A cynical take on the value of school

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

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

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


“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”

Stop telling students the answers


Students learn better when we ask questions before we provide the answers.

They learn better if we ask them to generate their own strategies, interpretations and ideas before we tell them how to do things — whether it’s how to use an economic model, solve an algebra problem or write an essay.

I learned this nugget of wisdom when I first read Make it Stick last year, but it was really brought home by Daniel Schwartz’s and John Bransford’s 1998 paper titled “A Time for Telling,” which was recently referred to me.

Reading “A Time for Telling” is making me want to toss out my lesson plans for AP Microeconomics and start over. I won’t — there’s no time for that right now, and I’m already integrating this approach into many of my lessons — but you’ll see why I want to.

One of the problems with our traditional, Madeline Hunter-style lessons, where we explain new learning, then require students to practice and apply it in class and independently, is that we teach everything as an answered question. There’s nothing to be curious about, nothing to explore because we already have all of the answers.

All the students need to do is know what we know, not think for themselves.

According to the paper, “When telling occurs without readiness, the primary recourse for students is to treat the new information as ends to be memorized rather than as tools to help them perceive and think.”

Yes, that’s exactly how our students regard most of what we teach them. Ends to be memorized.

Continue reading “Stop telling students the answers”

‘Common sense’ is failing us

mctestWhich is a better way to prepare for this week’s Psych test?

  1. Dedicate three solid hours to reviewing the textbook, notes, and practice questions, as well as quizzing yourself with flashcards.
  2. Spend 30 minutes writing a test for yourself over the content. Take a nap, eat a snack, do your math homework. A few hours later, take the test and grade it. Repeat the next day — spending less than three hours in all.

Most students choose A — the intensive, focused, cramming method. Intuitively it makes sense. Repetition makes us feel like we know the material, and the intensity of the studying makes the subject feel coherent.

B is a much better choice. According to Make it Stick, the best book I’ve seen on how to learn, interleaving different subjects (and giving your brain time to process information during a nap) is far superior to cramming.

But it doesn’t feel better, which brings me to one of the critical issues in education.

Effective learning strategies and effective teaching strategies are not intuitive — they do not fit our idea of common sense — so we waste a lot of time and money pursuing the wrong “common sense” solutions.

Continue reading “‘Common sense’ is failing us”

Is boredom actually good for you?

Boredom can be good for you, it’s true. But at school, not so much.

After my last blog post, a friend challenged me and pointed out that boredom is not all bad. I spent a little time following up on that — to see what research says about the plus side of boredom.

Researchers have in fact found connections between boredom and creativity. This study, published in the Harvard Business Review, found that people who were forced to do a boring activity — either copying numbers from the phone book or simply reading the phone book — performed better on a test of divergent thinking than a control group.

“The findings suggest that boredom felt during passive activities, liking reading reports or attending tedious meetings, heightens the “daydreaming effect” on creativity—the more passive the boredom, the more likely the daydreaming and the more creative you could be afterward,” the article explains.

That all sounds strongly in favor of boredom. But let’s look back at that task. The researchers asked people to “read the phone book”. Did they want the participants to actually remember the phone numbers they read or wrote down? No. Did anything about the task matter? No.

Continue reading “Is boredom actually good for you?”

Let’s end boredom together

new-nbWhat does it mean to “never bore” our students?

How can we train teachers in active-learning strategies that engage all students?

Promoting active learning in high school classrooms has been my mission for just over a year, and now there are big changes underway at NeverBore.

You may have noticed that this blog is now MarthaRush.org. I will continue to post my thoughts, ideas and concerns about classroom issues and broader educational policy here, though just once a week on Mondays (starting next week).

NeverBore.org is now an expanded site, offering curriculum, professional development workshops, coaching and tips for teaching with engagement in mind.

A new blog — focused solely on active learning strategies — will debut on the NeverBore site in November.

As this article from the June 11 Economist explains, effective teachers are the critical component to student success. We must train teachers to ensure that “all the brains are working all of the time.” I believe teachers must lead the way.

I hope you will check out the new www.NeverBore.org and become a subscriber. Let’s end boredom together.

Help for students who lack logic

Have you ever had to teach logical reasoning to teenagers?

I have — many times — and it’s very difficult.

A few kids are fairly logical already; building on that is easy. But teens who don’t think logically at all have a hard time even understanding the task. Asking them to construct an argument with evidence is like asking them to write in hieroglyphics.

I came across an article last week with a great strategy for helping non-academically oriented adolescents improve their reasoning. The article, from The Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy (2003) includes an excerpt from student work that reminds me of too many high school papers I’ve read.

See if you can follow the argument:

“People should stop hunting animals for sport because they may become extinct. How would you feel if animals started hunting us? People should stop hunting animals for sport because some of the animals may become extinct. For example the Tasmanian tiger. Its scientific name is the thylacine. [Fragments of information and pictures follow, including a timeline toward the tiger’s extinction.] The solution that I’ve come up with is that the government should ban guns except for the armed forces.”

What is the appropriate feedback in this case? Where do you even start? The student thinks they are making an argument because they wrote the word “because” and included some facts. What can a teacher say besides “This makes no sense”?

The researcher and teacher decided to see if students could learn argumentation by talking in chat rooms. The teacher assigned students high-interest topics, like “Should classrooms be segregated by gender?” and took them to the computer lab to argue with each other online. 

In that setting, the students started focusing on — and refuting — each others’ points in writing. They also started talking to their neighbors in the lab, trying to figure out what to say next and how to word it. Soon, they were talking about their own thinking and reasoning in a way they’d never done in class (or while writing a paper at home).

Afterwards, the teacher printed out the discussion, and the students analyzed the strongest and weakest points. It was a major turning point, and the students became much more positive about writing. They saw how their ideas could turn into written arguments, and they stopped going through the motions and started actually reasoning.

The teacher used this strategy several more times during the year, each time moving students toward more independent thought and preparation.

“Most students were coming to enjoy dialogic argumentation for its own sake, not just for point scoring or socializing,” the researcher concluded.

It’s a great idea and a good reminder that discussion — whether in person or online — can be an effective way to help students learn. I wish I would have read it years ago.

When to cold-call? Today.

When is the best time to start cold-calling students? The first day of class.

There are plenty of reasons not to. We have to “get through” the syllabus. We don’t know the students’ names yet. We haven’t built a relationship yet. The students haven’t learned any of the material yet.

But I’m going to argue that cold-calling is an essential first day activity — perhaps the most essential first day activity.

Here’s why:

  1. It sets the tone for the entire year. Students realize immediately that this is not a class where they can hide in the back and let more assertive, outspoken students dominate the conversation. Everyone will be involved, every day if possible.
  2. It opens the door. Once a student has been called on, they are more comfortable speaking aloud in class, and then they are more comfortable asking questions in class. This is critical to building an interactive, inquisitive class environment.
  3. It creates a safe environment. It’s non-threatening to call on kids the first day because they know it’s OK not to know any answers. You’re just brainstorming together, seeing what they can deduce. “What do you think economics is about?” “What’s the most interesting psych experiment you’ve ever heard of?” “How do you think clouds form?” Students learn it’s OK to say “pass” or “I don’t know.”
  4. It affirms the students. Seating chart in hand, you call out their names and make eye contact. It says: “I notice you, I know you are here.” It takes the focus off the teacher, and it helps you learn names at the same time.
  5. It makes daily cold-calling easier for the teacher. Research has found that the higher rate of opportunities to respond during instruction, the greater the likelihood students will be engaged. Still, two-thirds of students have no opportunity to respond in a typical class period. Teachers need to take the plunge and start doing it.

If you didn’t start cold-calling students on the first day of class, start now. You’ll see higher levels of student engagement, draw more questions from struggling students, and form relationships more quickly.

It’s a little scary — for both teachers and students — but it’s worth it.

Don’t scoff at the need to change


This Faculty Meeting Bingo card (from weareteachers.org) showed up on my Facebook feed last week, one of many ironic commentaries on back-to-school season.

It’s funny, of course, and I could easily fill it in during our first all-staff meeting later this month.

“The phrase ‘college-ready’” – check

“An internet meme is used in the presentation” – check

“The phrase ‘rigor’” – check

Even as I was laughing, though, it bothered me. I suspect (given the source) that the creator meant it playfully, but the bingo card is symbolic of how superficial our efforts at school improvement feel these days.

We probably wouldn’t laugh at “rigor” if we were truly expected to do something rigorous. Instead, what the bingo card implies is that while we talk about rigor constantly, it’s just another meaningless word now. More edu-babble. Another fake promise like “no child left behind.”

There’s also the implication that none of what will be said at a meeting is ever new or important. None of it matters because we’re just going to go back to our rooms and do the same thing we always did.

Continue reading “Don’t scoff at the need to change”