Monday, February 10, 2014

Back-Mapping from Success: What I Wish I Had Known

(originally published at 

My wife and I were talking to one of her cousins over the holidays—a gangly, lanky kid of 20 who has floundered and flopped through schools with little purpose or success, but who is trying to tackle college in small bites. He took two classes last semester and failed both. Everyone was frustrated with him. Two classes! That’s all you had! You didn’t even have a job on the side! How could you fail?
But the attacks were a little unfair. How could he not fail, if he’d never really tasted success? What else could he do but fail? That’s all he knew. He went through the motions of going-to-school—showing up, taking notes, reading the textbook—but he didn’t know how to do any of it well, and he didn’t really know why he was doing any of it, except that he knew it’s what he was supposed to do.

It occurred to me, while we were talking, that taking a backwards-design approach to being a student might make a lot of sense.  After all, when Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe wrote Understanding by Design, it was exactly this kind of thoughtless, “this is just the way it’s done,” going-through-the-motions behavior that they were trying to combat—for teachers. “Don’t just do something because you’ve always done it; do it because you know it’s going to lead to an outcome you’ve decided upon. And do it in a particular way that will help lead to an outcome.” Well, why wouldn’t that work for students, too?
Now, this was new thinking for me. I never approached school like that as a student. It never even occurred to me. I took notes because I was supposed to. I never thought about why I was taking notes, what they were for, and what the best way of taking notes might be. I was a friendly, well-behaved cow, walking down the chute towards college with all the other friendly, well-behaved cows. I didn’t know where I was going; I just did what I was told.

Backwards design means starting with the end in mind and planning for it, step by step. So: what would backward design look like from a student’s point of view?  Obviously, if you’re a student, you want an “A” in the course (maybe you don’t think you can get that “A,” but if you don’t deliberately plan for it, you’re certainly not going to get it). So what does it take to get an “A?” That’s the first important question. How are grades calculated in the class? Is it a simple average or a weighted average? Is it all exam-based, or are their papers and projects involved? I started thinking about those things in college, but why shouldn’t we encourage students to start taking ownership of their learning earlier?
Next step: Now that you know how the grades will be calculated overall, figure out what excellence looks like. If it’s a test you have to master, what would you have to do to get an “A?” Is it simply memorization of facts? Is it timed essay-writing? Is it timed computation?  How well will you have to perform? If you’re looking at papers or projects, what would constitute “A” work there? Are there scoring rubrics that can tell you? Are there past papers you can look at as models?

Once you get a clear picture of what “A” work looks like, the next step becomes the most vital one, and the one where most of us fall apart: figuring out what you need to do, day by day and week by week, to ensure that “A” level work happens. This is how you stop going through the motions of school, where school is something that is done to you, and start becoming the do-er of school yourself.  This where you get to say (with real confidence), “If I do X, Y, and Z every day, I will get the grades I want.” (Outside of school, we fall apart in exactly the same place: we know how many pounds we should lose in order to be healthier, for example, and we know, in general, what changes we should be making…but when it comes to what we should be doing meal by meal, day by day, we don’t take the right actions.)
Again, this is something I did not think about—never in high school; barely in college. By the time I went to graduate school, after having been out of school for a few years, I saw things differently. Now I was going to school for a reason of my choosing. I was going because I had chosen to go. And that changed the way I thought about things. It made me purposeful and active. And a purposeful, active student is going to beat out a thoughtless, passive student every time.

So—what does it mean for a student to be purposeful and active on a daily and weekly basis? Well, if I’ve figured out that to get an “A” on a math test, I have to be able to do 60 math problems in 60 minutes, then I should be practicing shorter timed drills at home—all semester—whether anyone has assigned that task as homework or not. If I know I’ll have to answer questions covering hundreds of years of history, I should be taking clear notes that give me conceptual anchors for every term I learn (things that will help me remember the meaning of each term, so that whenever I hear or see the term, I think of two or three key things). I should probably also revise or re-write my notes at particular intervals, and perhaps quiz myself at particular intervals, to make sure I’m slowly building up a storehouse of knowledge. If understanding complex processes and systems is more important than remembering a hundred facts, I should be taking notes differently—maybe more visually, with lots of diagrams that show how aspects and elements interrelate.
Here’s another thing I never thought about: if the teacher makes reference to something I don’t know, but everyone else in class seems to understand what he’s talking about, I should make sure to go look up that information after class. That’s my job—my problem to fix.  Who knew? I had a friend, years ago, who told me that when he was a freshman at Harvard, he decided that the opportunity to be at an Ivy League school would be wasted by taking freshman-level, introductory classes. He finagled his way into taking higher-level classes exclusively. Every day, he took two sets of notes: one set that kept track of what was being taught in the class, and one set that kept track of every reference he found obscure and every bit of pre-requisite content knowledge that he didn’t have. Every night, he took that second set of notes and he taught himself what he needed to know—what he should have already known—in order to be successful in that class. And he did that in the days before Google. That, my friends, is what it means to own your education.

In an ideal world, grades would never be a surprise to a student. Tests would never be “gotcha” exercises. Students would walk into assessments (of any kind) being fully aware of what they knew and could do. They would be able to look at their eventual grade and nod their heads, saying, “yes—that’s how I thought I would do.” But that’s not what happens in our world, is it? Most students don’t react to their grades that way, because most students live blindly day to day, doing what they’re told but never quite sure why they’re doing it, whether they’re doing it well, or what it’s going to lead to. This is why so many of them feel that school is done to them. It’s why they say things like, “Why’d you give me a C?” as though the grade had been a choice or an arbitrary decision—a gift or punishment to bestow, rather than a thing that was earned. If we want students to think differently, more actively, about school, we need to teach them to think that way.  It’s not going to happen by itself.
If there are days when I wish I could be a student again, knowing what I now know about learning, there are definitely days when I wish I could be a teacher again. After that holiday conversation with my wife’s cousin, I wished I could be Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, standing on a desk in front of legions of disaffected, passive students and yelling, “Seize the Day!”

But it’s easy to be a movie-character teacher. Anyone can tell young people to make the most of their time in school. Anyone can stand on a desk and make a speech (or write a blog post). It’s so much harder to help kids learn how to do it—day by day, week by week, and year by year.