Please Don’t Make My Students Cry

One of my after-school students recently came home from his school in tears.  His third-grade class had watched a documentary about underwater exploration, and the idea of being stuck in a submarine had given him anxiety.  After the movie, his teacher said something about the class taking a field trip in a submarine; I wasn’t there, but I think she was trying to encourage the students to imagine going in a submarine.  My student misunderstood (probably because he was already anxious) and cried out, “Do we have to go in the submarine?”  His teacher apparently responded with something like, “[student], why are you always so scared of everything? You’re going to ruin the activity for everyone.”  According to my student, the teacher was very annoyed with him.

Again, I wasn’t there, so it’s possible that my student misinterpreted his teacher’s feelings.  He might be wrong about what she said or how she said it.  I hope he’s wrong, because the idea of an adult–a teacher–speaking that way to one of my students is very upsetting.  The idea of a teacher speaking that way to any anxious student is upsetting.  See, I would hope this teacher would be sensitive to my student’s feelings since she obviously knows that he struggles with his fears.  What she doesn’t know is that he has Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), a condition “characterized by persistent, excessive, and unrealistic worry about everyday things.”  In fact, it’s very likely that this teacher doesn’t even know what GAD is; unlike depression and Obsessive-compulsive Disorder, GAD isn’t typically discussed in pop culture, and most teaching programs do not require training in psychology.

My student’s family has not disclosed his condition to his school.  They have chosen not to pursue accommodations for their son because they worry about stigma and discrimination, very real risks.

This incident inspires several questions.  First, should parents report their children’s mental illnesses to their school?  Second, was my student’s teacher out of line in her criticism of my student?  In considering that question, assume she really said what my student believes she said, and that she exhibited some amount of anger when she made those statements.  Finally, and most importantly, should all teachers be required to complete some amount of training in psychology?  Teachers are increasingly knowledgable about learning disabilities and the Autism spectrum (not knowledgable enough, many parents will say, and I agree), but childhood mental illness is largely ignored in both certification and continuing education programs for teachers.

Please share your feelings in the comments, and stay tuned for posts about disclosing your child’s mental illness and psychology training for teachers.

All stories about my students are shared with permission from the student and her/his family.

Advertisements

The Problem with Tests

Memorizing is not the same as learning. We know that. We have studies and experts and books and websites to tell us that memorization is not the same as learning. Those of us who teach, have children, or attend school know first hand: vocabulary words memorized for a test are forgotten in under a month. To learn, students must interact with relevant, contextualized material. Tests that require the memorization of discrete facts clearly incentivize memorization over genuine learning, so why do we still rely on these tests to measure learning, progress, ability, or knowledge?

The obvious answer is that testing is the easiest way to, you know, test. Increasing focus on teacher accountability results in increasing reliance on standardized tests that focus on minutia rather than the learning process. Punishing schools and teachers whose students perform poorly on such tests has lead to an academic crisis called “teaching to the test,” wherein teachers neglect holistic, meaningful curricula in favor of lessons designed to improve student scores on standardized tests. Everyone knows that this is a problem. Furthermore, the content of many standardized tests is frequently considered unfairly biased against students of color. Parents, teachers, administrators, politicians, and even students understand that the accountability system is broken, but progress is slow because the issue is complex and humans often resist change.

Because I work independently with students, I rarely have to interact with standardized testing. Although my students do sometimes have to complete standardized tests, I never teach to the test because, unlike traditional school teachers, my income and resources do not depend on my students’ test scores. However, most children do not have the luxury of individual education, so most children in our country are victims of a completely broken educational system. Frankly, that sickens me. I’m an educator because I believe that education is the most important tool for personal, societal, and global wellness. I’m a homeschool teacher because I believe that our education system hinders real education!

The last standardized test I took was the SAT. I believe that my SAT scores accurately reflected my abilities at the time because I didn’t study at all. However, nearly every student in my socio-economic group prepares in some way for the SAT, making many SAT results indicative a student’s dedication to study and ability to memorize, not the general knowledge and subject fluency of that student. I have several problems with this system. First, test preparation is expensive, so affluent students are at an advantage. Second, I don’t believe that tests should require specific preparation.

Yes, I’m saying that students should (almost) never be asked to study.

When students study for a test, their goal shifts from learning to achieving. I’m not just talking about standardized tests; students typically prepare for a vocabulary test by memorizing textbook definitions of each word, not by interacting with the words in a natural, inquisitive way. Thus they gain only an academic understanding of the word, and they forget even that within a few weeks. Although teachers know this, they worry that a student who isn’t going to be tested won’t pay attention to the material at all.

So what?

Before I began writing this post, I asked a friend to answer a few questions. This friend is a graduate student studying psychology. She earned “good” grades in school. I asked her five questions about junior high level geometry, and she said “Psh, I don’t remember” to four of them. I know she took myriad tests on basic geometry. I know she did worksheets. Junior high geometry lessons are supposed to accomplish two goals: First, they’re meant to help students understand how the world works. The formulas for area, perimeter, etc. are part of spacial logic. Second, basic geometry is meant to serve as a foundation for advanced mathematics. My friend didn’t pursue advanced math, but she should still be able to use spacial logic to determine the answer to questions like “how do you find the volume of a rectangular solid?” The reason she can’t remember how to solve such a problem is that she was taught to memorize the formula rather than to understand what the formula meant. Her math teachers taught to the test. What if, instead of incentivizing memorization, educators simply introduced concepts in context, encouraged students to explore concepts in a variety of ways during class, and assigned minimal homework designed to encourage retention? What if teachers never asked their students to memorize equations at all?

I do think students gain one major skill from studying: the ability to study. Certain professions require memorization. Litigators, politicians, surgeons and emergency personel, and newscasters who perform on live TV or radio all definitely need to know how to study! Even if we created an educational system that was, for example, free of the SAT, there would still be some merit in learning how to study. However, in such a world, studying could be one of many skills taught and utilized in schools. Today, every test is a test on studying.

What would happen if we abolished (“closed-book”) testing completely? I want to hear from you!

Teachers: do you feel that classroom tests help you measure learning? Do you worry that tests encourage memorization and discourage exploration?

Parents: how do you help your children prepare for school tests? If your child earns an A on a test, do you feel that your child has learned that material? How do you react when your child performs poorly on a classroom or standardized test?

Homeschool families: has testing affected your decision to homeschool? Do you rely on testing of any kind?

 

Class Participation Part 4: Can We Fix Class Discussion?

Welcome to what I expect will be the final installment of my series on forced participation in class discussion!

One More Example of How Class Discussions Fail

Class discussions can be used to achieve a variety of objectives, and there are several “teaching methods” that rely of class discussion. One simple method used for class discussion is concept attainment, “the search for and listing of attributes that can be used to distinguish exemplars from nonexemplars of various categories” (Bruner, Goodnow, and Austin, 1967). Here is a very simple example of a lesson using the concept attainment teaching method:

Mr. A writes a word on the board: Hat. “What are some things you notice about this word?” he asks.

“It starts with an H,” says a student.

“It has three letters!” shouts another.

“Good,” says Mr. A. “Okay, what about this word?” He writes Home on the board.

At this point, most of the students have guessed that Mr. A is listing words that start with H. Some of the class begins to lose interest.

“Have you guessed what the words have in common?” asks Mr. A

“Yes,” replies much of the class. One student explains, “They both start with H.”

“Hmm, that’s true,” says Mr.A, “but let’s keep looking at the list.” Mr. A writes another word on the board and asks more students to guess what the words have in common. He then begins listing words that don’t belong on the list. He encourages his class to offer any ideas they have about the lists, and he allows students to politely challenge each other’s theories. Eventually, Mr. A’s whiteboard looks something like this:

YES
Hat
Home
Drum
Student

NO
Hairy
Red
Run
Sing
Quick
Quickly

I’m bored just describing this scenario.

The theory behind this activity is that Mr. A’s students will more thoroughly understand the concept of nouns and will retain their knowledge longer than if they’d simply been provided with a definition and list of examples. That may be true. However, to many students, slow generation of knowledge is excruciatingly boring. Mr. A encourages all his students to participate in the discussion, so the weaker members of the class struggle to make guesses and are often explicitly wrong. Mr. A is a nice man and a good teacher, so he works with these weaker students and avoids saying “No, that’s incorrect.” Thus, other students become confused, and the discussion takes most of class. Worse, Mr. A requires each student to offer at least one guess during the discussion, and he gives additional points to students who are especially engaged, so the extroverted students babble on and the introverts lose points. Anyone who doesn’t have a guess is forced to make one up. Several students, included those who are introverted, shy or anxious, gifted, or suffering from ADD/ADHD completely lose interest early in the discussion and miss any relevant information.

Here’s the strangest thing about this kind of discussion: giving the correct answer ruins the exercise! Imagine that Jahruba, a gifted student, immediately understands the list once Mr. A explains that “hairy” does not belong on it. He raises his hand and says, “All the words on the list are nouns.” It’s been five minutes, and Mr. A scheduled half an hour for this activity. He wanted his students to explore possible answers and slowly come to understand the lesson. Jahruba just ruined the whole exercise, so Mr. A can’t help but act a little angry as he stutters, “Well….yes…uh…but I wanted you to think about it longer.” Jahruba understands that he has done something wrong, so he stops raising his hand as often, and Mr. A worries that Jahruba will ruin future activities, so he avoids calling on him when he does raise his hand.

How Can We Fix The Exercise?

Having lived through public school, I’ve seen the above scenario play out a thousand times. Here are some tips for teachers who want to engage students in discussion without torturing them.

1. Ask a question and let students privately answer.
If the purpose of your discussion is to guide students toward a correct answer, give students a chance to write the answer down and hand it to you. If the student is right, let her opt out of the discussion.

2. Keep student responses focused.
If a student is so off track she’s prolonging the discussion and confusing her peers, cut her off. You can be polite about it, but be sure to be firm!

3. It’s okay to say “that’s wrong”!
Praising every guess confuses students and discourages active thinking. Thank every student for his participation, but be clear when an answer is wrong

4. Encourage peer support, but point out even subtle errors.
It’s great to allow students to answer each other’s questions, but watch out for subtle errors in each answer. If you find an error, praise the student for the rest of her answer and then explicitly correct her mistake.

5. Ask specific questions.
Kids who don’t speak up during discussion may simply not have anything to say. Asking a specific question can help. Instead of saying, “What do you think about the US Civil War, Jenny?” try asking Jenny whether she believes that the war was primarily about slavery. If she says, “I don’t know,” give her a little guidance and then ask a related question.

I Want to Hear from You!

Teachers: do you “force” students to participate in class discussions? Why or why not? How do you keep your students focused and interested?

Parents: do your children complain about class discussion? What are your thoughts?

Homeschool parents: did you consider class participation when choosing to homeschool?

Post a comment or tweet at me. I’ll RT or respond!

Classroom Participation Part 2: What Does Forced Participation Really Teach?

Yesterday, I mentioned an article in which New Hampshire teacher Jessica Lahey argues in support of including “class participation” in grading criteria. Lahey explains that persistent criticism from class parents of “introvert” students lead her to question her methods. According to Lahey, parents complained that their children were unable to ask for the assistance they needed, and that speaking in class caused significant trauma. In the end, Lahey decided that, although introverted students may be uncomfortable participating in class discussions, the skills they learn from being “forced” to speak up will serve them throughout their lives. This series will examine the pros and cons of “forced” class participation as well as the implications for students with anxiety disorders.

Please note: It’s pretty clear that I disagree with her, but I’m not criticising Jessica Lahey’s thought process, nor am I doubting her commitment to serving her students in the best way possible. Lahey admits to being an extrovert and worries that her teaching style is most appropriate for extroverted students. Therefore I should disclose that I’m an introvert. I don’t mean I’m shy, although I sometimes am. I mean that I do not enjoy class discussions, group projects, or big parties, and I learn better alone.

Yesterday, I shared a general example of the flaws inherent in traditional class discussion. Today, I want to share a personal experience I had in which I was given a low grade due to lack of class participation.

In eighth grade, I was a member of student government. I did not run for election because I had little interest in campaigning and less interest in an honorary position, but I “sat on the board” because I lead a community service group based on campus. Within my community service group, which had elected me president two years in a row, I actively participated in discussion and debate, and I took on projects that I felt passionate about. I did these things in spite of my natural introversion, because my participation significantly affected the decisions made by the club, and the projects undertaken by the club were important to me. In student government, on the other hand, we mostly planned dances. We also planned and promoted events intended to increase “school spirit.” I found all of this asinine and potentially offensive in that “school spirit” was, in our affluent neighborhood, a waste. Student government met one hour a day every day, and, despite my polite requests, we never discussed “real” or relevant issues. So I never said anything. The most extroverted students would dominate the conversation by monologuing, debating insignificant details, and restating ideas. If I’d been forced at gunpoint to share with the class, I’d have said, “Yep, those are all fine dance ideas, and you all sure like the sound of your own voices.” In other words, my contribution would also have been useless. So I stayed quiet until the teacher took me aside and told me that my grade was suffering because of my lack of participation.

Let’s just say I lost some respect for the teacher that day. I had been participating in class activities. I did the assignments. I attended the events we planned. I painted and hung banners. I voted in our elections. The only thing I didn’t do was babble the idiotic nonsense this teacher loved to hear: “I think we should have an assembly about self-respect and having a good attitude!” Yeah, that’s exactly what these rich white teenage stoners need to hear! That’ll get them back on track! I’m annoyed thinking about it now, so you can imagine how I felt at 13. (Hint: I made some artistic changes to the student government shirts we were forced to wear every Friday.)

One could easily argue that, by punishing me for my lack of participation, my teacher was encouraging me to share my unique perspective with the class. But the truth is, there was no room for me in the discussion. No matter how many times I brought it up, we weren’t going to change the school spirit assembly to an assembly about identifying and combatting institutionalized discrimination against people of color. Our school dances weren’t going to be sex-positive, and the money we made selling tickets was always going to go toward football uniforms and never toward ending sex trafficking. Bringing these topics up wouldn’t expand anyone’s mind, either, in part because most of the students weren’t ready to care about those issues, and in part because I’d inevitably have been censored by my teacher before I could finish a thought. My teacher wasn’t punishing me for not sharing my opinions; she was punishing me for failing to conform.

I realize that my position is somewhat controversial, but I genuinely believe that many teachers are passionate about class discussion for purely selfish reasons. First, as I’ve said, refusing to engage in discussion is a (passive, in most cases) rejection of conformity, something many people find threatening. The group is talking, so anyone not talking may not be part of the group. Historically, outsiders have been dangerous, so it’s reasonable to feel subtle or subconscious unease when a student separates herself from the group. (This is especially true in the post-Columbine world.) The relationship between class discussion and forced conformity is apparent in the way many teachers (including my student government teacher) grade for participation: anyone who makes a comment that relates to the topic gets credit. The content or worth of the comment is unimportant. Simply the act of participating in the group matters. What a great way to teach students to become inefficient, uncreative adults!

Second, good teachers want to encourage students to generate knowledge and come to their own conclusions, but cultivating and assessing that process can be time-consuming and difficult. Class discussion is an easy and relatively quick way to get students to engage with material, and teachers who require students to participate in discussion can feel good about using interactive lesson plans, even though they haven’t necessarily made a positive contribution to their students’ educations.

Disagree? Let me know!

Coming up in this series:
Does Class Discussion Punish the Smart Kids?
Introversion vs Social Anxiety
The Benefits of Class Discussion and How to Achieve Them (Without Driving Your Students Crazy)

Classroom Participation Part 1: What Happens During Class Discussions?

Last week, The Atlantic ran an article titled, “Introverted Kids Need to Learn to Speak Up at School,” a statement that offends me as both an introvert and a teacher. The article, written by New Hampshire teacher Jessica Lahey, is a thoughtful argument in support of including class participation as an element of grading. I hate class participation points, and it isn’t just because I’m shy or anxious. I hate forced class participation because I hate forcing students to engage in activities that they find unpleasant. I strongly believe that education should be mostly enjoyable and never unbearable.

Participation points are typically awarded in exchange for contributing to class discussions. In my opinion, traditional class discussion has very limited benefits for students. Imagine this scenario, based on countless experiences I had in school:

Mr. A’s students are reading Lord of the Flies. Today, Mr. A has asked his class to discuss symbolism in last night’s reading. Amanda is having trouble understanding the definition of “symbolism,” and she begins by expressing confusion and impatience. Mr. A asks his class to help Amanda understand symbolism. Thomas, a gifted student, explains symbolism correctly but does not emphasize the details that most confuse Amanda, simply because he doesn’t quite understand Amanda’s confusion. Amanda becomes more confused and is now somewhat embarrassed, but she bravely admits that she still doesn’t understand. Most of the class begins to lose interest. A couple more students try helping Amanda, but no one realizes exactly what she’s missing. Finally, Mr. A is forced to move on. He asks the class for an example of symbolism from last night’s reading. Several extroverted students offer examples, some of which are wrong. By now, most of the gifted students have completely lost interest in the discussion. Mr. A asks leading questions in order to help the students discover information, but his weakest students are completely lost and his strongest students are bored and angry. The rest of the discussion is dominated by students of average ability. These students are able to gain some knowledge, but they aren’t given the opportunity to practice more advanced thinking because their gifted classmates are disengaged and alienated by the current level of discourse. Everyone who spoke gets a point for participation, even though most of what was said was, frankly, inane. Amanda is still totally lost, and some of the gifted students have decided to stop listening in class.

Have you or your children/students had similar experiences with class discussions? Do you find my characterization of class discussion inaccurate or offensive? Leave a comment or tweet at me!

Coming up in this series:
Introverts, Anxiety, and Class Participation
My Alternatives to Traditional Class Discussion