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 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 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 is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit 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,

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 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

cant stop 2

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.

Photo from

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

Image from

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.