Unintended consequences in best practices: what we did TO our students when they didn’t get it

What educator has not been challenged by the question, “What will you do when your students don’t get it?”  In response to No Child Left Behind and high stakes testing, teachers have become masters at drilling concepts into students in engaging ways:  Kagan, Kahoot, Jeopardy, stations…  Teachers Pay Teachers is wildly popular, not to mention Twitter connections as sources for great drill-and-practice activities. We teachers have become so good at at cognitive force feeding, that in many cases, students can get good grades without doing homework all through high school. (URL picture source).cat

Wisdom abounds among older students as to how one get points for homework without learning anything from it.  Getting good grades without having serious homework seems like a win-win-win for parents, students, and teachers.  Then we’re all off to the next extracurricular activity, more concerned about losing to other teams than to foreign competitors in the marketplace. What could possibly be wrong with this scenario?

The main problem with this scenario is that life doesn’t normally end with a high school diploma.  Missing from the celebration are:  1) employers that can’t fill positions that require problem solving skills and 2) families that are saddled with college debt and no job to pay for it.  Colleges report that students are not prepared with independent study, time management, or self-regulatory skills, let alone extensible math skills.  It seems teachers may sometimes be too helpful in making learning so effortless.  Teachers are getting information into students for short-term assessments, but methods used to achieve those scores aren’t necessarily good for long-term retention.

For many years, I have listened to educators sharing concerns about their students’ prerequisite skills all the way up and down the grade-level downprogression, each teacher attributing gaps to teachers not teaching well from years before (and the situation seems to be worsening).  I disagree.  I think most teachers are knocking themselves out for those test scoresI think the students are not remembering, and cognitive science provides clues that may explain the lapses (Willingam, D. T, 2009).

Effortless learning is not likely to stick as well as retrieval practice and analyzing connections (Brown, Roediger, McDaniel, 2014).  When too much classroom time is spent on various forms of drilling, there is less time for students to spend in hands-on explorations, making systematic lists of possibilities, effectively using trial and error, adapting their learned material to fit non-standard concepts, or any other brain activity that would be useful outside a traditional classroom.  We hear from colleges and employers all the time that memorized facts are not what they are looking for:  but it’s worse than that.  Students aren’t remembering the memorized facts and procedures long after tests, either.  By taking too much responsibility for students’ learning, I believe we have demotivated effective learning strategies that are grounded in purposefulness.  It has become a challenge to get students to put forth the effort to think.  Instead of fueling hearts of innovation, we are hardening hearts to a point where they avoid learning.  “If it’s important, someone will make me learn it.”

The good news is we know from neuroscience that “hearts,” feelings, and attitudes can all be changed with purposeful effort.  I have begun the process with my own students and families by.

I encourage families to support their students by

  • Helping students learn to delay immediate gratification for the purpose of gaining long-range privileges and advantages
  • Organizing resources and structuring time for monitoring solid homework experiences (Where is the cell phone and how many tabs are open on that computer?)
  • Helping students develop a sense of responsibility for reaching out for learning instead of hiding from it
  • Involving their students in quiet reflection and analysis of the learning process and the importance of becoming life-long learners
  • Keeping cellphones out of sleeping areas to make sure sleep is not interrupted, either consciously or subliminally

Seeing my students change their minds about their priorities and celebrating what they know to be huge leaps towards responsible academic practices has been exciting.  Of course there are a few that I have to take out of the flow of classroom explorations to drill what they won’t, but that is relatively infrequent.  There’s hope in the future and it lies in the hands of these kids.  It’s a privilege to have a part in guiding the process.

Brown, P. C., Roediger, H., McDaniel, M. A. (2014).  Make It Stick.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.

Willingham, D. T. (2009).  Why Students Don’t Like School.  San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass.


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