Sunday, December 9, 2012

What's a teacher to do?

I play volleyball with a public school teacher who is the kind of teacher any parent would want for their children. She is a wonderful role model. She is passionate, dedicated, devoted, and always trying to come up with creative ways for her students to learn. For example she recently invited her students take the Myers Briggs test as an interesting way to think about the career they want for their future and she started a Facebook group to connect her alumnae students with current students to discuss college and careers.  In the meantime, all sorts of great literacy skills are being honed i.e. reading, writing, discussing, career readiness.

She also brings her students into the conversation. She shares the assessments they'll need to pass (English Regents) and they discuss the best way to get there. Then they write their own personal learning plan to meet this goal. It's all good. It's all the best of our teachers do.

But there's a problem. One similar to what high school math teacher Crystal Kirch recently shared on her blog when she asked for help (but didn't really want to listen to advice) with her biggest struggle this year:

"My students don't know how to learn.  They don't know how to succeed.  And, it doesn't seem like they care to change any of that. "
My friend's problem was similar in some ways.  She explained, my students just don't want to do the work. She said she has tried everything she can think of and she is frustrated because she just can't seem to motivate them.  

So, I asked her what they want to do. She told me they just want to hang out and talk and chill. And, I thought, well, crap. We don't give teens enough time to do that and hanging out and talking and chilling is an important part of social development. But I digress...

Here's the problem.

Her job is to teach them whether they like it or not even though we know this:
Learning happens when someone wants to learn, not when someone wants to teach. 
-Roger Schank

But, we used to be able to get kids to learn, right?  So what's the problem now?

Seymour Papert gave us insight into the issue more than two decades ago in his book Mindstorms (Page 9).  
I believe that the computer presence will enable us to so modify the learning environment outside the classrooms that much if not all the knowledge schools presently try to teach with such pain and expense and such limited success will be learned, as the child learns to talk, painlessly, successfully, and without organized instruction. This obviously implies that schools as we know them today will have no place in the future. But it is an open question whether they will adapt by transforming themselves into something new or wither away and be replaced.
As Papert predicted in 1980, the time has come when some of our students have figured out they don't need to come to school to learn. They see what is happening in the class as disconnected to what is happening in their world and the carrot of passing the test is no longer enough.

Our students have have changed but for the most part, even our best public schools are only trying to reform an outdated model that needs to be completely transformed.  

But teachers like Ms. Kirch are still stuck in an outdated paradigm frustrated by being, "a hard-working teacher who strives to find ways to reach even the lowest students." 

She explains how her flipped classroom is going for her students this way:

#flipclass in my afternoon Math Analysis Honors classes?  Amazing. Wonderful. Inspiring. Awesome.  

#flipclass in my morning Algebra 1 CP classes?  I'm drained. I'm exhausted. I just want to help them learn. I just want them to ask questions when they need to. I just want them to understand. I just want them to want to learn. I just want them to care.

But as our friend Roger Schank reminds us, "Learning happens when someone wants to learn, not when someone wants to teach."

The irony is that those students teachers like Kirch see as "lowest" are perhaps the ones who have awoken and are more evolved. You see, these kids, know you see them this way and they in turn see what you do as rather irrelevant both because they never asked to learn what you're teaching and they can get the information they care about more effectively without you. Those "honors" students happen to want to learn what you're teaching, so the support and resources provided add some relevance, but we can not fool ourselves that just because we happen to have an offering they are interested in that they are somehow "higher."

But this doesn't solve the problem that Ms. Kirch and my friend are having. They are paid to do a job whether their clients, the students, want it or not.


What's a teacher to do when students have awoken to the fact that they don't need you to learn what they care about and you're not in a position to care about what they want to learn?


If you have ideas please leave a comment below or join us in The Innovative Educator group on Facebook where you can visit this link to see what people are saying. 


  1. "What's a teacher to do..."

    Well I was hoping you were going to tell me! :P

    I'm trying to figure this out. In my small school I often volunteer to work with these types of students. Most of the time it's enough for them not to have to try to learn in the general education classroom; they're as sick of the school's mid-20th Century "comply or defy" attitude as can be and appreciate the change. This year I went a bit overboard and have been teaching a section of science since October, and getting 14 of these kinds of students in the same room has made things difficult.

    The best I can do right now is to focus less on "what" is being learned, and more on the "how". They may be able to access all the content the Internet has to offer, but they lack a lot of skills; so that's what I try to stress. From their comments, a lot of their negativity stems from years of being unsuccessful - but that doesn't mean they don't still want to be successful. I try to give them those strategies, as well as choice over content, and throw a lot of interesting things their way, basically hoping something gets them hooked. Our success is variable.

    If there was somebody that knew exactly what to do they would have published it and made their millions already..

    1. Well, I think there are people who know what to do. We can look at models like Montessori for that. The problem is the same politicians that send their kids to those schools won't allow them to be funded for the public. There are different goals for the children of those governing and those who they are governing.

      But...on to what to do with what we have now...aside from revolt, which I also suggest.
      I reflect upon those I written about in this blog.

      Aaron Iba is a multi-millionaire programmer but there was no place for someone with his passions in school. His best year was when his fifth grade teacher left him alone in the back of the class with a computer.

      Peggy Sheehy who is an amazing educator today was “That Kid” who as she got further along in her schooling, dropped out because school had not made what it wanted to teach her relevant to her world and had not spoken to her passions.

      Jack Andraka is a 15 years old, who wanted to chill and read science journals in class. The journals were confiscated and he was told to pay attend to the teacher. Andraka left school and went to work in a lab where he developed an important test for cancer.

      Travis Allen who was frustrated that his teachers were keeping him a prisoner of their past by banning him from using his technology for learning. He left school and went on to start a company where college kids teach teachers how to integrate tech.

      Nick Perez is a successful software developer today who was traumatized in a school system who had no place for someone with such a passion. Perez endured a long and hard road in school that included prescription drugging, to the humiliation of being singled out from the rest of his peers, to threats of litigation. He dropped out to find success.

      There are just so many stories like that and when I share them, so many people can relate. When I was a librarian I let teachers send their bored, disruptive kids to my class. Given the chance to read, watch videos, and use computers that matched their interests, they were transformed.

      Even if you focus on the "how" of what is being learned, does it matter if you're making a student learn something they are not interested in learning about for whatever reason? I don't think it does and that is the problem.

      The teacher is in the middle. The student is the pawn. Hopefully those who are governing things will change course and enable all children to get the Montessori-type education currently only reserved for those in power who have the means to make that choice. Or maybe this is exactly as they want it.

  2. I wonder if you're still being too hard on Crystal Kirch. I've read and re-read her post and the more I read it, the more I see someone who was simply venting a lot of the frustrations a lot of us as teachers have.

    Furthermore, perhaps she's more frustrated with the pressure put on her to have all of her students succeed that the culture of accountability has brought about, and that is possibly compounded by the fact that she's flipping her classroom, something that is trendy and experimental (in a sense).

    I can only speculate on what the stakes for her might be if a particular percentage of her students fail, but I know that when I was asked to create "SMART Goals" this year I wasn't allowed to have a realistic expectation for the number of students who would achieve my test-based (and they had to be test-based) goals. I was told, "No, they ALL have to meet this goal ... and it's 40% of your yearly eval." That's a lot of rather unrealistic pressure, IMHO. It's not stopping me from trying to get there, but like I said, I wonder if Kirch is under the same pressure.

    And if she is, is vilifying her here constructive? Shouldn't the villain be the bigger picture of this constant need teachers have to prove themselves "worthy"?

    1. @redlinesandhighlights,
      Please be specific on where you think I'm vilifying Ms. Kirch for anything other than lying and being deceptive in regards to her censoring comments.

      I understand she is venting frustrations. I work with thousands of teachers and have been one myself. I get that. I don't get censoring a conversation that addressing the issues about which we are venting.

      This post is not about vilifying anyone but rather actually getting to some answers about how to address struggles that teachers like my friend and Ms. Kirch are facing,

  3. It's tough when students are not interested in the curriculum that they are being asked to learn yet being measured on their ability to "pass" tests on it.My teaching partner and I try to make it a priority to listen to our students, get to know them, their interests, their talents and strengths.We then try to figure out ways to deliver the content that plays into those areas, giving students choices about how they demonstrate their learning in ways that are meaningful to them.We are also consciousness about letting kids explore beyond the set curriculum , if they get excited about one tiny aspect and really want to delve deep we encourage them.We also team teach a lot,finding any areas where are subject areas overlap ( Science, Math, Social Studies and Language Arts) and planning real world authentic projects that make connections between them.We also let the kids do a lot of the driving, exploring avenues and issues that are of interest and value to them. Process becomes more important than content, but because students are making deeper connections content seems to follow naturally.
    I also appreciate that I am fortunate to be in a building that actively supports and encourages this kind of collaboration between students and teachers. We are given planning time to try and make this type of learning happen.We also get to be creative with our schedules which is ,I guess, unusual.I certainly don't think we have all of the answers, we have much to learn, which is why I will be following responses to this post closely.It's through the conversation and sharing of ideas that I think we can begin to make small changes in our classrooms that can have a positive impact on our kids.