If school comes easy, find a bigger challenge

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Near the end of the school year, one of my freshmen (I’ll call her Meg) complained to me about our school’s grading system.

“Why does homework have to be 20% of my grade? If I can get As on tests without doing assignments, why does homework count against me?”

We had a little post-AP test downtime that day, so I told Meg my opinion. It’s great that you learn everything so easily without practice, I said, but what happens when you don’t?

She looked puzzled, so I explained that nearly everyone hits a wall eventually. It might not be until college, or grad school, or a job, but she will probably run into something she can’t just master without effort. Then what?

Many bright students assume they will go on learning easily forever, and most are wrong — one reason more than half of our “gifted” students never graduate from college. When they finally do encounter a challenge, they don’t know how to overcome it, and they give up.

That’s why learning how to learn – the study habits and routines that average students have to master to survive high school – is important. That’s why we do want students to take notes, write summaries, formulate questions – and we count it as part of their grade.

Meg seemed to accept that explanation, even if she didn’t like it, but I wasn’t done.

“Why are you taking classes you can ace without trying?” I asked her. “Why don’t you challenge yourself more? That’s the real question.”

She shrugged her shoulders. She was taking a pretty rigorous schedule, including AP Macro, so she was good. She was already on the path toward four-year college. It didn’t occur to her that she could be doing more.

Unfortunately, that’s typical. Most kids, even bright ones, prefer classes that they can ace without much effort. Better to get all As (and complain about pointless homework) than try something that really stretches you. How great it is to feel smart every day?

The older you get without the challenge, though, the scarier it becomes, and the more anxiety your first B or C (or D or F) will provoke.

If AP Macro is too easy for Meg, then maybe she should be taking econometrics or financial modeling on Coursera or EdX. If that’s not what interests her, she could find a class on Shakespeare or constitutional law. Or she could teach herself another language and find an online community of native speakers.

When I told her this, she looked at me like I was crazy. Who does that? A few days later, though, she came back and asked me for suggestions. Where could she find something challenging to do during the summer? Did I know of any websites?

I do, and I hope she follows up on them. I don’t want to see students overloading themselves or burning themselves out – we see plenty of that, too — but I wish we could get every student to push themselves in just one area. Especially students like Meg, who have coasted for a long time.

You learn something important from deeply struggling with a math problem or writing prompt or coding challenge or French translation, and it’s something you can’t learn from effortlessly acing tests and looking “school smart.”

We can help — and we need to — by talking to kids more about the value of overcoming a challenge and less about the value of an A on a high school transcript.

Next year, I think that will be the first question I ask any student who wants a college recommendation letter from me: What have you done that really challenged you? When have you hit a wall you didn’t think you could overcome?

If they haven’t, then it’s time to find one.

So I was a little busy…

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I try to post to this blog once a week, but sometimes I fall behind. Like the last three weeks. What happened?

It’s not that I didn’t want to write, and it’s definitely not that I’d run out of things to say. I have opinions about nearly everything, and I’m constantly filing away ideas during the day. Here’s a few from my current list:

Overheard conversation about ‘best’ schools

Z’s comment on form v. content

EdWeek worst PD list

Conversation with V about challenging yourself

Wrapping up school year

The easy explanation is “I was too busy,” but that’s a lame excuse. Would you accept that from a student who missed an assignment? No way.

I was busy. I took a team to the National Economics Challenge. I staged an International Economic Summit event at school. I had to finish up late work and finals before I left to grade AP tests in Cincinnati for a week.

But it’s not busy-ness that kept me from writing — it’s my priorities.

I had 24 hours in every day, 168 hours in each week, same as always, and I chose to spend my time other ways. I spent it writing a curriculum for training teachers in Lean Startup methodology. I spent it re-organizing the Summit materials so we could cram a day-long activity into four hours. I also spent it doing physical therapy for my shoulder, and I spent it relaxing over Memorial Day weekend and reading a book.

This is something we inherently understand about ourselves, that some things are just more important to do than others, and sometimes our work has to wait. But we have a hard time, as teachers, extending that same grace to our students.

When they don’t finish assignments or come in to make up work, we assume it’s laziness or some other character flaw. What other priorities could they possibly have, we wonder. What could be more important than learning economics or history or just passing my class?

Sometimes kids are lazy or defiant or burned out on school, but often teenagers today are juggling just as much as we are. They have after-school jobs and activities, sports injuries, family responsibilities, suffering friends, chronic medical conditions, and work for every other class. Some are living on their own and paying bills, and some don’t know where their next meal will come from.

I’m not suggesting we free them from deadlines — that would be a logistical nightmare, and we do need to teach them about real-world deadlines — but I do think we need to talk more often with them about priorities and how much control they can have over their lives.

We need to help them think about short-run vs. long-run goals, about the opportunity costs of the choices they make (yes, economics!), and about the fact that they have choices. And we need to help them understand that we feel their pain; we are in the same boat; we sometimes fall behind too.

We don’t need a special class or program to do this. We need to have these conversations when they occur naturally, when students aren’t doing their work and we need to get them back on track. Rather than lecturing them on responsibilities, we need to talk with them honestly about priorities — and the effort it takes to change them. 

And now that this crazy school year is over, I’ll get back to making writing a priority.

A cynical take on the value of school

canstockphoto40542858Last week, a Slate.com article on a new technology to track mental engagement (Pay Attention!) raised the issue of boredom in school, quoting this stat: “82 percent of U.S. high school students report being sometimes or often bored in class.”

Like me, the writer Mary Mann (also the author of Yawn: Adventures in Boredom) clearly finds this disturbing. So does the researcher, Dr. Hasan Ayaz, who is using spectroscopy to identify and prevent student boredom at the neurological level.

The commenters on the article… not so much. Here’s what they had to say:

“So?”

“Learning to handle boredom is an invaluable skill.”

“I couldn’t agree more. In fact, it’s one reason I think public school is useful: kids learn to navigate boredom.”

Wow, that is depressing. Here’s another one:

“School is boring for the most part, that’s just the way it is.”

The conversation also touched on what’s important to learn in school, what’s not important, who’s responsible for boring curriculum and other issues, but the general consensus was: Who cares if school is boring? Work isn’t fun, and life isn’t fun. They might as well find out early.

When people bash on the very idea that learning could be engaging, it makes me sad for them. What kind of education did they have that left them so cynical? Why was it so removed from anything that mattered to them?

Work can be fun. Or at least it can be interesting and engaging and better than just reading social media and watching reality TV, which would leave me feeling brain-dead and exhausted. Meaningful work can give you a sense of purpose. Same with school.

We need to start there — and fight the idea that school is merely training for a monotonous life.

 

What do ‘experts’ have to offer us?

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For the past few weeks, I’ve been going to physical therapy to deal with rotator cuff tendinitis in my right shoulder. At my intake appointment, I learned that I brought this problem on myself by doing what I thought was “the right thing.”

For years, I thought I was helping my shoulders and preventing future problems (like stooping) by making myself do shoulder presses at the gym — but it turns out I was actually messing up my shoulders and upper back.

By stupidly following a “common-sense” regimen without expert advice, I made matters worse. Now, I have to work extra hard every day to fix it.

You might wonder: What does this have to do with teaching?

Too much, unfortunately. Every day, we use and promote learning strategies that seem effective, seem like common sense, and when they don’t work, we do more of the same rather than seek expert guidance on what to do differently.

For example, telling students to re-read the textbook. Re-reading is the number one study strategy most kids bring to college, but repeated research has shown it to be pointless. That’s right — reading a textbook once is useful, but the second go-round adds no value.

I know… research shme-search — many of us don’t want to hear it. It’s so far removed from the classroom — from my classroom — and what do those “experts” know about teaching and learning anyway?

But relying on common sense isn’t so great either, as I learned from my shoulder. Sometimes, experts know something we need to learn.

If we take time to read current studies (and make sure they’re legit, not just self-promotion by curriculum companies), we can actually figure out how to do our jobs better.

For example, a Hong Kong study that compared problem-based learning to lecture in a middle school science class. Although students learned equally well in the short term with both methods, the long-term retention was a different story. The PBL group showed a 162% improvement in pre/post-test scores, compared to 35% for the traditional class.

If this is true, and I think it is, don’t you want to know about it?

I thought I knew what I was doing at the gym, and I was wrong. I actually injured myself. What parts of my classroom practice are also wrong — or at least not as sharp as they could be? And am I willing to change them? I hope so.

If it’s interesting, they’ll listen

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Which high school subject is most interesting to students?

  • Economics
  • Pre-calculus
  • Physics
  • English
  • History

The answer: None of the above.

No subject is inherently the most interesting; what students find interesting depends on how we teach the material.

I was reminded of this twice in the past week, thanks to my AP Psych students.

First, I read their semester experiment posters. One of my groups this year tested “boring” v. “engaging” instruction by teaching a brief lesson on the Bay of Pigs to two junior/senior English classes.

In one class, they used “enunciation, energy and movement”; in the other they read the information slowly off of their phones.

They found that not only were students in the monotone class less likely to remember the material — scoring an average of 4/10 on the quiz compared to almost 7/10 for the better class — many were unwilling to engage at all.

“The class with the good presentation took us seriously and showed us more respect,” the students concluded. “The other class didn’t even care.”

Sound familiar?

Second, I watched several hours worth of students’ video presentations on various psych disorders, like schizophrenia and generalized anxiety disorder. Almost every group did a solid job researching the symptoms, history, epidemiology, etiology and treatment of their assigned disorder, but some of the videos were so monotonous that I found myself checking email and doing shoulder exercises to distract myself. It was just too hard to sit still and listen.

Some groups, though, managed to put together swift, concise and really engaging videos, with a storyline and vivid examples to illustrate the symptoms of their assigned disorder. They were clearly enjoying themselves, and as a result, so did I.

I’m sure the students watching them noticed the difference.

Any subject can be fascinating, if it’s presented the right way — with choice details, a human interest story, a bit of suspense, and some activity on the learner’s part. Any subject can also be boring, if we strip it of life, as we too often do in our haste to “get through everything.”

I know every subject on the list above can be interesting (even if econ is my favorite). Unfortunately, our students will label them all “boring” if they have one bad experience. If we want our students to stay engaged, we can’t afford to let that happen.

What I wish I knew starting out

cropped-class-hand2.jpgThis weekend, I was asked: What do you wish you had known when you first started teaching economics?

Although there are plenty of economics concepts I wish I’d understood better back in 2002, like the relationship between bonds and interest rates, how to calculate terms of trade, what a liquidity trap is (I told kids it wasn’t a real thing!) and how to explain a monopoly graph, most of my responses were more about teaching strategies than content.

What do I wish I knew 20 years ago, when I was really new at this?

  • That you don’t have to have all the right answers. It’s so embarrassing as a new teacher when a student stumps you. But who among us knows everything? Just say, “I haven’t considered that. Let’s figure it out together.” Trusting students to be partners in learning is empowering to them, and it doesn’t have to make us nervous. (Now, I just ask someone to look it up in class.)
  • That you do need to figure out how to explain the wrong answers. How many times did I cling to my highlighted AP answer key, uncertain why some of the responses were wrong but ready to provide the right answer? It doesn’t help students to say, “C is right.” You do have to be able to help them to understand why A is wrong, or you’ll never get anywhere.
  • That understanding how students think about a problem is a prerequisite to helping them. We often assume we know why a student got a question wrong – not studying, forgetting a principle, confusing a vocabulary term. But sometimes they actually do everything right, and their logic leads them down the wrong path. Reiterating definitions to them will not help.
  • That students learn more from doing, experiencing and discussing than they do from listening. Students forget most of what we tell them. We need to give them a chance to work with concepts, build models, manipulate ideas, use terms in a meaningful context. That’s what makes learning sticky.
  • That we have to actively break students’ reliance on memorization, or they’ll rely on it for everything. We teach students to memorize everything from a young age, but memorization doesn’t work very well when you’re faced with challenging questions. On my last test, 70% of my students picked “recessionary gap” to describe a situation where an economy is operating above full employment, because it looked like a similar problem (about an inflationary gap) on their homework. They weren’t reasoning – they were trying to remember – and that strategy failed them.
  • That students are capable of a lot more than they let on. They’ll tell you they can’t do it even when they can. We need to be the ones who see a student’s potential, cultivate it, and help them see it too. I’ll never forget a brilliant young man telling me his older brother had once advised him, “Don’t let them see how smart you are, or they’ll just expect more!” We’ve got to break that pattern.

I don’t know if it’s possible to share advice like this with new teachers — or if everyone just has to figure it out for themselves — but it’s worth a try.

 

What makes history stick

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When I was in high school, I found history pretty dull. We spent a lot of time listening to lectures, watching filmstrips, taking notes, and regurgitating facts onto tests.

Only a small fraction of our time was spent debating historical questions (should we have dropped the bomb?) or participating in simulations (like a constitutional convention) — and even less reading about topics of interest to us.

These are common complaints, I know, but it’s too bad. History can be fascinating, if we would get out of the way and stop insisting that what interests teachers (or textbook writers) must be what matters to everyone.

This weekend I was able to visit the Museum of the City of New York, and it made me think about how we can make history more engaging to kids — and what the barriers are. The biggest challenge is our reliance on multiple-choice testing, which forces us to focus on the trees instead of the forest.

Continue reading “What makes history stick”

Show kids the possibilities

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Silver Falls State Park, the site of the wedding

Last weekend, I went to a former student’s wedding in Oregon. In high school, she was a journalism kid, a writer who was always interested in other people, especially the underdogs.

She wrote a particularly compelling editorial — after a school shooting in rural Minnesota — about the students at our school who survived on the fringes, who felt ignored and angry. It was powerful and upsetting to many, and it was really important to her.

I thought she would probably spend her life doing something like this — if not in journalism then in social work or law.

Fast-forward to now. This young woman works for Space-X, developing nutrition programs for astronauts. Her husband is an astrophysicist. I never saw that coming.

Now she is passionate about the universe, about exploration, about all of the mysteries of life here and elsewhere. And also, still, about writing.

Seeing her in this new light — literally, in this new world — brought two things to mind. One, we need to be careful about pigeonholing our students or ever assuming that we know what the future holds for them. Two, we need to figure out better ways to open students’ eyes to the myriad directions their lives can take.

Continue reading “Show kids the possibilities”

Are there good reasons to miss class?

No one likes it when students are out of class. Absenteeism is a big reason students fall behind (and fail), and it’s frustrating when students miss instruction, can’t grasp the material independently and then require our help outside of school hours.

But what about when they are absent for a “good reason”?

When I was a new teacher, I didn’t think there were good reasons, besides illness. When students were out for golf or skiing or this club or that club, and they returned asking, “Did I miss anything?” I wanted to scream. (Truancy, of course, was even more frustrating.)

But now, I’m sometimes the culprit. In the past week, I caused students to miss classes twice — once for the State Econ Challenge (last Wednesday) and once for the Harvard Pre-Collegiate Economics competition (last Friday).

Some of the same students also missed class last week for a robotics competition, and some will miss two days this week for a national journalism conference — and even more days for upcoming college admit weekends.

While I was sitting at the Boston airport with eight students waiting to fly home last night, I received emails from several other students, one of whom is missing an entire week for a school activity, and one of whom will be missing several days due to a death in the family.

I can’t really get angry anymore, especially when I’m sitting in another city with students I took out of class. Even so, I can’t help but feel that familiar frustration.

Continue reading “Are there good reasons to miss class?”

A perfect place to learn

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Last week, I experienced the ideal learning environment.

For five days, I learned Spanish at an adult immersion program in Samara Beach, Costa Rica. The fresh air, the warm sun, the sound of the ocean, the small classes (just six students with an instructor), and the motivated students were all big factors — and ones we (sadly) cannot realistically replicate in our public high schools.

But there was much to this experience that we can replicate, and I’m going to try.

#1 – We didn’t talk about the growth mindset, but we lived it. I wish I could honestly report how many mistakes I made trying to speak Spanish, but I’m sure I didn’t even notice most of them. Confusing ser y estar, using preterite when I should have used imperfect, mixing up por y para — that was just the beginning. When we checked homework assignments, I discovered dozens of written errors, too. But somehow it was all OK. We just kept at it, kept practicing, kept getting better. I never felt dumb, embarrassed or slow. The profesora would smile, gently correct me, and keep going.

#2 – We had fun. I remember high school Spanish being fun, too, which is probably why I worked so hard at it. One day last week, we shared stories about our childhood best friends. (Mi amiga mejor era Annamarie.) Another day, we talked about learning to drive. We discussed favorite foods, favorite games, where we liked to go on vacation, what we did for fun on the weekends. It was often hard to come up with vocabulary words, but the stories were funny, and I got to know my classmates — four suizos (Swiss people) and one Brit — and my profesora very well in a short time.

#3 – We had no stress. This was partly thanks to Samara Beach, which is located in one of the world’s “blue zones” — places where people live extremely long and healthy lives. In that area, everyone talks about the “pura vida,” which basically means living the good life. You eat fresh fruit and fish, enjoy the animals (monkeys, sloths and exotic birds), breathe fresh air, spend time with your family and don’t get worked up about tests or GPAs or college admissions or anything, except maybe the Costa Rica v. Mexico futbol game on Friday night. But it was also due to the structure of the class. We ended with a test on Friday, but it was so little emphasized that I didn’t even know it was coming!

#4 – La profesora took her time. Although she explained our learning objectives every day and tried to keep to the schedule, she was always willing to spend extra time on an idea or concept we found difficult. When it was clear we weren’t getting preterite v. imperfect, she came up with a new game for us to play — we had to compose stories using an assortment of vocabulary cards. I never felt like we had to push on to the next thing.

I know I won’t be able to perfectly replicate even these four aspects of the perfect learning experience, but my goal for the rest of this semester is to help my students slow down, de-stress, relax about mistakes and enjoy what we’re doing.

Learning should be challenging, but it doesn’t have to feel like a rat race. Everybody should have the chance to learn, at least once, in an environment like Samara Beach.