The kids are alright

Quelle est une chose qui devrait être interdite à l’école ?

I often start French class with a question. The students reflect and discuss in their table groups, then share their responses with the rest of the class during the whole-group discussion. Yesterday, I opened with the above. In English: “What is one thing that should be banned at school?”

“Littering!” “Homework!” “Vaping in the bathrooms!”, a few students volunteered (in French). Then, a student offered, “Cell phones!” I’m sure you can imagine the disbelief and anger that this response evoked from a class of Grade 9 students, the majority of whom have an iPhone permanently glued into their hand and probably could not imagine a time without them. Once the others died down, I gave the student the floor, who argued with sincerity: “Cell phones are a huge distraction. We’re paid to be here by tax payers, which means we have a responsibility to learn and not waste time on our phones.” Once again, the other students erupted. It took a minute to calm them down.

Finally, a student responded bitterly: “If we’re paid to be here, where’s my money?”

I knew at that moment that French class, strictly speaking, was over. This was going to be something different, and I liked where we were going.

We launched into an hour-long discussion that touched on topics ranging from “Seriously, where is my money?” and “Why can’t we start school later?” to “Why can’t we choose the classes we take?” “Why isn’t money management a class?” “Why can’t we just put a chip into our brain that gives us all the information in the world?” (Said a student holding a phone with Google just one ‘Hey, Siri’ away) “Why are we even here, if we can find anything we might need on the Internet?”

These were just the questions posed. What surprised me were the varied, thoughtful responses, which revealed in many cases a great deal of critical thinking about learning and education in general. For instance, many students lamented the fact that a lot of what passes for “learning” in school is actually just memorization, and conjectured that it’s more important to learn how to use and apply the information you have, especially because information is now so readily available on cell phones. They also argued that their interests should play a greater role in the classroom, because they felt that they learned better when they were actually enjoying in. On the subject of calculators, which I brought up, many students suggested that here, too, it’s more important to learn how to problem solve, not just memorize facts and procedures that a calculator can perform in milliseconds. A notable voice of dissent was the same student who argued against cell phones, who felt becoming fluent with facts and procedures in math was a necessary prerequisite for problem solving. I was impressed with the level of respect that students offered each other, even when they disagreed, especially following the uproar at the start of class.

Besides questioning the system, the students also imagined how it could be otherwise. On the topic of cell phones: “What if we could just use them whenever we wanted? It’s our responsibility to learn, anyway, and if we don’t, that’s our fault. But we can decide for ourselves.” Other “what if’s”: “What if we started school later in the day?” “What if we had longer school days, but a three-day weekend?” “What if we had school throughout the year, but with week-long breaks after every month?” “What if we could decide for ourselves if we wanted to take math, science, English…, and not just the electives?” “What if we could learn at our own pace, and leave when we’re done?”

The time flew by, for me and the students; we were all surprised when the ball rang for lunch. There was not one minute of silence during the entire period; even students that I rarely heard from were offering their perspective on a variety of issues.

Besides the students’ thoughtfulness, imagination, and critical disposition, what struck me was how closely their concerns aligned with our own, as teachers. What, exactly, constitutes “appropriate use of technology” (recommended in precisely those vague terms in our math curriculum documents)? To what extend should we be teaching “real-world” skills, such as money management? How can we provide more space for students’ interests in the classroom while meeting curriculum constraints? How might we give students more choice during the learning process, and how much choice should we give them? What is the right balance between procedures and problem solving? And, widening our perspective, what are the goals of math education? Going even further, what is the purpose of school (and what is the purpose of education, if these are not one and the same)?

Energized, I left this class wondering why we don’t ask for students’ perspectives on school more often, especially if their concerns are so similar to ours. I wager that my students are not “special,” in that most students will likely be happy to share their thoughtful perspectives on the education system and their experiences within it when given the opportunity, and if they feel safe doing so. Personally, I give students formal opportunities to give me written feedback, but only twice a year, in the middle and at the end of the semester. I’ve found it quite useful, and made similar observations about students’ lucidity and the alignment of their concerns with mine.  I think students also have the opportunity to complete a division-wide survey on their experiences of schooling once a year, the results of which they don’t see and that, to be completely honest, haven’t impacted my own teaching because of the time delay and the general nature of data aggregated from thousands of students.

Actually, I do have some hunches about why we might not provide these opportunities more often in our classrooms. Besides time (“there’s never enough”), I think one reason we tend to deny our students the opportunity to voice their perspectives and concerns is because, frankly, feedback can be hard to take. It’s painful to hear that despite your best intentions and efforts, you aren’t meeting all of your students’ needs. Ignorance is bliss, as much as it’s an oxymoron in the context of teaching. But as I was recently reminded by a teaching friend, offering some honest, thoughtful criticism (of which I was on the receiving end) is sometimes the kindest thing you can do for someone else. We should let our students (and colleagues) give us this “gift” more often.

I think another reason is that feeling of thinking you know what’s best for your students, and the fear that if they’re offered choices, they won’t make the right ones. I fight this battle myself. For instance, based on my own and others’ experience (and a great deal of research), I believe that group work is a powerful context for learning mathematics, and rely on it often in the classroom. But what about students who just don’t feel comfortable working in groups? I recently read a series of tweets from a student (not my own) that stuck with me. “Group work in math class often depresses me,” the student began. They went on to describe a particular episode during which they didn’t feel they could contribute because they weren’t confident in their skills, and “wanted to disappear” when a group member was being rude about their lack of participation. I know, this is an issue of group norms, which I have struggled with in my classroom. But I admit that too often, I get absorbed in the math and forget about the social aspects of the classroom. Giving students the opportunity to voice their experiences of being in school can help us orient ourselves to the problems they face in our classrooms (not just those we think they face), which are not always mathematical.

I’m left with more questions than answers about how to open up more space in my classroom for student voice and choice, which at other times I might have naively described as “student-centered.” I welcome any and all suggestions. I’m also left with the comforting feeling that, yes, the “kids these days” are alright – even if they have their iPhones glued to their hands.

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