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Unexamined Beliefs, Unintended Consequences


Unexamined Beliefs, Unintended Consequences


"All that we are is the result of what we have thought."  — Buddha

"We have met the enemy, and he is us."         — Pogo

Beliefs become reality  

Why is “doing school” so ubiquitous, despite the intentions of well-meaning teachers, parents and administrators?

To answer that question, we have to acknowledge that all of us have preconceived beliefs about the nature of school, about teaching and learning, even about human nature, that profoundly effect how teachers and students act.  We often base our ideas about school on our own experiences, and therefore propagate the nature of the schools we attended.  As James Baldwin said, “We are trapped in our history, and our history is trapped in us.”

When teachers begin their careers, no one questions the assumption that tests measure learning, or that grades must be given to students by teachers.  It is a given that without the incentive of grades, most students would not be motivated to learn.  It is taken for granted that there is only one teacher in the room, one expert whose job it is to disseminate the curriculum. Until recently, there was little discussion about the established idea that every student in a class does the same work at the same time, both at home and in class, regardless of how well they understand the material. 

Even when these beliefs do real damage, they remain unchallenged because they are often below the radar;  they are so axiomatic that we don’t even know we believe them.  For most of us, the nature of school is a given;  it is not up for discussion.  It’s the sea in which teachers and students swim, all pervasive, but invisible because it is very difficult to step outside of only reality they know.  

Besides, teachers are generally too busy to stop and raise philosophical questions about their work.  It’s like driving down the road on bald tires;  even if you’re aware there’s a problem, it’s very hard to change the tires while you’re going sixty miles per hour.  

In all the years I taught, in all the department meetings and staff development activities, in all the lunch table conversations, very few of the beliefs that are the basis of doing school were ever discussed.  And yet, they are the source of so much of the meaningless and counterproductive activity of doing school.  

In order to understand why schools fail so many students and why doing school is as prevalent as it is, we have to become conscious of those beliefs.  Only then can we replace them with more productive and realistic beliefs about learning.  

Changing beliefs is difficult.  But the good news is that the solution to some of the fundamental problems of schools won’t require new laws or billions of dollars or building new schools.  All that’s needed is a thoughtful effort to replace dysfunctional beliefs with ones that make sense.

Here, then, are eight common beliefs about school, and the unintended consequences that flow from them.  


1. Every Student Does the Same Thing at the Same Time

1. Every Student Does the Same Thing at the Same Time


"It doesn’t make sense that everyone is going to learn one way when we are all different human beings."

                                            —Anna L.

One size does not fit all  

Schools for the most part still look much as they did fifty or one hundred years ago.  Peek inside any classroom, and you are likely to see every student working on the same task.  Similarly, the same homework is assigned to every student at the same time, and the whole class takes a test on the same material on the same day, and moves on to the next subject together. 

This may have made sense once.  Today, we know better.  Research has established the wide range of ways in which human beings think and feel and learn.  We know that students come into classrooms with widely varied modes of learning and processing, different levels of readiness to learn, different backgrounds.  It simply makes no sense to have every student do the same work at the same time.

“One size fits all” requires some students to be bored and others to flounder.  On the one hand, a students who masters new material quickly is forced to do busywork while waiting for the rest of the class to catch up.  For these students, the boredom associated with doing unnecessary practice often leads to resentment and disenchantment about school and prevents them from challenging themselves.

On the other hand, there are students who need more time and practice, but they find, over and over, that the class is moving on without them.  Very few struggling students, in my experience, feel that they have a true voice in getting the help they need.  And so they sink into a passive acceptance of failure, and internalize a damaging self-image of being a failure and not as smart as others.

"Teachers can come off as just pushing through the curriculum."             —Lizzie S.

The primacy of curriculum  

Everyone doing the same work at the same time reinforces the feeling that the transference of the curriculum into the minds of students is the most important task of school;  the curriculum appears to be more important than the students learning it.  For all too many students, school feels like a curriculum machine, in which they are insignificant cogs.

There are teachers who have every day of the school year mapped out, and hand out schedules to students describing what they will be doing, what homework they will have, when there will be a quiz or a test for weeks or even months at a time.  In Montessori education, there is an injunction to “follow the child” in their learning.  This is the opposite of that.

Such an approach inevitably undermines any sense of ownership on the part of students;  it enhances the feeling that school is being done to them, that they are intended to be passive recipients of the content of every course.  There can be little doubt that a feeling of academic powerlessness undermines student motivation and engagement.


2. Tests Measure Learning

2. Tests Measure Learning


“Take me to the test, and I the matter will reword.”  — William Shakespeare

Another inconvenient truth

Teachers are often surprised and dismayed at how little students retain from what they have “learned”, whether from a previous class or when preparing, say, for an exam.  How can it be that students who aced tests all year simply don’t remember very much at the end of the semester?   What does a test score actually measure?  

In general, a test measures only what a student has in his mind at that moment.  How it got there, how long it will stay there, and how meaningful it is to the student are not being measured, even though most teachers would agree that these factors are truly important.

When a person does well on a test, it may be because he has truly learned it and will remember it, or it may be because he has managed to know it just long enough to take the test, and will soon forget it.  In general, tests don’t distinguish between the two.  All they really measure is how many of the test questions a student can answer correctly at that moment.  Whether he will remember it three days later is another topic altogether.

But certainly remembering the material for longer than a few days must be part of any reasonable definition of “learning”.  Therefore, since a test cannot discriminate between a student who has done well and will remember it and a student who has done well and who won’t, tests do not measure learning.

The cost of mismeasurement

Of all the beliefs, this one best illuminates the difference between doing school and genuine learning.  There may well be learning taking place when a student does well on a test - there often is - but there can also be little or no learning.  There is simply no reliable correlation between high test scores and learning.  When a student is doing school, he considers a high test score a success, whether he learned anything or not.  

The fact that tests, as commonly used, do not and cannot measure learning has profound implications.  For one thing, there are few beliefs that so starkly divide teachers and students.  Every teacher I know believes that students who have high test scores are learning the material, while very few of the students I know believe that.  For them, test taking is generally an exercise in doing what the teacher requires, with little or no personal meaning for the student.

If a teacher believes that a student’s high score on a test means that the student has learned the material and the student knows he will probably forget that material in a short while, the teacher and student are living in different realities.  This is the one of the principle dysfunctionalities of doing school.

But how can it be that teachers and students can have such differing realities when it comes to testing?  Surprisingly, it has to do with a common misunderstanding of the nature of memory.  A quick tutorial might help.

Memory reconsidered

Humans have different kinds of memory that we use for different purposes.  For instance, when you look up a phone number and turn to the phone and dial it, it resides in short term memory.  There is no reason why you need to retain this information.  In fact, if you look up another phone number, the first one leaves your mind forever.  Students who look at a crib sheet or repeat an idea being tested over and over just before taking a test are refreshing their short term memory in hopes that it will last long enough to answer a question correctly.

A second type, called working memory, is useful when we need to know something for days or weeks.  Cramming the night before a test is almost certainly storing the material in working memory.  That’s why a student can do very well on a test and remember very little when asked about it three weeks later.  

We often call this “memorizing”, as opposed to learning, but the truth is it is not even memorizing.  I would define memorizing as learning by rote, committing factoids to memory without their having any context.  Learning by rote may not have much meaning for the learner, at least not initially, but it is still a form of learning exactly because it is retrievable.   If “memorizing” vocabulary, say, prepares Spanish student to be able to speak more fluently, it is serving a legitimate purpose.

What we want for our students is true, meaningful learning.  When this happens, the new material is integrated into what the student already knows.  It becomes part of his long term memory.  The more connections with existing knowledge, the stronger the context is created, and the deeper the learning is.  

When we say we have learned something, we usually mean we will retain it for a very long time, perhaps the rest of our lives.  We can retrieve and use those memories years later because they have become part of who we are.  They have become meaningful to us. 

So now we can see, in a nutshell, the core of doing school:  it is very effective at training students to use their working memory.  Unfortunately this is of little use in true learning, which is why doing school fails so badly in its purported mission.

Teachers often unintentionally reinforce and even reward working memory.  When a teacher reviews the material immediately before a test, (sometimes even on the same day), he is encouraging them to hold on to the information for a very short time.  Students appreciate such reviews, of course, because it helps them raise their test grades, which is why the teacher is doing it.  It is also unfortunately true that most students won’t actually learn very much in such a review.  What they are learning is that getting good test scores is important. 

I suppose, to be fair, that it might be possible to create a mechanism that can distinguish between working and long-term memory, but it’s hard to imagine what it would look like.  Students who are successful at doing school are ingenious at playing the game, and a strategy like retesting at a later time would simply cause them to cram multiple times.  One could argue that having them cram multiple times would actually result in learning, but there are surely better, less punitive ways to promote learning.  Besides, in the crush of everyday life, teachers are hard pressed to become adept at the subtlety required to know what kind of memory is being utilized in taking a test.

Furthermore, the current state of school reform relies almost exclusively on testing as a measure of how well a school is doing its job, or how well teachers are teaching.  (More on the disastrous consequences of high-stakes, standardized testing later.)


3. Academic Success Equals Good Grades Equals Learning

3. Academic Success Equals Good Grades Equals Learning


"Grades themselves have little meaning if I did work for the grade and didn’t learn the material."   —Becca C.


It’s not just test scores, but grades in general that are falsely conflated with learning.  Just as a student can cram for a test and temporarily put the material in working memory, he can go through the motions in all the other aspects of school that contribute to grades.  It is possible to do homework, solve problems, read a book, or write an essay without learning very much.  

In my experience, most teachers believe that good grades mean learning has taken place, and most students do not.  For them, getting good grades is the central goal of doing school; actually learning the material is an occasional fringe benefit.  

Meanwhile, for a teacher who holds this belief, the natural response to a student who has a low grade is encourage him to improve that grade.  There are a myriad of methods for doing this, including making up work, extra credit, attending review sessions, and so forth.  From astudent’s point of view, the teacher is telling him how to get more points and improve his grade;  the notion of learning may not enter into the process at all.

In other words, the teacher is inadvertently reinforcing the notion that getting better grades is the purpose of school;  it is how success is attained.  The tricky part here is that, once again, the teacher and the student are looking at the same process and seeing two completely different things.  Once again, a well-intentioned belief held by teachers undermines the learning process and leads to misunderstanding and student cynicism.

A question of authenticity

Grades are generally touted as objective measurements, when in reality they are without exception arbitrary and subjective.  In basketball, a goal is worth two points unless it is shot from a specific distance from the rim, in which case it is worth three.  These are the rules of the game.  We know that someone made up those rules, and we accept that it is an arbitrary definition.  Grades are similar.  The difference between a B- and a C+ is that one is a little above 80% correct, and the other a little below.  Clearly, this is as subjective as the number of points a basket is worth, but in the case of grades, we pretend that we are talking about an objective measurement.  

When a teacher creates a grading system, he sets a value on certain characteristics, like neatness or writing all the steps in a proof.  Another teacher may start from a different set of priorities and come up with a different grading scheme altogether.  Students move from class to class, year after year, and learn to navigate these various schemes.  There is no right or wrong about any reasonable grading system, but when teachers act as though their approach is objective and true, they undermine their students’ belief in the authenticity of the grading process and of school itself.

Surely integrating and remembering new ideas and skills is at the heart of what we want our students to do in school.  Sadly, that is often not the case.  Studies show that long-term retention rates for high school are as low as 15% for high school students.

Not only is this dismal record a measure of academic failure, it also undermines the very meaning of school.  Students go through the motions, relentlessly putting ideas into working memory and then forgetting them, in class after class, year after year.  Ultimately many of them have little to show for it, at least academically.  And it breeds the kind of resentment and disengagement that undermines the experience of students and teachers alike.


4. Teaching Causes Learning

4. Teaching Causes Learning


The blind spot

No one can deny that students learn more from good teachers than bad.  Unfortunately, this commonsense observation leads to an unbalanced focus on teaching as the heart and the purpose of school.  In my experience, during several decades of professional development, the topics we discussed were exclusively about instruction (how to teach) and curriculum (what to teach).  In other words, it was assumed that improving school meant improving teaching.  There was essentially no discussion about learning.  From a distance, the absence of conversations about the learning process is shocking. 

The consequence is that teachers often have little detailed knowledge of how their students are experiencing the learning process.  If some students are bored, but hiding their boredom (as “good” students tend to do), and others are lost and drowning but unwilling to admit it (as “bad” students tend to do), the teacher is largely unaware of their needs and therefore cannot respond to them.  Students often perceive lack of responsiveness as a calloused attitude; their teachers don’t seem to care about whether they are actually learning.

The myth of coverage

One of the most pernicious beliefs about school resides in the idea of coverage, as in “We covered Chapter 3.”  

The belief that teaching causes learning assumes that if a subject is “covered” by a teacher, the only reason it isn’t learned is a lack of motivation or effort by the student.  Once, when I was leading a discussion on this topic with a group of teachers, one of them who was clearly frustrated by his students’ poor performance, said “I teach it to them, I give them what they need but they don’t seem to want to learn it.  When all is said and done, it’s on them to choose to learn.”  

It’s a form of magical thinking that if a teacher speaks a concept out loud, twenty five other people sitting in the same room will be struck by those sound waves and will from that moment on know and understand that concept.  One of the hardest psychological impediments to teaching is the inability to remember and have empathy for those who don’t yet know what the teacher knows.  

The real world, of course, is much messier.  Some number of the students sitting in the room literally weren’t even listening.  They might have been daydreaming, in and out of consciousness of what was happening in the room.  I found over the years that students often have a great gift for looking attentive while their minds are somewhere else altogether.  (To be fair, I have noticed the same thing in teachers during department meetings.)

It’s a stereotypical moment when a teacher calls on a student, possibly because the student looks like he is daydreaming, and there is an uncomfortable jolt of reentry and a flustered attempt to fake an appropriate response.

Enforced passivity

When I was a teacher, I would sometimes wander down the hallways of my school, and pause outside classrooms and listen to who was actually speaking.  By an overwhelming margin, it was the teacher.  For many people, a person standing and talking in the front of the classroom is the definition of what teaching is.

Thinking that only one person in the room is entitled or qualified to teach lends itself to autocratic pedagogy.  The flow of information is in one direction, and requires an enforced passivity on the part of students.  This belief precludes students from having a sense of ownership of the learning process.

Research on how students learn effectively indicate that conversational learning is a powerful tool.  If students aren’t trusted to teach and learn from each other, their natural inclination to talk to each other is seen as a distraction from learning.

A great deal of the frustration and even anger many students feel towards doing school stems from the enforced passivity that is so central to its functioning.  Passivity induces boredom and anger.  Ultimately, it feels oppressive - not a psychological state conducive to learning.


5. Classroom Behavior Must be Controlled by the Teacher

5. Classroom Behavior Must be Controlled by the Teacher


"Schools as institutions can resemble the army, prisons, and hospitals in the way they may systematically make students feel powerless.  They can frustrate the basic human need for control by leaving little room for initiative, decision making, and leadership."                —Jon Saphier

"No one really thinks about how degrading it is to have to ask someone else permission to use the bathroom.  The more I think about it, the more preposterous it becomes."    —Melina N., student

Whose class is it?

The reasonable idea that a teacher is responsible for the control of classroom behavior can unconsciously slide into a power structure that denies students a voice.  A teacher’s power can easily be abused, because there are no checks and balances, no feedback about the effectiveness of his use of power, no student ombudsman to examine how a teacher uses grades to coerce, for example.  

It is a very rare thing for a student to speak of his point of view to a teacher, to offer suggestions or feedback on how well the learning is going for him.  This lack of voice has been an accepted part of the culture in every school I have ever worked in.  In fact, when students do find the courage to give a teacher feedback, it is often treated as rudeness, as a personal affront to the teacher.  The only situation in which such enforced silence occurs is when there are first and second class citizens.  As in any political disparity of this kind, the natural consequence is disengagement and resentment on the part of the lower class.

When that powerlessness is combined with a common lack of trust by teachers in student’s motivation to learn, it creates a perfect storm of student reliance on teachers to tell them what to do.

The power of grades

"It is rare to find a teacher that cares more about what the students learn than grades."    —Annie G.

Teachers commonly (though often unconsciously) use grading as a means of exerting power over students.  In its most overt form, grades can be used to punish and reward behavior.  Even with a more subtle use, the teacher is “giving” grades to the student.  We say that the student “earns” points, but it’s generally a reward for successfully doing what the teacher has asked the student to do.  When a factory worker “earns” his wages, it’s for being productive, but also for being obedient.

The obvious downside to teachers doling out grades is that, as described above, it externalizes the motivation to learn.  A less obvious downside is that it continuously and ubiquitously enforces a sense of powerlessness in students.

We don’t often speak of the power structure in a classroom, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t one;  it is the sea in which students and teachers swim.  As with any form of power, it has real human consequences.  Grades can be used to punish students who are, say, disobedient or impolite.  The use (and abuse) of this power contributes to an adversarial relationship between teacher and students.   

Furthermore, the inevitable struggles over points, particularly with “good” students, places the teacher in a role of mean-spirited withholding and creates power struggles where none need to exist.  It is frustrating when a teacher wants to help a student understand what she got wrong on a test, and instead finds himself arguing over two points.  It forces both the teacher and his student to focus attention on something much smaller and less important than whether the student has mastered the material.

Can students be made to learn? 

"Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind.""  —Plato

"When the government is too intrusive, people lose their spirit."     —Lao Tzu

Here is a sentence that almost certainly has never been said out loud, but which lurks underneath much of what teachers do:  “My job is to make you learn what I believe is important, whether you want to or not”.

The kind of force most teachers use to motivate their students comes in many forms.  It can be well-intentioned, like making a student come for help outside of class.  It can be by offering positive reinforcements, like extra credit, or more points for showing up to a study session.  It can be an overt bribe;  some schools are experimenting with cash payments for improved grades.  It can also be punitive and overtly coercive, like public humiliation for not doing classwork or even doing poorly on a test. 

There are a number of deep problems with these approaches, of course, but one of the most fundamental is a truism that I learned during my career:  When you force someone to do something, no matter how well-meaning you may be, you almost always get the opposite of what you intended.  On the surface it may look like you have succeeded, but when you stop pushing, it turns out that not only have you failed, you’ve actually made things worse.

A case in point that is crucial to teachers is this:  We want our students to be interested in learning our curriculum, to be motivated to do the work necessary to learn it.  And so we force them to go through the motions by assigning homework and giving tests.  For many students, however, the fact that they were compelled to do the work shuts down their curiosity;  when we externalize the motivation to work by using points and the fear of poor grades, their internal motivation atrophies and is often replaced with cynicism and resentment.

Some students will thrive, of course, but their passion to learn is generally not because we forced them to do our bidding but in spite of it.

Autocracies create resistance

“Classroom management” is often a polite way to describe relentless power struggles with students, often over seemingly trivial issues.  For many teachers, such struggles with their students are the most difficult and unpleasant part of the job.  For many students,  being told what to do all day long is the most difficult and unpleasant part of being in school.   A culture of compulsion creates unhappiness for students and teachers alike. 

When you stick a pin in something and it explodes, it is not just the pin that’s the problem, it’s also the pressure.  Autocracies create classroom pressure.  Like a balloon that’s fully inflated, many classrooms look stable and sustainable, but every now and then power struggles seem to erupt out of nowhere.

For a student, as for any reasonable human being, relentlessly being told what to do, even by well-meaning teachers, feels oppressive.  Students, like all people, have a wide range of reactions to this situation, including depression, anger, acting out, and withdrawal.    

When teachers are dealing with students who don’t “cooperate”, what they sometimes mean is students who aren’t compliant or even obedient.  Teachers sometimes find themselves giving instructions all day, expecting students to be “cooperative”.  The more teachers try to control behavior, the more resistance students feel, and the more teachers increase their control.  It is an easy trap to fall into.  I’ve done it myself.  

Ultimately, it is the teacher’s problem.  He has to somehow remember the Golden Rule, and that no one likes being told what to do all day long.


6. Without Grades, Students Would be Unmotivated to Learn

6. Without Grades, Students Would be Unmotivated to Learn


"We have created an educational system in which nearly all formal learning is forced in some way.  Nearly all formal learning is subject to assessment, because we tend to assume that students need to be “motivated” to learn.  That is, we have created a system in which the kind of easy, “natural” learning of the streets and fields that John Dewey wanted to see brought into schools is not generally expected to happen.  Our system is based on the belief that we cannot give students a choice about whether they should learn, say, algebra or not, because we fear the results, and it is clearly believed thatto “motivate” them to learn algebra we need to assess them and allot benefits in school and in life in proportion to how well they manage."    —Kieran Egan

Selective disinterest

The belief that students need grades to be motivated is almost universally held true by both teachers and students.  It is based entirely on a lack of trust in a student’s willingness to learn.  But a lack of trust is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Little children do not need grades to learn; indeed, it’s impossible to prevent them from learning.  Their motivation to learn about the world around them is hard-wired and irrepressible.  

Older students, when they are learning something non-academic, can be found to have boundless energy and enthusiasm for learning without any need for goading or bribing.  Watch them at a basketball practice or rehearsing a play or participating in any of a dozen extracurricular activities: their dedication and enthusiasm are contagious, even exhausting.  They feel a sense of belonging and ownership.  They are having fun.

Now watch them in their Algebra or U.S. History class.  The same students who were bursting with exuberance and humor have taken on a new persona, and it’s often a visibly dispirited one.  Why does this happen?  What is their problem?  Or is it a problem with school?

I would argue that grades cause students to be unmotivated to learn.  I will talk more about grades below, but in the meantime, let it suffice to say that being motivated to do school and being motivated to learn are two very different things.  In fact, they are often mutually exclusive.  And, once again, teachers and students alike confuse the simulation for the thing that is being simulated.

Perverse incentives

"Even though some topics in high school are interesting, the reason we come to school is to get the grades.  As nice as it would be to learn because something is interesting, I really don’t think that happens in high school.  Especially because you don’t really take classes for your own enjoyment, you take them for credit and to get into college."               —Kay H., student

There is an old saying that amplifies Kay’s jaded perspective:  “For teachers, grades get in the way of learning; for students, learning gets in the way of grades.”  School teaches students (and their parents) that getting more points is how success is measured.  Over time, the grades become valuable for their own sake, and, in trying to achieve good grades, a student will be motivated to cut corners or even cheat to accomplish that goal.  Whether she is interested in the teacher’s learning goals is largely beside the point.

Grades are the currency of doing school.  Just as the desire to make money drives the economic system, the desire to accumulate points is what motivates many students to do the work of doing school.  Teachers who find themselves in legalistic arguments with students over grades often experience this behavior as a form of greed, which it is.  Academic materialism is pervasive among students who do well in school; for them, this is what drowns out the desire to learn out of curiosity or just for the sake of knowing something new.

It is a truism among teachers that one of the central impediments to learning is that “bad” students are unmotivated, while “good” students are inappropriately motivated by the desire to get good grades;  in many classrooms, enthusiastic, positive motivation to learn for the sake of learning is hard to come by.  What is not as well recognized is that this problem is a direct consequence of the belief that students aren’t capable of being internally motivated.    

It is important to remember that students didn’t start school with this strange aversion to learning.  They learned to act this way in school.  They are, in fact, unintentionally victimized by beliefs such as this one.  

This belief, like many that will follow, establishes a perverse incentive for students.  I am defining a perverse incentive as a policy that unwittingly motivates students to do the opposite of what was intended.  For example, consider the common policy of giving students points for completing their homework.  The intention is to encourage students to do the homework and learn from it.  What actually happens, though, is that students come to believe the reward of getting points is the actual purpose of the homework.  This leads to all kinds of unwanted behavior, including cheating, to get the work done and get the points.  

This is the nature of perverse incentives in a nutshell.  The teacher intended to reinforce learning;  in the end, learning was replaced with hollow activities that students often find boring and meaningless.  

Because student motivation is skewed, teachers have to use force to get them to learn, which is, of course, one of the central reasons they are so poorly (or perversely) motivated in the first place.  Students often resent this. as would anyone, and so a vicious cycle is set in motion.

What’s worse, the policy drives a wedge between the teacher and his students;  they are no longer working on a common goal.  As a result, there is a huge gap in what each feels is the very meaning of the work.  This leads to serious misunderstandings and mistrust, because teachers and students are not in it together.

Perverse incentives are the driving force behind students doing school, but they also affect other members of the system.  When teachers feel that they need to raise student test scores or grades, they will do what they need to to accomplish it, whether or not it has to do with learning.  

 Once you start noticing them, perverse incentives are everywhere.

“Why aren’t they more responsible?”

"When the people no longer trust themselves, they begin to depend on authority."     —Lao Tzu

Once, in the middle of a heated conversation in the teacher’s cafeteria, Bruce, a history teacher whom I respect a great deal, said “I’m so frustrated with my sophomores.  I try to help them make good choices, and they just won’t do it.  They miss deadlines, they can’t make even the smallest decision on their own or take the initiative.”

“Bruce, think about how much training they have had in making good choices,” I responded.  “Most of them have never had any real experience in school of deciding what to do for themselves.  The kind of freedom and responsibility you are asking of them is something that takes practice, and they haven’t had much.”

“Well, my students have that freedom,” Laura responds, somewhat indignantly.  “They can choose to do what I’ve asked of them, or not.  That’s up to them.  They know the consequences, and it’s their responsibility to do the work or choose not to.”

“Well, no offense, Laura, but that isn’t exactly what I meant by freedom.”  I didn’t say what I was feeling at that moment, because the conversation was right on the edge of getting unpleasant, and we were, after all, still eating lunch.  “I’m just saying that most of the time in most of their classes, your students are told what to do and are motivated by the grades we give them.  The idea that they would take the initiative and become responsible, self-motivated learners takes some training.

How can we expect students to become critical thinkers and responsible learners when they are, for all practical purposes, powerless in school?

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7. A teacher’s job is to cover the entire curriculum

7. A teacher’s job is to cover the entire curriculum


It’s all too much

Every teacher I know feels intense pressure to cover the prescribed curriculum by the end of the year.  Not one believes there is enough time to successfully accomplish that goal with every student in the available time.  Biology curriculum grows constantly as the science expands into areas like recombinant DNA and gene therapy.  And poor U.S. history teachers have nearly a half-century of material to teach since I took it in high school.  As a result, it is a common experience for students to have a mad scramble to cover the last few chapters at the end of the year in many of their classes.

Why do teachers feel compelled to push through so much curriculum?  In part it is driven by common assessments like semester exams, for which individual teachers have little or no control the content being tested.  Sometimes the pressure also comes from state-mandated standardized tests, district-wide proficiency exams, or Advanced Placement tests.  Whatever the source of the pressure, the end result is that teachers feel they must move through the material at a relentless pace so that they can cover sufficient material by the end of the school year.  

The pressure existed even before there were common assessments, however.  The scope of content in textbooks has always been a factor in driving the pace of a class.  There is also peer pressure.  Once, when I was talking to a group of teachers about the need for community building at the start of the year, I had several teachers tell me, in all seriousness, that they couldn’t spend a single day on such things because if they did, they would fall behind!  Whenquestioned “behind what?”, they answered that they would be behind their colleagues.

Behind all these motivations, however, lies a deeper belief that is rarely discussed, that the purpose of school is to transfer the entire curriculum of every course into the mind of every student.  As discussed earlier, this Curriculum Transfer model dominates educational discourse and drives current school reform.  It is no wonder that many teachers accept this philosophy without question, and act accordingly.

Combine that pressure with the range of readiness and ability in any given class, and you can see how hard it is for a teacher to set a balanced pace;  if it is too slow, whole areas of curriculum will have to be jettisoned;  too fast, and even more students will be left behind.  

The mad dash

Donna, a colleague in the science department, was in a planning meeting and was bemoaning the fact that her regular level physics classes were two weeks behind schedule.  Knowing that the upcoming exam would include momentum problems, she announced she would squeeze the unit in over the next two days “so they would get as much as they can”, and she would prep them specifically for the kind of problems that they would see on the exam.

No one had any better ideas - our hands were tied about what would be on the exam - so, even knowing that many of her students would be utterly lost on this topic, she decided to plow ahead.  

What does this mad dash teach our students?  Once again, the primacy of the curriculum is reinforced — whether students will gain anything from the scramble to cover material seems to be irrelevant.  No one expects to learn very much during such an exercise.  It is designed clearly to help raise student exam grades without actually involving much learning.  This is a prescription for and a tacit agreement with, the bad habits of doing school. 

When is a standard not a standard?

Whether or not you find yourself in such an extreme position, ask yourself this question:  Is there enough time in the year for all of your students to successfully master all of the required curriculum?  All too often, this is not the case — we accept that we are going to have students who cannot keep up with the pace.

If we have created curricular standards that not every student can plausibly meet, they are not standards by any normal definition.  They are instead aspirations.  The fact that we call them standards and act accordingly causes untold damage.  We are, in effect, systemically requiring some students to fail.  And even successful students don’t learn deeply because there isn’t enough time to delve into any given topic.


8. It is important to separate “A” students from “B” students

8. It is important to separate “A” students from “B” students


The sorting machine

Imagine for a moment a class in which every student got an “A” on a report card.  What is your immediate assumption?  Probably that the teacher has lowered the standards so that the poorest students would still do well on tests.  The idea that all of them have mastered the essential learning goals and therefore deserve an “A” seems implausible.  Besides, if everyone gets an excellent grade, how can we distinguish between students who learn faster and better than others?  Shouldn’t better learners be rewarded with better grades?

Many people would probably agree that students who work hard and learn a lot should be recognized, even honored for their work.  Unfortunately, there is a slippery slope between honoring excellence and outright bribery.  

Why do we sort?

Some teachers believe that by arranging their students along a bell curve, they are serving the larger scheme of education and giving colleges better information to use during the admissions process.  

The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t advance the fundamental purpose of school — to prepare students to live life well.  In fact, because it generates all the damaging consequences of the bell curve, it actually harms that outcome.  In short, it is a deeply counterproductive approach to assessment.

It is also counterproductive because it unintentionally reinforces the habits of doing school.  When a student stays up late cramming for a test, his intention is not to genuinely learn the material, but to raise his test score.  He has been trained to do that because for years, the purpose of tests, as seen by the student, is not to measure learning, but to anticipate what questions the teacher will ask and answer them correctly.  His motivation is externalized by the very structure of testing.  Not only is little meaningful learning going on, but the idea that school is a system to be gamed is being reinforced, and successful students are being rewarded for being good at the game.  For many such students, real learning occurs as acoincidental side-effect of doing school well.

Furthermore, the fact that the test will be graded on a curve and that he will fall somewhere on a bell curve promotes a selfish, highly competitive posture among successful students, and a pessimistic, fatalistic posture among unsuccessful students.  Both are detrimental to the development of the whole person that needs to be a central goal of schools.  Academically selfish students are less likely to share the wealth and become members of a community of learners.  They will not learn to be good leaders.  And fatalistic students who are psychologically battered by low test scores are simply less likely to become self-directed and optimistic learners.  And for the unsuccessful student, who consistently finds himself at the bottom of the bell curve, the internalization of failure sets a self-imposed ceiling on his life, a fixed and fatalistic mindset that there is nothing to be done.  The result is a tragic waste of human potential on a staggering scale. 

Unsuccessful students are condemned to struggle against an endless riptide of new material that threatens to sweep them out to sea.  They handle the incessant reminders that they are inadequate, that they are failures, with a range of reactions.  They get angry, or sullen and withdrawn or depressed.  Perhaps they come to hate school itself.  Worse still, they internalize the sense of failure.  They come to see themselves as failures.  This is certainly one of the central causes of the fixed mindset that many unsuccessful students have — “I’m no good at math”, “I am a terrible test-taker”, etc.  

Many people who do badly in school have successful lives and careers, of course, but the trauma of being an academic failure is a life-long burden for many more.  They live with self-imposed ceilings on what they believe they can accomplish.

The ideas presented in this book are based firmly on the belief that this damage is unacceptable,  unnecessary and that it can be undone.


That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”  — Friedrich Nietsche

There are those who will argue that competition in school is healthy, that training students for the rough and tumble, dog-eat-dog world they are about to enter requires toughening them up.  It is true that competition is a useful motivator under some circumstances, but it also boosts selfishness, which interferes with the ability to create a community of learners.  Worse, it actively sabotages a student’s ability to collaborate — an essential skill in today’s world.  Furthermore, rather than contributing to a student learning how to be an effective leader, such selfishness lends itself to an autocratic approach to management that is, unfortunately, all too common in the “real” world. 

Clearly, the goal of measuringhow well a student has mastered the learning goals has nothing whatsoever to do with how well any other student has done in mastering the material.  Such comparisons serve no legitimate purpose;  they are strictly counterproductive.

The Way Forward

Changing beliefs is hard for anyone.  But the good news is that the solution to some of the fundamental problems of schools won’t require new laws or billions of dollars or building new schools.  All that’s needed is a thoughtful effort to replace dysfunctional beliefs with ones that make sense.

In the following chapters, we will explore how the students and teachers I have worked with have created a successful alternative to doing school, a classroom culture that is based on learning and which teaches students to become responsible for their own learning process.