Disappointment Cuts Deeper Than Anger

Like all teachers, I can get angry from time to time.  I can feel angry over disrespectful students who interrupt me or their fellow classmates.  I can get angry over student apathy, and I can get angry when students fail to follow the directions that I’ve given multiple times.  I dislike getting angry with my students, and I do what I can to work through my frustrations before the proverbial “blow up.”  I think my students would say that I don’t often get angry, but you’d have to ask them.  No student likes when his or her teacher gets angry, even when that student realizes the teacher’s anger is justified.  Anger is unpleasant and awkward and makes all concerned feel kind of crummy.  But I would much rather someone be angry with me than disappointed in me, and I hope my students feel this way as well.

Anger, at least the kind I’m talking about in the context of a teacher feeling angry with her students, is fleeting.  It’s also usually not completely rational.  A few students fail to follow directions, perhaps for a few days in a row, and it can seem for a moment like no student follows any directions ever.  But it’s just for a moment that the anger flares up.  The teacher walks away, has a laugh with a colleague, and realizes that all in all she has a great bunch of kids to work with and she’ll take that group of kids over any other.  By the next day, she’s apologizing for being short with the students, and the students are promising to get the next assignment in on time.  No biggie.  The anger is gone.

Disappointment is different.  Disappointment cuts deeper.  Disappointment, unlike that kind of fleeting, ephemeral anger that I just discussed, is intimately connected with character.  Anger is often about someone’s actions; disappointment is often about someone and the disconnect between who we thought that person was and who we now perceive them to be. Whether our perception is accurate or not is to a certain extent irrelevant.  The feeling of disappointment makes it unlikely that in the immediate future our perception will be accurate; it masks our very ability to perceive the person who disappointed us outside of the feeling itself.

If we want to convince our students that honesty, integrity, and trustworthiness matter, we need to help them see that it is far, far better for a teacher or a parent to be angry with them than to be disappointed in them.  We need to help them buck up a bit.  So your teacher got angry?  Did you deserve it?  Are you going to self-correct?  Good.  Now, move on.  Take your lecture, take your punishment, and get on with it.  Chances are if you do this – if you take responsibility without complaint – you will actually rise in the teacher’s estimation.  He or she will actually think better of you.  Imagine that.

BUT, and this bit is important, if you attempt to lie your way out of or around a little bit of justified anger or irritation, you’ve just entered disappointment territory, and disappointment territory is much more treacherous to escape.  Recently, I thought one of my students was headed for disappointment territory, but by telling the truth, accepting the punishment, and then moving on, the disappointment evaporated.  Sure, there was a little bit of anger or frustration, but it didn’t last long at all.  Now, if we could just convince all students of this.



Do We Still Believe Knowledge Is Power?

I’ve written about what I believe is the false dichotomy between knowledge and application previously both here and here, and for a full understanding of my position, please refer to those posts.  Here I’m just adding another layer to my previous arguments.

I recently had a conversation about whether K4-12 educational institutions should focus on knowledge acquisition or knowledge application.  The person I was speaking with brought up what I consider to be a rather tired example in support of knowledge application as more important than knowledge acquisition.  It went something along the lines of the following: “Nowadays students can Google all the information they could ever want, therefore, they don’t need to memorize as much as they once did.  We would serve the students best by focusing on application.  Applying knowledge will enable them to practice problem solving.  And since we don’t know what problems they will face in the future, the ability to problem solve is most important.”  Let’s pull this apart because, while there are bits of this statement with which I agree, taken on the whole, I vehemently disagree.

“Nowadays students can Google all the information they could ever want…”  A true statement as far as it goes.  However, and it’s a big “however,” students don’t automatically know what is important information and what is not.  Unless you are a complete relativist, in which case please go to a different blog, some knowledge is more important, more useful, or more worthy of knowing than other knowledge. Thus, simply being able to Google information is meaningless.

“…they don’t need to memorize as much as they once did.”  If the object of memorization is simply to have singular bits of information floating in one’s head for no apparent reason, then I suppose this part is true.  Students can simply look up those singular bits of information on the Internet when the mood strikes them or the need arises.  But of course, we know that we want kids to convert information from short term to long term memory because that information helps them to problem solve, helps them to synthesize new information, helps them to have a semi-intelligent conversation with someone they meet on the street without having to look every sentence up on the Internet for reference.

“Applying knowledge will enable them to practice problem solving.”  Very true.  Application is important.  Application is actually a very important component in converting information from short to long term memory.  Students who don’t apply the knowledge in their short term memory (i.e. practice and play with the information, repeatedly) will never manage to lock it into their long term memory.  Without locking information into their long term memory, they might as well have not learned it in the first place.  It’s what I like to call “Teflon Learning.”*  Unfortunately, the statement as it stands does not take into account the full complexity of what “applying knowledge” entails.  First, students have to have something in their short term memory to begin applying.  Then, they have to have information in their long term memories in order to figure out how to apply their new knowledge and integrate it into what they already know, in order to have it make sense and be synthesized.  Even I am simplifying this process incredibly, but at least I’m acknowledging there is a role for knowledge acquisition and memory in the process.  The statement above does not.

“And since we don’t know what problems they will face in the future…”  Sorry, but the historian in me screams when I hear people talking about how we don’t know what problems the future holds for us.  This is not as new as everyone seems to think.  I teach my students that pre-history was like a movie in slow motion, history up to the Industrial Revolution was like a movie at regular speed, and history since the Industrial Revolution has been on an ever-increasing fast forward.  So I agree that we don’t know what problems tomorrow’s generation will face, but I would contend that is not exactly new.  The problems that my generation is encountering (FYI – I’m 35) look vastly different than the problems of my parents’ generation, and the problems that my parents faced were not those my grandparents faced.  This does not give educators a free pass to jettison knowledge acquisition in favor of knowledge application, yet many educators will try to use this idea in just that way, in large because they don’t understand the role of knowledge acquisition in knowledge application as I mentioned above.

“The ability to problem solve is most important.”  Agreed.  Unfortunately, everything that came before this sentence is erroneous, at least in my opinion.  It is a true statement built on a shaky foundation that will make the end goal of teaching our students to problem solve less likely to be reached.

*More on Teflon Learning to come.


The Realities of Rigor

I have written before (here and here) about the benefits and consequences of increasing rigor in education, but it is time to revisit this issue as we near the end of first semester.  (For a fuller understanding of what exactly I mean by rigor, click here and here. Hint: It’s not more work.)  I wish increasing the rigor of the school curriculum was a smooth and easy process, but this is the real world, and it’s just not.  I will say this, in independent schools at least, parents play a huge role in how easy or how difficult the process ultimately is.  Parents can be a source of support and encouragement…or not.  There will be important consequences for students either way.

My friend and colleague, Leah Slawson, recently wrote a great post on the tradeoffs that come when students are involved in extracurricular activities. She wrote about how they can’t have it all all the time.  If they want to be involved in sports and the fine arts in addition to taking challenging courses, students may see crests and troughs in their grades or in their performance on the field or stage from time to time.  However, she argues in the end it’s all worth it.

That’s true of increasing rigor in a school’s curriculum and instruction as well.  There will inevitably be challenges, hardship, and possibly at times lower grades than parents and students are used to seeing.  In the end, it’s all worth it!  Through that struggle, students will grow, they will learn from their mistakes and failures, they will think and problem-solve more, and they will be able to deal with setbacks more effectively when they inevitably run into them in the future.  Don’t take my word for it; the research concurs.  (See books like David and Goliath by Gladwell or Mindset by Carol Dweck.)

I think this is especially true in the middle school years.  Middle school is a great time for students to be challenged as any setbacks they overcome will prepare them for the rigors of high school without the pressure of a high school transcript attached.  During middle school, students are changing in multiple ways and at a rapid pace, and allowing them to stretch themselves, allowing them to try new things without the constant pressure of maintaining all A’s is a good thing.  Students who make B’s and C’s or even an occasional D on an assignment or test will better understand what it takes to overcome that when they encounter the same thing in high school.  And please believe me, if we are doing our jobs as educators and truly challenging your students, from time to time, this will happen from 6th grade to 12th grade.

So it’s all worth it in the end…but whether we get to the end has a lot to do with parents.   It is so important for parents and teachers to work together with the ultimate goal of getting every student to reach his or her full potential, but reaching one’s full potential is never easy.  Parents sometimes don’t know how exactly to deal with perceived setbacks in their children’s lives and, acting out of the very best of intentions, they sometimes react in ways that may not be in the student’s best interest.  Sometimes such parents may think the answer is to pressure the school and the teachers to ease up.  At times, they do this quite persuasively.  Always remember, however, teachers are human.  It’s not surprising that teachers can only take so much of this pressure before deciding to take the path of least resistance and actually do what is definitely not in the best interest of the school or students and ease up.  As a result, the end may have been worth it, but unfortunately we didn’t get there.

Please don’t misunderstand what I am saying.  Most teachers want to partner with parents, and most are happy to sit down and discuss how to best help individual students through a challenging curriculum.  Parents have every right to ask questions.  When doing so, however, my hope is that two things occur.  First, I hope that they come to meetings with an open mind and that when given a thoughtful, reasonable, well-educated recommendation from a teacher, they will listen and truly partner with the teacher.  My second hope is that parents, teachers, and students keep in mind the end result of their actions and decisions.  Teachers can ease up and in the short term things will be “good,” but over the long term, things may not be so very good at all.  And if a student leaves school less prepared than we would all like, who all bears the burden of responsibility?

While this post has mostly been about parents, I have a message for teachers as well.  I feel for you.  I do.  My first year of teaching was rough.  I got a few emails and had a few conferences that are best forgotten.  Even so, I think I resisted the urge to ease up.  It wasn’t easy, and perhaps I haven’t always been consistent in that, but I think I’ve largely succeeded.  I did it by constantly reminding myself about the end goals, constantly reminding students about the end goals, and openly communicating with parents about the end goals.  I tried very hard not to be defensive with parents who came to me with questions, and instead maintain a consistency in my teaching, assessing, and communication.  As I’ve gotten more years under my belt, I have gained confidence and others have (I think) gained confidence in me.

Finally, as a teacher, I received support from my administration that helped me navigate through these challenges.  As an administrator and classroom teacher now, I want to support teachers in the same way. I want to pay it forward.  If you have administrators who are willing to help you have the difficult conversations with parents, take advantage of it.  Do not be afraid to challenge your students.

Thinking Your Way to the Wrong Answer?

Disclaimer: This post might not be one-hundred percent ready yet because I’m still thinking through some things, but writing sometimes helps me clarify what my questions actually are so here it goes anyway.

Have you ever asked a question, either in class or on a test, that you thought was a “gimme” question or a “softball” question only to have students miss it altogether?  Have you then ever asked them to explain why and how they missed the question only to listen to some very convoluted over-thinking on their part?  I used to think this was the student’s problem, but over the last month or so, I’m starting to think the student was actually doing everything right: thinking and thinking a lot.  The student was assuming that I was asking something deep, something complex, something worthy of their deep thinking.  In a way, I had failed them by not delivering.

I have a colleague who I respect deeply who recently gave a test built around essential questions.  The test was primarily a written test filled with higher-order, critical thinking questions.  This was the good, meaty kind of assessment we want all teachers to deliver.  She was unsure how the students would do, and while there were a handful that did not fare so well (as there would be on any test), she was “pleasantly surprised” by her students’ performance overall.  She reported that some students did better on the tougher thinking questions than they did on the easier fact-based questions.  If that’s not food for thought, I don’t know what is.

Some students, for whatever reason, will have difficulty remembering isolated facts, even when the teacher has gone over and over those facts in class.  Those same students, however, may be able to think their way through a challenging problem by using logic and reasoning or they may be able to answer more challenging questions about those facts when the facts are put in context.  If this is true, then we can’t hold back on the critical thinking questions because “they can’t even get the basics down.”  If this is true, then we need to create assignments and assessments that have at minimum an equal measure of lower- and higher-order thinking problems and questions.

This is true of writing as well.  Another colleague of mine insists that students learn grammar best by writing their own work rather than using textbook exercises.  Which one would most people say is more challenging: editing or diagramming a sentence from a textbook or writing a paragraph and deciding how to punctuate it correctly and make sure subjects and verbs agree with one another throughout the piece?  I would venture that most of us would say the latter involves more thinking on the part of the student, and yet, according to my colleague and all the research done over the last 2 decades on the way students learn grammar, students will actually learn and retain more of an understanding of grammar if they write and edit their own work.

And last but not least, there’s vocabulary, whether that vocabulary is related to science, history, math, or English.  Memorizing workbook and textbook definitions is not extremely difficult, but how many of our students will retain these kinds of memorized definitions for very long, if at all?  But the more a student uses a word, plays with the word, sees and reads the word in multiple contexts, the more likely he or she will be to remember it.  Having students contextualize the vocabulary in these ways appears more challenging on the surface, and yet the research again says it’s the only pathway to true and authentic learning of new words.

So could there be some questions so easy that our students think their way to the wrong answer?  And if that’s the case, what’s our responsibility as educators in this situation?

“It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times…”

It’s that time of year again, that incredibly important but incredibly daunting time of year for teachers and students.  Because each individual group of students that comes to me is slightly different than the last, it’s about this time of the year (October, actually) that I get a firm grasp on who these particular students are, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and how best to reach them as opposed to some other group of students.  With my current AP Euro group, I now realize there are two things we need to work on as group: reading informational text and reasoning critically by seeing connections or patterns across content.  Neither of these two skills are easy to teach or learn, and yet they are crucial components to studying anything.

Sometimes you are given just the help you need at just the right time, however.  Last week, I received the latest edition of EL Magazine, put out by ASCD.  If you don’t get this magazine, I urge you to get a subscription. This particular edition is all about how to teach students to “tackle informational text.”  The magazine is filled with article after article about how to immerse students neck-deep in difficult readings and teach them to tread water and eventually swim ashore.  It’s not so much that the articles told me a bunch of stuff I didn’t already know, so much as they affirmed what I thought was true.  A little affirmation can help a teacher move forward when the path gets rough.

In addition to these articles, I went back and read the previous edition of EL magazine that dealt with teaching students “resiliency.”  For my AP Euro students, many of whom have done very well in school with an average amount of effort, learning to bounce back from (what they perceive as?) poor grades is just as important as learning to read informational text or think critically.  What I liked about one particular article called “The Significance of Grit,” however, was that grit was not just defined as bouncing back.  Rather Angela Lee Duckworth defined grit as “not just having resilience in the face of failure, but also having deep commitments that you remain loyal to over the many years.”  She went on to say, “Grit predicts success over and beyond talent.  When you consider individuals of equal talent, the grittier ones do better.” Finally, she described a current study she is doing, saying, “We tell kids that deliberate practice is not easy.  You are going to be confused.  You are going to be frustrated.  When you’re learning, you have to make mistakes.  You need to do things over and over again, and that can be boring.”  What I found rare and refreshing was that last bit, “that can be boring.”  If you read most educational literature these days, boring is like a four-letter word.  But Duckworth doesn’t necessarily agree. Reading informational text at times may not be the most engaging activity, even when the teacher tries to pick a text that is interesting for students. This, however, does not negate the need to read informational text well.

I’m going to close this post with another very important point from this same article.  “There are a lot of fragile gifted and talented kids who don’t know how to fail.  They don’t know how to struggle, and they don’t have a lot of practice with it.  Being gifted [or talented] is no guarantee of being hardworking or passionate about something.”

What’s In A Name?

Have you ever said a word over and over only to have it sound so strange to your ear that you wonder if you are in fact pronouncing it correctly or if it is in fact a word at all?  Lately, while immersing myself in education articles, books, and conferences covering every currently hot topic imaginable, I have had this experience more than once.  Sometimes I think that educators believe if they just use the same word over and over again actual change will occur without any actions being taken to make it so.  It’s as if the words are a magical incantation that when said in just the right way or with just the right tone can make all our educational problems disappear.

What troubles me about this is not that the latest trends don’t offer real solutions, it is that those solutions are being lost and squandered.  Instead of doing the hard thinking and hard work that it takes to make those potentially great ideas a reality, we just talk and talk and talk.  The more we talk, the less the words mean.  An obvious example is, of course, the phrase “21st century learning.”  In 2000, it made sense to talk about how 21st century learning should be and would be different than 20th century learning.  The problem is that it is now 2013, we are into the 2nd decade of the 21st century, and we are still talking about it like it is brand new or not yet here.  Guess what?  It’s here, and we are living it.  Has it lived up to its hype?

Similarly, I see great potential in the “Maker Movement,” but if I am honest, I would not be surprised if it does not live up to its potential.  Sylvia Martinez, a big name in the movement, recently commented in a Tech and Learning article, “I realize the attraction of always searching for the “new new thing,” the magic wand that will fix all problems.  I don’t believe that the Maker Movement is a magic wand.  I hope it doesn’t get turned into a buzzword.  Maybe we can talk more about how to make sure the hype doesn’t overwhelm the promise of the Maker Movement in schools.”  I was so thankful to see this comment at the very end of the article because at least it’s a start, an acknowledgement of the possible pitfalls.

One way to make sure that something as potentially good as the Maker Movement doesn’t end up a mere buzzword is to put more time into (gasp!) planning.  In the article, the 3 key areas that Martinez sees as places for schools to begin with the Maker Movement are robotics, programming, and 3-D printers.  On the one hand, I was happy to see that my school is working on all 3 components currently.  On the other hand, my worry is that we will throw a 3-D printer or some robotics into a room or with no plan of action, no systematic way to make and measure our goals for these tools and programs.  If we do this, we can repeat over and over that we are a part of the Maker Movement all we wish, but in the end, it’s just a name.

P.S.  In thinking about this post, a scene from the movie The Princess Bride also came to mind.  Enjoy!

The Art of Self-Reflection

When I was in graduate school, I designed and implemented a study on teaching students about metacognition, or in layman’s terms, teaching students how to think about their thinking.  After nearly two decades of school in one form or another, I had learned through trial and error how to monitor my own thinking and learning, but I believed (and still do) that teaching students to do this from a young age can pay huge dividends throughout their school careers and beyond.

To me, metacognition is one particular form of self-reflection, and I have come to realize as an adult that self-reflection is a life skill that too few people possess or at least use on a regular basis.  No matter our chosen profession, no matter where we are on our career path, we all need to self-reflect on a consistent basis.  We all need to apply to ourselves and our endeavors the basic concept we learned as college freshmen in that oh-so-stimulating-course Economics 101: the cost-benefit analysis, or if you like to see the glass half full, the benefit-cost analysis.

The eternal optimist may have more trouble with cost-benefit analyses than the pragmatist or the pessimist.  Optimists, of course, always look for the good, for the beneficial.  This is a worthy character trait; we all need those people in our lives who lift us up.  Yet an optimist who forever closes their eyes to problems is a risky and dangerous person as far as I am concerned.  Small, fixable problems that go unseen by the optimist who only measures things based on the beneficial qualities they possess become large, intractable problems over time.  So optimists, more than even pragmatists and pessimists, need to learn the art of self-reflection.  Pragmatists and pessimists need to learn this art as well, but I do believe it comes more naturally to them (too naturally, for the pessimist perhaps).

Self-reflection is actually not all about the self, despite the name.  Self-reflection involves thinking about how one’s words and actions affect others, too.  What turned out to be of great benefit to you or to some around you, may have cost others a great deal.  In school environments, those costs are important because school cultures operate not around single individuals or small groups but around the community as a whole.

Teaching young people to self-reflect is not easy, for as a friend and colleague of mine says, teenagers often come down with severe cases of ITB, or irrational teenage behavior.  More often than not, those teenagers catch this “disease” by failing to think about others first.  Fortunately, the disease is curable, but only if we teach young people the art of self-reflection.  Otherwise, we are likely to end up with a much worse and far less treatable disease called IAB, irrational adult behavior.