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The Perils of Rigor

Imagine for a moment that a physical education program has been created to help students lead a healthier life.  Part of the program includes the goal of having students do 50 sit-ups every day.  Unfortunately, a large number of students are disinterested in doing sit-ups, even when they get punished with bad grades for not doing them.

The PE department decides it is important to have data about this problem, so the teachers are required once a week to record how many sit-ups each student does.  After several weeks, there is no significant change, so teachers are required to record the number for each student every day, then several times per day.  It’s thought that perhaps parental involvement will help, so a computer program is created and teachers post sit-up data twice a day.  Still no change.

At this point, the administration decides the teachers aren’t trying hard enough, so they link the teachers’ pay to the number of sit-ups their students can do in an annual sit-up exam.  This causes a great deal of anxiety and a plunge in morale on the part of teachers.  Inevitably, there is a scandal when several teachers get caught boosting their numbers.  Aside from that, little changes.

Finally, in desperation, it is decided that the problem is that the program isn’t rigorous enough, and the goal is raised from 50 to 100 sit-ups daily.  Of course, students don’t do more sit-ups because of this change — all that happens is that the scores go down.

In this analogy, it is clear that the one factor which has been utterly ignored is the students’ motivation, or lack of it.  Do the students believe that doing sit-ups is important or useful?  Some do, but many don’t.  Do they even think that sit-ups will make them healthier?  No one is asking.

Clearly, every effort that has been made has been from the outside in, trying to force students to do more sit-ups.  Just as clearly, their lack of motivation will ultimately prevail over any such effort. Even if a teacher discovers that by having students “cram” just before the annual test and learn a few tricks to temporarily raise their numbers, there would be little or no improvement in the student’s health, which was, after all, the original intent of the program.  And, to be honest, perhaps the number of sit-ups a person does isn’t very important in the big picture of his health.  For instance, most adults, even healthy adults, don’t do 50 sit-ups every day.

Some adults may have learned how to be healthy in school, but most figure it out on their own as adults.  Sadly, many won’t do sit-ups in part because of their memories of what it felt like being forced to do them in school.  For all too many people, the same is true for reading Shakespeare or solving mathematical problems or writing an essay.

Believing that making learning goals harder will cause unmotivated students to learn more is an exercise in magical thinking, and there is plenty of evidence that it simply doesn’t work.  Our focus should instead be on the learners and their motivation to learn.  Learning goals that don’t pay attention to these realities are counterproductive.

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Students who have been unsuccessful in school generally expect the pattern to continue.  As with much in life, that expectation tends to be self-fulfilling.  One of the most important tasks we have as teachers is to liberate them from that fixed mindset, to help them raise their own self-imposed ceilings.  We have to teach them how to be optimistic.  Fortunately, current research says that, like so much about our personalities, optimism can indeed be learned, even through early adulthood.

Being a member of a classroom culture that believes “we can do this” instills confidence and encourages students to take chances and have tenacity in the face of challenges.  Therefore, the structures we create for our students must convey the “doability” of learning.  A struggling student needs to believe that if what she tried first didn’t work, she can try something else, and that if she keeps at it she will be successful.

The use of conversational learning, the repurposing of student work, the learning contract structure, the use of formative assessments -- the strategies described in throughout "A Teacher's Handbook" -- are designed to do just that.


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Compliance Is Not Responsibility

A lot of harsh behavior on the part of teachers and administrators is done in the name of teaching students to be responsible.  Overly punitive responses to infractions like tardiness or not turning in homework on time are rationalized as helpful in training students in the value of making deadlines.  Unfortunately, what they are often really learning is that they will be punished if they don’t do as they are told.

There is another way.  Assuming we truly want our students to become responsible for their own behavior, they must internalize the desire to do the right thing, and that requires our treating them with respect and trust.

If a student misses a deadline, for example, instead of giving her no credit for the assignment, it would be more productive to help her see the cost of her actions, such as not being prepared to have a conversation with her study group, and therefore letting her group mates down as well as losing an opportunity for genuine learning.  If this is handled non-judgmentally, the student might actually begin the process of critiquing her own behavior.  Perhaps she procrastinates, or she is working a side job for too many hours each week.  Giving her a zero is unlikely to cause her to challenge those problems nearly as effectively as a compassionate conversation about how she might deal with them.  Allowing her a choice in how to get the work done, and setting a realistic deadline helps her learn to take charge of her actions.  This is how she will learn to be truly responsible.

One further and all-too-frequent excuse for punitive behavioris that it prepares students for “the real world”.  This assumes that what we are doing in school is somehow not real, and it projects a bleak image of the world outside of school.  Surely, if a person has an abusive boss later in life, there are more responsible ways to deal with it — working to change the situation, or, in the worst case, finding another job — than simply submitting to oppressive conditions.

Our job is not to train our students to comply with the worst aspects of “the real world”.  If education works well, they will deal with that world responsibly, and perhaps even work to make it better.