Saturday, November 2, 2013

Is it the System...or just Psychology?

Picture it. A progressive, 21st century classroom.  Technology is woven into the fabric of all we do, so choices abound both tech and non-tech alike.  Students have freedom of choice, a say in their projects and grading, and a class where they are the focus.  Sounds like the kind of fantasy a progressive, 21st century educator would love to be a part of. So what if this is all just a pipe-dream?

Speaking from a big of angst here - I launched what I thought to be a really fun and interesting project for my Juniors and Seniors. It had every thing - answering a real world question that has value. The opportunity to present to a public audience. Ultimate autonomy in what their final product looked like. Voice in the structure of the project and assessments. It went well, right?

After a lot of grumbling, and a lot of frustration, students did eventually get to work. Some seemed to work really hard on it, others got the most out of their movie collections and Netflix subscriptions.  At the conclusion of the project, students did well, but all but one of the groups created a simple slideshow for their presentations.

Now, I am always willing to admit I could have done a better job designing the project. There is no perfect project and no group of kids that will ever react to anything the same. However, knowing my students, and knowing what they like, and knowing what the trends are, they should have enjoyed the freedom, collaboration, and the chance to tackle something challenging.

But they didn't. At least from what I could see. I got a lot of complaining and a lot of time in class not spent digging deeper, asking more questions, or working on creativity. This brings me to the topic of my blog - is it the system, or just Psychology? Have these students, at the end of the road, been so trained in drill and kill and structure, and so tired of school, that they simply can't bring themselves to enjoy the freedom of Project Based Learning?  Or is it simply a fact of their Psychology - any attempt to fight where 16 to 18 year olds are at will result in a lot of conflict.

What does the research say?  Socrates said that adolescents were "inclined to contradict parents and tyrannize teachers" (  According to the National Institute of Mental Health - the teenage brain doesn't resemble that of an adult until the early 20s.  They also are impact heavily by lack of sleep.  In addition, Children's Trust mentions that students move more towards independence, can compromise, be more autonomous, can set goals more effectively, can self-regulate, and have increased concern for the future.  Based on this short sampling of information, it would seem to me that their psychology would support more creative, independent tasks.

So why do I feel this project was unsuccessful? I am too hard on myself, or expecting too much? Is there something outside of school happening to these students making them unable to really focus?  Could it be that I failed them as a teacher and did not set it up well, make it interesting enough, or scaffold well enough to make it feel important to them? Or is it simply the fact that they are tired of a system that has herded them through like sheep, scolding them and boring them at every turn, and are simply done and want nothing more, no matter how hard I try?

Maybe one day I'll have an answer. For now I'm stumped.


  1. Dear Stumped. Don't give up. Even a small flame lights up the darkness. Keep trying. You will speak to the right students as needed! It's a bit if both...system errors and maturation. They are used o getting whatever they want...not having to work for it. Hard work brings pride. You can't control what happens outside your circle of influence in your classroom, but you can commit to not wavering in high expectations, vigor, and #tlap to bring success for them. Sincerely, Ms. Isanti Teacher

  2. Thank you Kimberly! I didn't really incorporate #tlap with this post, and I KNOW I can be more engaging. But I have done many many many things with them to try and bring alive and excite that I believed to be innovative and things they would really get. No excuses though...have to win the battle daily. Engagement is something I have the most control over, meaning I create the environment...

  3. Josh - I'm not sure how long you've been teaching, but I'm sure you realize that nothing is an either/or scenario with kids. You will continue to bring the best work you know how into your class AND that work will continue to fight the systemic issues that too many students develop over time. Very few things work the first time out, either, so you have to keep at, knowing that they will have to adjust and trust. I'd suggest talking to them about the work to see what they're thinking and what they'd suggest. Create some non-negotiables for the class and then include as many suggestions of their as you can into future work. Don't forget that your impact on their paradigms and their learning may not show up immediately. One of the toughest parts of the job - I've always thought - is coming back everyday and trying again. 95% of teaching is a hearts and minds battle. Academics are easy after that.