8 things I have come to understand (about high school students). Part 1

Top ten lists may still have its place on David Letterman but since I have lived overseas I rarely get the chance to end my day with Dave. I’m a big fan of lists (not as much as my wife) and feel that they have enormous value in the classroom; especially the attendance roster – I am convinced that class rosters are the most important list for an educator and in my 15 years as a teacher I have perused countless rosters. In this time I have come to develop some basic suppositions of high school students based on interactions and experiences in and out of the classroom; as individuals and in groups. Whether from Upstate New York, Tel Aviv- Israel, or Bangkok, Thailand, the average teenage high school student, globally, is remarkably salient. While I am in no way generalizing or attacking young adults (or even worse stereotyping), I will point out what I have come to understand about high school age students and how educational change on mutli-levels would benefit them. This was part of a faculty presentation I gave on 21st century learning and now it is the premise of my first COETAIL blog entry.

1.They have difficulty solving complex problems. (So that’s what we give them)

One of the comments I have heard a number of times from past students is that I “make them think too much.” I always say “thank you.” I take it as the greatest compliment a student can give a teacher (or coach, or anyone since a state certification is not required to pass on understanding.)  Divergent & critical thinking opportunities need to be embedded into our student face time more than ever. I am reminded of the “uses of a paper clip” exercise in a 6 +1 writing traits course. Throw a problem into the center of your class and walk away. I am always amazed at the results, and more importantly, the process students go through when considering creative solutions. This is the origin of innovation and we need young people with the cognitive fitness to embrace such challenges.

2.They love to communicate…but on their terms. (So put their communications on your terms)

Kids love to talk (or text) and they always have. My four year old and I have wonderful conversations and I am afraid that will change as he enters formal education in its current form with traditional top down emphasis on teacher talk time (TTT).  Talk as process and talk as performance strategies emphasize verbal fluency and increase student talk time (STT) which is directly supported by current brain research as essential for retention and higher order processing. Getting kids to talk about things they generally would not talk of is the key; a teachers ability to utilize elevator pitches, paired verbal fluency, group talks, podcasting/screencasting, the back channel tools, and other technologies can allow them the opportunity to demand higher quality products that emphasize voice, preparation, and other ELA elements that communicate a depth of thinking. At the same time, the students executive function portion of the brain (pre-frontal cortex) is charged enhancing individual verbal fluencies and complex vocabularies.

3.They demand very specific directions (also called “hand-holding”) while avoiding risk. (So let them figure it out and reward risk taking)

Consider the difficulty of tasks when constructing problems for students and give explicit guidelines for a product and then stop there. Encourage them to visualize a solution or product that addresses a problem. As a teacher one of the hardest instincts to ignore is a student with a need and that is good. But there is a difference between ignoring a student and not getting in the way of an opportunity to learn through experience. Reward the risk takers and more importantly the EFFORT. Emphasizing effort over performance is supported in recent behavioral studies and the opportunity to choose their own path to learning affects the cerebral cortex — the seat of executive function. The world needs risk takers as they have historically been the agents of change.

4. Many still expect you to tell them what to learn and how. (Ask them what they want to know….their answers may surprise you.)

It is called the Tools of Mind program and it’s results have been outstanding. I will probably devote an entire blog entry to it but let me just say that it supports a very important paradigm shift in institutional learning: the handing over of learning to the individual and away from the teacher (or curriculum). I read the book Nurture Shock last October and was profoundly changed as a result. It resonated on so many levels with what I had been observing in high school aged students for years. The discipline issues, the poor organizational skills, and general lack of self-control I had observed in high schools in three different continents could now be linked to the general lack of empowerment in their own learning an experience started in Pre-kindergarten. Self-control, empowerment, and confidence are three pretty strong life-skills that we better be teaching in our classrooms and it starts with courage to allow students to learn and explore not only what they want to learn about but how they want to demonstrate that understanding.  Re-shaping and upgrading curricula to emphasize these skills should be articulated in every schools long term strategic plan. Putting students in the center of their own learning is the critical component of constructing life-long learners.

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The video above has been viewed 3.5 million times….I have watched it probably ten times as there are several ideas worth dwelling upon. The re-thinking of educational design with the student in the center of their own learning is not only progressive but vital to our future; Sir Ken Robinson provides effective insight into the origins of our current system where it may be headed. It’s inclusion is to remind me of why I’m taking this course. In the next few days I will post part 2 of the list and I’m hoping motivate others to consider what they have learned about their students.

Does your clock look like this? (Can I get one for the classroom?)

I am intrigued, driven, and invested in re-shaping education to empower learners.  Who’s with me?


Part 2 after the jump.



One thought on “8 things I have come to understand (about high school students). Part 1

  1. Paketresor

    greetings! 🙂 im at work at the moment, hence i do not have much time to write… but! I truly liked reading through this article. It was some great stuff. many thanks! Sincerely, Ms Paketresor


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