and prey, and have been thrust, in the last 10,000 years only, a mere blink of the evolutionary eye, into a new world, completely alien to our genetic blueprint, brought on by the rise of food production and its resulting tools.

We were sculpted in a world of trees, grasses, stars, plains, animals, mountains, rivers, lakes and oceans, and we have moved rather abruptly to a world of TVs, computers, cement, office buildings, apartments, parking structures, freeways, electricity, classrooms, desks, chairs, books, and writing.

It is no wonder that we sometimes have alienated, angry school kids (who might later become mail bombers.) Perhaps these kids that rebel the most against school are simply those that follow their two-million-year-old instincts. I find that often these “at-risk” kids are extremely intelligent, but have decided they don’t want to play the game of pleasing someone else by “memorization.” All this doesn’t justify their actions, but it can help us to understand their actions and thus possibly to prevent them in the future. Of course, it’s a two way street: they need to learn to balance their instincts with the realities of living in modern civilization, while we need to re-design education so it respects these ancient instincts as much as is feasibly possible.

Current Remediation Attempts

I have to applaud all the efforts at educational remediation in California especially the purported end of “social promotion," wherein the student is passed to the next level so he can be with students of his own age. It is not easy teaching a high school class with some students reading at a third grade level.

In Glendale, there have been a great number of positive changes including rerouting traffic (a reform suggested by parents), educating students on race relations, more responsive school security, school uniforms, etc. In Long Beach, they are experimenting with single-sex classes for middle schools with some initial positive results. They also are educating students about the devastating effects of today’s modern bullets compared to the 120-year-old bullets as seen on TV Westerns.

However, let us see what other remedies, perhaps more fundamental, are suggested by our “education and evolution” theory. If the theory is correct, then implementing these remedies should reduce violence in our schools.

Remedy I: Education and Evolution Hierarchy

In physical education classes, Homo sapiens members are allowed to grasp, throw, catch, chase, and kick a ball. These actions come close to mimicking their natural ways. Some other classes (woodshop, cooking, art, metal shop, auto mechanics, etc.) also inherently allow for the use of our species natural biological structure. For example, chemistry allows the student to mix, weigh, balance, touch, smell, and look. (However, in 99% of chemistry classes I have seen, few, if any, experiments are done.)

Additional solutions are: 1) field trips, 2) organic gardens for biology, 3) more experiments for science, chemistry, and physics, 3) dramatic plays for English, 4) maps, plays, and field trips for history, and, 5) manipulatives, experiments, and real world experiences for mathematics. Having the student make clay models, draw diagrams, draw pictures, and use puppets could also help. More music and art would help. In other words, linking, grounding, seeing, hearing, and touching.

In actual fact, there is a kind of pyramid-shaped educational hierarchy. Let me explain with an example. Suppose we wanted to teach a student about the Battle of Gettysburg. The best way to do this, at the top of the pyramid, would be to fly the student to Pennsylvania, hire the world’s expert on the battle, cast several thousand actors, put them in full uniforms, and have them recreate the battle with full sound effects, etc. Meanwhile, make the student play the part of a foot soldier, a general, etc. afterwards discussing with the expert the various implications of the battle, etc. Obviously, this is costly. The next best method, further down the pyramid, might be to have the student just talk individually with the world’s foremost expert at the scene of the battle. Then, maybe just an old-fashioned field trip to the site with the whole class. Then maybe a video/movie of the battle. Then an audio lecture of the battle by an expert. Then a knowledgeable teacher with a colorful, pictorial textbook. At the base of the pyramid, we would find a poor teacher with a words-only text and a large class.

In other words, we move from a big production that involves all of our naturally selected senses, one-on-one with an expert, down through levels that use less and less energy, mass, space, and time, until we reach the extremely tiny, thin, flat, dead, ink markings on paper with a poor teacher and a large class. From a full experience of the event (in motion), down to a memorized, highly zipped, or compressed event.

One interesting thing about this hierarchy is that it generally costs more the higher you are on the pyramid. That is why we often see so many classes at the bottom. However, I have found that if one knows the hierarchy, one can more easily move up it.

New teachers should be taught this “education and evolution hierarchy” and should be encouraged to boost students up it. They should teach using all the senses, not because some people are “visual learners” and some “auditory learners” or other such nonsense, but because we are all members of the species Homo sapiens, with the natural need to use our bodies and our brain.

I don’t think the answer is to make our schools more jail-like. I see this as a temporary measure only. More metal detectors, more policemen, more fences, more locked gates, and more video cameras are all measures that don’t address the fundamental problem. These can merely suppress the problem, and the problem will find another way or another time to show its face. Perhaps the degree of abstraction present in the school is the degree to which police are needed.

Teachers who address a student as if they were a human being rather than a recording machine probably will have less violent students. Schools, classes, teachers, textbooks, and tests that allow for human touch, movement, and space, as our genes demand, probably will have less frustrated, suicidal, or violent students.

“Educating Homo sapiens” has at its foundation Darwin’s theory of species differentiation by natural selection. So this theory and method might not gain much acceptance in Kansas where the State School Board recently voted to allow schools to stop teaching evolution (thereby making themselves the laughing stock of the scientific community.)

Remedy II: Ergonomics

All our technology, including writing, can be considered tools. The answer is not to give up our tools, or attack our tools (as is advocated by the Unabomber). The answer is to make these tools as fitting to a human being as is feasibly possible, so that humans can use them with ease and even joy. This is the purpose of the field of “human factors,” also known as “ergonomics,” or “useability engineering.”

Ergonomics was born in the hectic days of WWII aviation, when it was realized that engineers didn’t always consider the “human factor” in design. It spread from the aerospace industry, to the automotive industry, and now is spreading to the computer industry, where companies are desperately trying to make computers “user-friendly.” It has not yet reached the education industry. (Like education, it also has yet to recognize Darwin’s theory of evolution as its theoretical foundation.)

The written word, like all tools, can cause strain on the human body if not used properly. That’s why we give so many breaks in school, especially in elementary school, such as recess, lunch, physical education, and sports.

I predict that in the future you will see many ergonomic flow analyses of schools, classrooms, and school roadways with subsequent redesigns to improve safety and student productivity. If we redesign so that the needs of our species, Homo sapiens, are considered, we will have much more “user-friendly” and happier schools.

Remedy III: New Testing Methods

If the results of the standardized test are going to determine the way teachers are judged on their job, then most of them will “teach to the test,” and to hell with anything else. So we need to de-emphasize standardized tests.

Also, the tests could be made “friendlier” by the use of computers. Videos and pictures can be used, as well what I call “computer-branching tests.” In this type of test, if one misses a problem the computer automatically gives him a problem at an easier level, or if one gets a problem correct, it gives him a problem at a higher level. Instead of taking several days a standardized test could be done in an hour or two.


Note that nowhere in this article do I suggest a soft, permissive environment. Education should always be rigorous and challenging. Also, I see nothing wrong with the business metaphors that have sprung up in education. Educators are in the business of education whether they know it or not. Accountability, costs, efficiency, products, and raw materials are important in education. However, let’s include in the costs the number dead and wounded.

The weight of scientific evidence suggests that our species, Homo sapiens, evolved from single-celled organisms, to more complex organisms, over billions of years. Perhaps only in the last 50,000 years have we had to deal with speech, and in the last 10,000 years with writing. I suggest that the way to educate is not to force students to sit squirming in a seat, staring at tiny markings and memorizing them for a test. The way to educate is to do what I call “link the ink,” and “ground the sound.” Link those tiny markings to the real thing (in motion whenever possible), or at least link them to pictures and models. Also, link the speech sounds to real things.

There are those teachers who have learned through trial and error how to do this. I see their classrooms, in isolated pockets, throughout Southern California. They should be rewarded. However, if we continue to force accountability upon administrators, teachers, and students through standardized testing, this real-world teaching will lesson, abstract memorization will increase, and I believe violence will rise. Simply put, stick a human’s nose in book and he or she will get angry.

Through the use of spoken language, audio, video, computers, hands-on interaction, and other creative means, we must work together to somehow bring that book to life for the student. Perhaps coincidentally, the recent stabbing death in Glendale happened the day after our three days of standardized testing. Then again, perhaps it wasn’t coincidental.