Why Students Don’t Like School

Glazed eyes and drooping heads–bored students are the bane of any teacher’s existence. That is why I read Daniel Willingham’s book with the provocative title: Why Don’t Students Like Schools? 

I found his suggestions for remembering and teaching skills especially fascinating.

STUDENTS: What do you think of Willingham’s suggestions–which of them do you think would  actually work? Why do you think student’s don’t like school?

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8 Principles of Montessori Education

The following are notes from an excellent book by Angeline Lillard on the philosophy and practice of Montessori Education. Learning about Montessori Education made me wonder:

 Is Montessori Education just good educational practice that all teachers should be applying?  
  1. What portions of the model should be applied to a high school setting? 
  2. What are the shortcomings/downfalls of Montessori Education?  
  3. How can Montessori Education be applied, if at all, to a 21st century classroom with technology and tests? 


  1. Movement and cognition are closely entwined, and movement can enhance thinking and learning.
  • Our brains evolved in a world in which we move not remain sedentary at a desk
  • Thinking is expressed by hands before it can be articulated
  • For young children, thinking and moving are same process
  • Therefore, Montessori classrooms include many manipulations

  1. Learning and well-being are improved when people have a sense of control over their lives  


  • Students thrive on having choice and control in their environment 
  • Developmental process should allow students to have increasingly levels of choice 
  • Good programs impose definite limits on freedom, however Montessori children get to make more decisions than traditional classrooms: 
    • what to work on, how long to work, with whom to work on it, etc. 

  1. People learn better when they are interested in what they are learning
  • Learning best occurs in contexts of interest 
  • Interest can be personal or situational 
  • Dr. Montessori created situational  interest by designing materials children would want to interact with 
  • Take advantage of interests students have at particular time periods (e.g. preschool children want to develop language)
  • Students are encouraged to pursue their imaginations but not at expense of broad swath of decided curriculum

  1. Extrinsic rewards to an activity, like money for reading or high grades for tests, negatively impacts motivation to engage in that activity when the reward is withdrawn
  • Gold stars and grades are disruptive to a child’s concentration 
  • Sustained, intense concentration is central to Montessori education 
  • Rewards of education should primarily be internal 
  • Most children already like to learn; it’s best sustained when extrinsic rewards are not part of the framework 

  1. Collaborative arrangements can be very conducive to learning
  • Elementary age children are generally intensely social 
  • Students may work alone by choice 
  • They pursue knowledge and create products in self-made groups 
  • Working with other students is consistent with their psychological needs 

  1. Learning situated in meaningful contexts is often deeper and richer than learning in abstract contexts
  • The application and meaning of what students learn should be clear to them 
  • Instead of learning primarily from teachers or texts they should learn by doing 
  • e.g. students who have developed interest in bridges can go interview an structural engineer 

  1. Particular forms of adult interaction are associated with more optimal child outcomes
  • Adults set clear limits but set children free within those boundaries 
  • Adults should sensitively respond to children’s needs while maintaining high expectations 
  • Leads to students demonstrating maturity, achievement, empathy 
  • Traditional schools have too much teacher authority and progressive schools too little 
  • Montessori advocated for authoritative parenting 

  1. Order in the environment is beneficial to children
  • Montessori classrooms are very organized, both physically (in terms of layout) and conceptually (in terms of how the use of material progresses). 
  • Order is helpful to learning and development 
  • Order has a positive neurological impact on children’s senses. 

Harkness Discussion

For the past year I have been thinking a lot about how to get my students to think more deeply about what they read and to have the types of deep, meaningful and engaging conversations that made me fall in love with learning while in undergraduate and graduate school.

From amerist.org

That is why I have been reading Alexis Wiggins blog, Model by Design, with great interest. She has been cultivating a form of the Harkness Discussion throughout her career as an educator with great success. She describes the Harkness Discussion on her blog:


“Basically, it’s a highly-stylized version of Socratic seminar, which is a student-centered discussion on a particular topic, question, or text. In most high schools, Socratic seminar (or Harkness method, as some schools like to call it) is still driven by the teacher. While students are the ones discussing, the teacher is still the referee and master of knowledge, offering up the right question at the right moment, redirecting the conversation, correcting misunderstandings, and ensuring that students are being civil to one another.


In SPIDER Web Discussion, the teacher is largely silent. When I do it, I sit in the back of the room, away from the students, and I avoid eye contact with them. I have a blank notepad in front of me on which I take notes about their discussion. Who is asking the right question at the right moment, redirecting the conversation, correcting misunderstandings, and ensuring that students are being civil to one another? The students are. That’s their job, and I train them over several months to do it. By the middle of the year, they do it very well. I take a perverse pleasure in seeing how irrelevant I am in the classroom when this starts to happen every year around November (after three months of SPIDER Web practice) — the students themselves are far better referees and masters of knowledge than we usually give them credit for (or even allow them to attempt). In my next blog post, I’ll talk more specifically about how I train them, so stay tuned for more detail there if you are interested.”

(For more details on the steps to make the Harkness work over a course of a year please see her excellent guide here.)

I have started to use this format for the past few weeks with mixed success.  My seniors in Economics, who have done a number of Socratic Seminars and graded discussions in their English classes are more proficient. However, my freshman students in World Cultures struggle.

After two particularly poor discussions in one day, I thought about what I need to improve. Below is a brief description of my efforts so far and what I plan on changing. 

I have been using a format of Marzano’s on the line, between the line and beyond the line to prepare students for the Harkness:

1.      Reading on the lines:
DESCRIPTION: What are 3 ideas from the passages above that you think is important for everyone to know during the dialogue:



2.      Reading between the lines:
DESCRIPTION: QUESTIONS THAT MAKE YOU INTERPRET OR INFER what is in the text.  SAMPLE QUESTION: Why might the author have said that it doesn’t make a difference whether a good comes from your own neighborhood or from India or Germany? Do you agree or disagree?


   3.      Reading beyond the lines:
DESCRIPTION: QUESTIONS THAT MAKE YOU THINK abstractly. The answers are found beyond the lines. Readers move beyond the text to connect to society and the world as a whole past and present.
SAMPLE QUESTION: How are individual & family lifestyles affected by globalization? Is globalization fair?YOUR GROUP’S BEYOND THE LINE QUESTION: 

I have also used Alexis Wiggins rubric which help detail what characteristics I expect students to be able to perform during a discussion.

Both of these resources have been helpful. However, after seeing the questions students prepared before the discussion I realized that this is one source of their struggles. Quite simply, they did not yet know how to produce higher order questions that would lead to engaging discussions. So, I have decided that before we do our next discussion I will model how I would read the text and the types of questions I would generate that could be especially interesting.

I also realized that students were not getting enough specific feedback on what they need to improve. So, after some searching online, I came across a rubric based on Lawrence Smith’s work at Phillips Exeter Academy.  I modified it for my students and plan on having them self-assess after every discussion and following up with individual conferences or notes when time permits.

I am enthralled by the potential Harkness discussions hold for my students! I look forward to refining the model for my classroom and becoming more skilled at developing students’ ability to facilitate.

An A+ Student Regrets his Grades & Finland

I just read an article, An A+ Student Regrets his Grades, that reminded me of my own schooling and reminded me what I aspire to be as an educator.

The passages that resonated with me most were:

Education is not confined to the walls of a classroom; it stretches well beyond that. Valuing success above all else is a problem plaguing the schooling systems, at all levels, of many countries including Canada and the United States, and undermining those very qualities that are meant to foster an educated and skillful society.”

The system teaches us that if you get ‘As’ across the board, you’ll be successful. And if you fail a course, you’ll be labelled incompetent or hopeless. These pressures force students to regard education as a mere schooling tenure where the goal is to input a sufficient amount of work to output the highest possible grades. We sacrifice learning for schooling. (emphasis mine) 

Finland’s nonconformist education system – the best in the world – should serve as an example of how students ought to see their educational experience. Finnish students don’t start school until they’re 7; they aren’t measured for the first six years of their education; and they rarely take exams or do homework until they are well into their teens. These students aren’t raised to see school as a measurement cycle where everything comes down to standardized testing, graded assignments and exams worth large portions of their final grade. Their educational culture is substantially different from the evaluation-driven Western world.”

I would like to see the documentary above. I know many critiques of their success point out how socio-economically  homogeneous the population in Finland is compared to America. However, I teach at a school that is more similar to Finland’s schools in demographics than an average slice of America.

I would like to keep growing as an educator to teach my students how “to learn how to learn – to become independent, innovative thinkers capable of changing the world.”  

How can you light a fire in a classroom?

How often do we allow students to pursue their passions?  How often do we let students’ curiosity drive their learning?  I know I have often been guilty of deciding what my students study and how they study the topics in our curriculum.

That has started to change after I read Dan Pink’s Drive.

In his book and Ted Talk

Dan Pink argues that in our 21st century, motivation needs to go beyond our industrial paradigm. People are motivated by:

  1. Autonomy: People should be able to choose how they accomplish a goal.
  2. Mastery: People should have the opportunity to improve at something meaningful to them (e.g. practicing an instrument)
  3. Purpose: People should see their work as part of a larger, meaningful goal.
For the past year, my students have been working on something called the “Passion Project.” Students get to choose a topic of their choice as long as it has some connection to Social Studies (and we can connect pretty much anything to social studies). They then create research questions and conduct research using library databases and online sources. They share their findings on a blog and create  a final product.
I believe it has been relatively successful based on student engagement and feedback from prior classes.
Has anyone tried anything similar and have any feedback?
Students what are your thoughts, do you like it, not like it? Anything we can do to make it better?

How do Children Succeed?

A constant concern I have as an educator is the fact that I can usually predict what grade a student will earn at the end of the year after just a couple weeks. Namely, I can generally identify which students have the habits necessary to succeed as the school defines it.   However, this also means that I have done little to change the  trajectory of most of my students academic careers. 

This issue has bothered me for some time because I feel like if I haven’t significantly improved students ability to succeed I have done very little of importance. 

That is why I read How Children Succeed by Paul Tough with great interest. 

Although I was hoping for more practical and tangible suggestions of how to apply the ideas he uncovered during his research, Tough does provide a number of suggestions that couple be fruitful in my classroom. 

Below are notes I thought you might find interesting. 



  • Human response system is affected by stressful, crisis situations especially in childhood
  • Allostatic Load: Cumulative effect of stressful situations on a human
  • Adverse Childhood Experiences: ACE Score can affect your health
    • Score of 4 (incidents) or higher meant 51% had behavioral problems
    • “The part of brain most affected by early stress is prefrontal cortex, which is critical in self-regulatory activities of all kinds, both emotional and cognitive.”
    • Students who grow up in stressful environments find it harder to concentrate, sit still, rebound from disappointing, follow directions
    • This strongly affects executive functioning of brain
  • Parenting & attachment theory: Parents who were most attentive to their kids in their earliest years produced children who were more independent
    • Students with strong attachments were more self-confident, curious and able to deal with setbacks
    • More reliable predictor of success than IQ
  • “…psychological and neurological pathways is that they can be quite effective, more so than cognitive interventions”


  • Students who succeeded in college weren’t necessarily the ones who did best in high school but who had other gifts/skills: optimism, resilience, social agility, could recover from bad grades and resolve to do better next time
  • Self Control tips only work when people know what they want in the end….children don’t know they should want to go to college
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: CBTS “involves using the conscious mind to recognize negative or self-destructive thoughts or interpretations and to talk yourself into a better perspective
  • Good Habits
    • Best time to transform pessimistic students is before puberty but late into childhood so that they are metacognitive
    • Intervention for helping students develop the willpower to follow through on goals: MENTAL CONTRASTING WITH IMPLEMENTATION INTENTIONS (DUCKWORTH)
      • People use 3 strategies when setting goals, first two don’t work well:
        • Optimists-favor indulging, imagining future they would like to achieve
        • Pessimists-favor dwelling, thinking about all the things that could go wrong
        • Neither of these two were effective
        • Concentrating on a positive outcome and simultaneously concentrating on the obstacles in the way”
        • Doing both at the same time “creates a strong association between future and reality that signals the need to overcome the obstacle in order to attain the desired future”
        • Next step is to create implementation intentions–specific plans in the form of if/then statements ex) “If I get distracted by TV after school, then I will wait to watch TV until after I finish my homework”
        • MCII has helped people eat more healthy, juniors prepare better for SAT and people reduce back pain
        • MCII amounts to setting rules for yourself, rules work because “you’re enlisting the prefrontal cortex as your partner against the more reflexive, appetite-drive parts of your brain”
        • Rules provide structure, preparing us for encounters with tempting stimuli and redirecting our attention elsewhere


    • If you’re trying to change a student’s character a teacher cannot just convey information
      • Need to encourage rigorous self-analysis
    • Chess players are pessimistic about the merits of particular move….they question it a lot. However, they are optimistic about their overall ability


  • GPA was a better predictor of success in college than ACT/SAT (which predicted IQ better)


What do you think of Tough’s ideas?


How do you think we  can develop the character traits in students that generally don’t find success in school?

Reaction to Khan

I just saw this video about the Khan Academy. I have been reading about it for the last couple years and have mixed feelings. I don’t want to replace lecture in the classroom with a lecture on the computer. But his ideas on how Khan Academy and similar endeavors can help do more project based, social learning, mastery learning, etc were attractive.



For the past few years I have been reading other teachers’ blogs and have found it invaluable to my growth as a teacher. Too often, I find myself applying ideas and taking risks that some teachers at my own school  do not immediately  encourage. There are a number of excellent teachers, but I haven’t had sufficient time or opportunity to speak to and learn from them.

So, I have decided to record my journey as at teacher online in hopes of growing as an educator while soliciting ideas and feedback from the global education community.

There seems to be an unofficial guideline for teachers to not share their ideas through twitter or blogs at our school because we may open ourselves to criticism from our immediate community. I welcome such feedback.

Here are some of my aspirations for my classroom:

  • I want my classroom to be filled with students who are engaged in meaningful, authentic work they plan and direct.
  • I want my students to ask powerful questions and learn how to find answers
  • I want my students to use technology to gain access to people, ideas and tools but also deepen the relationships with others in the same room.
  • I want my students to make mistakes and learn from them.
  • I want my students to be passionate about learning.
  • I want my students to read, write, speak and listen often and well.
  • I want my students to teach me.

I plan on periodically sharing my ideas on this blog and hopefully gaining meaningful feedback from others.

Thanks for reading and welcome!