kitchen table math, the sequel: Why Students Don't Like School

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Why Students Don't Like School

first review

Am going to get a review up on Amazon -- you all should, too!


lefty said...

I ordered it last week; should get it soon. Can't wait.

concernedCTparent said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
concernedCTparent said...

It really is a must read. I'm loath to lend my copy to friends lest I never see it again. It's that good.

Anonymous said...

Should be required reading for anyone who ever takes responsibility for learning or teaching.

It's given me another radical idea that has no chance for adoption but fits nicely with the theme of the book. What if you were able to tell kids...

These are the things you need to master this year. When you can show me you've done so you're through. By the way, if you can't show me you've done so you need more days and more hours per day until you get there.

Bet this would close some gaps!

lgm said...


My eighth grade math teacher did do this in the 70s, using contracts. She thought it wisest to have self-paced independent study with herself available for mini-lessons and discussion since it was a rural multigrade class with only 15 students. The text was a Dolciani type pre-algebra. We were all presented with a choice that looked something like this:

Minimum chapters
No A available
B earned for A test grades
C earned for B or C test grades

Average or greater number of chapters
Standard A,B,C grading

All time in class designated as 'math' must be used for math unless book is completed. All chapter tests must be passed before going on to the next one. (can't remember the mastery grade)

It wasn't a school that gave homework, since classtime was used productively. No one failed, some finished. All learned as one certainly couldn't hide.

I was very happy to end up at a high school with a teacher that also allowed independent study...started out at one that didn't and felt like I was stuck in quicksand. Made college math fairly easy as it developed my skills at asking well thought out questions.

Allison said...

I think such "independent" courses have their limitations. The first being that you should not assume that having the skills for "independent study" means you are independently motivated. THESE ARE NOT THE SAME! Mistaking one for the other as a teacher sinks your students. (Making that mistake as a student sinks you too.) Executive function is not motivation.

The more concrete problems with that kind of indepedent study is that cramming all of the work in 4 weeks does not make you master it any more than getting nothing but Cs all year does. So you need to do it in such a way that fits what Willingham says about proper practice--his methods of drilling over time matter.

Also remember that students, like all humans, will expend massive effort to game a system when only minimal effort would have been required to face the problem directly. This is why kids cheat, even though studying would be less trouble.

My experience was that in 9th grade, for German I, our teacher gave us the entire syllabus for the year on day 1, with all assignments and tests. Our grade was point based--do 90% or higher of all of the year's points, get an A, 80% of all points, get a B, etc. Any assignment that didn't earn full credit could be retaken until it did without penalty.

I aced the class, and did manage to finish the course several weeks ahead of time. It was the kind of thing I was flawless at--mind numbing seat work that required a good memory, good pattern recognition. It required no hard work at all.

But lots of students did poorly.
Students who found independent motivation difficult didn't do well, and didn't gain more mastery. Students who couldn't organize their time found it impossible. Some students were effective at gaming the system, and so put in exactly enough effort to get the required C or B- grade they needed, and then promptly did nothing for the remaining weeks--causing classroom disruptions.

The biggest argument against it though? Grade distribution at the end of the class looked exactly like grade distribution in non-straight-scaled non-independent assigned classes: bell curved.

It didn't translate into any more skill for me, either, but for different reasons. His style of "independent work" went on for the remaining years, and his syllabi became less strict, and did his standards. You see, he assumed that since some of us were good at "independent study" that we were independently motivated. T

So in the end, I received no motivation to study, as I had increasingly less well defined assignments or grades set by anyone but me, and my speedy-assignment-doing of the subject had completely collapsed any real mastery by the time I was in German 3. By then, I was deeply resentful of my supposed "teacher" who had never taught me anything.

There are good ideas here worth implementing: like extra time until the student reaches a certain level of mastery. This is how it work in music lessons. But the "you did X, now you're done" is really awful.

Anonymous said...


All good points. Wouldn't it come down to how you defined and measured mastery, i.e. to discourage the cram, mastery would necessarily have to include some sort of time based component. You would have to repeatedly demonstrate mastery over time, perhaps by its incorporation in higher order concepts. If you've lost it, you have to revisit it.

In the program you gave as an example, was there a motivation to get it done, freeing up time or was there no payoff to getting done early?

Catherine Johnson said...

I took two courses on the Keller plan (I think it was the Keller plan) in college: one at Wellesley & one at Dartmouth.


In both cases, the coursework was completely doable by everyone in the class & the class was well-organized, the lectures useful.

It was wonderful.

As I recall, the units were fairly compact, which prevented students from getting bogged down. (Though today I'd love to know whether there were students who had trouble with the format. I bet there weren't -- but I don't know.)