Friday, April 26, 2013

The Real Reasons Students Don't Give School Their All

I always knew hard work paid off.  I think most students intrinsically know that in order to accomplish something great they have to put a ton of hours into what they do. Malcolm Gladwell calls this the 10,000 hour rule.  He explains that if you look at any person who has really become an expert in anything, they have invested at least 10,000 hours into perfecting the skills and acquiring the knowledge needed to do that.   Certainly, I think our student athletes exemplify this.  As do our student artists and really any student who is involved in an extracurricular activity intensely.  So, why are our students unable to focus for long periods of time on a task?  Why are they eager to quit?  Why is engagement a major problem in most schools today?  After much thought about this, I've come up with 4 reasons.

1) Students don't see a connection between what they do in class and the skills they need when they get out into the workforce.  Students don't find the learning material exciting because it isn't relevant.  As teachers, we all know it is essential to connect our content material with the acquisition of skills.  On a microcosmic level this is important because we want our students to be able to learn the material independently for the rest of their lives and because we know there are certain skills each core subject intrinsically lends itself to conveying.  However, it is also important to look at the issue on a macro level.  What skills will our students need to be successful in life when they leave us?  What skills will they be able to transfer to their work in order to be competitive employees, productive citizens, and meaningful participants in their community?

I'd like to see schools, both high school and elementary school, rewriting their mission statements to focus on student goal setting in the global context. I'd like to see initiatives to encourage teachers to work across departments, across subjects, in an interdisciplinary fashion to really hone in on these core skills and plan where and when students should acquire them from one grade to the next. There needs to be a focus on UBD, not just per class, but a school.  When Mike Polizzi, my superintendent, got up at a meeting in the beginning of this school year and criticized UBD as being too narrowly focused on just each teacher per class, I knew I had met someone who finally got it.  We need more people like him to lead the way.  UBD in classes is the beginning, UBD across the curriculum is really the way to go.

Now, you might say that the Common Core addresses skills per subject and grade level.  It also suggests an interdisciplinary approach to a degree.  The problem?  It doesn't go nearly far enough.  It's not interdisciplinary enough nor career focused enough.  It's too focused from within and not enough from without.  What do I mean?  Well, it doesn't focus on skills in general that need to be acquired by students regardless of subject matter.  It doesn't suggest techniques and methods to motivate students to acquire them or show students the necessity of the acquisition process.  It is interdisciplinary in that is forces teacher during lesson planning to include at least one "interdisciplinary standard," but it doesn't force teachers to transform courses from English and History to American Studies (which by the way Hunter College High School has already for some time) or tear down the walls of the "course" notion altogether and just have projects.   It doesn't change the overall culture of the classroom.

2) Students who aren't on either extreme (G &T or LD) are ignored and often treated stupid.  Most of us educators are familiar with the 80-20 rule.  In a traditional classroom, I believe this rule is fully in effect.  You spend 80% of your time with 20% of your students, those on either extreme.  Well, what happens to the 80% who are average?  They really miss out on the meaning of education in the first place.  They are bored. They travel from class to class existing, not thriving, not growing.  They are in "survival mode."  They are turned off from education, from intellectualism, and from learning.  Who blames them?  We need to change the classrooms, change the structure of the school day, and change the notion of a course altogether to better mimic the world they will live in when they get out.

3) Students are not really made to realize the consequences of their actions.   I cannot begin to explain how many times I've had a senior or junior complaining that they wish they had known that goofing off for most of their schooling was really hurting their chances at getting into the right college.  I have had 8th graders tell me that if they knew not studying or focusing on subject matter would mean not getting into the high school they wanted to, they would have done it differently.  My husband often talks about how he learned early in school how to cut corners and still maintain a decent enough grade in each subject to get by.  Decent enough?  Since when did a kid playing soccer say, I'm decent enough.  I don't need to practice.  I don't need to learn how to kick the ball better.  I'm happy with where I am.  Examples of long term implications are all around us.  I was a college guidance counselor.  I've run a tutoring and college advising business.  Our kids need advisement from an early age.   The need coaches/advisors for students in academics from day one, not when they have a "problem."

4) Students are not given guidance towards goal setting at a young age. This is related to my issue #3, but warrants its own category.  When is the last time we asked a fourth grader what they wanted to improve on in the next year?  When did we pull aside a 6th grader and plan a course of action for him/her to master something?  When is the last time we asked a 10th grader what they liked to learn about?  When did we sit down with an 8th grader and show them what skills they will need to compete with the rest of the world when they get out of school or what they were really "good" at and interested in? We do this for our kids and students in extracurricular areas all the time, but we leave out academics.  It's no shocker than that our kids, our students leave it out too.