By Katherine Lo, high school English teacher in Anaheim, CA
Recently, a friend and fellow teacher brought this story to my attention, which describes the experience of a 17-year-old student who left his high school for a trimester to study and learn completely independently. He was motivated to do this because, in his experience with school, “It just feels a little bit like you just have to keep doing one thing after another, but without a whole lot of thinking about an education in general.”
This statement really struck a nerve with me, naming an issue I have wrestled with as a high school English teacher for the past nineteen years: the haunting reality that all too often, we teachers regularly explain concepts to our students and give them tasks to complete without ever (or very infrequently) discussing the reasons why. Or that the only reasons we do provide are fairly limited and superficial—to gain the skills and knowledge to be able to go to a good college and get a good job. These are good and motivating reasons, but they are also fairly vague and far off in the future, which means they lack the power to provide real meaning and motivation to the bored and restless student who is counting the minutes until lunch time. In my experience, there are three types of students in every classroom: those who come in with some type of intrinsic motivation and/or curiosity already in place and are genuinely interested in the material; those who don’t particularly enjoy the content or experience but realize they must do the work to please parents, teachers, and achieve their long-term goals; and those who don’t care about the material or completing the work at all and show up to school every day because their parents make them. As a wise colleague once pointed out to me, student compliance is not the same thing as student engagement.
In the course of my career, I have often been guilty of mistaking student compliance with student engagement, and that is something I’ve been working to address in the past few years. Where I used to start the school year with a few ice-breaker activities followed by an explanation of class rules and my grading policies, I now start my classes with a reflection activity. I ask my students to think, write about, and discuss questions like Why are you here in school? What do you think the value of an education is? Do you see struggle as a positive or a negative thing? What comes to mind when you hear the words ‘smart’ and ‘intelligent’? Do you think intelligence is fixed or can change? In my sophomore classes, after they have discussed their answers in small groups, I compile a class list of reasons for going to school—everything from “it’s the law” to “so I can learn new things”— and have them take their lists home and ask their parents to add two more reasons and sign the paper. The next day, we discuss the parents’ reasons and how they compare to the reasons the students came up with themselves. When I ask how many of the students have never talked to their parents about this before now, the majority of them raise their hands.
These questions and this discussion then leads to an introduction to the concept of intellectual character and the notion that developing intellectual virtues can provide a much more deeply meaningful and motivating purpose for their time in school than “because I have to,” and that it connects and gives context to many of the other reasons like “so I can learn” and “so I can have a better future.” Teaching for intellectual virtues provides, as I like to think of it, a metanarrative for their entire learning experience. Instead of their day being fragmented into classes and activities with no seeming connection to each other or to the students themselves other than as a bunch of tasks to complete, each experience becomes connected to the continuous and ongoing process of developing their own intellectual character and habits—traits and habits that have the potential to not only benefit them in the future, but can also benefit and bring meaning in the immediate moment.
This approach also provides a helpful framework for me as a teacher. For example, instead of simply saying, “I want you to write an essay that has a clear thesis and strong topic sentences,” we first talk about the value of developing good writing skills. I also have them reflect on what intellectual virtues they might be strengthening or developing in the process of writing the essay. For students who have long viewed themselves as “bad writers,” it’s an incredibly empowering shift if they can view this struggle as a way to develop their perseverance in at least trying to get all the way through it or if they get praised for their intellectual humility when they admit they don’t know how to begin. It is an entry point for true engagement and an experience of learning that can give them a taste for more, which is, ultimately, what we want for all of our students.