In a recent post where I describe the double whammy of this year’s rapid increases in teacher workload and teacher pressure, our colleague Jennifer wrote in with this to say.
I’m stuck in my home three days a week teaching remotely. Two days a week I teach remotely from my packed up classroom. I’ve been at this gig for nearly 27 years, so retirement is an option. I mentioned to someone that I’d rather hand out stickers at Walmart. It is ridiculous to be held responsible for kids who do not return work and who refuse to show up virtually. Many are under lockdown duress like their teachers. We have over two thirds of our grade level flunking right now. How can I change that? The progress report only prompted 5-6 kids to start working more.
Here’s what I see.
- I see a teacher who feels pressured by the responsibility to have more of her students 1) returning work and 2) showing up virtually. Specifically, she says that she will be “held responsible” if these things don’t improve. I am not sure what this “held responsible” would look like, but I know that vague threats of repercussion tend to increase pressure without improving motivation or performance. If I were able to speak with her leaders, I would say, “Hey — time to clear some things up. What are you expecting teachers to do?” To which the administrator would likely respond, “Ahhhhh I’m busy and stressed. I can’t answer that right now.” After which I’d go to Jennifer and I’d say, “Don’t worry about being held responsible. Just focus on what you can control and doing that with as much excellence as you can muster. Do this for the same primary reason that you’ve served as a teacher for 27 years — to promote the long-term flourishing of young people by helping young people master the disciplines.”
- I see a teacher in pain. I doubt Jennifer planned on contemplating retirement 27 years in. So many of us carry burdens here in the final quarter of 2020 that were unforeseeable in the first.
- I see a teacher empathizing with the difficulties of her students. She’s cognizant of the fact that some of her students may be experiencing pain — “lockdown duress” — and she may be struggling with the relevance of virtual school for students in such circumstances.
The bigger picture: systems that rely heavily on coercion are not resilient
When progress reports came out and 2/3 of the students and families in Jennifer’s school discovered that their student was failing, it sounds like very few reacted to the news with renewed motivation. Some of this may be because it’s unclear to students what “failing” even means in Fall 2020 — again, vague threats of repercussions almost always demotivate. Will it really matter? students and families may wonder.
But I suspect that a deeper explanation is that for all of human history, the work of learning wasn’t about coercion or consequences. Charlotte Mason, an educational philosopher who founded schools in the first decades of the twentieth century, wrote in 1922 that “children are born persons,” and from this naturally follows the idea that such personhood “must not be encroached upon… by the direct use of fear” but rather that children “should have a generous curriculum.”
What Mason is after here is that Jennifer’s students are more than the attendance she takes from who shows up in a box on a screen during a synchronous class period, and they are more than the submissions of “work” that her curricula call for.
I’m not saying learning isn’t work or that students shouldn’t do work or that synchronous class sessions aren’t important in providing children with what Mason calls “a generous curriculum.” I’m just saying that systems that have long relied on procuring student motivation via carrots and sticks are dehumanizing: to teachers, to students, to families.
You can get away with dehumanizing systems for a time, but not forever. In times of tumult especially, human beings — “persons,” as Mason calls them — will tend toward human activity. If school is that, they’ll be drawn to school; if school isn’t that, they won’t.
But engagement-first approaches are dehumanizing, too
A popular school of thought in the United States has for a long time been that the key to a good education is making sure that students are engaged. You don’t need carrots and sticks, the thinking goes — you need engagement. “It’s all about engagement.”
Almost always, this talk of engagement is painfully fuzzy. It’s been buzzwordified — and I mean that practically, not cynically. When a word can mean markedly different things — or nothing at all — to a room full of individuals, then that word has become an instrument of confusion rather than one of communication. Engagement is a word like that in American schools.
BUT just like so many of its fellow victims of buzzwordification — e.g., grit, growth mindset, close reading — it became buzzwordified because it once was and can again be quite a useful concept. The definition I run with is that engagement is the during-task state in which a human being becomes fully immersed in the task at hand. This is the senes in which psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discusses flow or “optimal experience,” and when you dig into the literature on engagement, you find it often linking back to this concept.
And so you’ve got teachers around the country receiving professional development for years on how to create “engaging” lessons and assignments and units. There are a few problems with this:
1) Such professional development often devolves into knowledge-lite explorations of cool tech and novel projects, and such knowledge-liteness always advantages those who are privileged to experience knowledge-rich contexts outside of school. In other words, despite frequent claims to the contrary, engagement-centered approaches to education often exacerbate inequity rather than alleviate it.
2) Such approaches envision a curricular utopia where every moment of a child’s education can be optimized for engagement. They forget that sometimes we human beings just get distracted, or sometimes an experience cannot be micro-designed for engagement, and in such times motivation — not engagement — is what brings the learner back to the work of learning.
3) Such thinking is, at its root, dehumanizing because it treats the learner as a brain to be engaged rather than (as Charlotte Mason puts it) as a “person” — a being with agency and intellect and emotion and a will. Designing engaging lessons is ultimately about figuring out a way past the will rather than thinking deeply about what it means for an education to seek a partnership with the will — to enlist it in work that will at times be engaging and will at times be a bit more like doing the dishes.
A better approach: generous curricula + a deep respect for the beliefs beneath motivation
There’s a better way.
First, we can do as Charlotte Mason suggested in 1922: we can “hold that the child’s mind is no mere sac to hold ideas; but is rather, if the figure may be allowed, a spiritual organism, with an appetite for all knowledge. This is its proper diet, with which it is prepared to deal; and which it can digest and assimilate as the body does foodstuffs” (Philosophy of Education, p. xxx). In short, we provide a generous curriculum — one that immerses children in the profundity of the words and ideas and concepts and puzzles present in every single discipline that humans have ever explored.
Two shifts would be required here.
- First, we would need to remove instruction from its top spot in many of our systems-level thinking and place curriculum there instead. (This would have a massive added bonus of dramatically improving the lives of countless teachers who are resigned to making their own curricula year in and year out.)
- Second, we would need to remove skill from its top spot in many of our systems-level thinking and submit to the consensus of cognitive science: that the skills we desire for our students, such as critical thinking and problem-solving and open-mindedness, are largely a function of what a student knows in a given area. (See Chapter 3 of These 6 Things for more on this, or search my blog archives for the word “knowledge.”)
And second, we abandon the idea that coercion or engagement are what it takes to get students to do the work of learning from the fullness of their personhood. We should call these things what they are — tools to be understood and applied cautiously lest we further dehumanize the whole educational endeavor. Instead, we make a study of the five key beliefs beneath student motivation, and we learn the humanizing methods for cultivating these beliefs from a child’s first day of pre-school up to and through her walk across the graduation stage.
By creating beliefs-rich environments — which can be done in-person or remotely — where students and teachers learn with knowledge-rich, generous curricula, we would be changing the fundamental dynamics that inevitably lead to what our colleague Jennifer and countless others are experiencing around the United States right now.