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Student Agency


The Art of Appropriate Socializing

In many traditional classrooms, socializing is seen as a distraction from learning.  This diagram expresses an all-too-common response to the natural desire of students to talk to each other.


The rigid separation of these two domains is unnatural and deeply counterproductive.  Maintaining it requires endless vigilance on the part of the teacher and lends itself to unnecessary power struggles.  These are teenagers, after all, and socializing is, for most of them, a very high priority.  Fighting it can often feel like trying to hold back the tide.  Fortunately, relinquishing that struggle will actually improve learning.

Students teaching and learning from each other,  questioning and arguing and patiently explaining new ideas to each other, is a central aspect of a community of learners.  That means students have to talk to each other.  Recognizing the centrality of conversation learning requires a different way of thinking about socializing.  For students to understand that teaching and learning from each other is an essential tool, they must be trained to be able to socialize and learn at the same time. In other words, they must learn the art of appropriate socializing, as seen in this diagram.

 In this diagram, there is significant overlap between the learning and socializing.  There will still be individual learning, of course, as indicated by the area to the left of the overlap.  This can include listening to an introductory lecture, doing homework, taking a test, or any other solitary activity.  

There will also be socializing that is unrelated to learning, as indicated by the area to the right of the overlap.  While this may at first seem to be a waste of time and a distraction, it is, within limits, essential in developing the social glue necessary to develop trust and a sense of belonging within the group.  Having students learn to self-limit this aspect of group work to a reasonable amount is part of the skill of appropriate socializing.

How much is enough?  In general, I have found a goal of 80% to 90% on-task behavior, regardless of the activity, is reasonable.  I believe this is a realistic acknowledgment of human nature, but of course you will have to decide for yourself, given your particular students and your own preferences.  Before you do, though, I would encourage you to think about department meetings or whole-school presentations you have attended.  Was every person in the room 100% attentive the entire time?  If not, why should we then expect it of our students, who are, after all, teenagers, and hard-wired to socialize?


This is an excerpt from "Study Groups: The Heart of Conversational Learning"

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The Scourge of Busywork

Consider a classic scene, repeated countless times every night:  A student has lugged home a backpack loaded with five or six heavy textbooks.  She opens one up - her assignment is to read fifteen pages and answer a set of questions at the end of the chapter.  Maybe she skims through the pages, or perhaps she turns directly to the questions.  She reads the first one, turns back to the chapter to find the answer, and dutifully writes it down.  She repeats this for the rest of the questions, closes the book with relief, and turns to the next subject’s homework.  Tomorrow she will turn the homework in, the teacher will acknowledge that she did it - possibly by rewarding her with some points - the class will go over the answers together, and tomorrow night she will repeat the process.

Perhaps this student learned something in the process, but that wasn’t really the point for her.  Completing the homework is an essential part of earning good grades.  She is successfully doing school.  Unfortunately, what she has completed is a simulation of learning - it only looks like the real thing.

This discouraging and highly ineffective process is a mainstay in the lives of many students.  And those are the successful ones.  As every teacher knows, the unsuccessful students often lack the motivation to do even that much work.  For many teachers, the fact that a student completes all her homework is evidence that she is learning the material, and of course, that does sometimes happen.  But when homework is experienced as busywork - an extremely common experience for many students - learning is a fringe benefit.  Doing hours of homework every night does not ensure that any significant learning has taken place.

When students perceive homework as meaningful and useful, it becomes a powerful tool in the learning process.  Being much more effective, even small doses have a large impact on mastery.  It’s worth noting that in Finland - whose educational system is consistently ranked the most successful- students average less than a half hour of homework per night.

The good news is that rethinking the purpose of homework and grounding it in a culture of learning, can transform it into the powerful tool it should be.  For more on how this can be done, see “Reframing Student Work”.


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Sharing The Wealth

When there is only one teacher in the room, it is almost certain that there will be a bell curve of success – there are simply too many students with too many divergent educational needs for one person to respond to.  However, if there is a structure that allows  students who understand new material faster to teach those who need more time, everyone wins – faster students learn the material more deeply by having to explain it, and slower students can ask more questions and be more engaged in one-to-one conversations.  When the room is filled with teachers and learners, everyone learns more.

In my experience, study groups are the optimal mechanism for “sharing the wealth” in this way.  When students come to trust and rely on each other, they can become engaged in a more personal and open learning process.  They come to rely on conversational learning as essential to their academic success.

There are many functions that such groups can serve.  One of the most practical is for students to review homework or individual classwork with each other.  Here is a video of several such groups going over homework.


This post is an excerpt from "A Teacher's Manual"

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The Attributes of Success

"I have yet to talk to a recent graduate, college teacher, community leader, or business leader who said that not knowing enough academic content was a problem. In my interviews, everyone stressed the importance of critical thinking, communication skills, and collaboration."  —  Tony Wagner

"Character is not developed individually.  It is instilled by communities and transmitted by elders."   — David Brooks

Walk into almost any classroom and you will find a teacher working to help students master well-defined curricular standards.  But the deeper priority should be helping students to become proficient in the skill of learning.  Still deeper must lie the ignition in students of the desire to learn and strive for excellence.  And underneath that lies the cultivation of the whole person.

The character attributes that are essential for success in school and in life include self-directedness, creativity, self-awareness and other metacognitive skills, as well as the ability to work well with others.  The student should integrate the qualities of curiosity and optimism, persistence and fearlessness, self-knowledge and the ability to think and express herself clearly.  She should have integrity, generosity of spirit, an internal sense of responsibility, and a concern for the good of the group.  She should be internally motivated,compassionate, and a good citizen in any group of any scale, from a school club to society at large.

As it happens, these attributes are not separate from intellectual growth, but are intimately interwoven with it.  They support and are often a prerequisite to genuine learning.  And intellectual growth, in turn, reinforces and makes possible further personal growth.

Cultivating these attributes prepares a student for life in a way that merely acquiring knowledge of curriculum does not. How these traits can be cultivated in students is the focus of much of this book.  For now, we need to understand that: 

1)  All these traits can be learned through young adulthood.  Many people believe that personality is “baked in” at an early age, perhaps as early as three years.  But modern research shows that this is simply not true.  A range of character traits including optimism, tenacity, resilience, empathy, and self-awareness can all be learned well into young adulthood. 

2)  These traits cannot be taught as mere content.  They aren’t learned in the way that, say, knowing the causes of the Civil War is learned.  Students can no more learn these skills by being told about them than they might learn to shoot free throws or play Mozart on the piano by hearing these skills described.  These traits require extensive practice.  They require making mistakes and learning from them.  Practicing these skills must therefore be woven into the daily fabric of the learning process, so that students live them in their everyday experiences.

The centrality of character.  The attributes of success are sometimes dismissed as “non-cognitive skills” or “soft learning goals.”  They are sometimes relegated to the category of “student well-being”— a good thing to strive for, but a side issue as far as the real work of school is concerned: the mastery of the curriculum.  This dismissive attitude towards the development of character is deeply shortsighted.  These attributes are essential for success in school and in life, and therefore should stand at the heart of what schools are for.

The problem is not that most teachers and parents don’t want the best for their students; it’s that schools do not have the explicit goal to train students to be creative, self-directed, and tenacious, to be good collaborators and citizens.  If we are going to prepare our children well for life, that has to change.

To be creative, for instance, requires being willing to make mistakes and learn from them, to have the tenacity to keep trying, especially after you fail.  However, most students do not have practice with any of these things in the classroom.  Instead, an academically successful student learns to ask, “What do I need to do to get an A?”  The thought of intentionally attempting work that she will fail at is almost incomprehensible.  Successful students often learn to be risk-averse “Excellent Sheep”, as William Deresiewicz argues in his book of the same name.  Risk aversion results in lives and careers that are less creative.

We have to teach students how to fulfill their potential, to become who they are most fully.  In the process they will learn more, and the learning will be more meaningful to them.  

They may even learn to love school.  Imagine that.

This is an excerpt from "A New Direction", the first chapter of "A Teacher's Handbook".




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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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.