Compassion alone is not enough


In high schools nationwide, and mine is no exception, we are seeing more and more teenagers suffering from mental health crises. Students at my school are talking openly about this – trying to raise awareness by making videos, creating T-shirts, and even speaking to the faculty.

This is good. We need to be made aware of these issues. We need to understand how anxiety and depression make it difficult for our kids to learn and form relationships, and we need to treat them with compassion.

But it’s not enough.

We also need to get serious about figuring out why so many students today are suffering, and what we can do to turn the tide.

According to one article I read this week, teenagers are more stressed out than adults in our society right now. And it’s not just teenagers in trying circumstances who are suffering. We’re talking about teens living in safe neighborhoods, in permanent housing, in stable families with middle-class incomes.

Their futures look bright to us, so why does the world feel so bleak to them?

There are a lot of possible reasons. Maybe it’s social media — and with it, cyber-bullying. I certainly believe these are both factors. The correlation between smart phone usage and depression is undeniable, as I’ve written in previous posts.

Maybe it’s the growing academic pressure some students feel, as expectations about college and the cost of college keep rising. A growing number of students feel pressured to make the perfect application, to excel in academics and sports, to rack up leadership roles and find time to volunteer. They don’t feel like they can ever make a mistake.

Maybe it’s also due to better reporting and less stigma around talking about mental health issues, which have always existed. Adolescence wasn’t easy for most of us.

But I think there are a few other factors at work, too, factors that merit our attention.

First, I think our broader culture is creating a sense of despair. We all feel it. The constant negativity in the news, the anger in our politics, the fear created by mass shootings and terror attacks – these all play a part. We can’t necessarily change that, but we need to help adolescents learn how to filter it and when to turn it off. (I know I have to, to maintain my sanity.)

The lack of nature is a problem, too. Children today spend less time climbing trees, roaming through backyards, camping and fishing. We know being indoors all the time – even if it’s in a gym, getting exercise – is bad for mental health. We need to give our teenagers more time in the natural world, more opportunities for adventure, without their devices.

Woven through all of these reasons, I believe, is another huge problem: the lack of a sense of purpose. Too many teenagers are just going through the motions – studying because we say it’s important, playing sports because everyone is doing it, posting to Instagram because it’s weird if they don’t.

But none of it is giving them deep satisfaction. None of it makes them feel needed or makes them excited about the future.

If we want to help our teenagers, we need to help them develop a sense of purpose, and this is something we can do.

We can help by treating them like capable young adults and giving them responsibilities – like fostering rescue animals, helping with household maintenance, cooking meals, caring for siblings.

We can also do it by enlisting them to help the less fortunate – through serving at food shelves, building or repairing houses, taking care of an elderly neighbor’s house or lawn.

We can do it be involving them in purpose-driven activities, like political action, social action and mission trips.

We can do it by encouraging participation in fun activities not tied to their college applications – like hiking, snowshoeing, rock-climbing, dancing and cooking.

I’m not saying these steps will cure our teenage mental health crisis. I don’t want to oversimplify a complex problem, which has both neurological and social causes.

But I do think we have a role to play, even if we are not certified therapists.  We can all help adolescents realize that life doesn’t have to be a constant, serious pursuit of social and academic perfection. It can be fun and rewarding, even if we make mistakes along the way. Especially if we make mistakes along the way.

Let’s try to send that message to the teenagers in our lives this holiday season.

Are you interested in student engagement? My book Beat Boredom is now available at Beat Boredom | Stenhouse Publishers



What can they do besides ‘school’?


One of my favorite lines in Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk: Do Schools Kill Creativity? is when he points out that schools are really really good at preparing students to become professors. And, I would add, teachers.

Academia is nothing if not self-perpetuating.

We teach students to write papers and lab reports in styles that professors will value; to memorize scientific principles and mathematical theorems that they can apply to abstract academic problems; and to memorize a simple legislative process that exists only in textbooks.

We value what we do, so we pass it on.

This creates a host of problems, including:

  • Many students don’t see why learning any of this stuff matters
  • Most students won’t become professors or teachers
  • Graduates leave our schools not knowing what else they could do with their lives

Worst of all, it creates a kind of existential crisis for many teens and young adults, who feel like they must go to college if they want to be “successful” but have only a vague idea of what success would mean for them — and no real interest in studying more.

Welcome to the real student debt crisis: the students who drop out of college with thousands in loans, no diploma, no passion for any vocation, and no clue what to do next. Only 46 percent of Americans who start college actually graduate, according to the OECD.

If you ask a typical high school student what jobs they are aware of, they’ll come up with a list like this: teacher, police officer, military, sales clerk, construction worker, waiter, chef, doctor, lawyer, banker, Uber driver, maybe software coder, and whatever jobs their parents have.

It’s frighteningly limited.

What about: glass blower, screenwriter, dog trainer, home stager, fashion designer, outdoor adventure leader, entrepreneur, cabinet maker, astronaut nutrition specialist, translator, Amazon reseller, video game designer, craft brewer, resource mapper, food tour operator, trauma nurse, professional speaker, and sea lion trainer?

I know people who have all of these jobs, some of them my former students. They seem to like their jobs — and some of them are also very highly paid.

How can we open students’ minds to these possibilities (and many more), in a system that values “common” education and college for all?

One example is offered by Finland, which has a world-renowned education system.

I was startled to learn, from a colleague at this week’s Reimagine Education conference, that more than 50% of Finnish 14-year-olds are now choosing their country’s Vocational Education Training over traditional high school.

They are rejecting the college-bound path we hold so dear.

Finnish vocational programs (which are currently being revised) include hands-on training in hundreds of fields, including: forestry, landscaping, automotive engineering, graphic design, 3D printing, circus arts (!), shoemaking and aviation.

There’s no stigma attached; it’s not a “second choice.”

Can you imagine how much anxiety and frustration we could alleviate if our high school students could actually choose to pursue their interest in school, knowing it would lead to an apprenticeship and a job?

The biggest danger in emulating this system is that we, as a much more diverse and divided society, would likely track students, so that lower-income, nonwhite students would be disproportionately steered toward non-college options, whether or not that was their desire.

It already happens — I’ve heard from many African-American friends that they were told they weren’t “college material,” even though they clearly were.

The key is to find a way to let students figure out what they want, without social pressures and biases pushing them toward or away from the college path.

But that’s much easier said than done. So what can we do?

At the very least, we need to talk to our teenagers about all of their options and help them see that there are great career pathways outside the purely academic one. We need to help them envision where they fit in the world, with their unique set of talents and preferences.

We need to keep the college pathway equitable open to all — but we need to stop making it the only socially acceptable alternative.

Beat Boredom now available from Stenhouse.

Kids can’t stop themselves – time for the adults to step in

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How often do you check your smartphone?

Every hour? Every five minutes? Multiple times per minute?

Stop and think about why. Are you really waiting for an urgent call — say, from a doctor, a family member or your boss?

Or are you just hoping there will be something cool or funny there? A bit of gossip. A humorous meme. A viral video. A breaking news update. Anything to distract you from the monotony of real life.

This week, my AP Psych students were learning about behaviorism, and we watched a video of one of Skinner’s pigeons maniacally pecking a disc for food. It looked just like many of us, maniacally swiping our phones, hoping for just a little dopamine boost.

Here’s the thing: Those pigeons in Skinner’s boxes really didn’t have anything better to do.

But we do. We have lots of better things to do — like learn new things or enjoy nature or form real-life relationships — but too many of us are living like addicts, always distracted by the allure of the phone.

And it’s worse for our kids.

According to Nicholas Carr’s Oct. 6 Wall Street Journal article, one study found that  “students who didn’t bring their phones to the classroom scored a full letter-grade higher on a test of the material presented than those who brought their phones. It didn’t matter whether the students who had their phones used them or not.”

Even when we’re not using our phones, they cause a “brain drain” that diminishes “learning, logical reasoning, abstract thought, problem solving, and creativity.”

This New York Times article explains that smartphone use is also correlated with increasing rates of depression and anxiety in teenagers. It’s no wonder, when kids are one-upping each other (or worse yet, bullying each other) on Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram 24-7.

These smartphones that rule our lives are not just making learning harder; they’re making growing up harder.

I think most parents agree that this is a problem — and they expect their children to put away the phones during class. But putting them away isn’t enough. According to the WSJ article, phones have to be physically removed from the room to stop distracting — and most teachers can tell you it’s a losing battle anyway.

“They Snapchat in my class,” one friend told me. “I’m going to snap.”

“They’re a constant distraction,” another said. “If you allow a little use, a little turns into a lot of use really quickly.”

He has a very strict policy on phone use now because he was “nickel and dimed to death” with infractions, like kids walking out of class to take calls (from their parents) and posting to Instagram during class.

What are we going to do about this? Clearly, it’s not enough to trust kids to make good decisions about smartphone use.

First of all, we need parents to either turn off their children’s data plans during school hours or refuse to pay for data plans altogether. (We didn’t buy either of our children a smartphone until they were out of high school, and I’m really glad.)

Second, we need secure places at school where kids can lock their phones up during the day. Kids don’t want to leave them in lockers, and teachers don’t want to take them and be responsible if something happens. We need separate free phone lockers, like the free mini-lockers at the gym where you can lock your keys and ID (and yes, phone).

Third, we need to have parent meetings, where we help parents understand what a crisis this is for our students and get them on board.

And finally, we teachers need to be good role models for our students. We need to keep our own phones out of sight and out of mind during the school day.

When I told my AP Psych students about the WSJ article — after watching Skinner’s pigeons — they expressed no surprise whatsoever. It’s like a drug, they said. It’s so hard to stop checking.

That’s why we have to step in and stop for them.

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How do you talk about ‘intelligence’?


Thanks to Carol Dweck’s work on the Growth Mindset, we know it matters how we react to student performance.

Compliments for “being smart” help foster a fixed mindset and a reluctance to embrace challenge, while shout-outs for “working hard” foster a growth mindset and a desire for challenge.

That’s all well and good, but what are the implications for talking about “intelligence” — or responding when kids inevitably do?

It seems like we should avoid using that term at all. But unfortunately, our students have already absorbed this message…

Intelligence = IQ = good grades = successful future

… and it often overrides whatever we say about the growth mindset. Ignoring is not enough.

Also, as an AP Psych teacher, I can’t avoid this topic. We have an entire unit on “Intelligence and Testing,” and IQ also came up yesterday in our discussion of nature v. nurture. A research article I shared with students reveals that variability in IQ test scores at age 50 is mostly due to DNA — by a large margin. They were shocked, assuming their own effort would have a bigger impact (and they could be “smarter” than their parents).

So how do we respond? And what does it signal to our students about their own perceived intelligence and potential?

This has become more challenging for me over time. I’ve become convinced of the power of mindset, emotional intelligence, and divergent thinking, and I believe they are critical to our students’ future success, but I still know that Lewis Terman’s work showed intelligence isn’t a throwaway concept. It is also powerful.

I’m not alone in this quandary. In a touch of irony, this week’s Education Week Special Report notes that PSAT scores are the strongest predictor of AP test scores — in the context of an article promoting the growth mindset. The PSAT isn’t measuring effort, folks.

What I try to do is always, always add nuance to this conversation and steer my students to think critically about the construct of IQ. If I say the word “intelligence” or “IQ,” I immediately qualify it by pointing out that intelligence is broad and ill-defined, and IQ test scores are imperfect measures.

I also try to break the link between IQ and future success by telling a lot of stories about personal friends and former students, people who struggled with academics but found success using their people skills, street smarts and creativity. (Many of the biggest income-earners I know were not straight-A students, but yes, they are “smart”.)

I also acknowledge there are real differences between humans when it comes to our processing speeds, our stores of knowledge, and our expressive capacities. These differences make learning easier for some of us and more difficult for others.

I think struggling students are more likely to buy what we’re saying about mindset if we at least acknowledge these differences — and the fact that some kids seem to unfairly sail through classes with easy As. They’re also more likely to persevere if they know we don’t put too much faith in a single test score.

Follow me on Twitter @MarthaSRush

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What makes teams work? Ask Google


Google has spent 1000s of hours trying to figure out how to make people work better in teams.

The answer? Teams are most effective when there is “psychological safety” — in other words, everyone feels safe contributing ideas, questioning others (even the boss), and sharing problems.

In the best teams, people feel free to offer the most outlandish, ambitious ideas — and they are not shot down. Also, everyone contributes more or less equally.

The same holds true in our classrooms. If we create “psychological safety” for our students, they are more likely to contribute to discussions, more likely to ask questions and more likely to seek help — and they will be more effective learners.

How can we do it? Many students have a natural adversity to speaking up. They don’t want to be wrong. They don’t want to be laughed at. They don’t want to be the center of attention. And often, they lack confidence that they have anything meaningful to say.

And we teachers have a natural reluctance to embrace teams — because we assume students learn best alone, like we did back in the day.

We can overcome these barriers, but we have to start early each semester, and we have to be consistent. Here’s how:

1 – Involve every student right away. Call on every student by name as often as possible — the ones you don’t call on will automatically feel less valued and engaged.

2 – If students are shy about answering, let them discuss questions with a partner or in a small group first. Then, when they answer, they know someone has their back.

3 – Seat students in small teams of 2, 3 or 4. Individual seats all pointing forward does not create a collaborative environment.

4 – Encourage divergent thinking. Ask questions that have multiple answers, rather than one right answer. Start class with a question each day — not something irrelevant like “what’s your favorite TV show” but something related to your content, like “what’s the worst survey question you can think of?”

5 – Create a playful environment, where it’s OK to laugh at and even celebrate mistakes. It’s actually more fun and more productive to be in a workplace where people are comfortable enough together to laugh, but that means everyone has to be vulnerable — starting with us.

By the way, Google also found that an effective team of medium-skilled employees will outperform a dysfunctional team filled with superstars.

Our students don’t learn in isolation; they learn in a social setting. We need to create the setting that lets them shine together.


Do SMART goals limit teachers’ vision?

canstockphoto19982029Writing SMART goals — “Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timebound” — is now a fall rite of passage for public school teachers, right up there with crafting a syllabus, assigning seats and putting up bulletin boards.

This process always strikes me as perfunctory. Do SMART goals really get us anywhere? Or is this just another exercise in jumping through hoops?

As it turns out, SMART goals aren’t as useful as we are led to believe. The funny thing is, GE pioneered SMART goals in the early 1980s, and by the late 1980s — long long before they made their way into public education’s acronym collection — GE already knew there were flaws.

When specific GE divisions were having problems, setting SMART goals did not help.

What is good about SMART goals is that they force us to make plans, rather than just hold vague aspirations like, “I want all my students to be self-disciplined and successful.”

The bad news is that they produce a lot of trivial goals, and they don’t push us to think outside the box much. By 1990, Gary Latham (who helped create SMART goals) wrote that they “can cause [a] person to have tunnel vision.”

In other words, we become obsessed with checking off our short-term goals, like 1% improvement, and lose sight of the big picture, like our massive achievement gap.

In 1993, Jack Welch decided GE needed to embrace “audacious” goals in addition to the smaller, process-oriented SMART goals. These audacious goals are, by definition, so ambitious that you can’t possibly set a timeline or describe specific steps.

These are goals like “I’m going to get these struggling readers to read and understand Shakespeare” or “The students in the remedial math class will make two years’ progress this year.”

How are goals like this even useful? It seems to contradict we’ve been told about goal-setting.

Audacious goals can work because they force us to rethink everything. For example, at one GE plant described in the book Smarter, Better, Faster, the aircraft manufacturing division set a goal of reducing errors by 70%. It seemed impossible, but within six years they had up-ended their processes — changing organizational charts, rewriting job duties, revising the hiring process — and reduced errors by 75%.

Audacious goals can drive us to make serious, lasting improvements if we sincerely commit to them, even when we’re not sure how or when they will be attainable. Once we set them, then it’s time to set smaller SMART goals — always with an eye to the “audacious” end game.

This is what we should be talking about at the beginning of the school year. Not little goals that let us off the hook, but audacious goals that might force us to rethink what we do.

Intimidating? Yes. But so much more powerful.

Let’s get serious about stereotype threat


It’s been 20 years since Steele and Aronson first published their work on “stereotype threat,” demonstrating that we are profoundly influenced by internalized cultural stereotypes about ourselves.

Since then, more than 300 peer-reviewed experiments have found similar results. Time and time again, we find that individuals perform worse in school, limit their career options and often make bad decisions – in reaction to stereotyped expectations about their race, gender, age, nationality and other characteristics.

Reading the book Mindwise (Nicholas Epley) this summer reminded me of stereotype threat — and made me wonder why we as educators don’t talk more about it when we work on strategies to overcome the achievement gap.

I suspect it’s because we don’t really believe it’s true, no matter what the research tells us.

If you never read the original research, or don’t remember, the quick version is this:

When researchers called attention to race, African-American college students did worse on a test than their white peers. When race was not emphasized, they performed as well as white students. Calling attention to race was as simple as asking the students to fill out a demographic survey before taking the test — or even telling the students it was an “ability” test, which triggered stereotypes about “inherent” intelligence.

I remember reading this in 1995 and being shocked. If you’re not similarly shocked today, try this study (quoted in Mindwise):

“[The study] measured the aging stereotypes of 229 volunteers who were 18 to 39 years old and then tracked their health histories for 38 years. At the end of the study, 56% of those with negative stereotypes about the elderly (measured 38 years before) had suffered a major cardiovascular event (mainly heart attack or stroke) compared to only 18% of those who had positive elderly stereotypes.”

If you’re tempted to minimize the impact of stereotypes on students — “Oh, surely they can overcome it!” — it’s humbling to realize that our internal stereotypes about aging are this powerful. You can literally stereotype yourself into having a heart attack.

If stereotype threat is that powerful, we really need to start addressing it in our schools. The million-dollar question is: How?

One way is by confronting it head on — making sure students understand how negative stereotypes impact them, so they can cognitively confront them. (We talk about this in AP Psych.) But that alone is not enough, because our minds aren’t tricked that easily.

Another way is to be intentional about not triggering stereotypes. While we need to recognize students’ individual differences, we must take care not to make students self-conscious about their race, gender, age, cultural background, etc. — a delicate balancing act for teachers.

We can also avoid triggering stereotypes about academic ability by assuring our students that all of our tests (even the ACT and SAT) measure effort – not inherent ability. This fits with our effort to develop a growth mindset in all of our students.

We also need to provide role models and student exemplars that reflect our diverse student bodies. This way, we can subtly show our students that people “like them” have achieved success in our disciplines. If all economists are white males, what young woman thinks she has a chance? (Yes, this has been studied, too.)

Finally – it goes without saying – we can help overcome stereotype threat by building relationships with our students and treating them all as individual human beings. When students know we see them as individuals, they are less likely to think of themselves in stereotypical terms.

What we cannot do is continue to ignore the power of stereotype threat or the impact it has on our students or ourselves. We need to believe what the data is showing us — and act on it.

A cynical take on the value of school

canstockphoto40542858Last week, a 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:


“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?


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.

Kids work like crazy when they have a purpose


What does motivation look like? I saw it in the faces of about 40 kids at Irondale High School (MN) on Saturday morning. They were the KnightKrawler robotics team members, gathered in the library at 9:30 a.m., waiting for the “big reveal.”

Saturday was the day when organizers of the global FIRST Robotics competition announced this year’s challenge, and there was a lot of nervous anticipation — not just at Irondale but at schools around the world.

Thousands of teenagers will devote the next six weeks to designing and building robots that can accurately throw wiffle balls, deliver gears to a lever, and climb ropes — among other challenges. Then they’ll be going to competitions, hoping for a shot at nationals.

“I’m nervous,” one of the students, Neely, told me. “The next 12 weeks of my life are going to be so busy.”

Why are students so eager to work extra hours on robotics — like, 30 hours a week — when we have so much trouble motivating students in our classrooms, especially in STEM fields?

There’s something magical about competition — and about robots.

Continue reading “Kids work like crazy when they have a purpose”