Like many teachers, I went into the field with an idealistic and naive sense of what I would accomplish. Like many teachers, my first day in the classroom was shocking and overwhelming.
I had chosen to work at my high school precisely because I loved the wild variety of students I found there. Walking through the halls during a passing period on my way to my job interview, I found myself laughing with pleasure at the vitality of the scene. Every race, every style every size and shape of student was here - black students in full hip-hop gear, punks with blue hair, jocks and nerds, goth girls, afros and straight blond hair. The place was bursting with adolescent energy.
So it came as a shock, the first minute of my first class, that out of this diverse student body, every one who walked through my door was black. Furthermore, in the first few minutes of class, it became obvious that there were going to be serious classroom management issues. There were a critical mass of students who had not much use for school and were willing to challenge my authority without even knowing who I was. Let’s just say I was tested as a teacher, and found wanting.
Only later would I discover why this unexpected skewing of student population had happened. With the encouragement of my new department chair, I had chosen to create and teach a new course called “conceptual physics”, an approach that focused on the ideas of physics rather than the mathematical problem solving usually associated with the course. The course had been described in the student handbook as not having math prerequisites, so for counselors looking to place students with poor math and science grades in one last science class, this was an ideal situation.
It was, in other words, de facto tracking, with the lowest track being funneled into my classes.
It was an overwhelming experience. I had taught in urban, mixed race classes before, but had never before encountered the kind of anger and disinterest that was the dominant posture of my students towards school in general and my class in particular.
The first few months left me in despair. Every day brought new power struggles, new and novel forms of chaos. Every day, I came home exhausted and tense, “zombified”, as one of my colleagues put it. I was in over my head - I hadn’t taught in nearly a decade, and my previous teaching experience hadn’t prepared me for this. Like many new teachers, I found myself thinking of quitting. Having given up a career as an engineer to return to teaching, and having taken a serious pay cut to do it, there were many times I felt I had made a terrible mistake.
That first summer, I returned to my engineering job as a temp - I couldn’t afford not to - and was startled to remember how peaceful and civil the atmosphere was. There was time to have a casual conversation with a colleague, if I chose. There were no bells ringing to tell me it was time to be “on” again.
That first year I was confronted with the damage that is done to failing students and their teachers. I saw first-hand the institutionalized racism built into the academic tracking system. Honors classes were essentially all white and had the best teachers, “general” (that is lower-tracked) classes were essentially all black, and had the new, untested teachers or teachers who didn’t have the clout to get out of them.
Above all, I was exposed to the plague of “doing school”, the cynical games that successful students do well, and failing students do badly. I was forced to confront the raw truth of school: most students, even successful students, don’t actually learn very much. This is born out both by extensive research and my personal experience.
At the end of the first semester, as we were reviewing for the upcoming exam, I was surprised at how little even my successful students remembered. We spent a full week working hard at reviewing the concepts and skills of the past four months.
When I graded the exams, I was dismayed to find that the very best students, who had done well on tests all semester, were only answering 60% of the questions right, and the lowest grades were not much higher than random guessing. How could this be, I thought. They were learning this material so well. Had I created an exam that was too challenging? But I knew that the questions were the same level of difficulty that the tests had been all semester. So what could the problem be?
In a panic, I went to another physics teacher and asked him what he thought I should do about this calamity. He calmed me down by saying that my students’ grades were completely normal; his students typically did the same. He suggested I simply establish a curve for the exam based on their scores so that there would be an appropriate number of A’s, B’s and so on.
I did as he suggested - what else would make sense? I couldn’t assume that my “A” students were actually “D” students or worse. But I also knew there was something systemically wrong here. I began a long struggle to attack the obvious conclusion that, after all their hard work (and mine), my students were learning far less than I thought.
Over the next two decades, I worked very hard, as so many teachers do, to create a way of helping my students become much more successful at learning. My secret weapon was to enlist their help in this evolution. In ways large and small, we worked together to create a system, a culture of learning, that had a profound effect on my students and on me.
I stumbled into every pitfall that teachers fall into: pointless power struggles, meaningless arguments over grades, the gnawing sense that my students weren’t all that interested in what I was teaching them, that I was providing most of the motivation in the room, and that, worst of all, they weren’t learning very much.
And that is the crux of the problem of schools. Most students simply don’t learn very much. Some do, of course, but it has more to do with them as individuals than with the school. But for every student that thrives in school, there are far too many whom school fails.
This book is the culmination of the journey I took with the students and teachers I worked with. It is a description of how school can become a place where students thrive, where they become effective at the skill of learning. It is the story of how we created a community of self-directed learners.
It begins with my last year of teaching, and how, in the course of the first few weeks of the year, my students and I began the process of bringing that beautiful community into being.
After decades of teaching high school science, the last few years were by far the most meaningful and satisfying. Together, my students and I created a vibrant classroom culture, alive with curiosity, generosity, and humor and dedicated to learning. I knew that this was how school should be. More importantly, so did they.
Throughout my career, I collaborated with my students to develop a new and truly effective approach to education. Once I retired from teaching in 2010, I began a career of educational consulting based on the philosophy and techniques I had developed. I had the deep pleasure of seeing other teachers in a wide range of disciplines transform their practice using those techniques. As they became more effective, their working relationships with students became more functional and, to put it bluntly, their students learned more. Based on those experiences, I can say without hesitation that the approach described in this book works across a wide spectrum of students and the disciplines they are studying. But you don’t need to take my word for it. If my words don’t convince you, the words of my students and colleagues will.
You may be understandably skeptical of these claims. Unless you have been living in a cave, you know that American education is in deep trouble. For years, you heard that the system is broken, that students are being ill-served and are often graduating without necessary skills. As a person who has been on the inside for many years, I am here to tell you that the problem is probably far worse than you think, that the sheer waste of human potential is deeper than any governmental report or newspaper article can convey. Furthermore, the current efforts at school reform threaten the very existence of public education in this country and are, by and large, doomed to fail.
School progress is predominantly measured in standardized test scores, or in how American students stack up against Chinese students. As I will explain, test scores, high or low, miss the point altogether. I believe that even those students who have high test scores and are judged successful in school are being poorly served.
Despite all that, I remain optimistic about the potential of schools. I know from experience that a relatively small change in how we think about schools can have a powerful and very positive effect on the lives of students. To truly improve schools, we will have to acknowledge the reality of the lives of our students and how little of their experiences in school have to do with genuine learning. Because of the accomplishments of my students and the students of the many teachers I have work with, I know it can be done.
Here’s what it looks like.