Thinking About Learning

After months and months of trying, it finally happened. A student asked me a question, specifically this question.

“Why do I understand this when you’re here, but when you leave I can’t do it?”

I find that this is often a conundrum that students encounter, especially when they dutifully take notes in class, look at their examples, and then get lost on the homework. When I teach something, or explain something, I am ultimately the one doing the thinking. The students just nod along and memorize what they have seen, and then are unable to duplicate the examples on their own because they have never actually THOUGHT about the process. The best description I have ever found for this is pseudoteaching (MIT physics and hunting monkeys are my favorite), and I believe it should be mandated reading for all teachers.

The problem as I see it, is that so many of our students, and people in general, detest thinking. We like to become familiar with information because when we become familiar with information we are usually able to recognize information, which often will get that hit of dopamine that comes with good grades. Do it enough and it becomes addicting. I frequently run into this behavior from students. It seems like so many of the students in front of me have forgotten nearly everything their previous teachers have taught them. So when I go to teach them, they are insanely driven by quick responses that are externally validated, because they want that satisfaction of being right. When I try to remove the external stimuli of immediate praise and grades, of mind numbing procedural duplication, I am often met with literal withdrawal symptoms. I am not joking about that whatsoever.

I had never really thought of this whole process of teaching an learning until one interaction with one student one day after school. It’s not as though I wasn’t aware of the process involved in mastery of an academic subject, I had just never contemplated what that looks like from a teacher’s perspective. A student came to my room after school to take a test that she had missed earlier and didn’t have a study hall to use. She was struggling. At first came the exasperation that she could remember covering the material, but didn’t remember how to do the problems. We cover information in class, but we seemingly forget so much of what was covered. Rarely do ever think about why that happens.

When students hit that point of struggle, specifically that point when they can acknowledge the familiarity of material, but fail in the execution of material, a dichotomy forms. Frequently students enter denial. We all can recognize the symptoms of denial, I’ve even participated in some of them before. We blame the teacher, saying, “You never covered this.” We sometimes blame our health, saying that I’m too sick. We question the worth of covering subject, asking ourselves, “Why do I have to do this?” We blame our classmates, saying they are too distracting. We might even blame ourselves and say, “I’m just not a math person.” Whatever the reason that is given, denial allows us to avoid confronting the limitations of our own ability and work ethic. Denial allows us to be in a state of mind where we can avoid actually THINKING and ENGAGING with academic material in any sort of significant way. When we then live in a state of denial, we internalize the mechanisms that allow our minds to get through the struggle of school, without learning much of anything, just waiting until we get to the stage where we can quit. (Hello Senioritis, my old friend.)

But back to my story about the girl working on a test after school. She didn’t just live in denial, she hit rock bottom, and in this case it manifested itself as bawling. I’ve had students get teary eyed during tests before, but it is usually tears of frustration and anger, tears that are symptoms of withdrawal. I am so used to students lashing out in frustration (“This is bullshit!”) that I have become almost numb to the symptoms of denial and withdrawal. But that bawling, it lives vividly in my mind because I have witnessed rock bottom so few times, and this was the first. So when she started bawling, I shut the door, pulled up a chair next to her and just talked. I took the test away and shared my own personal story of rock bottom, and we just talked for about an hour and a half. I didn’t know what else to do because hints and instruction at this point would not have been fruitful in any sort of way.

Not much else was accomplished that day, but it did change the nature of the typical student teacher relationship. It instantaneously showed me that no matter what assessment I give, what questions I ask, I will never be able to understand what actually happens inside students’ minds. All the things that I thought represented good student learning, really don’t necessarily mean students are learning anything. They do problems. They ask questions. They listen. But I can’t be sure if they are learning.

It also showed me that displaying your thought process is an incredibly vulnerable thing to do. As long as I stand in front of the room, making math appear easy, my students will almost always feel ashamed when they cannot duplicate the process as easily as me. That’s why my students so desperately want formulas and shortcuts. Because actually displaying their thought process is such a painful experience that most of them can’t handle in front of me out of a fear that they will be humiliated. (That happened when a student left class in tears because she thought I was laughing at her when she was struggling through working a problem.) I could go on and on about how comfort with vulnerability is essential to learning, but that should be something that rests entirely on its own merit. Besides, I tend to ramble enough already.

So, ever since that day of bawling, I have structured my classes to try an elicit rock bottom symptoms from my students. If a student is going to tune me out, fine tune me out. I would rather know a student is blatantly disengaged than be surprised when a student’s superficial engagement ultimately led to failure. It can be a struggle and a drain at times. And some kids don’t need it, but those complacent students living in denial, that have the potential to truly do anything they want, those are the ones that need to hit rock bottom. It finally happened this last Friday.

There was visible frustration as a student realized that she should be able to do this stuff, but couldn’t.

One of my students living in an illusion of superiority finally, finally, slowed down and worked through a problem.

And of course, “Why do I understand this when you’re here, but when you leave I can’t do it?”

It’s a start, but maybe some real education can actually begin.

Bad Images of School Spirit

For the past two weeks I have been trying write about how I view the concept of school spirit. It seems like the topic has come up in discussions at staff meetings and even among the students themselves. Every time that I have tried to write I have come up with some kind of imagery that I was going to use an analogy to describe school spirit. At first it was a tripod, then a pyramid. Even a Russian nesting doll came into consideration. Think about that for a second.

The Nesting Doll of School Spirit….ugh, what a waste.

I keep trying to write and I keep second guessing myself because no matter what I use I always feel like I am missing the point. When I feel like I miss the point I feel like I am contributing to the problem rather than solving the problem.

We have brainstormed ideas on activities and many of them sound really neat. I would be excited to try some of them. But I think what we are doing is backwards. The practices that represent a positive school spirit only manifest themselves in the correct environment. And that is where we don’t focus our attention enough. It is the reason that our all of our activities ultimately feel shallow and contrived rather than being authentic. School spirit requires an emotional investment, but we haven’t created an environment where that emotional investment can thrive.

In the post linked above, the author talks about the professional relation between the staff and students. A successful, spirited, supportive school can only exist when there is a collectiveness between the major stakeholders in the school. Students to students, students to staff, staff to staff, it all needs create a cycle that builds a mindset of us. The intrinsic nature of the educational system we live with though, tends to push us apart. We form cliques. Students group themselves by GPAs, extracurriculars, and different career paths. Staff divides themselves into departments, coaches, classified vs. certified, just to name a few. Our schools do not represent an opportunity to unite, but instead drive us apart. When we are driven apart our leaders tend to divide us into groups that suits their own self-interested pursuits and wonder why their followers revolt or resist.

Once we are driven apart we aren’t under any obligation to view our peers, colleagues, students, teachers, and administration as people. We can assign them traits that we would never ascribe to ourselves. We don’t think of them as us, but rather they are something other. We otherize people. As teachers we create assignments, give grades, and demand obedience that we would never wish upon us. As administrators we create rules and climates that are the furthest thing from being warm and inviting. As students we continually tune out teachers, ignore and belittle their effort, and worship credentials rather than knowledge. Our schools have created an environment where we live by the adage, “what have you done for me lately?” If those others won’t give us what we want, well screw them. We hand out detentions and suspensions, give out low grades, assign more homework. We leave to take classes online, take classes at the community college, just flat out skip school. Then we justify our actions by claiming that they deserved it.

We do all of those thing because it provides a barrier that protects us. Until we are willing to be vulnerable in front of each other, we will always have an unsafe environment that will never be supportive, collaborative, learning environment. (On a personal note, I really think that I have been struggling with the vulnerability side the past two years.) When we are vulnerable we place our self-confidence, our self-image in others. When we are vulnerable we inherently trust each other. As a teacher, when I am vulnerable, I am trusting my students to not ridicule me and tear me down. As a student, when I am vulnerable, I am trusting my teachers with my self-esteem. If that trust and vulnerability are mutual we become emotionally invested in each other. Once we are authentically invested in each other, then, and only then, can we begin to build the activities that appear to create a positive school spirit.

Until we learn to give a crap, our culture will be crap.


It’s Not My Responsibility

When is a teacher free from the responsibility of teaching? I’ve heard the concept called release time. There might be other terminology for the concept, but I am not sure. So what is release time exactly?

As a teacher I provide explanations and examples to my students. I answer questions, walk through procedures, and attempt to ask thought provoking questions to stretch my students. I provide resources such as practice problems from a textbook or links to videos for further explanation. But when do I get to say, “I’ve done enough.”?

To me release time is when I get to release myself the responsibility and burden of educating a student. When release occurs the burden of education falls upon the student. However, there is not set standard for when this can be accomplished.

Is it a time thing? Are three class periods enough? Maybe a week?

Is it a certain number of exercises or worksheets?

Is it when students can successfully mimic the instruction in the class?

I find myself at an impasse. I think I have covered material thoroughly. I have explained all of my reasoning. I have used a multitude of examples of varying difficulty. Yet, in spite of my efforts, I feel like I have a large portion of my students who are willfully neglecting to learn.  I really don’t know what else I can do short of dumbing down the standard even more than I already have.

I feel like the students are being dismissal of my teaching efforts, a feeling that rarely happens on such a large scale. I know some would say it is the topic itself, that it isn’t interesting, or that it is just too difficult. It is confined to this one topic. Usually, it is a great group of kids, with great motivation, but I put the work in front of them and it’s a chorus of eye rolls, moans, and “I don’t get it(s).”

And so I am conflicted. Part of me wants to say, “screw ‘em, I’ve done my job,” but part of me is constantly trying to think of ways to make this make sense.  I can’t decide, is the shut down out lack of desire or is it because of lack of skills? If it is the latter, I can keep constructively working on improving skills, but if it is the former, there is nothing I can do. The more I watch, the more I try, the more I believe that it is the former, that they just don’t want to do this.

But I need to assess them, right? The purpose of assessment is to make sure the students understood the information. Can I give an assessment in good conscious when so many of my students refuse to participate? Maybe I should just forgo the assessment. Does the topic really matter in the all encompassing life of school? Or is that granting too much power to the students, to let them dictate the topics to be tested? I know that we always should think of the things that we can do better, but just this once is it okay to be selfish?

Can I say, just this once, that I’ve done enough?