Saturday, February 22, 2014

An Impromptu Lecture

It started as a simple question from a student. More of a complaint, really. I had just given the class a quick preview of the new state assessment that would be taking the place of the CMT, and a boy raised his hand and asked, “Why does it have to be so much harder?”

And rather than go on with the day’s planned lesson, I decided to tell him...

“The new test is so much harder because, frankly, life is getting harder. And I don’t mean the stuff adults are always telling you about growing up and increased responsibility. I’m talking about how you will actually live your life and earn a living. In a crazy way, all the things that seem to make life easier will actually make your lives harder, because it is going to be that much more difficult to stand out from the crowd.

You guys spent your first few years of school under No Child Left Behind, a giant umbrella, or safety net, where the goal was to ensure that all children received the same education and equal opportunity to succeed. Now it’s Reach for the Top, and common sense will tell you, there’s not enough room for everyone at the top, so some of you will be left behind.

My son is starting kindergarten in the fall. He’ll be five. We had to bring him to his school the other day to be evaluated. They wanted to make sure he would be ready for kindergarten. When I was his age, we were “ready” for kindergarten because our mothers were ready to be done with us! We spent the first 26 days learning the alphabet. Literally an entire day dedicated to each letter. Well, not really an entire day, as we had morning snack, and nap, and recess. Plus there was lunch, and “Exploration Time,” and music. We sat on little rugs to look at books (because we would not be able to read them until First Grade) and practiced our manners. We glued and glittered and cut and colored. We fought over who would get picked to wheel the little wagon down to the cafeteria to bring back the morning milk.

By the end of the year, we were expected to know the letters of the alphabet, the colors of the rainbow, some basic shapes, and how to count to ten. Some of the smarter kids (like me!) might also leave able to write their first names, with these huge red pencils, and maybe read a few sight words.

At my son’s evaluation, he was expected to know all those things before starting kindergarten. Meaning his class will not be spending the first 26 days learning the alphabet, or using their fingers to count to ten. When they sit on their little carpet squares, it will be to READ, and not just look at the pictures. When he colors an apple, it won’t be to learn that apples are red and start with the letter A (and make the a sound) – it will be to solve a math problem. And in order to accomplish all that, he probably won’t be spending much time napping, or playing, or dressing up, or exploring. He might have to do a research paper on explorers, but that’s about it.

So, to keep answering your question, the test is so much harder because kindergarten has gotten harder. Making First Grade that much harder, and so on. The bar has been lifted. The expectations have been raised. The workload has increased.

And speaking of work, my teachers used to threaten us that if we didn’t do well in school, we’d wind up flipping burgers or hanging off the back of a garbage truck.  But now, people feel lucky to have such jobs – if they even exist anymore!

Think about it In your lifetime - what, maybe two years ago? A garbage truck would pull up at the curb, and two guys would jump off the back and empty the cans. The guy in the passenger seat would let the guy driving know when they were done, and the truck would pull away and head for the next house.

Now, a single driver in an automated truck drives up so a robot arm can lift the single oversized can and dump it in the back. That’s three guys out of a job. For just that one truck, mind you. Three less jobs for every single new truck. And the new trucks themselves are faster and more efficient, so there are less off them, meaning fewer mechanics needed to fix them. And when they dump the load at the transfer station, the garbage has already been presorted, thanks to you people with your blue recycling bins, so there’s no one getting paid to sort the trash either.

As far as flipping burgers, have you noticed that no one fills soda anymore? Well, if you go inside, you’re handed a cup and have to do it yourself. But at the drive-thru, there’s a nifty machine that does it automatically. Pretty cool right? Except at one time, that was a person’s job. And those cool touch screens at Sonic? (Murmured agreement) Well, thanks to them, now there’s no need to pay someone to take your order, it goes directly to the guy who prepares your order. And if you think the guys who invented that nifty soda-filling machine and the cool order-taking machine aren’t busy working on an awesome burger-flipping machine, you’re simply not thinking.

Ant that's the problem. The jobs waiting for you when you graduate high school, and hopefully college, are going to be jobs that require the sort of thinking and skills that machines have not yet mastered.  And since they’ve pretty much taken over all the basic tasks that schools used to consider essential parts of the curriculum, we’ve got to start teaching you how to think, rather than telling you stuff to know. And to continue answering your question, that’s why the test is so much harder.

Right now, when I ask a question you don’t know the answer to, I get blank looks and empty lines. Maybe the occasional “IDK” - if I’m lucky. But you need to realize that just because you don’t know the answer does not mean you are incapable of figuring it out. And I don’t mean by Googling it! The teachers that complain about smart phones in the classroom because kids can use them to cheat have it all wrong. If they’re asking you questions that you can Google, they’re not teaching you how to think. They’re telling you stuff to know. Unless it’s some pop quiz to make sure you did the night’s reading or studying, the real purpose of asking questions is to see how you go about figuring them out. And a lot of the time, it will be trial and error.

It’s right there in the name of the strategy: Trial and Error. You must try and fail. Not try TO fail, all you smiling right now.  Nor is it saying you will try, only to fail. It means try. And maybe fail. And then try again. And then repeat until you get it right. But too many of you are stopping before you even start, and the rest of you quitting after the first attempt. You have got to learn to stick with it. You need persistence. This isn’t bomb defusing school. If you make a mistake, you will survive. And even better, you get a chance to do it again! It’s like a video game. Reset and try again – which, by the way, you all are also much too quick to give up on. You try for all of three minute to beat Level Seven before you give up and start tapping in cheat codes or watching walk-throughs on YouTube. I don’t get it. You spend 60 bucks on a game that’s meant to give you hours of entertainment, but instead, you’d rather spend another 15 bucks on a glossy guide so you can “beat” it in 45 minutes. Where’s the fun in that? And where’s the sense of satisfaction?

So, to finally finish answering the question, maybe the real reason the test seems so much harder is because you guys are that much weaker. (Disgruntled murmurs) Relax, it’s not entirely your fault. Your coaches and teachers started it by encouraging you to feel good about good hustle or strong effort (code words for, “You failed!”) Your parents continued it by framing your Participation Certificates and displaying your Participant trophies (basically showing the world that they’re proud of their loser.) And you guys allowed it. You bought into it. You let yourself believe that coming in 2nd, or 473rd , were equally commendable. Even worse, some of you expect to be rewarded for simply showing up, and can’t understand how something you did could possibly be wrong.

Sure, you can’t (and shouldn’t) win ‘em all, but when you don’t, you shouldn’t be celebrated for it. I’m not saying you should be punished or put down, either, just that losing shouldn’t feel good. You guys have been watching the Olympics; have to seen the looks on some of the Silver and Bronze medalists' faces? Some are crying because they are “only” the second or third best…in THE ENTIRE WORLD! To most people, just being there is an amazing achievement. But to them, second best, again, IN THE ENTIRE WORLD, is a failure. Yet you guys have been trained to expect cheers and praise simply for trying. And not even trying your best. Just trying.  And most of the time, only once – which to me is the most trying! (Confused murmurs) Trying has more than one meaning, look it up!

Now that I’ve talked for the entire period, making you even less prepared for that much harder test, I should wrap things up. I know some might see this as a wasted period, while others might be feeling like they just got away with doing nothing for the past 50 minutes! And maybe there’s a few of you who found some value in what I had to say. But either way, I’m sure we can all agree that a question was asked, and I tried to answer it…repeatedly! So my question to you is, what will you do with the answer?"


  1. Best essay you've ever written in my opinion. Sharing this on Google+ and Twitter.

    1. Thanks, and while not an exact transcript, it is pretty much an accurate retelling of yesterday afternoon's Period 7 class. I DID change the ending, because in real life, it was much darker. I said something like, "So you guys really need to start taking this seriously, as I am seriously afraid that someday, one of you will be dumpster diving for half-eaten robo-burgers when the automated garbage truck comes and takes you off to be incinerated!"

  2. I'm off put by the "participation certificate comment." That sounds too much like a "kids these days" complaint. Also you spent the greater part of the response to your student by confirming his premise that the test was harder. Then you basically tell him that he's the weak link and not the test. Also, if participation medals are so damaging why would a silver medalist cry? If you're saying that people are happy with failure because their rewarded for trying, and that makes winning meaningless then a silver medalist would be stoked to even be on the pedestal next the gold. I thought all but the last two paragraphs of this were really compelling. It lost me at the end because I'm 23. People my age are often accused of saying that things like participation medals are destroying mine and subsequent generations. I don't believe that for a number of reasons, but the most salient thing to me is that no single character defect can affect people that way just because of when they were born. I don't think Gen-Y is anymore the "entitlement generation" than Gen-X was the "me generation."

    1. Not sure we're in as much disagreement as you think. My point to the kids was that to be successful (in anything), trying is not the same as achieving. One leads to the other, but they are not interchangeable. And awarding them for trying, rather than succeeding, makes some satisfied and content with their failed attempts, allowing those who truly strive to succeed the opportunity to climb right past (or over) them to Reach the Top

  3. I'm a teacher and I appreciated this post. I've taught through No Child Left Behind and have been trying to understand how Common Core changes what's already being done in schools, and to raise the bar and expectations for my first graders, but now am battling parents upset (and banning) Common Core anything and everything (basically leading us to throw away newly purchased series simply because the letters c o m m o n c o r e are on its cover). These same parents think we spend too much time in the computer lab (where we spend an hour a week keyboarding) and won't even hold a discussion about "bring your own device". My point: teachers are trying to prepare students for the future, but (some) parents are ignorant about current educational decisions or are afraid of change, and are putting up road blocks, making it that much more difficult to progress. Christy