I recently had the worst professional day of my career.
I teach high school math, and I discovered that puts me in a bubble of convenient ignorance. I have encountered lack of academic skill. I have encountered lack of willingness to try. I have encountered all the successes and failures that students can exhibit within a high school math class. I am used to all of it.
This year I have been trying to incorporate more and more reading in what I'm doing for math. Recently I dove into full on word problems for basic pre-algebra and algebra concepts of straight lines. It is a concept that is introduced to students between 5th and 7th grade. As usual, my seniors in high school struggled with it. As I began to dig into why they were struggling, I found out that it was not the math. It was the reading comprehension. Here was an example:
"The Gaming Club adds 5 new members per week. After week 6, they had 25 members." I asked "What is the slope?" and "What is the ordered pair?"
If you don’t know the answer to those questions, hang on. All year, I have been consistently teaching the vocabulary for Slope as "a rate of change" and an Ordered Pair (x, y) as "IF x, THEN y". Not only have these seniors experienced these concepts since at least 8th grade, I have been consistently enforcing this vocabulary throughout the year. With the consistent vocabulary, I argue this question is NOT a math question, but more of a reading comprehension question. The trouble is, only very few students were able to correctly understand the slope of 5 or the ordered pair of (6, 25).
I was dumbfounded. I had no idea the reading comprehension was at that low of a level. So, I did an online training and I consulted one of our Reading teachers about how to incorporate comprehension skills for a question like this. I restructured my notes, and I went back to re-teach the class reading comprehension through these math examples. I began each class stressing something I have stressed before:
Reading Comprehension is more important than Math. And remember who is saying this. Your inability to factor a polynomial does not threaten our Democracy.
I poured my soul out to my seniors in high school the importance of understanding basic reading comprehension. I did everything I could to encourage them to struggle through in order to improve, to stop at any word they did not understand, to deconstruct clauses, to continue trying the word problem examples so they could understand the questions more than the math involved to answer them. When I still faced resistance to even try, from 17 and 18 year olds who will vote (or worse, who will NOT vote), I was crushed. My bubble of ignorance provided by my math class collapsed. Here are 17 and 18 year old young adults, finishing high school, ready to vote, no longer in the safety of a public high school, aware they struggle with reading comprehension... and not even willing to address that deficiency.
Are we too far gone?
No matter how difficult it may be, I try not to blame the students. They don't know basic math, even though they have seen it for the last 4 years? It's not their fault. I'm used to that. But they don't know basic reading comprehension? That one hurts me. That one is hard. But maybe it's still not their fault.
Alfie Kohn teaches that students are rational beings. If they find out they can get by without doing work, they may not do work. That's not being lazy, that's rational. Why would they do a thing they don't want to do if they either see no value in it or know they will suffer minimum to zero consequences? If they have learned that whatever consequence they do receive is better than the discomfort of doing a thing, why not choose the consequence? That's a rational decision. When that rational decision-making snowballs over the years, it ends with high school seniors who are content with not understanding basic reading comprehension. It's still not their fault. They are a product of the institution of "School".
This has me thinking about Learning Lessons. Which lessons do students truly Learn? Where do they Learn them? When is that Learning a very deep learning that is rooted and ingrained?
Which lessons do students truly Learn?
Just like the rest of us, the most powerful lessons we see are the lessons that are demonstrated by action. When a parent has to say "do as I say, not as I do", we know that parent has lost. The child has learned a behavior based on a parent's model. The learned behavior is deemed acceptable by the child regardless of scolding, grounding, or other consequences. What the child sees from the parent is what the child knows to be acceptable, regardless of what the parent says. The lesson taught by action and experience is learned more than the lesson taught by words. The child knows it deeply, understands it thoroughly, and creates a world view based on the acceptance of that behavior.
This type of learning not only happens from a parent, it happens from a community or society or culture. What children see as acceptable behavior in a community know it deeply to be acceptable for themselves. Where a behavior learned from a community contradicts a behavior learned by a parent, conflict ensues that places immense pressure on the parent to teach what is acceptable or tolerated. An individual is tasked with teaching a lesson that contradicts a lesson taught by a community. Any parent can share how incredibly difficult this teaching is. Usually the parent refers to the following scenario: "well, if they all jumped off of a bridge, would you?" Regardless of whether or not the child actually finds the behavior acceptable, we can appreciate how powerful the community lesson is. Imagine further if the child did not encounter any parental intervention for a behavior learned by a community!
We expand this environment of acceptability outward: from parent, to community, to society, etc. We can see how powerful the lessons learned from larger environments can be, regardless of what individuals within those environments try to impart. In the case of schools and education, the lessons that students truly Learn are the lessons taught by the institution of "School", not necessarily the lessons taught by the individuals within the school.
Where do students Learn these lessons?
Students learn "School" lessons very early on. From the first days in a classroom, lessons not even spoken are being taught. These lessons include, but are not limited to: you must obey the adult, the adult has the power to score you and rank you, you are competing with other children around you, compliance is more important than questioning, results are more important than processes, etc. These are the lessons learned within a Classroom without being spoken.
Outside of the classroom, students can Learn lessons: being late will not be tolerated, misbehavior in public for any reason will not be tolerated, any disruptive behavior will not be tolerated, individual circumstances probably do not matter, your excuses do not matter, test scores are to be celebrated, results and awards are to be celebrated, you only matter if you can produce scores or awards, etc. Students quite easily learn lessons that are not spoken.
When is that Learning a very deep learning that is rooted and ingrained?
Well, we are now getting to the "kids these days" question. What sense of accountability or responsibility do "kids these days" have? What sense of entitlement do they possess? These questions and questions like them are answered by the Lessons Learned in School. By the way, School is forced to teach these lessons, but that's a topic for another time.
These questions are answered by the Lessons learned from school discipline and consequences. These are the Lessons that shows Alfie Kohn's accuracy in defining student decision-making as "rational" and not "lazy". I will begin with School discipline lessons.
Students who make poor choices in school will Learn fairly early on that the consequences of their behavioral choices were either disproportionately harsh (zero tolerance policies) or disproportionately irrelevant (suspensions for skipping class). Students figure out that their individual situation or circumstance has little to no bearing on the type of consequences for their decision-making. They are not asked why they engaged in their behaviors, or worse, if they were asked, their answers or feedback were irrelevant. This will Teach students that discipline, or consequences for behavioral choices, are laughable.
When it comes to "kids these days" and what is perceived as their sense of entitlement or lack of respect can be traced to what they Learn in school. For reasons that are beyond the scope of this writing, schools are bound by district policies implemented to meet statewide statutes or directives. These create massive pressures for classroom teachers to take on nearly every ounce of accountability when it comes to student academic performance and behavior. If a student has trouble with an academic concept, it's the teacher's responsibility. If a student has trouble with behaviors, it's the teacher's responsibility. The question of whether or not this is right is irrelevant. What IS relevant is the Lesson being Taught. Students are not stupid. Again, they are rational. And they see this level of accountability and responsibility that rests on their teachers.
What they Learn is that responsibility is not only on them. In many cases, the responsibility is not on them at all. Students are fully aware that the teacher faces blame for almost anything they do. It is a School Lesson that is learned. If a student doesn't complete assignments on time, the teacher is forced to accept it late. If a student has put forth zero effort to understand material, the teacher is blamed for not differentiating to meet that student or not creating a more engaging lesson. Students can talk back at teachers, curse at teachers, yell at teachers, disrupt classes, keep their heads down, and all sorts of other irresponsible or disrespectful behaviors, and they can do it because they have Learned from School that the teacher is responsible for their behaviors. Students have Learned this lesson so well that there are instructional videos on YouTube for students to learn how to get their teachers fired with false accusations. Students have Learned that they can easily blame other people for the things they do or do not do. "Kids these days" have simply learned the lessons taught to them by School, not by any individuals in school, but by the institution of School.
So, how can I not blame my Seniors in high school for not having basic reading comprehension? They have developed a deeply rooted and ingrained Lesson from early in school. They learned that reading comprehension has little impact on what matters the most (unfortunately): their grades and scores. They learned that learning for the sake of gaining knowledge was not as important as scores and data. If they struggled early on in reading comprehension, they found out that they were still doing the same things as the students who did not struggle. When they struggled and an "intervention" occurred, they found out that they could "show" they knew better by clicking the right answers on intervention software and the teacher may not even find out how hard it was for them. They learned that gaining knowledge was not the point, data was the point. Fast forward to when there were grades. Students Learned that when they struggled with reading comprehension, several things may have occurred that allowed them to not worry that they struggled: they knew knowledge was not a concern, the teacher bent over backward to help them no matter what, the grade in class was based on effort and not performance (I'm not debating the merits of grading here), a school policy may not have allowed failure, a school structure may not have been set up for true intervention, etc. All these different possibilities created the perfect Lesson Plan for students that Taught them: I don't need to worry about what I don't know, because knowledge is not important and I keep moving forward. They Learned that it is perfectly okay to not know something. The consequences of a failure are much easier to handle than working to prevent that same failure in the future. It's not lazy, it's rational.
Our Institutional Lesson Plan teaches that learning, actual learning, is not important. Scores and grades are important. Our Institutional Lesson Plan teaches that your ability to learn is irrelevant. Your ability to earn a score is relevant. Our Institutional Lesson Plan teaches that personal reflection and accountability has no impact on your progress. Our Institutional Lesson Plan teaches that facing the consequence for not learning something is much easier than attempting to learn it. Schools and teachers can take all the responsibility for you.
Are we too far gone? Perhaps. But I'll keep trying not to blame the students. They are just being rational.