Why a brand-new master schedule isn’t the solution

white and black weekly planner on gray surface
Photo by Bich Tran on Pexels.com

Note to readers: I try to post every week, but a summer full of PD workshops has turned out to be busier than the school year! I hope you’re having a restful July. 

In the past few weeks leading AP summer institutes for Macro/Micro teachers, I’ve had a lot of discussions about the “school day.” Meaning: How long is your class period? How often does class meet each week? How long is your quarter/trimester/semester?

Nearly every one of the 30+ teachers I have met is on a different schedule.

Some schools have an eight-period day, with 42-minute periods.

Others (like me) have a six-period day, with 57- minute periods.

Others have seven 48-minute periods. Or block scheduling, with some 45-minute periods and other 85-minute periods. Or a modified block — I don’t even know what that means.

We have quarters, trimesters, semesters. I honestly think no two districts in the U.S. run on the same schedule. Why? What are we gaining with all of this local control and experimentation?

I can tell you what we’re losing — the ability to actually share lesson plans with teachers in other districts. The opportunity to develop best practices and collaborate, across districts, on implementation. I might have a fabulous, coherent, well-organized lesson, but no one else can pick it up and use it because they don’t have 57-minute periods.

I was curious whether all this experimenting has led to actual quantifiable gains, so I spent some time this week researching to find out if anyone knows what schedule is best for kids’ learning or mental health. The answer, sadly, is no.

Despite all of the time and money we’ve put into up-ending student schedules, it’s all moving chairs on the Titanic.

A number of doctoral candidates have actually done intensive research on this, believe it or not. Jay Roland Dostal, who got his Ed.D. from the University of Nebraska, wrote the best (most comprehensive) thesis I found.

His topic was “alternative scheduling and its effect on science achievement.” He compared disciplinary reports and science achievement at high schools with seven-period days and four-period block schedules — with extensive pre-testing, post-testing and statistical analysis.

His findings (in short): “The reality is, that changing the school scheduling vehicle in and of itself doesn’t have a direct impact on student achievement according to the results of this study.”

Well that’s disappointing.

In the long run, Dostal concludes, the quality of instruction matters more than than the format of the school day. Frustrating, isn’t it? We should be putting our time and money into improving instructional strategies, but instead many districts keep changing schedules, eager to jump on the next bandwagon.

My high school, for the record, hasn’t changed the basic makeup of our six-period day in the 21 years I’ve taught there. I guess they had the right idea all along.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush



Our students want to do work — when it’s work that matters


I love this story from last week’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune about North High students presenting research on social issues at a recent University of Minnesota symposium.

One student presented his research on police brutality. Another her work on disparate maternal mortality rates for black women. Other topics included domestic abuse, poverty and immigration.

The students surveyed their peers, researched the problems, and proposed their own solutions.

The article points out: This was “a rare opportunity for the students — mostly freshmen — to make their work for an audience rather than just for a grade.”

This is incredibly important and far too rare.

One of the best ways we can hook students — especially adolescents who feel disenfranchised — is to give them the chance to do authentic work, tackling real-world problems they care about. Then let them share their work with the world.

In research for my book, Beat Boredom, I found many incredible examples of this kind of work.

Students conducting their own inquiries into the quality of their local soil and water supplies.

Students (even in youth detention facilities) learning farm-to-table food preparation.

Students creating documentary films, collecting community history through interviews, founding their own service-learning ventures, developing underwater robots that can remove oil from a shipwreck.

In every case, the students were deeply motivated by the chance to do “authentic” work. And yet, these learning experiences still merit newspaper headlines because they are too few and far between.

If you’re not convinced this kind of work is valuable, consider the Academy of Information Technology and Robotics in Florida. The school recruited low-performing students and taught them all of their subject matter through six-week team challenges.

In one challenge based on the television series CSI, students learned about DNA, as well as learning trigonometry to help with blood spatter analysis, physics to help with bullet trajectories, and the history of the FBI.

At the end of every unit, students presented their findings to community members who work in related fields. By the end of freshman year, these students were surpassing their peers in other county schools; 97 percent scored in the midrange or above on the ninth-grade biology exam.

So don’t just read the North High story and smile and think of this teacher in isolation. Think about what we can do every day in our classrooms to make student learning both relevant and real. Think about how we can design science experiments, writing assignments and research projects that get our students out of the classroom and into their communities.

If we want our students to care about learning, we need to give them important problems to tackle. Not some day – but now.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush


Let’s stop teaching like it’s 1899

vintageclassroomHave you seen the picture? You know, the sepia-toned one with all of the kids sitting in desks in straight rows, representing American public schools 100 years ago?

Or the newer version, the stock photo that got many of us riled up at Education Secretary Betsy DeVos?

Because no, of course we don’t teach like that any more.

At the ASCD Empower conference last weekend, I saw that picture so many times, in so many different versions and venues, it became a cliche. Every speaker made the same point: We still teach like this, and it’s a problem.

We need to stop teaching like it’s 1899.

If you know me, you know these presenters were preaching to the choir.

But here’s a few fun facts I picked up from my fellow active-learning evangelists.

From Wendy Ostroff, a developmental psychologist and researcher who trains teachers in California:

  • Students lose their curiosity as they progress through school — because we don’t encourage inquiry. Curiosity is one of the main predictors of success in life, college and career. “Extra curious people learn more and perform better.”
  • If we want curious students, she said, “Teachers and administrators also have to be curious and engaged. … Are teachers teacher-scholars? Experimenting? Trying new things? We need to be playful learners.”
  • And also: “One of the #1 stressors for our students is boredom. Boredom is very stressful.”

From Alexis Wiggins, author of The Best Class You Never Taught:

  • Nobel prize winner and Stanford Prof. Carl Wieman (the 2004 U.S. professor of the year) experimented on his own classes and found that only 10% of his students could answer questions taught just 20 minutes prior in a lecture. What people learn from lecture — “it’s just really small.”
  • More and more institutions, now including Dartmouth’s Geisel Medical School, are banishing lecture completely in favor of inquiry, discussion, and other forms of active learning.

From Jon Bergmann, one of the founders of Flipped Learning:

  • “[Robert] Marzano studied 2 million classrooms — that’s a pretty big sample size — to see what instructional strategies are being used. 58% lecture. This was K-12 data. 36% practicing problems. Only 6% were more cognitively complex tasks.” High school was worse than lower grades, he added, and social studies was worst of all.
  • “The single biggest change that has to happen is a shift from passive to active learning.”

Bergmann went one step further and asked, in reference to our continued reliance on lecture: “Why are we being casual about what any other profession might label malpractice?”

Harsh words, yes. But if we know what works — and active learning beats lecture hands down — then we need to do more of it. I couldn’t agree more.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush


Girls need grit, too


I’ve noticed a small but disturbing trend in my AP Macroeconomics classes: Girls are more likely to give up.

Although very few students drop my class — only a handful in the past five years — so far it’s only been girls. When I hear from their parents, I often hear things like:

She’s so frustrated that she is crying inconsolably.

I just can’t see her this upset and think it is good for her.

It’s not that girls are performing worse than boys or finding the material more challenging. In fact, boys with much lower grades are soldiering on.

So what is happening? Why does temporary “failure” seem more likely to crush girls’ self-confidence? Are we not teaching our girls resilience?

I know this is not just my problem. Girls are woefully underrepresented nationally in the fields of economics and finance. One expert, who was doing research on this issue for the Federal Reserve, told me women are less likely to major in econ or finance than even STEM fields.

We females are also less likely to be entrepreneurs than our male counterparts.

I don’t believe this is an innate gender difference.

Here’s what I do believe: I think our girls learn to be really good at school. They outperform boys by most measures in elementary and middle school, and they are more likely to be identified as gifted. They follow rules, do their homework, write neatly, speak politely and generally master the system before they hit high school.

And we encourage this. We praise them for their eager compliance, their willingness to be perfect students, their report cards filled with 1s and As.

I remember — I was one of those girls. I loved getting things right. I loved seeing positive comments on my papers and bringing home good report cards. I loved making my parents proud — something that seemed of no consequence whatsoever to my brilliant but less diligent older brother.

All of this compliance leads too many girls toward perfectionism and what Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset”. Our girls pride themselves on doing everything right, and they become less willing to take risks. They become obsessed with protecting their perfect GPAs. They aren’t as confident in their ability to wing it and figure things out later.

When they do meet a challenge (and it happens to all of us eventually), it doesn’t just frustrate them — it undermines their entire sense of self.

This isn’t just my hunch. Research by Babson University found that the reason we see fewer female entrepreneurs is not because women are less likely to launch businesses. They are equally likely to do so… the first time.

But they’re a lot less likely to try again if their first attempt fails. And guess what? Most first attempts at entrepreneurship fail. So too many women just give up and walk away, while the men (who are no more talented) are trying again and again until they succeed.

If we want our girls to break the glass ceiling and access many of these careers (which, by the way, are very lucrative), we need to think about how we’re communicating expectations around success and failure to them.

Are we focusing on grades — or on learning?

Are we encouraging perfectionism — or risk-taking?

Are we letting them give up — or expecting them to bounce back?

We need to make sure our girls know that it’s OK to struggle, that straight A’s aren’t really what life is about, and that we expect them to persevere, the same way we expect their brothers to. 

We can’t let their energetic focus on being “good at school” block them from learning strategies to be successful for the rest of their lives.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush

For students, doing beats listening

people-woman-coffee-meeting.jpgA few weeks ago, I wrote about launching my experiment with “no lecture” AP Macroeconomics this spring.

I should note — I didn’t start this experiment because my students were performing poorly. 61 of my 65 students passed the AP test last year, and nearly all of them were freshmen.

It was a pretty successful class just the way it was.

But it’s also always been an uphill battle, because students seemed to forget what they’d learned from one day to the next, they rarely did any homework, and we spent as much time re-teaching and reviewing every day as we did on new material.

Also, a rather large percentage of students were retaking every unit test, and that was frustrating.

I’d read enough about flipped classrooms, whiteboarding and inquiry learning to think that a new approach was worth trying. And so far, results are very positive.

Here are a few things I’ve noticed in the first four weeks:


  • More students are reading the textbook than ever before. In the past, my students took it for granted that I would tell them everything they needed to know. Now they know that’s not the case, and they actually read.
  • Formative quiz scores are through the roof. Last year, students averaged 60-70% on daily quizzes; this year it’s more like 85-90%. They actually remember what we did the previous day, now that they’re solving problems rather than passively listening.
  • Twelve students earned 92% or above on the first test, compared to five last year.
  • The lowest score on the first test was 54%; last year four students scored lower than that.


An added bonus: I feel less stressed. The planning part is stressful — mostly because I have to go through every lesson and rethink how to construct it. Yuck. That means 1-2 hours of work per hour of class, for a class I had pretty well planned out before.

But during class time, there’s a lot less stress. The students know what they need to do — and they are doing, rather than listening — so there’s a lot less off-task behavior. Fewer phones out, fewer side conversations, and a lot more outward signs of student engagement.

Also, more time for me to help struggling students one-on-one, while they’re in class.

When I do stop and interject a 5-10 minute mini-lecture — for example, explaining Okun’s Law and the connection between potential GDP and the Natural Rate of Unemployment this week — the students actually pay attention. They’re not burned out on listening to me — so I’m no longer Charlie Brown’s teacher.

I won’t prematurely call this a success. We’ve still got three more units and an AP test to get through. But right now, it’s looking like a change for the better.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush

Teamwork: Annoying AND essential


Should high school students work in teams — or solo?

When I was a student, we did about 90 percent of our work alone. With the exception of lab work in science and the occasional English group project, we were expected to learn independently, so we would be prepared for individual success later.

Back then, working together — even asking a classmate for help — always carried the taint of cheating.

After all, you don’t get into college or get a job as a team. The important thing was individual achievement.

But something changed on the way to the 21st Century. Even by the time I entered the workforce in 1989, management everywhere was talking about teams, teams, teams.

Suddenly, employees had to not only have the requisite content knowledge for their job — but also know how to communicate, collaborate, argue effectively, involve everyone, incorporate diverse perspectives and deal with slackers. It wasn’t easy to adjust.

Most adults (including me) have spent a lot of time since high school complaining about teamwork. It seems no one ever carries their share of the load; no one recognizes our expertise; and we’re all tired of hearing the know-it-all’s nit-picky perspective on every single issue.

But here’s the thing. Experts (like the leaders at Google) have researched this issue to death, and they have found that effective teams are far more productive than individual stars. And the best teams often don’t contain any stars.

Being valedictorian doesn’t really count for much in most workplaces today.

So what does that mean for us? Does this whole “team” thing really translate to school? And if so, how?

For years, I’ve heard so much frustration from parents and students about group work — you know, the kind that really becomes solo work with a bunch of free riders.

Is it really fair for a group to drag a bright student down? Won’t it be different in the workplace, when everyone is at least competent?

Last week, at the Minnesota Council on Economic Education’s trade show for young entrepreneurs, several 20something entrepreneurs tackled this question. Surprisingly, to many students in the audience, these individual stars championed group work.

Erik Brust, founder of JonnyPops, and Meghan Sharkus, founder of ExpressionMed, agreed that working on group projects in high school is really frustrating. But guess what? So is working with teams in the real world. You never escape the free rider problem, and your team members will always let you down.

And yet, teamwork works. It’s necessary. So students, you might as well learn how now.

For teachers, though, this is not as easy as just putting kids in groups. Not any old team works. Teachers need to figure out how to build effective student teams, in ways that reduce that tension between group effort and individual understanding.

I think the answer lies in carefully creating our student teams, teaching them about effective communication and collaboration, and monitoring their performance.

When I assigned my AP Macro students to teams this year — teams we use every single day for discussing and working on problems — I started with a teamwork survey to better understand each student’s individual work habits and expectations.

I wasn’t so concerned about their academic skills; I’ve read studies that promote heterogeneous grouping and ones that promote homogeneous grouping. Instead, I wanted to know things like: Are you a leader or a slacker? Do you do your part? Do you try to take over? And how often do you get distracted?

So far, the resulting groups have been functioning pretty well. I’ve only noticed one group with bad dynamics (one student expecting the others to do the work), and I think I persuaded that student to get with the program. (We’ll see.)

Next week, we’ll also see how the no lecture + teamwork strategy has prepared them for the first test. 

If you’re interested in seeing the teamwork survey, email me at Martha.Rush@NeverBore.org.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. Listen to Martha’s interview with Vicki Davis on the CoolCatTeacher podcast. @MarthaSRush


Not giving up on homework yet


When I first started teaching in 1994, assigning homework was a no-brainer. It was part of the Madeline Hunter model — “independent practice” — and part of preparing high school students for independent learning in college.

It’s also how I was taught. In high school in the ’80s, I spent hours each night doing math problems, reading literature, writing up lab reports and doing whatever else my teachers had cooked up.

I always had homework, and I can’t say I liked it — but I didn’t really question it.

Fast-forward to 2018, and homework is no longer as popular or universally accepted. In fact, it’s under assault from many directions as “pointless,” “anxiety-provoking,” “inequitable” and “an infringement on family time.”

Some school districts are even banning homework (although most of the extreme efforts are focused on elementary classrooms).

Yet, the most comprehensive study (from 2006) found a positive correlation between homework and student achievement. And my anecdotal classroom observations suggest that high school students do, in fact, learn from the effort they put in at home.

How else to explain that my “Hybrid” AP Microeconomics students can succeed on the AP test (and intermediate college classes), when 80% of their learning is literally homework?

I can’t really wrap my head around the idea that homework isn’t beneficial, but I’m trying to keep an open mind.

The three major critiques I’ve heard about homework during this school year are:

1 – Homework is contributing to a growing epidemic of stress, anxiety and depression among high school students.

2 – Homework worsens the achievement gap, since disadvantaged students are more often unable to complete homework, thus falling further behind.

3 – Homework is not effective practice, because the gap between learning the material and doing homework is too long. (See last week’s post on forgetting.)

These are all potential concerns, enough to make me rethink homework. So let’s look a little more closely at each one.

#1 (stress) may be true, but I have not seen enough evidence that homework is a major factor causing higher stress levels. (See my previous post on mental health.) Brookings Institute research shows that high school students today aren’t doing any more homework than earlier generations did — and the average amount is just one hour per night. A massive survey of college freshmen found they spent more time socializing, playing sports and working during high school than doing homework. And let’s not even talk about the time they spend on phones and social media.

#2 (equity) is almost certainly true, but it’s evidence for both sides. The reason homework worsens the achievement gap is because it helps the kids who do it learn more. This is a thorny issue. We need to provide equitable opportunities to students, but if our efforts cause all students to learn less, that doesn’t seem right. It also doesn’t seem like a good idea, when we face global competition. We need a more nuanced solution than just “no homework.”

#3 (forgetting) is certainly true for some students, especially those who do not take notes. If I introduce a concept like “supply shifters” in class and assign practice problems, but some students have already forgotten the shifters eight hours later, then it’s not really effective practice. Still, research on learning shows that the more times you retrieve new information, the stronger connections your brain builds (see Make it Stick). So we really should be giving our students multiple opportunities to review and apply new material in a day.

So what should we do? What kind of guidance is there? 

I don’t think the answer is to ban homework, or even to place arbitrary time limits on it in high school. (If students procrastinate, which most do, some nights it is going to pile up.)

I think the answer is to think deeply about what we are asking students to do outside of class and be careful that we’re not piling on busy work, just to make ourselves feel “rigorous.” We need homework assignments (like lessons) that are thoughtful, engaging and manageable — and that actually help students meet our goals for them.

A few challenging (but not impossible) problems, a written reflection on the day’s learning/activities, a video introducing a new topic, a step in the process of a larger project, a review of new vocabulary words — these all seem like worthwhile uses of students’ time at home.

So I’m going to go into the new semester next week continuing to assign homework — but being more mindful of not overwhelming my students or wasting their time. I suspect the benefits will continue to outweigh the costs.

Follow me on Twitter @MarthaSRush

Beat Boredom now available for purchase on Amazon.

Forgetting is part of our nature

By Educ320 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47273417

You didn’t tell us to read that chapter.

I didn’t know there was a test today!

I was supposed to take out the garbage?

How often do we share an important piece of information with our students — or children or colleagues or friends, for that matter — and find the next day, they’ve completely forgotten?

It’s so infuriating. How many times have I said: I just told you that yesterday!

I remember the telling so clearly — where I stood, how I said it, how I specifically made eye contact for emphasis. But to the listener(s), it’s a vague, hazy event at best, nothing that really stood out in the flood of daily sound bytes.

It’s easy, as a teacher (or parent), to leap to the conclusion that our teenagers are intentionally forgetting, or worse yet, not listening to us in the first place. We become angry and frustrated, and the situation can quickly deteriorate.

But would we feel differently if we recognized that forgetting is simply part of how our brains work?

Over 100 years ago, Hermann Ebbinghaus revealed the “forgetting curve,” and it’s been confirmed repeatedly by psych research. In general, people forget about 70% of what they are told within 24 hours if they don’t intentionally review or use the information.

It’s our brain’s way of paring down unimportant information and keeping us efficient. (Thanks, brain!)

The internet is filled with tricks for overcoming the “forgetting curve” and training yourself to remember better: Take notes longhand. Think about how what you’re hearing applies to your life. Review your notes within a few hours. Explain what you learned to a colleague or friend.

Those are all solid strategies — but they only work for a motivated learner. They only work if you really want to remember. Not necessarily true for all of our students.

So how can we overcome the “forgetting curve” and trick our students into remembering what they’ve learned? And can we get them to build lasting memories — or is June the best we can hope for? (According to this EdWeek article, even students who master material for final exams mostly forget it by September.)

The answer lies in understanding the way memory works — and why some memories hold up over time.

First, consider why some things are easy to remember. It’s easy to remember the route you took to school or work, especially if it was different than your usual route. It’s also easy to remember an argument you had with a friend — thinking about reasoning seems to tap into a deeper level of processing, and emotion sears events into memory. It’s also easy to remember a compelling story. It’s been years since I read The Kite Runner, but I still remember the most minute details, like how the kite flyers hands bled from controlling the strings coated in broken glass.

The common denominators? We remember experiences better than words, novelty better than routine, details better than summaries, and things that are deeply meaningful to us we remember best of all. These all happen without extra effort on our part.

We can use all of these observations to build better “remembering” in our students.

If we want students to deeply encode what they are learning, we should let them experience what they’re learning — through simulations and debates, for example — rather than lecturing them.

We should also make learning events emotionally compelling — by using detailed stories or giving students the opportunity to discuss and share their own ideas. 

And we can make learning relevant. One study — I came across it in Make Me! — found teachers only explain relevance to their students about 3% of the time. 

Not only will our students remember better, but we’ll be a lot less frustrated.

Read more about these teaching strategies in Beat Boredom: Engaging Tuned-Out Teenagers (Stenhouse, 2018).

Follow me on Twitter @MarthaSRush

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 stenhouse.com. 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.

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