In a July 2022 edition of The Hechinger Report, Jill Barshay cited a study that argued that it was uncommon for students to simultaneously have fun and make significant academic progress in school. When both occurred, the study found that teachers had combined engaging academic activities with classroom procedures that ensured that student behaviors did not “interrupt the flow of the lesson.” This conclusion is startling in its obviousness: From their first moments in the classroom, teachers learn that no learning activity can succeed without firm and effective guardrails for student behavior. How is it possible that this occurs only rarely?
The response to the Common Core Standards is partly to blame. While the English Language Arts standards have 72 standards both in 9th and 10th grade, it was never the intent of the Common Core that educators teach reading and writing as a long list of discrete skills because that’s not how good readers and writers do it. Unfortunately, curriculum adoption processes typically ask publishers to point to evidence that their lessons explicitly cover each of the standards at least once.
Publishers need to ensure that states adopt their curricula and so they make sure to write instructional activities geared toward each of the 72 standards. Some of these activities may resemble one another—but given that there are no regulations controlling the teachability of a curriculum, publishers simply don’t have the mandate to create the instructional patterns necessary for a classroom to work the way that Barshay’s study suggests it must.
Most published curricula are very fragmented and make it hard for teachers and students to find their own rhythm. For example, the first unit of a major publisher’s 9th grade English Language Arts program provides teachers with 11 separate texts (and “thousands” more in a digital library) and 15 different skills to teach in 30 days of classroom instruction. If students encounter a new text or a new activity every day, they will never settle into a flow that allows them to appreciate the richness of these texts and their own responses to them.
Perhaps it is surprising that adolescents respond productively to a class that is predictable. Aren’t they always complaining that school is boring? And, outside of class, adolescents spend much of their time bouncing along in a highly fragmented world of short videos and volatile back-and-forth social media posts. The fact that the slang word “mid,” with its implication of mildness or moderation, is such an insult among today’s adolescents speaks to the fact that extreme contrasts, rather than smooth progressions, are so often their goal.
The researchers that Barshay cited are right, though. Barshay specified that students need predictable procedures to enable them to tackle the frustrations that arise while they learn challenging content. They also need time to practice these learning routines, and get useful feedback on their performance of those routines, before facing the additional stress of assessment.
In a blog post I shared a couple of weeks ago, I described how a combination of classmates’ empathy and tough love prodded a student named Dillon (not his real name) to admit that he had misunderstood a section of text and then to reread and clarify his misconceptions. Maybe you read that description of paired work as some extraordinary event. But we at Riveting Results actually document these discussions, and therefore we know that every student can learn how to have them.
A rich complex text invites students to have these discussions, but it is the protocol that they use over and over again for this discussion that enables all students to learn how to generate these moments for themselves. Dillon and his classmates have practiced and internalized this protocol so they can stop thinking about the activity directions and focus instead on the lively dynamic between them, and of course, in the language of the text itself. Here, Dillon describes the moment when he knew he was wrong:
When Isaiah and I started we had a big disagreement and it was about me not reading a part of the question. I thought I read it fine but I didn’t. I forgot there was a word at the end. I was laughing so much when I found out I was wrong. I heard things like “Dillon, you can’t read.” When I found the right answer it made a lot of sense. I realized I shouldn’t read fast and I should take more time with my reading because it might cost you getting a wrong answer. When I found out I was wrong it kinda clicked that his was the right answer and I realized I was bad at rereading.
Dillon illustrates how he and his partner had argued with each other for several minutes without ever once stopping to check if they were following directions. Ultimately, Dillon had the wherewithal to take the emotional leap and admit he was wrong in large part because fulfilling the requirements of the activity had become second nature and at the same time, satisfied his powerful desire to learn and grow.
Conversely, suddenly introducing new procedures can stop learning in its tracks. When I was in a classroom for 9th grade students recently, I saw chaos erupt when a teacher changed a small aspect of a classroom’s procedures. “Sharing Circle” had been the final daily activity: Students read their work aloud and others raised their hands to provide feedback on what they heard. Crucially, the reader—and not the teacher—called on the students who wanted to respond. Those students followed a specific protocol that they had repeatedly practiced: The commenters selected a word that they had heard and discussed what that word made them think or feel. Over two weeks, students had practiced this routine and learned to make specific and meaningful comments.
On this particular day, however, the teacher added what seemed like a small twist. After a student read and received comments following the procedure above, the teacher told that student to pick the next reader, a responsibility that the teacher had assumed before. As soon as the first reader picked a second reader, that second student said that he did not want to read. Several other students immediately mocked the second student for not wanting to read. Students then tried to convince the first reader to pick another student—who also did not want to read. Several students traded insults until the teacher ended the Sharing Circle for the day.
The teacher realized that he had not given students the time to practice the new routine for selecting the next reader, and as a result this minor tweak to the procedure completely disrupted a productive and enjoyable learning process.
Students are acutely aware of the anarchy in their online discussions. We know that these chaotic interactions are exciting and even addictive for adolescents—but also the source of intense anxiety and even depression. Predictable classrooms that are a respite from the chaos plaguing the rest of their day provide adolescents with the strong foundation they need to tackle the psychic challenges inherent in learning complex material.