High School Stinks: Correcting Course with Lessons Learned Shadowing Students

I’m inspired by Patrick Larkin’s posting of Chris Lehmann’s presentation; like Patrick and Chris, I too fear that much of what we ask and require high school students to do “stinks.”   I don’t think that much of what we do motivates our students via autonomy, mastery, or purpose.  All of us who are thinking and writing in “this space” are enthusiastic learners, but I don’t think most of us would willingly sign up to be students in most American high schools: we couldn’t endure it.    Sitting, watching, listening, following directions: it is amazing that our students are as respectful and patient with us as they are!

Two years ago I set out to test this question first-hand.  Among my great mentors is Michael Thompson (author, most famously, of Raising Cain), and his advice in his excellent Pressured Child for those wishing to understand the life of our students is to shadow them at school, and this I did: I spent the fall of 2008 visiting 21 different high schools, and at each, shadowing a student, usually an 11th grader, for the entire course of the day.

Traveling through the school, class to class, from 8-3, I sat always in the student seats, and did my darndest to take on that perspective.   Throughout the day I live-blogged my observations and reactions, trying to gauge whether what I saw happening was “working” for kids and their learning.

I tested my observations against the roughly fifty books I had read on best practice, and I tested it against my own gut: Were kids genuinely engaged, and were they doing the work of learning in ways that would advance their understanding and their skills?  I also asked myself whether I would benefit from and grow intellectually in these classrooms.  How did I feel?  Was I learning?

From my observations in more than 100 classrooms, this is what I learned:  Many, many classrooms in “good schools” are painfully stultifying.  For these classrooms, three correlations were most apparent:

  • the teachers were teaching in a routine that paralleled the way they had learned and that followed a textbook-driven structure;
  • the teachers manifested quite visibly a lack of respect for teenagers and their experiences and points of view;
  • and the schools in which they worked lacked any institutional commitment to ongoing, structured, weekly, scheduled and time-sheltered professional growth and collaboration.

However, some classrooms rocked.   Students were learning most, to my observation,  when their classrooms were structured around what I am referring to as the 5 P’s:

Purpose, Problems, Process, Professionalism, and Product.

Please know that there were not my preconceptions: I did not bring these five to my observations, but they were genuinely what emerged from my experiences.

To make this post less sprawling, each of these is introduced with just a short paragraph, and then more fully explored in a linked jump (“more”).   If you follow the jumps, you find both further elaboration of each concept and links to my live-blog observations (some of which are a bit rough and unedited) of the classrooms where I saw them effectively deployed.

Purpose and Pertinence: Classrooms I visited for this project came alive, even sometimes became electrified, when students were able to discern the larger purpose of their learning, or found connections from their studies to their own lives.  Everyone deserves to know and understand why they are learning what we are teaching; this is a key to motivation at the outset of learning, and key to transfer at its culmination.    More

Problems: Challenge them to do something first.  I could feel my heart-rate elevate when at or near the beginning of class our teacher started our learning with a difficult problem or question to wrestle with. Learning should begin not with the delivery of information, but the posing of a problem. More

Process:  It was easy to see, as I visited more than 100 classrooms, that students were learning the most where they had the most opportunity to process their thinking and work over time and in a variety of ways.  Process here includes learning by doing, trial and error, questioning and brainstorming, actively experimenting, writing and revising, and receiving feedback for revision in an ongoing iterative process. More

Professionalism: This was something that really emerged for me from my visits to 21 schools:  our students really respond and rise to the occasion when we treat them as young professionals, part of a learning team led by their teaching captain.  If we re-conceptualize our students as analogues to associates in a law firm, or interns in a hospital, we can recognize our students as capable people with much to offer even as we remind them that they, like associates and interns, have much to learn. More

Published Product: I saw so much pride and purpose in students when they recognized that their learning had a culmination of each unit  a finished and polished product.  I recently wrote about this at some length in my discussion of Ron Berger’s excellent book The Ethic of Excellence, but I will reiterate it here: although good contemporary learning is about process as much as product,  it still ought to greatly prize rich, authentic product published or presented to a general public.  More….

As discouraging as our era can be, when the most attention seems to be going to improving schools by administering more bubble tests and narrowing the curriculum to “basic skills,” we can nevertheless take hope that more and more kids are, gradually and too-slowly, having the opportunity to learn at schools like Science Leadership Academy, High Tech High, New Technology High School, (and may I add St. Gregory College Prep) and the growing number of other schools which are developing their own versions of what I call here the 5 P’s.

School may stink for too many students, but we can correct course if we educators become the change we seek, becoming, truly and authentically, the learners we want our students to become: purposeful experimenters and innovators, digital creators and producers, professional colleagues and effective collaborators, and life-long learners.

[substantially revised, original posted January 2009 at www.21k12blog.net]


  1. Darnit, I was about to go to bed when I stopped for one last look at Reader to see if anything interesting appeared. You did it. I read this and your very last paragraph got me thinking. I wrote for a while and have half a blog post to finish tomorrow before heading off to EdCamp NYC.

    Thank you, Jonathan.

    December 3, 2010
  2. @CreativeEdu said:

    I highlighted your post in my Daily Digest of Education related blogs today as I thought other teachers would find it of interest. You can see it here: http://ow.ly/3jjjZ

    December 3, 2010
  3. I am a student from the University of South Alabama. I want to applaud you for taking the extra step to walk in “two moons in the moccasins” of students. It seems like a humble, but very necessary move. Too often, educators try to “get stuff in their heads” when instead we need to strive to see things from their perspective. I am a substitute teacher and many times I feel pressured to replicate the normal teacher when everything inside me screams “They are bored to tears! Do something different.” Thank you for posting this article… the “Five P’s” will help me when I begin teaching.


    December 5, 2010
    • Hello Amanda: Thank you so much for visiting here and commenting.

      As I read your nice and thoughtful comment, it made me think of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Schooling has been so consistent for so long, and we are all so acculturated to believe what we are doing is the good thing to do, that it is hard for us to “see” what is really happening in these classrooms. But if we try harder to see accurately, we see that these classrooms, many of them, aren’t doing the job, aren’t valuable experiences, aren’t what we ourselves would ever volunteer to do (even if were paid to do so, which our students aren’t).

      Best of luck to your new career; education is lucky to have you entering it!


      December 5, 2010

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