Senioritis Is One Symptom of a Creative Deficit in Teaching

By Jay Mathews
Monday, May 18, 2009

Last year, I wrote a defense of high school senioritis as a useful break from academic drudgery. This made me, briefly, a hero to teenagers across the country. Then I returned to my usual theme that classes leading up to that last semester of the senior year should still be tougher, not easier, with less time for play, not more.

I was stuck on the fact that teenagers spend on average two hours a day watching television, compared with less than an hour a day doing homework. When Washington area parents or students complained about school stress, I acknowledged that many of them had a point in this affluent region full of kids who dream of the Ivy League. But elsewhere, the majority of high school students were not studying much at all. As a consequence, reading and math scores for 17-year-olds had seen little improvement in a generation.

Yet it is spring again, a good time to ponder the balance of hard work and fun throughout high school. In last year's piece, I wrote: "High-octane students play it safe. Textbook pages are still memorized. Old exams are mastered. Anything less than a perfect score is cause for concern. Such students need to discover that that is not the way creative and productive work is done in college, or in life. The important part of the learning process is not pounding in the material but thinking it over, talking about it, coming up with new and intriguing ways of connecting it to the rest of the world."

Why is it necessary to wait until the end of senior year to work on this? I don't like some of what I am hearing about the way we are running our ninth, 10th and 11th grades, particularly in our larger suburban schools. Parents, and some teachers, tell me high school is becoming an exercise in checking off boxes on a long list of requirements, without much room for imagination. I know a couple of Virginia eighth-graders who easily passed their state Standards of Learning tests but weren't promoted because they had not done all the required assignments.

Those are special cases, of course. Such children may be better off in home schools or in a small private or public charter schools. But I am not sure the grind-it-out mind-set of many high school students is quite what we want either. I was great at checking boxes at that age. It wasn't until late in high school, when I encountered teachers who suggested I rethink the meaning of all I had proudly memorized, that I began to see the importance of coming up with my own explanations of the world.

I am not just talking about debating the Second Amendment or the origin of the species. My nerdy circle liked that, but it was not a universal taste. The basic problem is that high school, then and now, is not much fun for most people. I used to think the solution was clever teachers convincing unmotivated students that what they taught was important for their futures. But was that really what the best teachers were doing?

Whenever I step into a great high school class, I can feel the buzz. Something is going to happen. Advanced Placement history students are simulating the Constitutional Convention. International Baccalaureate kids are choosing different novels to read, then discussing their similarities. Many schools have had such exceptional teaching, but those classes often cater to the best students in the upper grades when teens at the other end of the bell curve might need them more.

Some urban schools have raised achievement significantly, even for children who previously disliked school, by lengthening the school day and using some of that time to add what they call the joy factor: a trip to the zoo on Monday, miniature golf on Wednesday, a songfest on Friday -- something to break up the week for students who have worked hard and need something to look forward to when they come back next week.

Mastering content is still important and sometimes painful. But shaking up the read-discuss-test-and-repeat routine might help. If high schools maintain AP and IB programs, with tests written and graded by outsiders, everyone will know soon if students are having too much fun.

It often amazes me how much fresh thinking is already going on. Sande Caton, an AP environmental science teacher in Delaware, sent me an e-mail last week with several lively approaches I had never encountered, such as students assigning their own field trips or forcing themselves to be clear about what they have learned by writing their own multiple-choice questions for the next exam (a few of the best to be used).

It takes good teaching to keep this under control. Senioritis, which to me is an admirable urge to do things differently, should not be allowed to become a senior, or junior, or sophomore, or freshman, slump. But teaching can triumph over checking boxes. If you have some examples of this happening, send them to me.


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