Teachers, Are you Sabotaging your Students–and Yourself?

February 21, 2020

“I know you hate this, but let’s plow through.”

“I see lots of anxious faces out there.”

“This is really hard.”

I’ve heard many comments like these over the years. I’m sure I’ve said them as well.  Why? When we say things like this, we are probably doing some or all of the following:

  1. Trying to reassure students/show empathy
  2. Acknowledging the difficulty of the work
  3. Acknowledging some student comments.

All of that is well-intentioned.  We should find ways to put students at ease and to acknowledge that difficult work lies ahead.

But what else are we saying:

  1. “I don’t expect you to enjoy this.
  2. This is objectively anxiety-inducing.
  3. Hard ≠ enjoyable

Often, we are also saying much more about ourselves than our students.  And, as we do that, we are taking away their chance to grow self-awareness and perseverance. 

So, what can we do instead?  Here are some possibilities:

  1. Swap out “hard” for “challenging”.  We can all get excited about challenges, especially if we are encouraged to create plans to meet our goals.
  2. Instead of putting words like “anxious” into the atmosphere, use reflections to ask students how they feel about the work.   We can use reflections before during and after the work to see how habits and attitude helped us to engage with the work. 
  3. Try not to assume that all students think the same way about all work. What’s difficult or boring for one student may be thrilling and engaging for another.  (To that end, we should try not to put our own biases about any type of work on our students!)

Here’s the bottom line: The more exciting we make the work, the more students will rise to our high expectations. So, go ahead—assign very challenging work.  Tell kids it’s challenging, sure, but make sure they see how wonderful it is as well!

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The Key to Lessening Pressure AND Increasing Rigor

January 10, 2016

David Aderhold, a superintendent in New Jersey recently put an end to HS mid-term and final exams in a well-intentioned attempt to ease pressure on increasingly anxious kids–pressure also discussed in this recent NY Times opinion piece and the film Race to Nowhere.

Aderhold’s decision led to a vigorous debate in his community–with one side firmly standing with the superintendent, led by concern about their children’s mental health. Those on the other side worried that the superintendent was dumbing down education.

It’s possible that neither side is completely right or wrong and that there’s a way to satisfy both camps: standards-based learning (and grading).

What we really want to do is focus on learning, not grades. At the same time, we want to ensure that what kids are learning and how they demonstrate that learning is rigorous and prepares them to take on deeper and tougher material as they proceed through high school and beyond. Done right, SBL satisfies both sides. It takes away the singular focus on grades and GPA and it provides a rigorous pathway.

Using SBL, courses have clear standards–what students must know and be able to do to prove that they have successfully completed a course. Instead, each of the course’s power standards are clearly unpacked, so that any teacher teaching the course, any student learning in the course and any parent what mastery looks like, what approaching mastery looks like, and what it looks like to exceed mastery. It’s then up to the learning community to support students to reach for mastery and beyond, while supporting students who struggle by clearly showing what’s needed to get to the next level.*

Getting to SBL takes time and work and consensus building as it’s a change from what we’ve always done. I truly hope we’ll all get there someday, but until then, I have a few suggestions for schools who want to both ease pressure and promote rigor.

  1. Don’t throw away mid-term and final exams: Large scale displays of knowledge are important for students, they allow students to cohesively package what they have learned over the course of several weeks or months and show what they know and can do
  2. Do rethink what a mid-term or final looks like: Ensure that mid-terms and final exams are largely performance based and the expectations are shared ahead of time–so that students are thinking, consciously and subconsciously, about how they will pull the standards and the work together to a culminating piece
  3. Do allow retakes to the greatest extent possible and practicable BUT make sure the purpose of retakes is to allow students to learn from mistake and have additional opportunities to demonstrate mastery . That way, students will believe us when we tell them “It’s Not About the Points”

It is actually possible to have kids love rigorous learning. SBL could well be a key.

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