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Promoting Individualism Among Young Adolescents Can Create Clash In U.S. Classroom

September 29, 2000

University Park, Pa. --- By encouraging young adolescents to assert their own individual rights and preferences, U.S. middle schools can create a daily clash of wills between students and teacher, a Penn State expert says.

"After puberty and, certainly after they have entered their teens, American young people are expected to clamor for more control over what they can do, say, wear and eat," says Dr. Gerald K. Le Tendre, associate professor of education. "This exercise in assertiveness can often run counter to adult expectations, with the result that discipline and rebellion against discipline dominate the lives of middle school teachers and students.

"In the United States, beliefs in the inherent instability of adolescents serve to aggravate classroom tensions and prevent teachers from seeing themselves as effective agents of change," he adds. "When teachers think they can do little to alter the stormy course of adolescence, they are obviously unmotivated to work with counselors or learn new discipline and classroom management techniques."

Le Tendre is the author of the book "Learning to Be Adolescent: Growing Up in U.S. and Japanese Middle Schools,"recently published by Yale University Press. His findings were based on an ethnographic study of four middle schools: two in the United States and two in Japan.

"Americans, unlike the Japanese, are uncomfortable with the idea of a group self or group will, to which the individual will must always be subordinate. As early as late elementary school, U.S. students are expected to stand up for their rights, show they have a mind of their own and display their individuality," Le Tendre says.

Even more so, middle school adolescents are expected to demonstrate maturity and responsibility in their quest for self-determination. However, in expressing a will of their own, middle school students are not supposed to be stubborn or argumentative about it. If they are, they are frequently censured or punished in the interests of maintaining classroom order, according to Le Tendre.

"The American middle school teachers that I observed spent a great deal of their teaching day attempting to exert control over their students," Le Tendre notes. "Much of their time was taken up in waiting for class to come to order, giving instructions and admonishing students to be quiet, as well as meting out detention or demerits."

While expecting students to show self-discipline, those same teachers largely avoided teaching them how to develop it, says Le Tendre.

"Instead, the teachers in my study tried to increase student motivation, sense of identity and self-esteem, but they did so largely by allowing students to exercise their will and imposing sanctions when students violated certain norms," the researcher says.

Japanese schools, no less than American, require that emerging teenagers assume responsibility for their own actions. However, Japanese students are, at first glance, much more pliable, according to Le Tendre.

Japanese middle school teachers, for example, have no qualms about leaving completely unsupervised an entire school of 1,000 young adolescents for 15 to 20 minutes, as part of the routine of student-teacher meetings at the beginning of every school day. For American teachers and administrators, this would be unthinkable and in fact is often forbidden by law, the researcher says.

"The structure of Japanese schools predisposes their teachers to do everything they can to teach students to be responsive to others, including the school at large," says Le Tendre. "However, Japanese classrooms can also tend to inhibit students. In teaching students to exercise constraint of self, Japanese middle school teachers often found themselves undermining the young adolescents' ability to choose for themselves."

"In the Japanese tradition, the will is supposed to bring selfish or asocial impulses under control and allow the individual to live in harmony with the social or natural environment, but in a modern democratic nation such control in schools may undermine the democratic process," he notes.

In comparing the U.S. and Japanese educational systems, Le Tendre sees flaws in both. "Neither system does an all around good job of giving adolescents chances to improve their skills at self-control and self-determination," he says. "Adolescents need opportunities, but with adult guidance, to practice making choices, controlling impulses and deciding when group demands conflict with individual beliefs."


Paul Blaum (814) 865-9481 (o)
Vicki Fong (814) 865-9481 (o)/ (814) 238-1221 (h)
EDITORS: Dr. Le Tendre is at (814) 863-3774 and by email.