Saturday, January 31, 2009

Just Some Hoops to Jump Through

It was Thursday and some of the high school students were at the school to do some work (I work at a Distributed Learning / Distance Learning school, so usually the kids are at home).  One of the grade 10s was working on a course she was just starting; 'Family Studies 11'.  This kid is pretty bright and does well in our program.

Me: "So does Family Studies look interesting?"
Her: "Yes.  Mr. X said it was easy so that's why I took it."

Superdog by skycaptaintwo
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Yup.  Just another hoop.  Made me think of the 'Guitar Hero' part of this post by Dan Myers.  It also made me think of the really bright, top of the district, student I taught a few years ago who switched from Chemistry 12 to Geography 12 a third of the way through because she knew she could get through Geography more easily.  Not because she liked Geography better.  I know this because she told me as much.

I don't get it.  When I was in high school I probably could have taken a study block, but that never occurred to me; I was having a hard time trying to narrow down the classes that I wanted to take.  I took Drawing and Painting 12 because I liked, well, drawing and painting.  Not because I thought it might be easy.  In fact I had very little artistic talent and taking the course probably put me in danger of lowering my GPA.  I took Drafting 11 and 12, again, not because I thought they might be easy courses, but because I was interested in them.  Same with Choir, Chemistry, Biology, and Physics.

So when I see kids taking "easy credits", or study blocks, or gunning through their academic courses so they can graduate 6 months or a year early;  I.  Just.  Don't.  Get.  It.

I don't want to lay all the blame on these kids, though.  It's human nature to do the easy thing, to keep doing those things that make you feel successful.  Have you seen how most people use flashcards to study--they spend most of their time on the cards that they already understand, and not the cards they need to understand.  Failure feels uncomfortable, so we often stick with what we already know.

The system is also to blame.  We often focus on "these are the courses you need to graduate", "this is the minimum number of credits you need", instead of "we have some wonderful courses that you're really going to enjoy, learn a lot from, and serve you well in the future".  Maybe we need more inspiring courses.

I don't know.  What do you think?


  1. We see the same thing here. In fact, I am trying to motivate my daughter. Tough to do when she does not know what she wants to be. Is it because the "you need it for college" bit is wearing off this generation? They are different than we were (I think.) More seems unnecessary today. When they go to college, they will be the ones who are unprepared taking remedial courses.

    I would like to see so much go. I know universities need a filtering system but not sure GPA's are it. If you require harder classes, then it limits other elective opportunities...This is a tough one...

  2. Claire,

    Hopefully I'm not breaking a blogging rule in which family adds information about the author's post but I have to comment.

    You were a straight A (or close to) student so your GPA was not an issue for you like it was for other students (such as your not so bright/motivated younger sister!). I'm not suggesting that good grades came easy to you, I know you worked hard, but you simply did not have the same stress as the kids with lower GPA's.

    Sometimes to get where you need to be you have to be strategic. I had to have a science to get into university but after two weeks of algebra enriched and chemistry enriched I was hopelessly lost so I dropped both and took geography - much to the anger of the "dumb" kids in the class (I want to track them down and tell them that the first half of my university Geog 101 course was a review of that class). Yes, I was hoop jumping but getting an A in geography got me where I wanted to be whereas getting a C in Chemistry & Algebra, didn't.

    In the process of "hoop" jumping, I discovered that geography is incredibly interesting and almost majored in it for my B.A.

  3. I'm in the middle of the 'graduating early' ridiculousness right now. I teach a very talented grade eleven art student. She mentioned in passing about a month ago that she will have all her necessary credits by the end of Jan 2010 so she can grad early. This is a student who is planning on going to either Emily Carr or another art school with all the talent, financial support and motivation needed to do so.

    Maybe if you were planning on getting a job with the family logging operation, or travelling to Europe to spend 6 months with your Aunt or something equally as sensible, then maybe graduating early is a good idea. But to finish early just to work at the local grocery store? Makes no sense to me...

    I teach her in 3 of 4 blocks starting tomorrow. The cousellor and I have discussed ways to 'encourage' her to rethink her plan. My main point will be that she can take any four courses of her choice, free of charge, to contribute to who she is as an artist. She wants to take the easy way out, I'm going to do everything I can to convince her otherwise.

  4. @Claire
    I see this alot in my school as well. We do not allow early graduation but we have a number of students who seem to gravitate to the path of least resistance regarding their academic choices.

    We've debated if whether or not a halt to our rank and sort methods would encourage students to select courses based upon academic desire rather than "how much work?" will this teacher inflict upon me.

    I think for many high schools the issue is endemic in that our own self imposed structures can set us up to fail. For too many kids high school is just a part of life that is inflicted on them as some type of intolerable four year prison sentence to just be endured. I'd like to see it be so much more.

  5. Can't really blame kids for seeing school as a "game" to win -- they're trained to do so, in the pursuit of good marks and external praise. It's all about the extrinsic motivation, and the system is set up explicitly to reward hoop-jumping. Kids find out pretty quickly that there's little authenticity to the whole exercise -- they don't believe that very much of it connects to anything they'll ever really care about.

    There's also the power dynamic in this. If you're a teenager and you perceive something to be obligatory, you automatically discount its value. Most choice in schools is an illusion -- you spend entire days being told what to do and doing it.

    If anything, this is the primary reason why we joined the home learners program this year -- to let our kids spend an hour or two a day jumping through hoops (instead of seven) so that it frees up five or six hours a day for real learning and experience in areas that interest them. It reverses the usual ratio of obligatory-to-chosen. Most importantly, they're learning to take control over that time and spend it wisely...not expecting someone else to decide for them and tell them what to do, when to do it, or how.

  6. Wow! My posts don't usually generate this much of a response so quickly. Must have hit a nerve. I'm trying to respond to everyone so my apologies for such a long response.

    @Louise, I wonder if we put too much emphasis on post secondary; "you must take these courses if you want to take this major". Sure, there are going to be pre-requisites for post secondary, but it hardly seems the most compelling reason to take a course. I like your comment about GPAs not being a good filtering system. I just finished Malcolm Gladwell's book 'Outliers'. In it he talks about the fact that after a certain threshold IQ level is not a good predictor of success. He tells one story of a prestigious law school that surveyed its graduates. They found that the graduates' grades in Law School had very little bearing on their success as lawyers. I think it was also in 'Outliers' that I read about some post secondary institutions looking into using divergent thinking tests (as opposed to SATs which they termed convergent thinking tests) as a filter to select students.

    @Alison, yes, there does have to be some hoop jumping with the current system. I do not have a problem with your scenario. I remember how much you disliked chem and algebra. It made sense for you to switch. Taking Geography made sense (wish I'd taken it too!) I just don't understand the kids who are perfectly capable of taking a course that will challenge them, but choose the easy way out. At my previous school some of the top academic kids (university bound) had 2 study blocks in their senior year. First off, how is that course load going to prepare them for the rigours of 1st year university? Secondly, there were many interesting courses offered!!! Sure, you may not need Intro Power Mechanics, but at what other time will you be able to take a course like this for FREE?!?!

    @Errin, I hear you! Maybe as a society we put too much emphasis on being first? Some of the kids I've taught who decided to grad early appeared to have a great deal of pride about being the first of their cohort to make it.

    @Charlie, you said "For too many kids high school is just a part of life that is inflicted on them as some type of intolerable four year prison sentence to just be endured. I’d like to see it be so much more." I think this is definitely a big part of the picture. I also see a reasonable number of students who decide to go to my school because they feel that their time is being wasted in the bricks and mortar schools. I want to know what we can do to (a) encourage kids to challenge themselves and not take the 'easy courses or teachers' and (b) what can we do to make school more engaging? It is not an easy problem to solve, for the reasons that you and the other comments mention.

    @Jeremy, you make a good point about extrinsic rewards versus intrinsic motivation. The kids who see through this are rightly disillusioned. No doubt most of us recall having to do some 'hoop jumping' in our adult lives. I know that I resented it.

    So, how can the system change to prevent the 'hoop jumping' mentality?

  7. Great discussion here. Your post was a bit of a tipping point for me Claire and helped to inspire my next post that I'll finally have done today. You do indeed hit on issues that are important in the conversations we are having everywhere these days.

    I worked for four years as the coordinator of the University Transition Program, a rapid acceleration program for highly gifted students. The students did two years of high school instead of five and then went into university at UBC. While I can be a strong advocate for moving kids on into more engaging, stimulating learning environments when they are highly able, I also believe that most adolescents in our society need some time to just be allowed to muck about and grow up. Perhaps school isn't where they need to be. I'm not convinced that it is just about the courses and scheduling that we offer in most of our high schools. I think it is a much larger systemic problem. At the Transition Program, even for these very bright students being offered university level courses at a young age, many of them spun their wheels, jumped hoops as needed and simply learned to play the game. In the end they were farther ahead in terms of qualifications but hadn't necessarily engaged all that much more in all of the learning. I should qualify that of course, as there were definitely some very amazing exceptions to the rule!

  8. [...] I read Claire Thompson’s latest blog post. She writes about seeing her students, good students, opting for easy courses and jumping through [...]

  9. @Betty, I've seen what you've described; the kids just learning to play the game, but not really learning how to learn.

    I think that we need to re-examine our schools and see how we can make them more relevant to our students. I was lucky enough to attend a high school that offered a career training stream and an academic stream. I chose the academic stream, but I had friends who were in the career training stream who were really successful in high school and beyond because the courses they took were meaningful to them. For example; there was a chef training program; construction, accounting, hair dressing, electrical and others. For many of these programs, if students did them for 2 years in high school that gave them credit for their first year of apprenticeship. What could be more meaningful?

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