I love it when things line up unexpectedly.

A significant portion of my students’ exam last semester was an entirely student-led Harkness discussion. Unfortunately, it didn’t go so well. They managed to sustain the conversation for the better part of 90 minutes, but it felt superficial and very competitive and, at times, downright rude. It was not at all reflective of what I’ve tried to teach them about how to have a discussion. (I suspect that’s because with such a high-profile grade attached, they reverted to instinct–but that’s another post altogether.)

At any rate, I started the new semester today with a reflection on that experience and tried to help the class move forward. We talked about the need to respect each other, and they talked about being “kind” and “friendly” and “not rolling your eyes”–all important ideas. But I took it a step farther, imploring them to actually value each other. As I told them, “Even if you disagree with someone–even if the two of you are completely opposed in every way–you can still learn from them. It won’t hurt you to listen to his ideas, and even if you come away still disagreeing with him, you’ll at least be forced to consider the merits of your own views and hopefully come away stronger. There’s value in that, so don’t waste that opportunity.”

We then moved into our regularly scheduled lesson, the beginning of a unit on virtue. One of my students pointed out that our school’s motto–emblazoned on the school seal (which I had placed on the course syllabus, which we had just discussed)–included the latin word Virtus. That was not part of my original lesson plan, but we ran with it. We talked a bit about why that might be. Why would a school want its students to be virtuous, and in what way(s)?

Later, after brainstorming a list of possible virtues, I offered an unexpected one: politeness. My students looked puzzled. Politeness? In his book A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues, French philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville argues that politeness is in fact the foundation for all other virtues. I assigned that chapter of the book to my students for Thursday, and we will discuss it. Again, not part of my original plan when I chose the reading over the summer, but I’m hoping that the discussion on politeness might offer my students an opportunity to reflect on our exam discussion while practicing better (I daresay, more virtuous) discussion skills.

It’s getting pretty meta up in here, but I do love it when things line up unexpectedly.


I was talking with a colleague today, and he said something very simple that nevertheless made me stop and think. He said of one student, “He does his work. He’s not going to do any more than than he has to, of course, but he gets his stuff done.” The student in question is not an academic superstar by any means, but my colleague is right: he does his work.

I’ve had countless students like this over the years, but for some reason, I never stopped to think about in quite this way. As our conversation continued to play in my head this evening, it occurred to me that we don’t really have a label for students like this. We have our “overachievers” and our “underachievers,” but we rarely talk about the kids who are simply “achievers.”

I wonder why. It’s as if simply achieving is not enough. To be worthy of our attention (that is: teachers’, college admissions officers’, prospective employers’), you can’t just do what you’re supposed to do. You have to do more. How much more? As much as you can, of course. And if you do more, we’re going to push you to do even more than that. More, more, always more. Are kids so wrong to say, “No thanks, not for me. I’m good with a C if it means I get to enjoy my life a bit during these four years of high school?”

As an educator and on a certain level, I get it. This is Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development in action. Except when it’s not. Sometimes, we’re not expanding kids’ comfort zones. Sometimes, we’re simply pushing to see just how much kids can handle. (And, oh yeah, because we “have to” sort them into honors classes, elite colleges, and competitive labor markets.) And we wonder why “kids these days” are grade-grubbing, perfectionist, careerist, etc., etc., etc. As Denise Pope argued in her book Doing School, it seems that we are indeed creating “a generation of stressed-out, materialistic, and miseducated students.”

My students assigned themselves homework today. Over a four-day break.

Although I certainly assign my fair share of it, I have mixed emotions about homework. On the one hand, I believe that kids spend far too much of their childhoods indoors, toiling away on stuff that sometimes has dubious long-term value. On the other hand, I also have a hard time imagining what we would get done in class if students didn’t come in prepared for discussion. (Most nights, “homework” for my classes involves reading–ideally a couple of thought-provoking primary sources or perhaps an essay or book chapter by a professional historian.)

Anyway, when we return from Fall Break, my classes will embark on their first adventure (also my first adventure) in project-based learning. More on that later, perhaps. Today, though, we spend the last half-hour of class brainstorming (in a very rough way) “design thinking” and the issues associated with working as part of a team. Then they spent a few minutes in their groups, getting their ideas organized so that they could hit the ground running when they return next week.

When I checked in with both groups at the end of the period, I learned that they had already–and without prompting from me–assigned themselves the task of individually researching immigration issues over the break and reporting back to the group next week.

Is this how PBL works? I hope so. I could get used to this.

If you read the news, it seems as if there’s a cheating epidemic in our schools. Of course, the big headline grabber is the ongoing scandal at Harvard, where more than 100 students (and some graduates) are accused of academic dishonesty. Over the weekend, however, I also noticed two articles in the New York Times which would seem to confirm the plague.

The first article addresses a case at New York’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School that sounds eerily similar in some ways to the situation at Harvard. But it was the second article (“Studies Find More Students Cheating, With High Achievers No Exception”) that really got me thinking about cheating as a systemic issue. It cites recent studies showing that “a majority of students violate standards of academic integrity to some degree.” The article goes on to say that, according to researchers, “Cheating has become easier and more widely tolerated, and schools and parents have failed to give students strong, repetitive messages about what is allowed and what is tolerated.”

Harvard professor Howard Gardner, widely known among educators for his theory of multiple intelligences, is quoted as saying that students’ “ethical muscles have atrophied” over the last few decades. He sums up their supposed mindset as follows: “We want to famous and successful, we think our [classmates] are cutting corners, we’ll be damned if we’ll lose out to them, and some day, when we’ve made it, we’ll be role models. But until then, give us a pass.”

The cynic in me wonders whether the recent scandals might actually indicate the emergence of a heretofore undiscovered “intelligence.” After all, these students are in many ways simply navigating the environment into which they have been placed, and they are doing so along the path of least resistance. There’s a certain logic in that, is there not?

One of the other experts quoted in the article seems to understand this… sort of. Professor Donald L. McCabe of Rutgers University, who is listed as “a leading researcher on cheating,” posits that “students have become more competitive, under more pressure, and, as a result, tend to excuse more from themselves and other students.” He also charges that such behavior is “abetted by the adults around them.”

I think McCabe is basically right, but I suspect that the number of teachers who are guilty of such aiding and abetting is pretty small. On the other hand, I would argue that the number of teachers who drive their students to cheat is substantial. We hear increasing talk of “gamification” in education these days, as if that’s some cutting edge idea. I hate to break the “gamification” crowd, though: school was “gamified” a long time ago. The students who cheat, for better or worse, are simply playing the game.

While McCabe has some valid insights, his argument goes off the rails when he states flatly, “There have always been struggling students who cheat to survive. . . . But more and more, there are students at the top who cheat to thrive.” I don’t know what his teaching load at Rutgers looks like, but I’m afraid he seriously misunderstands today’s students.

Based on what I hear on a regular basis, many students have somehow been led to believe that mere “survival” is tantamount to failure. From their perspective, in an increasingly competitive college admissions game, if you’re not “thriving,” you’re dead. And for college students facing an increasingly competitive job market, if you’re not thriving at that level, you might reasonably expect to spend your twenties sleeping on the sofa in Mom and Dad’s basement. To a twenty-something, that’s social death. So really, to them, “cheating to thrive” is an attempt to survive. The terms of the game–what it takes to “win”–have simply shifted.

In our heavily tracked education system, kids as early as preschool are labeled as high achievers and set apart from the rest of their classmates. They’re told—sometimes in explicit ways, sometimes not—that they are the best and the brightest. The world is their oyster, but the future rests on their shoulders. Because we expect so much from these students in particular, they are burdened with increasingly unrealistic workloads and a sometimes inhumane schedule as they progress through the system. Not wanting to let their parents and teachers down—and not wanting to admit to themselves or their peers that perhaps they aren’t superhuman—they naturally begin to look for shortcuts.

Part of Gardner’s comment is especially telling: “we think our [classmates] are cutting corners, we’ll be damned if we’ll lose out to them.” Lose out to them? When did education become a zero-sum game? I’m not sure, but from the perspective of many students at least, it most definitely did, and “kids these days” are playing to win. Just like we taught them.

(Please allow me a slight digression here. Perhaps by cheating—especially en masse, as at Harvard and Stuyvesant—students are actually engaging in a subtle and perhaps subconscious form of protest against the system. By acting out a real-world game of Prisoner’s Dilemma, they change the game from one that is zero-sum to one that is cooperative. As anyone who has taken ECON101 knows, if both players in Prisoner’s Dilemma cheat, everybody wins! That’s collaboration, which we hail as one of the cornerstones of 21st century learning, even as we punish students for not “doing their own work.”)

In all seriousness, though, let me be clear here: I do not say any of this to excuse what these students may (or may not) have done. Cheating is wrong, and it cannot be condoned. To allow such actions to stand uncorrected weakens not only our academic standards, but the moral fiber of our very society. However, I do believe that when we face such widespread violations of the rules, we need to start asking some serious questions about the game being played. For instance:

  • Is it possible that these alleged incidents are not indicative of a moral failing on the part of America’s young people?
  • Is it possible that school, in its current form, might push students to cheat (and perhaps even reward them for it)?
  • Is it possible that adults—the teachers, the administrators, perhaps even the media types who cover this story—are primarily responsible for establishing the conditions under which cheating comes to be seen as “the path to victory?”

Although I have some thoughts on the matter (clearly), I’ll admit that I don’t know the answers to all of these questions. But I do think it’s a conversation worth having.

This is the third and final post in a series about some of the reflections my students wrote as part of their semester assessments. What follows are my own thoughts based on what I read from them.

When I read these reflections, I’m impressed by how far my students have come since August. Not surprisingly, considering the number of curves I threw at them (including an almost entirely discussion-based classroom environment, a shift away from grades on every individual assignment, etc.), my students began the year very anxious about the class. I feared at times that I was trying to do too much at once and that I would lose them before I ever had a chance to “get them.” Judging by their reflections, though, they now seem remarkably at ease with my system, and a number of them seem to appreciate it, just as I had hoped they would. We have had some ups and downs at times, but on the whole, when I read their reflections on the fall semester, my overall feeling is one of great pride.

I detect a couple of common threads running through many of the reflections in the previous two posts. First, I see that my students (on the whole) are becoming more thoughtful and critical as both consumers and producers of information. They have learned not to accept sources at face value, but rather to interrogate them, research their context, compare and corroborate. They have begun to welcome new and different perspectives as a way of strengthen their own understanding. And lastly, they seem to have developed at least some awareness of the marketplace of ideas. They recognize that for their ideas to carry weight, they must consciously and carefully construct their arguments. They have also learned that their own ideas benefit from the marketplace; the exchange of ideas—particularly written ideas—is a process, and perfection is rarely seen in the first draft (if it’s seen at all).

I’m even more pleased, though, to see that my students are becoming more confident and more independent—both as learners and as people. Although we’ve spent very little time talking metacognitively (it’s something I’d like to become more intentional about), my students seem to be realizing that there’s more than one way to learn, and they’re at least starting to recognize themselves as individual learners—their strengths and weaknesses, etc. A number of them were actually very averse (and outspokenly so) in the beginning of the year, so to see them starting to appreciate—even favor, in some cases—this type of learning environment is exciting stuff!

I’m also very pleased to see them developing their own worldviews. That sort of thing comes through much more explicitly in the government reflections than in the history ones, but I attribute that as much to the age of the students—and the fact that most of them will be “leaving the nest soon”—as to the material. Still, I think that a classroom environment that privileges their voices provides them the space to find themselves, and I value that. This is the first time in my career that I’ve really believed that my students were taking something of real value–beyond the course content, that is–with them when they leave. (I’m afraid that might say something quite negative about my first few years, but it’s true.)

Particularly given how proud I am of these students, it would be easy to “over-extrapolate” the importance of this relatively informal set of reflections. My students are obviously still learning, and we have much work yet to do. That said, this bit of evidence—along with the improvements I’ve seen in classroom discussions and written work—convince me that I’m on the right track with the changes I’ve made to my classroom practice. Going forward, I am wholly committed to the use of the Harkness method in my classroom, and I feel affirmed in my growing belief that de-emphasizing assignment grades and providing opportunities to learn from mistakes are critical if I hope to see real growth in my students.

Note: What follows is the second in a three-part series of posts based on recent reflections on the fall semester from my students. The first post contained reflections from my students in American government (mostly seniors), while these are from my students in American history (juniors). Later this week, I will post my own thoughts based on these reflections.

1. What is the most valuable lesson you have learned about history this semester?

The valuable lesson I have learned about history this semester is simple: everybody has different stories, different backgrounds, different thoughts, and therefore different perspectives.

History should not be accepted without a doubt by people; we have to question the validity of all claims in history in order to find the truth. There were many topics we discussed in class, specifically the Salem Witch Trials and the Civil War, that were much more complex than I had thought before entering this class. It was valuable to me to realize that a person cannot just read the textbook to get an understanding of what actually happened. It is important to compare many different sources to figure out what happens in history.

Read More

First, if there’s anyone out there who actually reads this blog, I offer an apology for my lack of recent posts. I intended to post a number of things over the holidays, but if I’m being honest, I found that I enjoyed unplugging far too much. I went almost two weeks without touching my computer, and it was everything I hoped it could be. I spent a lot of that time reading, and wrapped up a great year in books (perhaps I’ll post about that soon).

I’ve fallen down on my promise to reflect regularly, but I hope to get back on that this month. I’m also planning to begin posting reviews of some of my education/history reads, possibly as soon as tomorrow.

For now, though, I wanted to share some terrific mid-year writing from my students. As part of their semester assessments, I asked my students to write a series of brief reflections on their work so far. Of course, I didn’t have any “correct” answers in mind; rather, I hoped that intentional reflection on the semester would help students clarify the “big picture” takeaways at a time when it’s easy to get so wrapped up in the details.

I’m pleased to report that the results were much better than anything I expected. The students impressed me with their thoughtfulness, and I was especially pleased to see that many of them had apparently learned the skills and habits of mind I had hoped to impart.

This will be the first in a series of three posts on this topic. Below are my questions and a few reflections from students (mostly seniors) in my semester-length course, which is essentially an introduction to American government. I’m sad to say goodbye to this group, but it looks so far like I have another great group this semester. Later this week, I’ll post a few reflections from my juniors (American history), and I’ll wrap up with a few thoughts of my own based on their reflections.

Read More