Thursday, April 06, 2006

A Thought Experiment

Michele's seniors have posted some interesting thoughts about teaching styles that are worth your time to read. They've got me thinking again about what motivates (or doesn't motivate) our students. I keep coming back to how much they are "compelled" to be in our classes. While technically those over 16 have a choice about whether to be in school or not, the reality is that there are so many "compelling" reasons for them to be there that only the most disaffected of them choose otherwise.

So that leads me to today's thought experiment (hey, if it's good enough for Albert, it's good enough for me!) So, put on your thinking caps and consider the following:
Are your classes compelling enough on their own that you yourself would choose to attend them in your spare time if you didn't have to?


  1. An intriguing question. I'll be interested to see how people will respond. And just because 34 other student responses couldn't possibly be enough, I'll just add my two cents here.

    I personally think that there are two factors vital for learning. Allowing the students to discuss and test a new concept not only makes it more interesting, but it deepens our understanding. This is regardless of subject. In algebra, all to often, people just learn the steps to solve an equation, but not why it works or why the equation does what it does, which is why it's forgotten quickly. Or in US history when Mr. Meyer had the 1920's conference with all the different characters, he left us on our own to learn the history of our character and infer how our character would respond to the others. That remains one of the few history lessons I still remember. The other factor is relating the material to the real world. Just showing how some obscure chemistry principle applies to something we see every day makes it more accessible to students and more memorable, rather than just some letters we have to remember. When our teachers tell us why we are learning something, it makes us feel like we are actually accomplishing something for ourselves, which is a big motivator.

  2. Most of the time, probably yes. But then again, I am a bit of a social studies nerd and I don't know what spare time is anyway :) In a way I don't like this question. Why? Because (to me) it implies that each lesson needs to really grip each student. To be perfectly honest, if I had to take college-level chemistry again (just to pick on one of my very least favorite subjects) it wouldn't matter how many times a sponge changed color (which was very cool) - I just wouldn't find it that "compelling." Why? Because I am content to say "that's cool." It just doesn't matter to me why the sponge changes color. In fact, to me, the entire thing is less interesting once I know why it happens. Now, to be fair, some of you probably think the same thing about various social studies classes. I think that there is still value in taking a class that is not "compelling." All of us had the experience of taking a class that didn't thrill us, and yet we felt feelings of accomplishment when we achieved success in those classes. I guess what I'm trying to say is that school is like anything else. Do I really enjoy and get a feeling of accomplishment from gardening? Yes. Do I enjoy removing patches of grass from my flowerbeds? No. Yet, removing grass that is growing where it shouldn't be growing is part of gardening - and when I am done and all the grass is gone, I have a feeling of accomplishment.

  3. Amanda, I think you need to expand on this a little more. It seems to me you're saying that students should be required to take classes they don't like just so they can get a "feeling of accomplishment." I'm thinking there's more to your argument, because that sounds a lot like the self-esteem is king middle school philosophy that many folks at AHS appear to despise (note: I think the self-esteem movement has gotten a bad rap because of some excesses, but that most of the basic concepts are sound and worth thinking about).

    Also, I found it interesting the way you phrased "If I had to take college-level chemistry again" - why should you "have" to take anything?

  4. That's not what I am saying at all. Feelings of accomplishment don't come from trying and being told "good girl" or "good boy" even if you did a terrible job. (And I thus hate the "self-esteem is king" idea.) I'm sure that many people work hard in classes and perform terribly. All I was saying was that in my personal experience, it was gratifying to struggle and TRULY succeed - not just be told that I was good at putting forth effort and then get a gold star for the effort alone. It is sort of like doing my taxes. It is not easy, but I have a feeling of accomplishment when I am done.

    To the question "why should you 'have' to take anything?" I would say because 1)that is life and 2) sometimes we are required to do things that we otherwise would not choose to do - and in doing those required things we learn some valuable skills or knowledge. To the first point, there are about 8-10 things that each one of us do every day because they are necessary. Taxes are a good example again, even though we only do them once a year. I have to do them or else I will face consequences. The first time that I did my taxes I was worried. But I struggled through it and (to come back to the previous point) I had a feeling of accomplishment when I was done. If we didn't require our students to take Economics and Government in order to graduate, many of them would choose not to take those courses. Yet we say they have to take those courses because the applicable knowledge that comes from those courses is massive. Often, students end up enjoying classes that they "have" to take.

  5. Thanks for fleshing that out - it didn't come through (at least to me) the first time.

    I'll stop playing devil's advocate for a moment. I guess my concern is requiring students to do things that truly aren't necessary. For example, you mention Government and Economics as having use for all kids, but you didn't say anything about that college level chemistry course. And - to go back to my original point - I still think that Government and Economics need to be compelling enough on their own that kids do want to take them. Because even if there is a lot of "applicable knowledge that comes from those courses," it's still pointless if they don't internalize that knowledge and then use it in the future. If they are required to take Government and Economics and they are crappy classes, it's a waste of everyone's time.

    I'm also wondering about the concept of transferrence that you're implying ("1)that is life and 2) sometimes we are required to do things that we otherwise would not choose to do")- that by having students practice doing things they don't want to do it will make them better at doing things they don't want to do. I'm not sure that's true. I'm also not sure that it's not true - I guess I'd like to see some research that demonstrates that before we all assume that it is true. Philosophically, I guess I'm also opposed to "we're going to make you do some crappy stuff now because later you will have to do some crappy stuff." (I know you're not saying that, but many people do.) I think that's just wrong - and sad. Why should anyone have to suffer if they don't have to?

    Finally (everybody cheer), I think doing your taxes is an interesting analogy. Since that's a fairly crappy process that doesn't have to be crappy - we truly could make it be one page and 10 minutes if we wanted to. The problem isn't so much that some people don't want to simplify taxes, it's just that many people (politicians and others) don't want to do the hard work (and take the necessary risks) to make it happen. And I think that may be the perfect analogy for our current situation in education.

  6. In reality we mostly agree here. If classes are not relevant, then students should not be required to take them. However, I would prefer to make the effort to ensure that classes are relevant (as I am sure all of us would). Regarding the college level chemistry class, I did gain something extremely valuable from it: the decision that majoring in Biology (and having to take Organic Chemistry) was not nearly as appealing as majoring in American Studies. Other students probably took a history course freshman year and decided that majoring in history (and having to take Western Civ, for example), was not nearly as appealing as majoring in Biology. All I am saying here is that we get something out of every class we take. (And no, that wasn't all that I got out of chemistry, but to me it was the most important thing.) (And yes, I may have gotten more out of another class - that is why I made the choice not to take chemistry second semester and took something else instead. Imagine that - I took responsibility for myself and my education!)

    I am glad to see that you took the path on the tax analogy that I was setting up for you to take. (I am mean, I know.) I agree whole-heartedly about the idea that our "leaders" could simplify the situation if they wanted to do that. I don't, however, think that education is quite as bad as the tax code. This is not to say that reforms are not needed in education. But the analogy is more relevant on another level - the people who can make the changes and / or allow the changes to happen don't really want to make changes. Here I include (some number of U.S.) teachers, (some number of U.S.) administrators, (many U.S.) parents and community members and (an undefined quantity of U.S.) students. I am saying this because although many of us in 21C want to make changes, mostly what we seem concerned about is how parents and the community will react to the changes. I definitely understand the parent perspective (how is my kid going to get into college when 99% of the students in this country operate under a system with which colleges and everyone else is happy?). So I suppose what I am saying is that as high schools our first step toward real reform might be working vertically - with colleges - instead of working horizontally - as high schools.

  7. But why did you have to take that Chemistry class? If you are majoring in Biology and had to take it, that's one thing. But if you are majoring in something else and had to take it (which is often the case with our general ed requirements), then I'm not sure of the purpose. And you chose not to take second semester - what if you weren't allowed to choose not to take it? (note to everyone, but especially Brian: I like Chemistry, I really do. And I think scientific literacy is very important. I'm just not sure that Chemistry 101 in its current form is providing that purpose).

    "not quite as bad as the tax code" is not exactly an endorsement. True, the tax code is worse, but NCLB is 670 pages long - and that was in it's original form, before the amendments/additions of the last 4 years. When you add in all the other acts related to it, and then add in all the state policies/laws, then add in school district (school board) policies, then add in individual school policies, I'm guessing that the "school code" might just possibly exceed the "tax code" in complexity.

    If many people don't really want to make changes, then I say it's our job - no, our responsibility to lead. To explain to them why we think we need to make these changes. To make our case as to why the current system (or at least parts of the current system) is failing their children and our society. My general sense from most (not all) of the comments on some of the other posts is "yeah, we agree that the current structure sucks and we could be doing much better, but it would be really hard to convince all those people." Well, that's not good enough for me. And it's not good enough for our students. So I'm wondering why it's apparently good enough for quite a few of our colleagues.

    I disagree with "99% of the students in this country operate under a system with which colleges and everyone else is happy." Except for The Onion, I'm thinking every other media outlet in the world has been trashing K-20 education in this country for quite a while. And colleges have been trashing K-12. So I think stating that everyone is "happy" with the current situation is a stretch. Now, saying everyone is "complacent" or "unwilling to do the hard work necessary to change", or "my kid currently has the socioeconomic status that puts him in the "winner" category in the U.S. and until I see that change, why mess with it even if we all agree we could do better for all children?" then I'm with you.

    While I agree that we should be having the conversation with colleges, I think it's a mistake to assume many of the things we assume about colleges. Colleges know that grades don't mean anything - they use them simply as a very low level screening device. Any college that places very much weight on GPA is a college I wouldn't want to attend. And almost every college will (and does) accept students from non-graded high schools. There are many "elite" private schools that don't have grades. And, of course, homeschool students get into college all the time. I think that for a lot of people that's just a convenient excuse to avoid discussing the problem.

    So I return to what I said above, I think it is our responsibility to lead. And we need to take a systems approach. We need to lead colleges, lead middle schools, lead elementary schools, lead teachers, lead administrators, lead parents, lead students, lead politicians, lead media, lead other high schools. If we see the problem and we don't try to fix it, what does that say about us?

    If not now, when?

    If not us, who?

  8. I took the college Chemistry class because I was unsure about whether I wanted to be a Science or Liberal Arts major and I wanted to cover my bases in case I chose Science. (And of course the Science level chemistry was more than enough to cover the Liberal Arts science requirement.) The class did its job - it helped me decide. And considering that it was college, not high school, Chemistry, I don't think that the second question (what if I hadn't been able to choose not to take it) is really relevant.

    On the tax code versus NCLBehind issue, I would agree that both of those are disasters. I was saying that I don't think that education itself (which is in many ways the antithesis of NCLB) is a total disaster. Of course we could do a better job educating students, but I do not in any way think that Arapahoe High School confuses students to the degree that the tax code confuses the rest of us.

    Yes it is our responsibility to lead. That is what I was trying to say when I said that we need to approach the issue from new directions.

    I think that my point about 99% of the students was misunderstood. What I was saying is that parents have a hard time with changes like getting rid of traditional grades because 99% of the other students in the country have traditional grades and colleges and parents and community members feel comfortable (are happy) with grades because they think that they understand what those grades mean. Of course what the grades mean is undoubtedly different from what some people think the grades mean, but I still maintain that colleges and parents and community members feel comfortable (to a great degree) with grades - because they all earned them at some point in their lives.

    I also agree that college admissions officers put relatively low importance on grades. But they still use them as a basic benchmark. There is no way that UVA looks at an out-of-state kid with a GPA lower than 3.9 unless the kid has another talent (theater, sports, etc.)

    And yes of course we have a responsibility to lead. That is what I was trying to say.

  9. I think it depends on the college whether it's irrelevant or not (some have more requirements than others). And you were possibly interested in majoring in Biology, so you took Chemistry, but what about the student majoring in Philosophy or Business or Interior Design? Again, I'm not saying that being knowledgeable in a broad area is bad - I'm very much for that. It's making all those other folks take a very poorly designed and taught Chemistry 101 that I'm concerned about.

    And my more immediate concern is at the high school level, where I think there's at least a fifty-fifty chance that we'll adopt CCHE requirements as our graduation requirements (especially now that DPS is upping their requirements).

    4 Years of English
    4 Years of Math (Algebra 1 and up)
    3 Years of Science (2 years lab based)
    3 Years of Social Science
    2 Years of Foreign Language

    You won't be surprised that I'm strongly opposed to making these be our graduation requirements. Among other things, I find it hard to believe that all high school graduates need trig and pre-calculus. (I also would suggest that the members of CCHE volunteer to teach those sections of trig and pre-calc to all the students who don't currently make it that far). In addition to the inadvisability of making all students take this, it will cut down tremendously on the electives we offer at AHS. Even if we go to a 7 or 8 period day, we'll still have to cut electives teachers so that we can hire more math and science teachers (and maybe social studies and foreign language teachers).

    You are, of course, correct about most students and parents (and teachers and administrators and politicians) being more comfortable with the current system because they understand it. I think it's our job to show them what a disservice it's doing them, and how much better we could be doing.

    UVA may indeed not look at an out of state student with a GPA lower than 3.9 - but what do they do when the student doesn't have a GPA at all? Hmmm, I guess they'd have to look at the student's qualifications and demonstrated knowledge.

  10. Yes I agree about the poorly designed classes. That is what we are working on in Social Studies right now. What are the essential skills and concepts that we want them to know? That is the key.

    I am also against CCHE as graduation requirements. That moves in the wrong direction. Students should move along the paths that are correct for them and our current requirements allow that as the students appoach their junior and senior years. I think that freshmen and sophomores having generally similar schedules is good because students who are undecided about their futures after high school don't really make choices until after sophomore year. As long as their freshman and sophomore courses put them on the college path, those who originally didn't think they would want to attend college can change their minds after their sophomore year and be fine without making up courses. My greatest fear about going to CCHE for graduation requirements is that many students who currently attend this school and are not college-bound will decide that AHS is not for them. I would hate to lose those students and the diverse talents they bring to this school. I also don't want to lose the electives which give all students a broad liberal arts background and allow each student to try something (like fine arts) that they otherwise would not try.

    I agree about the grades issue too.

  11. That was fun.

    Going back to the student comments, thanks for sharing. I'm not sure the students said anything we haven't, yet it seems to strike a chord. They want us to let them be more involved. They want us to have a passion. They want us to mix it up. They want us to enjoy what we do as that helps them enjoy AND learn. Does that mean they actually want us to be good teachers and role models?

    I look at some of the specific activities mentioned that they said were meaningful and memorable. Two happened to come from my US course. And while it was fun to pat myself on the back, I also recognize a dilemma. In that semester, there are three big, let-them-create-history projects that they seem to become engaged with, enjoy, and produce some briliant stuff. And while I sit there thinking this high level of interest and learning will carry over to the next more traditional activity, it aparently doesn't. If I come to each class and activity and discussion with similar opportunities for them to stretch, even though they will be on a smaller scale, will it produce the same result on a daily basis? Maybe. Or...