Mark Sass, a teacher since 1994, teaches at Legacy High School in the Adams Five Star School District. He is a member of the Denver New Millennium Initiative.
Sometimes teachers shake their heads and say, “There must have been something in the water when these kids were born.” How else can you explain the hard-to-explain trends that evolve in our classrooms from one year to the next? The trend I see has to do with students’ reluctance to challenge themselves and to struggle through when faced with new content or while applying new skills or concepts.
In conversations with my colleagues, we have encountered more and more students – and parents – who want to switch from one class to another. Why? The reasons vary: Their teachers are being mean; the teacher’s style is counter to the student’s learning style (Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences gone haywire if you ask me); the teacher is too negative; the student just doesn’t “get it” in their classes.
Some students who are successful in my class want out, but a majority of the students who want out are not academically successful. Which isn’t to say they are struggling; rather they give up as soon as they encounter some academic dissonance. This dissonance is the characteristic that shows you are learning something.
But some students do not see this. They immediately raise a hand and say “I don’t get it!’ And if the teacher persists in encouraging the student to struggle, the student claims that the teacher isn’t helping them, or they are being mean, or that the teacher’s style is keeping them from getting “it.”
But it is the struggle that causes learning. And sometimes the student does not get it right away. It takes more time and resources. But as soon as a grade reflects a struggle, in other words they don’t have an “A” in class, fingers are pointed at the teacher. Some of this has to do with our overreliance on an imperfect system of reporting, in other words the letter grade system.
For many students and parents it is about the grade and not the learning. I’d love to tell a parent who is questioning a grade in class, “Here, you can have the A. Me, I am more worried about the learning, and your student has not learned what they need to know.” So, I do see our obsession with grades as part of the problem.
But I think there are some other cultural issues at play, for example the emphasis to raise a student’s self esteem through constant praise. In Montgomery County, Maryland, they’ve stopped using “empty praise” and now “aim to articulate a more precise, and scientific, vocabulary for praise that will push children to work through mistakes and take on more challenging assignments.”
The bottom line is that students are learning how to fail. I want to be careful here and say I am not advocating we let students fail, but that we teach them how to fail. We have all failed at one endeavor or another over our lifetimes. How we respond to failure allows us to reflect and learn from the experience. “That which doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger,” was not just a platitude thrown around by our elders.
Peter DeWitt, a blogger on Education Week, recently wrote about the “Benefits of failure.” He argues that America has a problem with failure. Failure is looked upon as something that must be avoided at all costs. DeWitt blames some of this on the educational experience that students encounter in school.
When a student begins to fail, they are immediately surrounded by adults who cater to their every need. When they enter college, he argues, they lack the number of adults around to keep them on track. I think what DeWitt is getting at is we need to encourage failure and build the agency of a student to learn from failure.
Some students are risk-averse because they know failure does not look good on high school transcripts when elite colleges are making enrollment decisions. If you want into exclusive colleges you cannot afford any misteps. See Neal Gabler’s opinion piece in this past Sunday’s New York Times Education Life for a great examination on the pressure to superachieve and its consequences.
In an Education Week article on how the United States ranks internationally in education, there was some discussion about the role that cultural difference among countries might play in their results. James Stigler, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, has a wonderful quote that sums up my feelings about getting students to struggle.
“American students ‘aren’t socialized to struggle hard,” says Stigler in Education Week. “They’re socialized to put their hands up and say, ‘I don’t know.’ ” While Japanese parents would be inclined to tell a child’s teacher, “Thank you for helping my kid struggle,” he suggests, American parents are more inclined to say, “Why are you torturing my kid?”