Late work IS still a problem


A good friend recently returned to teaching high school, after a long hiatus. Now she’s kind of like Rip Van Winkle, waking up to see how the world around her has changed.

The biggest shock so far, she told me, is the idea that due dates don’t matter much anymore. She can’t wrap her head around it. Why wouldn’t we expect kids to do work on time? How is this better for anyone? Won’t they have to do work on time in the real world?

One of her new colleagues tried to sell her on it, telling my friend: I’m not teaching the standard of their being able to submit things on time.

My friend responded: But can’t there be a reasonable time frame?

Yes, work has to be done by the end of the semester.

With no consequences for being late?

No, not if they met the standard.

Unlike my friend, I’ve lived through the evolution of this policy. But like her, I’m still stumped.

It’s not that I want to penalize kids for late work, and I get that mastering mean, median and mode in November is just as valuable as mastering them in September. I also admit that my old policy — 10% off per day late — was embarrassingly arbitrary.

But it wasn’t completely irrational. I penalized late work because I understand one of the core principles of economics, which is that incentives matter. People respond to incentives, and our students are no exception.

If there is no penalty for turning in work late, then why turn it in on time? My students freely admit that procrastination is one of their biggest problems. They’d always rather do work tomorrow.

There are a few other key problems as well, without even getting into the “real world” argument.

  • We’re trying to instill a growth mindset in our students, trying to encourage them to learn from their mistakes. But there is nothing to learn from if no work is done in the first place. We can’t give valuable feedback on unwritten papers or untaken tests.
  • Let’s be honest. When a student turns something in at the last minute (like in January or June), we are only ever going to give it a cursory read-through. Looks great, looks OK, doesn’t quite cut it. We can’t appropriately attend to student progress if it all happens in the same week.
  • Finally, I think these policies assume a level of pointlessness to our work. If I’m making my students do busywork, then sure, who cares when it gets done? But when I assign my students to design a mock psych experiment, it’s because I know it will help them master terms like “correlation” and “confounding variable” — and they will perform better on their assessment as a result. If they don’t do the assignment until months later, it loses value.

I think we can all agree that meaningful assignments are a whole lot more valuable to students and teachers when they are done on time. The real question we should be wrestling with is: How do we incentivize students to get things done on time?

If we aren’t willing to do it by punishing lateness, then fine, we need a new strategy. Unfortunately, I haven’t heard a good one yet.

Follow me on Twitter @MarthaSRush

Coming soon: Beat Boredom (Stenhouse)


Not your normal school project


Picture a room packed with 35-40 high school students eager to start working on a project, except you, the teacher, have no idea what the project will be.

Will they create pencil cases? T-shirts for school teams?

Will they design an app or a bot or an e-book?

Or will they make jewelry? Car safety kits? Coffee coozies? Public service announcements?

Maybe they’ll make nothing at all.

This is not your typical school assignment. Guiding teenagers — or anyone — through the process of launching a startup is one of the least predictable and most useful things we can do as teachers.

We have no idea where they will end up, and most of the time, their ventures will probably fail, but they will learn much more than they ever could from a textbook or lecture.

In the past few years, my students have started businesses selling the above-mentioned pencil cases, T-shirts, apps, bots and e-books, but that’s no predictor of what this year’s group will do.

At this point, their assignment is simply to interview potential customers and ask questions like:

  • What wasted your time today?
  • Who needed help today?

Next week, the students will narrow the survey responses to a few problems that sound interesting to tackle and begin brainstorming solutions they could develop. It’s all part of the Lean Startup method of entrepreneurship, and it incorporates skills like collaboration, communication, and problem-solving.

It also teaches resilience and a growth mindset, because unlike most school activities, there is no built-in expectation that you have to do it right. It’s all about failing fast — and learning from failure.

For many students, learning entrepreneurship is the most valuable experience they have in high school, and it shapes their outlook on the world. One of my students, Amy, is so sold on entrepreneurship that when she saw senior citizens at her grandma’s residence lacking a sense of purpose, she decided to start an entrepreneurship program for them.

She’s hoping the “seniorpreneurs” she meets though Skyrocket (her brochure is pictured above) will be as motivated by the chance to solve community problems as she is.

Other former students are working on medical devices, apps, fashion and food. There are some limits on what they can do in high school — we don’t let them sell medical products, for example — but once they graduate, the sky is literally the limit.

If you’re interested in cultivating entrepreneurs in your school or community, join More information about Teen Startup Trainers — and a sample lesson — will be available to subscribers soon.

Follow me on Twitter @MarthaSRush

Coming in November: Beat Boredom: Engaging Tuned-Out Teenagers

What makes teams work? Ask Google


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Do SMART goals limit teachers’ vision?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intimidating? Yes. But so much more powerful.

Let’s get serious about stereotype threat


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are we ready for student speech?


“Do you think high school students have the same right to free speech as adults?”

This warmup question, which I used for years as an introduction to teaching Tinker v. Des Moines to my Civil Liberties classes, sparked a heated discussion among teachers at a workshop I led earlier this week.

No issue is more on teachers’ minds right now – as we head back to school — than how to deal with the fallout of Charlottesville and the increasing exposure of neo-Nazi and white supremacist speech in our public spaces.

What do we do if a student shows up in class displaying a swastika?

What about a Confederate flag?

How can we facilitate conversation in social studies class, when one student’s “political” opinion is that other students don’t belong here?

How do we require tolerance and sensitivity toward other students, when parents might accuse us of a “liberal agenda”?

There are no easy answers. I’ve always believed student speech in public schools deserved broad protection and that we benefit from talking to people whose opinions are different from our own — rather than silencing them — but I’ve never been in a situation like this.

I’ve spent countless hours over the past 20 years explicitly teaching teenagers how to have civil conversations about sensitive topics like abortion and same-sex marriage and religion, but I’ve never had to deal with a student claiming a free speech right to express hatred. For the most part, until now, social norms were enough to stop them.

What do we do? How do we treat student speech in this new climate? I think Tinker is exactly where we should start.

When we immerse students in the facts of that particular case, which involved high school students (Mary Beth and John Tinker pictured, plus three others) wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War in 1965, we give them the opportunity to engage in a valuable meta-conversation about the power of speech itself. It forces them to step back from the highly charged public shouting match and think.

In my lesson, students are arbitrarily assigned to represent the Tinkers or the Des Moines public school district, and each side is provided with enough facts and court precedents to make effective points. They have 10 minutes to prepare, 3 minutes to argue, and 2 minutes to rebut (which, of course, requires listening to the other side).

In that short time, students quickly realize that the issue is much more complicated than “It’s my right to say what I want!” They realize they have to consider the school’s obligation to protect all students and promote education, the potential disruption speech can cause, and the responsibility that comes with a speaker’s rights.

When we read the court’s opinion – the second part of the lesson — they also realize that a school isn’t the same as a public park or street, that what is acceptable in one venue (what we see on TV) isn’t necessarily OK at school – no matter which side of the political spectrum you fall on. These are important starting points for shaping our discussion norms in class.

As we head back to school this fall, we need to make our classrooms safe places for students to discuss ideas, but we also need to make them safe places for all of our students to be. It’s going to be difficult to achieve both these goals, especially in schools with diverse student bodies.

We need to be ready.

My lesson on Tinker v. Des Moines will be distributed to subscribers tomorrow. If you’re interested, go to and sign up.

A solution – or a new problem?


Yesterday, I received an email from “R” saying a parent was requesting that I join 55 other teachers at my school who are “already using Remind.”

This struck me as odd. Was the request really from a parent? (“R” came with no last name or email address.) Are parents demanding this, or is it clever marketing? Will it become an expectation at my school?

I know about Remind. It’s not a scam. It’s a relatively new app that makes it easy for teachers to text reminders to parents and students about upcoming assignments and tests – as well as text specific parents when their kids are struggling. It’s a smash hit in the ed tech world.

A few months ago, I heard an NPR report explaining how student attendance, assignment completion and even test scores improved in trial high-poverty schools when they used Remind. I don’t remember the details, but my overall impression was favorable.

Remind seemed to work – where websites, online access to grades and other forms of communication did not – because it did not require email or internet access, which many of the families did not have. That makes sense.

But what about in schools where students and parents do have email and internet access? Is there really an added benefit when kids and parents can already access this information with a few keystrokes? I’m already using gradebook-generated email, Gmail, a Moodle site, postcards, letters, phone calls and, of course, face-to-face conversations to communicate with families.

I can already hear the groundswell of support: Why shouldn’t we also use Remind? What could possibly be wrong with over-communicating? If there’s even a chance it will help, why not?

That sentiment is persuasive, and yet… I believe there is a real risk in over-supporting our kids.

Last weekend I had a long conversation with a friend who is a college professor; she was lamenting the number of college freshmen she sees crash and burn when the high school supports are removed. The more we do for them, she says, the less they learn to do for themselves. Eventually, that is a problem. An expensive one, when it means failing college classes.

I’m not denying that teenagers need help with organization, assignment tracking and so forth. Of course they do. What I am saying that we need to teach them these organizational skills, rather than just taking over and bypassing this learning opportunity.

When I was in high school, I learned how to record assignments and test dates in a planner. I also learned to write especially important stuff on my left hand. Today, kids can still do that. Or they can set up a Google calendar with reminders for themselves. Or they can check online class calendars. Or text a friend. Or check their class Facebook group. Or snap a picture of the assignment board.

Instead, we keep creating ever more passive mechanisms to allow them to get through high school without having to organize themselves. I think that’s a bad idea.

At some point in the next few weeks, I’ll have to make a decision about whether to use Remind. The easy choice will be to say yes – because, honestly, why fight it?

But I think we need to proceed with caution. We have to figure out how to ease our teenagers off of these supports as they move through high school, not just create more of them.

Maybe freshmen need this, but by the time they graduate, students don’t need Remind. What they do need is a system to “remind” themselves. And they will never create one if we keep doing it for them.

It’s tough to change our default setting

canstockphoto13724694Did you ever notice how much we (teachers) love to talk?

Recently, I was able to watch another instructor pilot some lessons I’d written. The curriculum was specifically designed to be student-driven and interactive — i.e. not a lecture — and I had planned a series of discovery-based activities that would let students do most of the talking.

I was in for a surprise. As I watched, the instructor revised the first lesson on the fly –really, without even trying. He began by telling the students everything they were about to learn, and before he even got to Step 1, he had spent half an hour lecturing on concepts and terms — something that wasn’t part of the lesson at all.

I was both dismayed and intrigued. This instructor had nothing but good intentions, and he clearly had a strong rapport with the kids. But our teacher instinct for talking and telling students what we want them to learn — rather than letting them learn it through inquiry and discussion — is so strong that it overrode the written lesson plan.

And rather than genuinely wrestling with the content, the students sat passively listening — as they too often do.

I blame myself, of course. I quickly realized, as an observer, that I should have more clearly explained the pedagogy (and the philosophy behind it) in the written lesson. There are ways I can restructure it that will make it much less tempting to default to lecture mode (like putting all of the background in an appendix at the back), even if I can’t prevent it completely.

But I honestly never realized this would happen. How many times have I completed writing a lesson, sent it off to be “field-tested” by other teachers, then read their feedback without considering that the teacher might not have implemented the lesson as it was designed at all?

This experience really underscores my belief that teachers need to experience active-learning in order to use it effectively in the classroom. It’s not enough to talk about it or even provide curriculum that incorporates it. We are so accustomed to our “I’ll talk, you listen” mode of teaching that it will take serious rewiring and practice to change it.

Once I got over my surprise, I realized how fortunate I was to be sitting there. We do not very often get to see firsthand how our written words are interpreted by other teachers.

Now that I know, I’ll be much more thoughtful about how I construct future lessons — and more explicit about the “why”. It was definitely a good learning experience for me.

It’s not about obedience anymore


What do puppy training and teaching have in common? More than you might imagine.

A month ago, we adopted a new dog, Taffy, into our home. She’s two years old, a terrier-ish “rescue,” described by her foster family as “very high energy.” (We also have Star, another terrier-ish “rescue,” who is about five years old.)

Happy Tails Rescue required that we enroll our new dog in a training course – as a precaution to ensure that adopting families don’t give up too quickly and abandon unruly puppies. We’ve “raised” a few dogs (she’s our 4th), so we felt pretty confident in our ability to help Taffy adjust, but we signed up for the four-week course as required.

When we attended, we found out dog training has changed a lot since we last took a dog to school. What used to be called “obedience training” has been replaced by “mindfulness training”, aimed at raising a thoughtful, respectful dog — not merely a compliant rule-follower.

I was surprised to gather a few practical teaching tips from the trainer, who seemed to have a magical dog-whispering ability. So much of what she said relates to teaching humans as well.

#1 Body language. The trainer explained that we (adult humans) aren’t always attuned to our own body language, but our dogs are fluent at reading it. They pick up on our anxiety, our anger, and our nervousness, and they respond to it. Often their bad behavior is a reaction to the messages we don’t know we’re sending. When we speak in stern tones, they get agitated.

So true for our students as well! Teenagers are experts at reading body language, and they quickly sense when we are frustrated or flustered or emotionally distant. They often respond to our moods rather than our words, and when we’re stern, they get defensive. We’re more effective with our students when they know we are calm, confident and genuinely empathetic.

#2 Compliance v. learning. The trainer explained that getting a dog to sit on command isn’t the point. Getting the dog to learn how to calm herself (sitting, standing or lying down) and respect us and trust us is what matters. We won’t get there by enforcing commands.

Again, so relevant for our classrooms. We can force high school students to comply – to be quiet, sit still, and face forward – but that kind of obedience should not be our goal. We need our students to be deeply engaged, not just superficially compliant — and that only happens when we build a relationship of mutual respect and trust.

#3 Understanding the roots of behavior.  The trainer explained that misbehavior always happens for a reason. When Taffy was growling at another dog, she explained that Taffy thought she had to protect me, so I had to reassure her that I was fine and could take care of myself. I would never have interpreted it that way. If I would have yelled at her, it would have escalated the situation. Instead, I was able to quickly calm her.

How often do we misinterpret student behavior – and put it in a bad light? We too often interpret teenagers’ sadness or exhaustion or frustration as intentional defiance, and the way we respond to that has enormous consequences for our relationships with kids.

We still have some work to do in terms of helping Taffy become a calm, trusting dog, but already I feel like I understand her (and Star) so much better than I did before. I need to listen, not just talk, and I need to make sure my body language is consistent with my words.

And now I’ll be a lot more thoughtful about how my body language, my attempts to impose order, and my misinterpretations of behavior can impact my work with teenagers as well. If pet-trainers recognize that relationships trump obedience, we should be able to as well.

Lean Startup: Powerful for teachers


Last week, I had the opportunity to teach the Lean Startup/Design Thinking method of entrepreneurship to an inaugural group of Minnesota teachers. It was the most fun I’ve ever had leading a workshop. (The image above is from a pitch deck designed by several of the participants.)

The feedback I got from teachers was similarly enthusiastic.

It wasn’t what I thought it would be. It was more hands on, a creative challenge, a pleasant surprise for sure.”

“The pace was really good, the activity level good, and time went fast.”

“With this workshop, I truly see the value in using these methods and skills with my students. It is not just for those students who will go out and be entrepreneurs, but the problem solving and critical and creative thinking that is at the center of this program is so important with students these days. I will definitely see myself using this in my school, and even see myself using this to propose and solve my own ideas!”

What made this workshop both fun and useful for teachers, who sacrificed a week of precious summer to attend?

I think the key is the methodology itself. Learning about the Lean Startup and Design Thinking is inherently fun, and it’s also incredibly relevant to teachers and students today. Here’s why:

#1 Creativity: Learning divergent thinking — the creative process — is the first step in Design Thinking. We can’t develop new ideas by taking notes or memorizing information. We did creative warm-ups every day, like thinking of unusual uses for a paper clip, and that’s fun.

#2 Empathy: The Lean Startup method emphasizes looking for problems to solve in your community. We interviewed each other, then interviewed friends and family in the evening, to identify nagging problems, like “finding allergy-free foods” and “reducing screen time.” We practiced listening and responding to others’ needs, not just our own, which helps build empathy.

#3 Collaboration: Some people think entrepreneurship is a solo endeavor, but with this methodology we emphasize social learning and teamwork rather than a single all-star. The teachers worked in small groups to research and test ideas, develop prototype products and put on a trade show, and the energy level kept rising throughout the week.

#4 Hands on learning: Students learn better by doing, and so do teachers. We didn’t just talk about Lean Startup; we did it, and that made it much more tangible and rewarding. The teachers in this course created four viable business ventures, and one of the groups is planning to actually pursue theirs — something no one expected at the beginning of the week. (I won’t share their idea…. I’m protecting their intellectual property.)

#5 Growth Mindset:  Nothing teaches the growth mindset better than entrepreneurship. Lean Startup teaches us to “fail fast” and learn from our failures, which is exactly the resilient attitude we’re trying to cultivate in our students.

I hope all of the teachers who participated last week — a mix of social studies, business, technology and English teachers — will take their learning forward and inspire their students to practice design thinking, entrepreneurship and the growth mindset next year.

They were my prototype group, testing my “minimum viable product,” so now it’s my turn to practice what I was preaching. I’ll put the methodology to work — and make the program even better next time.

Interested in learning more about how to implement Lean Startup/Design Thinking in the classroom? Contact me at