Engaging Reluctant Learners

Photo by Shayla Beley

In secondary education, many of us engage with “The Problem,” as we call it, on a daily basis. “The Problem” happens to be one that many educators have most likely considered as they have worked to implement their curricular ideas on students who seem less than engaged; that is, how do we, as teachers, aid students in learning for the sake of learning? Is the act of teaching students to practice acts of intrinsic autonomy possible? Are they developmentally ready to delve into conceptual frameworks that presuppose a familiarity with multiple perspectives? It is a conundrum, to be sure, made even more complicated when considering students who have diagnosed neurological disorders that cause them to learn differently from the so-called average student.

It is important to note that this post is very much influenced by a number of philosophers: Gareth Mathews, Plato, John Stuart Mill, and John Dewey, who are just a small handful of individuals that have posed ideas relevant to the blog, I also want to note that I believe that literature, if viewed as an exploration of ideas relevant to the human condition, can engage students who have often experienced failure in discipline-related classes in the act of intrinsic autonomy.

Perhaps the foremost researcher in childhood development is Jean Piaget, who has suggested within his work, as demonstrated through his theory of cognitive development, that kids cannot be engaged in higher-level thinking until adolescence, which occurs around age twelve. However, Gareth Matthews, in his book The Philosophy of Childhood, asserts that “it is imperative that we not let the results of Piaget’s genuinely remarkable experiments set our educational agenda or define for us the capacity for thought and reflection in young children.” Mathews disputes the notion that progress in development is accumulated; instead, he feels that children are more open to ideas at a younger age. With that said, the structure of early childhood learning within elementary school environments are arguably built on the foundation presupposed within Piaget’s stage-theory, which impedes and hinders an intrinsic exploration of ideas from an early age due to assumptions surrounding the cognitive nature of brain development.

In other words, assigned tasks in schools are often focused on rote memorization, comprehension, and following instructions throughout the duration of a childhood, which often leads to feelings of disillusionment and a distinct lack of interest in subjects.

Rarely do we encounter teenaged students who seek to explore issues about the nature and technique of critical thought as a method of establishing a reliable basis for claims, beliefs, and attitudes about the world. This, admittedly, is a subversive statement without substantial verification to support it and primarily based on circumstantial and anecdotal evidence of the author. Nevertheless, the majority of students are what I deem “reluctant learners,” which are students who are used to following directions that lead to a quantifiable outcome which is most often unrelated to the exploration of multiple interpretations that are useful in engaging the empathetic imagination.

This notion of the reluctant learner is made even more apparent through standardized assessment procedures such as tests or evaluations when the student has repeatedly failed in traditional schooling due to neurologically based disorders such as Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, Dyscalculia, Language-Based Disorders, and Processing Disorders.

Accordingly, it becomes necessary to re-frame traditional pedagogical methodology employed within classrooms and work to create more dynamic and nurturing environments that embrace creative problem solving skills in order to aid in motivating older students to embrace their own moral and intellectual development. This is not to underscore the philosophical failings of Outcome-based education or Paulo Freire’s Banking Model of education; rather it is to highlight the necessity of re-framing curricula to focus on problem-based learning through the employment of Socratic Questioning and John Dewey’s philosophy of Pragmatism.

Does Homework Help or Hurt?

Homework frustration2

Photo by Shayla Beley

Homework has been a controversial topic pretty much since education became free and compulsory throughout much of the United States at the turn of the last century. Homework has been labeled criminal by some and was even blamed for childhood mortality! The essential question is this: Is homework worth it?

The Costs

To answer that deceptively simple question we have to build a little balance sheet of costs and benefits; the costs of homework include time, in many cases a substantial time investment from students and often from parents as well. The amount of time spent on homework on average has increased in recent years. A recent survey of 1000 public high school teachers shows that on average each teacher assigns 3.5 hours of homework per week. That’s each teacher, and now remembers that typically students have about 5 academic classes. For those of you without an abacus that amounts to an average of 17.5 hours of homework per week. And now remember that’s on top of the 35 or so hours they are actually at school. Time spent at school plus time spent on homework equals 52.5 hours per week on average. Now factor in extra-curricular activities, sports, band, clubs, and so forth. Gee, why are kids so stressed out these days?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that it’s probably no accident that homework as increased along with teacher accountability. There seems to be a kind of top-down pressure with students and their families occupying the unenviable bottom position. If teachers are going to be held accountable for educational outcomes as measured by prescribed, standardized tests, then they are going to hold students’ feet to the fire by heaping on the homework in the hopes that students and parents will pick up whatever slack is left from incomplete mastery in the classroom. Missing or late homework assignments are punished with draconian grade reductions. Oh, this assignment is 1 day late? We’ll just knock 20% off.  More than 3 days? We’ll just factor in a big fat zero. That should completely destroy any hope a grade you can feel good about! Thus, teaching is gradually but inexorably ceasing to be a collaborative project among students, teachers, and parents to cultivate young minds and has instead become an impersonal process based on fear of penalties. Teachers are penalized for underperforming students in a variety of ways that can include reductions in status, pay, and even job-loss, or in the case of a brilliant new Massachusetts proposal even loss of license to teach! Students are punished with low grades and all of the twisted, agonizing fall-out of school-related anxiety and disappointed, stressed-out parents.

So back to that balance sheet: precious time taken from family life or just being a kid, parental stress, student anxiety and aversion to school, all consequences of the shift away from collaborative learning and shifting of responsibility and penalties. Those are some steep costs, so I guess it must all be worthwhile, right? Many good parents would gladly accept at least some of these burdens if it really meant their kids were getting a top-notch education. But…

Is it worth it?

Not according to professional contrarian Alfie Kohn (and others). Kohn’s damning testimony is once again being paraded around the blogosphere; there’s little hard evidence that homework produces any measureable educational benefits, at least before secondary level schooling, and even at that level the benefits are modest at best. Meanwhile, those legendary pedagogues in Finland dole out little in the way of homework even as their students repeatedly top the world rankings. Egalitarians like French president Francoise Hollande who proposed banning homework in 2012 point out that student from wealthier families with a relative abundance of resources have a disproportionate advantage in completing homework assignments. One recent headline from Florida vividly illustrates his point: Miami-Dade libraries are overcrowded with students waiting in line to get on the internet to complete their math homework because they have no internet access at home. Clearly these kids have a much tougher time completing their homework than their wealthier counterparts with the luxury of broadband wifi at home. But the disparity goes much deeper than that. Wealthier kids tend to have more educated parents who have more free time. They also have more books at home and more educational experiences overall (think museum and library trips, international travel, etc.).

The bottom line from research conducted on the effectiveness of homework is that there is little conclusive evidence that homework improves educational outcomes. At the elementary level there is no correlation with greater success. At the secondary level there seems to be some modest correlation with better outcomes, but results varied by subject and type of homework assigned. So the question now is..

Is homework ever a Good Idea?

Generalizations are always dangerous, (and ironic statements are sometimes fun to write). It’s important to keep in mind circumstances and types of assignments. Not all assignments are equal. Anything that might qualify as “busy work”, like lengthy repetitive assignments, are certainly ill advised. The occasional assignment though that for reasons of practicality are better done at home and are part of a meaningful endeavor still have their place and can be wonderful enriching opportunities, ways of taking learning out of the classroom and making it a “real life” experience. Here’s one other exception:  boarding schools with supervised study halls which are basically extensions of the classroom and of the learning day have the requisite time and resources to negate many of the harsh costs that others must pay. In these circumstances homework can bolster learning while inculcating good study habits. Otherwise though, I would make the most of class time and save the homework assignments for when they really matter.

In Defense of the Introvert Student

This post is from guest contributor Anthony Westcott.


photo by Shayla Beley


In the last few years, a good deal of dialogue has been generated in the media about the idea of introverts navigating a society that values extroversion. A best selling book by Susan Cain from 2012 called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking spotlighted the issue, and it was followed by a popular “TED Talk” of hers, as well as a raft of other books in its wake such as Laurie Helgoe’s  Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life is Your Hidden Strength, and Jennifer Kahnweiler and Douglas Conant’s The Introverted Leader: Building on Your Quiet Strength; just in the last month, there was a New York Times op-ed piece written by Vanessa Barbara about living as an introvert in the highly extroverted culture of Brazil. And this has been good news for introverts such as yours truly. While I think my passions for reading and writing led me to a career teaching English, it may seem ironic to others that an introvert should choose to spend each day interacting with classes of high school students. However, as these books will tell you, many introverts learn how to develop a form of extroverted behavior to fit into a role that demands it. Just think of famous actors like Harrison Ford and Clint Eastwood who light up movie screens but are soft-spoken, even reticent individuals offstage. Indeed, many of my students would characterize my teaching personality in a classroom as dynamic but it’s the work of a performer, not the true self on display. The tradeoff for my psyche is daily lunch periods spent away from both colleagues and students solitarily plowing through books, recharging for an afternoon of more face time with kids.

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Should Students Have Phones in the Classroom?

cell phone classHere’s an article on an apposite topic for our times by colleague and guest contributor Jane Alwis.


Educators and school administrators appear to be split over the use of cell phones in the class room and in fact many schools currently have a difficult fight on their hands to enforce a ban they have in place on students carrying their personal phones to classes. Despite school policies requiring students leave their phones at home or leave them in school lockers, many students still insist on carrying them in their pockets. Asking teens to go without their phone is like asking them to go without a limb. If I had been asked my opinion of students carrying phones to class a couple of years ago, my answer would have been a resounding ‘no’, however I am now an avid supporter of embracing the technology that my students embrace. The new cell phones are convenient, user friendly and can do most things that a computer can do. They also have the advantage of being highly portable. At this time with the growing number of cell phone providers offering unlimited data plans for relatively little money, the average teen is connected where-ever he/she goes. I am not advocating that students should be entitled to run around with their phones all day doing as they wish, however it seems to me that they are a tool that can be used for the benefit of our students if we are willing to learn their capabilities and educate our students in the proper use of the technology for educational purposes.
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Is Thinking “Critically” Enough?


discarded booksThe age of criticism is upon us and skepticism rules the day. Michael S. Roth in this recent NYT op-ed laments the over-emphasis on critiquing and debunking. This is a most unfortunate circumstance in academia. The best and brightest minds are dedicated to deconstructing, debunking, and in essence scorning the work of others. Rather than remaining open to new ideas, today’s students have been encouraged, enticed, and trained to take issue even with (or perhaps especially with) the great scholars and respected authorities of renown. Perhaps it goes back to the western tendency toward individualism and analytic thinking (which strangely enough may be linked to wheat farming).

This penchant for the critical is not in itself a detriment; in this electronic age of dubious claims or intentionally misleading information, (think the media campaign on both sides of the crisis in Ukraine), not being easily misled is a good characteristic to have. But is it a virtue in itself? I am reminded of the students in my introductory course in epistemology. Whenever pressed, there is a clear tendency to repeatedly revert to radical skepticism despite reminders that this is the problematic default position from which we are attempting to find a way out.

It would be nice for a change if we had a rule that every criticism must be coupled with a generative act of positive, creative thinking. Don’t just tell me what’s wrong with what an author said; give me something worth pondering in its place.

Perhaps it’s time to foster creativity, synthesis, and openness rather than just critical deconstruction. After all, real progress was never made simply by fault-finding but more often by embracing the best we could come up with.


Should Students Have Phones in the Classroom?

Monday, July 21, 2014

Here’s an article on an apposite topic for our times by colleague and guest contributor Jane Alwis.   Educators and school administrators appear to be split over the…


Promoting Social Justice Through the Exploration of Literature

Thursday, April 17, 2014

By Kim Bonica, high school English teacher One of the many goals of any educational institution is to help shape students into educated, well-rounded, independent thinkers who will…


Khan Academy, Flipped Teaching, and the Inequalities of Standardized Testing

Friday, March 21, 2014

On March 5th, Khan Academy—the free, online learning platform comprised of video lectures—declared that they would be partnering with the College Board to give free testing software to the public. Fantastic, no? The strange partnership is touted as ushering in “a future determined by merit not money.” Yet if it is true what some recent studies have been claiming about the intractable snail’s pace of social mobility and the hereditary link to wealth, it might not have as much of an impact as hoped. Access is only one part of the complex problem of closing the achievement gap among disparate income groups. Moreover, what are we to make of this strange pairing?

Matthew Kim's Writers' Workshop is one of the first classes in the nation to use the textbook Writer/Designer (2014). W/D is a unique text in that it asks students to consider writing not only in the traditional linguistic mode, but also writing in visual, aural, spatial, and gestural modes.

Empowering Students’ Imaginations of what Writing Could Be: Communicating Persuasively and Unconventionally with the Public Service Announcement

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

By Matthew Aaron Kim Patricia Dunn (1995; 2001), implores teachers to introduce unconventional modes of representation to experienced and novice student writers in hopes that these writers can…


December 2014
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