Teaching to Do The Minimum

My American history students are currently working on Chapter 8 of our textbook — The First Presidency, that of George Washington.  And rather than teach my students to excel and be amazing, I’m teaching them how to get by on an acceptable minimum.

What? Why are you looking at me like that?

Look, we teach amazing kids. But a good many of them are high-strung overachievers who overdo every single assignment no matter how minor; and a good many others are low-strung underachievers who don’t know how to work to an acceptable minimum standard.

My school requires seventh graders to spend twenty-five minutes a night on their homework for each class. All I’m doing is giving them a sense of what I want that work to look like, and how I want them to spend that time — so that they end up prepared for a chapter test in the minimum amount of time, and at a level which is better than the average C.

Here’s what I’m suggesting they do:

  • Write a “big ideas” outline in three minutes or less of the section they’re assigned to read.  This isn’t reading or analysis; it’s bare-bones copying of the headers and sub-headers.  (Here’s what that should look like: Bare Bones Outline)
  • Read the section in the textbook, and fill in the outline as you go.  (Here’s what that should look like. Outline 2)
  • Answer two short-answer questions.  (here’s what those look like: Outline 3)

(And yes, I did these assignments.  Yes, this is an adult doing the work; I get that I work better and faster and more easily than many students, and I have had lots of practice.  But it also didn’t take me a half-hour to do the assignments, and I was making and altering pdfs and doing the reading along the way.  Can they do this quality of work, today?  No. Can they get there, with practice? Very likely yes.)

Today, I told them they’re having a chapter test on this chapter on Thursday.  Pandemonium.  Horror.

I said,

Look, it’s not YOU that’s being tested here.  You’re still awesome, great students.  What’s being tested isn’t you — it’s THIS study system.  There are parts of this that are going to work for you… and other parts that are going to work well for other students… and others that aren’t going to work for anyone.  But you’re supposed to be spending a half-hour a night on your homework, and you’re spending two hours or more, per class. That’s not sustainable.   It’s mind-shredding, and it’s not helping, because you still can’t predict what you’re doing that’s giving you good grades, and what’s giving you bad grades.  So don’t put yourself on trial with this test — put your study methods on trial.   Use the notes you’ve already developed to study each section of the chapter for 10 minutes: 30 minutes total.  And then take the test cold, with just that thirty minute block.  The grade you get, again, isn’t YOU on trial. It’s the study method.  If it works, you’ve just gained back an hour and a half for other stuff.  If it doesn’t work, we redesign the method and try a slightly different approach.

And finally, look at it this way.  If you get any grade above a C+ on this test, you’ll know the study system is working, because you’ll have gained back a couple of hours of time, and you’ll still be getting better-than-average grades.

They kinda get it, I think, but I think we won’t know until we’ve had a chance to debrief a little. I’ve prepared a small “check your work” guide, so they can self-correct the test on Thursday as they finish it.

Most of all, I’m asking them to trust me — to accept that we’re putting a study method on trial, to see if it fits the bill and serves the need.  If it does, great. We have a new pattern for working well, moving forward.  But the thing which I think is so important here is that the grade on the test isn’t some measure of their self-worth; it’s a means for determining if a given study skill is working or not.

If it DOES work, and I think it will based on the early if reluctant polling returns, it will be like Christmas came six days early.

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