It’s a conversation that I’ve had a million times with colleagues in the break room: “It’s not even the hard stuff that’s bringing her grade down. She’s just not doing the work.” We are full of sympathy when students are stumped on concepts that we recognize as tricky, like the causes of the agricultural revolution or how to write a good thesis statement, because we remember learning them ourselves. When students can’t figure out how to do “the basics,” however–don’t budget their time, study for tests, make it to class on time, turn in their homework, do the right homework, stay on topic in class, ask enough questions, ask appropriate questions, answer questions thoughtfully–we throw up our hands and say, “she’s just not trying.” These we see as issues of effort, not skill, and issues of effort easily become moral issues. Nothing makes us madder as teachers than to work our hearts out preparing something, only to have half the class seem to blow it off.
I have sometimes had students who clearly are not trying. Once in a blue moon, I get a student who seems determined to use all her ingenuity to fail my class. More often, I have students who are stretched too thin and are cutting as many corners as they can. Some days, like last period on Friday, nobody in my whole class really has their heart in the game, and they are all just dragging themselves through the motions. Then, it really is a question on motivation, will power, and commitment. How much do you want it? In those situations, the only answer is to let the student fail (a little), take the consequences, and adjust (oh, and plan some high energy games for Friday afternoons!)
More often, though, in the independent schools I’ve worked in, my students think they are trying. “I studied a really long time,” one will tell me as we go through vocabulary word after vocabulary word that she doesn’t know. “I thought I was going to get an A,” another desperately failing student will say with complete sincerity. Over time, I have come to the conclusion that these students are being honest with me. They simply don’t see what I see. I use a lot of rubrics, so, by mid-year, my students and I are generally on the same page about the quality of their outcomes, but they still often express the sense that they have done everything they were supposed to do and therefore don’t understand why it didn’t turn out better. This disconnect is real, and it’s not a moral failing but a skill gap. The student who doesn’t understand why she didn’t get an A on a test she thinks she studied well for is not that different from the student who doesn’t understand mercantilism–we just forget, sometimes, that we need to teach that, too.
I’ve become convinced that students are coming in to high school missing skills that are so internalized in us teachers (who, after all, tend to be drawn from the ranks of kids who naturally did well in school) that we no longer remember learning them. We need to make those skills conscious, de-stigmatize them, and teach them. Then, when a student fails to exercise those abilities, we’ll have the right to be mad!
With that in mind, here is a list of some things not all my 9th graders know:
What’s involved in “doing the reading”
Sometimes, I’m convinced when talking to a student that she skipped the reading, only to see a page full of highlights when we open the book. Getting what I hope students will get from a textbook requires some knowledge and habits that they don’t always have. (Primary source readings and scholarly monographs have their own challenges, but we teachers are more often aware of those, so I’ll leave them for another day.) They need to know how to prioritize, zeroing in on key information or the main idea. When I read a short anecdote at the start of a chapter, followed by a paragraph of broad generalizations, I understand that the anecdote was meant to set the stage or intrigue me and that the next paragraph is probably giving me an overview of the material that will be discussed in the rest of the chapter. Many students, however, treat those two paragraphs the same way, blindly taking notes on Marco Polo’s experience in Karakorum and the main idea of the chapter in exactly the same way. No wonder the information seems confusing to them! They need to know how to summarize, boiling everything they read down into something manageable without making it so broad that it’s meaningless. This is not really an easy skill, when you think about it. It takes practice.
They need to know what it means to monitor their own understanding, looking up words they don’t understand and rereading difficult passages rather than plowing ahead, accepting as normal the fact that they don’t actually know what the passage they just read intended to say. They need to know that that work is an expected part of reading. They need to know that their reading has a purpose, and that different purposes require different kinds of reading (this sounds obvious, but many students at the start of 9th grade year will earnestly try to annotate their textbooks the same way they would a primary source, or, conversely, to rush through getting the main idea of a primary source without any attention to nuances). They need to know that, whatever the purpose, it is not enough just to have looked at all the words. This all sounds obvious to us, and it is–to us–but if we assume that the kids know them already and they don’t know they don’t know them, misunderstandings happen, and good kids become convinced they just can’t do school.
How to study for a test
How can a student walk into a test feeling completely prepared and still fail? Sometimes, they’re just delusional about their own powers (they are teenagers, after all), but mostly, when a student says dejectedly, “I really studied this time,” they’re telling us the truth. They just studied wrong. Sometimes, they just don’t know how much effort studying well should take and feel quite sincerely that they’ve worked hard when we know they haven’t worked hard enough or, on the other, have gone way overboard. We need to be really explicit with kids about when, how and for how long they should be studying for a particular sort of assessment: this is just as important for those kids who will spend all weekend memorizing their textbook before a quiz as for those who will spend all their free periods studying for a test the day of and call it good.
Some students put in plenty of time studying and still can’t seem to learn anything. Most of them are blindly trying to memorize the textbook (or worse, the primary sources, or all our class activities) by reading it over and over.) They don’t know how to take good notes and then set the textbook aside. They don’t know how to follow the guidance of a study guide or, if we don’t give them one, how to make their own. They don’t know, as we usually do instinctively, what’s likely to be important and what’s not. They don’t know how to check their own recall. And–this is the biggie–they don’t know how important it is to understand before memorizing and to connect material into a big picture that makes sense to them before doing anything else. Over and over, I find that students struggling on content assessments are trying to simply memorize an undifferentiated list of facts that they only half understand. We need to help them see that, even if they’re successful at that task, it’s useless without a broader understanding, and then we need to give them the tools to monitor whether they, in fact, have that broader understanding.
How to ask the “next” question
Few things get under my skin as a teacher, but this is one of them: I break the class into small groups to discuss a question, and half the groups are having great conversations, digging into nuances and pointing out new angles, while the other groups are staring out the window. When I check in with the idle groups, they say, “We finished.” How can you finish discussing the causes of the Crusades in five minutes? I find myself thinking that these students don’t care, that they’re lazy. And certainly, there is an incentive to declare oneself “done” and grab a few minutes of down time, but when I stop to think, I don’t think that’s all that’s going on here. These are dutiful students, for the most part, who, if given, say, a list of words to define, will labor diligently until they get to the end of the list.
Given an open-ended question, however, they simply don’t know what would characterize a satisfactory answer. I was recently at a conference with break out groups, and I got to thinking about how many social and intellectual decisions we were all making without thinking about them. What sort of cues are we picking up from the moderator: is this the sort of task that requires us to quickly and efficiently do something (think of a recent classroom dilemma, choose three words to describe good school culture) and then bring our attention back to the moderator? Or are we starting a conversation here? Does this question have a single answer, or is it meant to provoke thought? And (this is the one that some students the longest to learn), how can we add something of our own to someone else’s answer. As adult academics, we move from questions to answers to follow-up questions almost without thought: we move toward greater nuance (“yes, but I wonder if that’s always true…”), build out additional connections (“when you mentioned religion, it made me wonder if there’s a parallel in…”), wrestle with problems (“what about the case of…?”) or suggest action items or further implications (“if that’s true, then…”). Most of us, given a question in which we have any interest at all, can have as long or as short a conversation as we like on almost any topic. That requires, however, that we recognize that a conversation, rather than an answer, is the point of the exercise, that we have an organic sense of how in-depth that conversation is likely to be, and that we be familiar with some patterns for mentally generating further questions. Novice academics need practice in telling “answer” questions from “discussion” questions and, especially, in asking questions (more thoughts about this here) and then following them with more questions.
When and how to ask for help
Some of my students are always in my office, asking questions–necessary and unnecessary–about everything from last night’s reading to next week’s test. Others never cross the threshold, even when they’re obviously lost. When I make them come, they don’t have any idea what I could do to help them. Asked “what are you confused about?” they’re liable to say, “the reading” or “everything.” It’s tempting to declare them beyond help, to say something like, “she needs to take the initiative” or declare that these students are not really trying. A more realistic description–of both the constant questioner and the uncommunicative avoider–is that neither really knows what help she needs.
Students on both extremes need help assessing themselves and reflecting on what help they really need. In a perfect world, the clingy student would say something like, “I know that I read carefully enough to have a good basic understanding of last night’s reading, but I’d like to double check one thing: did you want us to focus on the timeline or on the causes?” The confused one might say, “I looked up the words in last night’s reading that I didn’t know, but I still think the writing is confusing. For example, does this sentence mean….?” or “I understand what last night’s reading actually says, but I have no idea what it has to do with the Crusades. Why is the author writing about Constantinople?” Unlike constant requests for reassurance on every little thing or blanket despair, each of these statements takes responsibility for where the student is right now and asks for a concrete kind of help. That makes the help much easier to give, and it makes it much more likely to stick, because the student is now the active leader of the process rather than passively waiting to be led.
To make this sort of request for help, though, a student has to be able to do some pretty complex things: make a realistic assessment of where she is right now, focusing on what she can do or has done already as well as on what she’s stumped on, consider whether there’s something more she can do to help herself, and identify as narrowly as possible the root of her current problem. These are cognitively complex tasks, made more difficult by all sorts of emotional baggage, whether a student is used to getting A’s and expects constant perfection from herself or whether she is used to failing and has begun to give up all expectations. To move from a global, emotional response to self-evaluation to a specific, practical response requires practice, and to make those evaluations accurately and usefully requires even more practice. Far from practicing these skills regularly, most students aren’t even aware that that’s what they should be doing. We need to name these skills, model them, and reinforce them with non-judgmental, concrete, regular feedback.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t expect students to be able to do these things. I teach plenty of students who have already acquired some or all of these skills through luck, intuition, or imitation. None of the students I teach are incapable of acquiring them, even if they haven’t yet. And I’m not saying that, if they’re missing them, we should lower our expectations or give them a pass. On the contrary, I think we need to be more vocal, energetic, and consistent in these expectations. What I’m arguing is that it is dangerous for teachers to take these skills for granted or to automatically equate failures in these areas with lack of effort or a bad attitude. We need to recognize them as skills, assess them, and teach them consciously and systematically, the way we teach anything else. The result, I submit, will be less frustration for both our students and ourselves.