Today I was working with a group of 6th graders who struggle a bit in math. We were working on some fraction concepts so we made some manipulatives; fractions bars. We labeled, cut and colored the bars, then we looked for fractions equivalent to ½. A few of the kids caught on and gave some suggestions, so we worked together on several of them, and then worked on notating them. One other teacher and I walked around to be sure that everyone had the example, then it was their turn.
“Okay,” I said, “Go ahead and see how many equivalent fractions you can make.” The few students who had initially understood how to form equivalent fractions got started, but the rest just sat there. No moving of the fractions bars, no writing anything, they just sat there, and waited. What were they waiting for?
Eventually, my co-worker and I were able to get the students moving with some encouragement and prodding, and a lot of assistance. But, the experience got me thinking, why were these students so reluctant to jump in and get to work? Why didn’t they get to work on figuring it out? I remember being a kid that age, and I just couldn’t wait for the teacher to stop talking so I could work on something myself. I don’t think I was all that uncommon, so why were this group of students so different?
As I spoke to some of my teacher friends about this experience and thought about it I realized it had finally happened. We have successfully taught students not to think. This is not to say that there are not some particularly bright and stubborn students who continue to think for themselves. But somehow this group of students had learned to just sit, and wait, and do nothing until directed. I tried to imagine what would teach this behavior and I came up with two things; learning to listen and a focus on grade level standards. Seems like a strange combination, but bear with me while I explain.
This was a group of students who typically have struggled, and often needed more time to complete tasks. I think many of these students have learned that if they listen and wait long enough others (other students or the teacher) will just give them the answer. Why work hard and engage your brain on something that is hard if someone will eventually give you the answer? But why would the teacher give out the answer when the goal is for the students to learn? Well, face it, time is limited. Sometimes it seems to make most sense just to give out the answer to the struggling students so you can move on. And sometimes other students are asked to help struggling students so they can move along. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am all for students working together. But most young students do not really know how to “help” other students. It is the rare student who can really tutor others without some training in this area. And so, often instead of helping, they just give the other students the answer. The unintended consequence is that many struggling students don’t even bother to try and engage their brains, but have become quite adept at engaging their ears. They have learned to listen, and wait, and when the clue comes, to write down what clues they gather.
The second cause I believe of this behavior is the focus on grade level standards. I think there are some real plusses to standards. Before grade level standards were enacted who knows what many teachers taught? And, many students who struggled were stuck learning the same material year after year, often with no progress or success. But, once again, unintended consequences rear their ugly head. I remember the first time I heard a colleague explain it. The students would take district benchmark tests to see how well they had learned the material. After the tests, we would move on to the next set of standards, no going back no re-teaching, no review, just move on. Huh? In my experience one of the main reasons for assessments was to determine what to teach, reinforce or re-teach. But these assessments, it seemed, were only to determine how well students would perform on state assessments, not to inform instruction. It made no sense to me, but my colleague was more experienced than me, and she seemed pretty confident that this was a good plan, so why argue?
So what is the unintended consequence of a decade or more of this practice on struggling students? Let’s say someone is trying to teach you a skill, and it is real hard for you. It is so hard, that you really have no desire to learn it. But, you find out that there is a limited amount of time to learn the skill. Once the time period is over you will be assessed, but if you don’t understand, there is no accountability, and no one will go back and make sure you learned it. You may get a bad test score or grade, but you never get good grades anyway. So, you learn to lay low. You learn to just wait it out and that skill will go away. Maybe the next one will be easier.
2014 was the year. No Child Left Behind called for all students to show grade level proficiency in each state by 2014. Okay, really? When can any group of people meet 100% proficiency in anything, and does it even have any meaning when each state makes up its own mind about what proficiency means? And what made anyone think that tests given to children could have 100% reliability? But this was not just pie in the sky wishing on the part of our federal government to get everyone there, this law came along with all types of “accountability” measures that put in place what amounted to punitive measures for schools and districts. The stakes were high, so it is not surprising that administrators did all they could to raise scores as high as possible. Teach to the test. Focus on the kids who are most likely to reach proficient. Hit all of the most tested items, and don’t go back and re-teach. All good advice to bring up scores. All poor advice to teach students critical thinking skills, to stick with it until they learn something and to solidly build foundational skills.
And so I sit with my little group of 6th graders as they look at me, and wait. Wait for someone to give them the answer. Wait for me to decide they just don’t get it and move on to something else. Wait for me to give up on teaching them to think for themselves. Once they know me better they know that won’t work. They will find out that I don’t give them the answers, I make them work for them. They will find out that I don’t give up on teaching them a skill and move on to something else, I stick with it until they get it.
So, have we hopelessly turned our schools into institutions of non-thinking, or is there hope of change? In my opinion there is room for optimism, and the optimism springs from Common Core Standards. I know, it sounds strange, after all much of the media publicity claims that the new standards teach students not to think. However, critical thinking skills, showing evidence of an answer, being able to solve a problem in more than one way, and finding new ways of doing things are all hallmarks of the new standards. Weird huh? Here the media claims that the Common Core Standards will strips kids of the ability to think, but I think that ship left the dock over a decade ago. Of course, the direction the new tests will take or the future of No Child Left Behind is a bit unclear, but I do think there is hope for our kids.