When students do poorly in school and end up failing out, educators reflexively pin the problem on the students themselves. Most students don’t really care. Many of them don’t have the discipline it takes to succeed. Some are probably just not smart enough.
Problems with motivation, self-discipline, and intelligence are the three most common diagnoses (in descending order) that educators put on students who fail in school.
That last one is not typically shared outside the private space of teachers’ heads or the lounges where they gather and commiserate. But it must be a diagnostic option, right? What other possibilities are there?
In the field of higher ed, Math is one of those subjects where lots of students do poorly. Passing rates hover right now at under 50 percent, which means that less than half of students currently enrolled in a Math course will make it through. Colleges are scrambling to figure out what’s going on here. Certainly Math is more abstract and analytical than most subjects, making it difficult for students who may not have the “knack” for it.
Not having a strong Math intelligence doesn’t mean that students lack intelligence, however.
Current education theory identifies at least ten distinct types of intelligence, based on the research of psychologist Howard Gardner: logical-mathematical, verbal-linguistic, visual-spatial, musical-rhythmic, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal (intuitive), naturalist, existential, and moral. So a student’s lower-than-average Math intelligence doesn’t mean that he or she is not intelligent in other ways.
It wouldn’t be reasonable, however, for educators to pass off student failure in Math (and other subjects where success rates are low) as an issue with the students themselves, without also looking closely at the system that’s failing students and the possibility of their own complicity as educators in the outcome. I’m not suggesting that blame needs to be shifted now from students to our schools and teachers. Surely there are responsibilities on both sides.
In this post I want to focus on the responsibility of schools and teachers in providing students with the instruction and support that will maximize their opportunities to succeed. Success here refers not merely to making it through the gauntlet of grades and courses, but to the progress in learning that leads to genuine understanding.
My observations are that students are not being adequately prepared for their compulsory ascent from one level to the next.
To get the key ideas into focus, my diagram offers a simplified schematic of a student’s climb through grade or course levels, arriving at the “current” level after having passed through a “former” level, and on his or her way to the “next” level of instruction. Each level (grade or course) is accountable for a portion of the general curriculum that students need to learn before moving on. The green ascending line represents the intended progress of learning, as students build their knowledge, grow in understanding, and are able to apply what they learn in increasingly complex ways.
Before students arrived at the current level, they had to take a class designed to prepare them with the prerequisite knowledge and skills. The angle of that green line depicts what I’m calling the “challenge gradient” elevating students from one level to the next. It goes without saying that students need to learn things they don’t already know, and the difficulty (challenge) of the new material needs to be within what the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky called their “zone of proximal development.” In other words, they need to be prepared and ready for it.
If the challenge gradient is too great (depicted by a red line turned 90° into a vertical wall) students are not able to progress but instead give up in despair. An example from Math would be holding a fifth-grader who is just getting the handle on arithmetic accountable for learning calculus. There’s a good deal of Math competency in between (e.g., algebra) that applies arithmetic in more complex ways and prepares the student for success at the more abstract conceptual levels. For our fifth-grader, the complexity of calculus would be a wall blocking his or her progress in learning Math.
At the other extreme, the challenge gradient might be virtually zero (depicted by a flat grey line). In this case, students get bored quickly with instruction and the material doesn’t engage them. Consequently their learning fails to progress and they can’t move on to the next level.
You should be asking, “But why would the challenge gradient of a given course be set so low? Don’t educators want students to progress in their learning?”
I’ve reflected on this question in other posts, so here my answer will be shockingly straightforward. In recent decades schools and teachers are more interested in getting students through the system than in properly educating them. And they have done this by putting in place an array of accommodations which effectively lower the challenge gradient and make it more likely (even certain) that students will pass from one level to the next.
As a consequence of over-accommodation, students are arriving at course or grade levels under-prepared. They lack the requisite knowledge and skills for successfully meeting the challenge of learning higher-level material. But teachers and schools can’t start holding students back now, since funding and salaries are determined on the basis of student retention, persistence, and graduation rates.
So the broken process continues, and this is the design failure in education today.
How should it work? How can schools and teachers realign themselves with the critical mandate of education, which is to awaken, develop, enlighten and empower students in becoming skilled professionals, responsible citizens, and life-long learners?
Let’s go back to my diagram.
As students begin a “current” level of instruction, the teacher requires them to complete a formative assessment that will identify where each student is as to his or her level of prerequisite understanding. Formative assessments are not about grades, but rather provide instructors with valuable feedback to help them get a clear idea of where students are. Only then can instruction be delivered that will match each student’s zone of proximal development.
It’s imperative, then, that a teacher “level sets” his or her instruction to what students bring to the table.
The ultimate goal of instruction is to “level up” students so they will be course-ready for the next level. The slope of the challenge gradient needs to be calibrated – and frequently adjusted – so that students stay engaged and are stretched to learn. Staying with my earlier example, because not all students in a given Math class are equally proficient in math, a quality teacher will provide the necessary “scaffolding” to support each student’s progress in learning.
It’s important to understand that scaffolding is not an accommodation and does not lower the overall challenge gradient. Instead, it implements the type of personalized support that keeps students engaged and moving forward.
Colleges – particularly community colleges – are presently on a challenge gradient of their own, as they enroll students who come underprepared from high schools that were pressured to continue (and increase) the schedule of accommodations those same students were given in grade school.
Upstream is also back in time, and everyone knows you can’t change the past. These students are products of a broken system, but we don’t have to keep doing things the same way. There is hope for them as well.
The larger and lasting solution can’t rest on the colleges alone. Our education system needs to recover its mandate and renew its purpose in nurturing intelligence, shaping minds, and raising leaders to the new realities of our day.