Chase came to me this year as your typical high-achieving student. He was articulate, often exercising his vast vocabulary; he was curious, frequently asking me about topics like physics or chemistry; he worked quickly, oftentimes finishing his work before the rest of the students in the class.
But more importantly, Chase was disengaged from school.
His parents came to me in the beginning of the year, concerned about Chase’s trajectory. They knew he was high-achieving, and they knew his standardized assessments supported this. But they were concerned about his engagement. They knew that he wasn’t excited about learning, and that too often, due to his performance on assessments, his non-academic needs often went unnoticed.
One of the first questions they asked me was about how to engage him more at home, and lo and behold, a personalized learning tool–ST Math–was mentioned as a way to keep him learning “at his own pace”.
This is a common misconception among parents. They believe that, in order to keep a high-achieving child engaged, they must accelerate the curriculum. I looked into this personalized learning tool, only to see that Chase was working on sixth- and seventh-grade content as a third-grade student. And while at first, this may seem like quite an achievement, I knew better. Instead, it concerned me.
It’s rare for an eight-year-old child to be ready for middle school content. And I mean so rare that I’ve yet to experience it in almost a decade of teaching. Sure, it’s possible for them to press the right buttons, intuit some patterns, and answer enough questions correctly to make it seem like they are mastering the content, but when we dig deeper, we often see that’s not the case.
For Chase, I was able to meet his needs this year by actually slowing him down, and keeping him at a pace commensurate with those of the class. While working on our multiplication and division unit this year, I noticed that Chase oftentimes would jump right to the standard algorithm for long division. You know the one: divide, multiply, subtract, then bring down. It’s the one we all learned growing up, and it’s the same one I didn’t understand until I took an elementary math methods class in college.
“Do you know why this method works?” I asked Chase.
“Sure, it’s because you divide, then multiply, then bring this down, and then subtract. Then if you get to zero you know that you’re done. And if there’s some left over, there’s a remainder,” he replied.
He didn’t realize he was relying solely on procedural knowledge to compute these quotients. And most parents don’t realize this either. In fact, even some teachers don’t. Why? Because so many of us equate our success to how we were educated. In affluent and high-achieving environments, so many adults got by on memorizing procedures. I know I did. But this is no longer cutting it in modern society. We need kids who have a well-developed conceptual knowledge. It is this conceptual foundation that helps children learn how to think flexibly and solve complex problems. This is something that Chase was lacking.
“I see you understand how to do it,” I replied. “But do you know why you’re doing each of those steps? Do you know why they work? Could you maybe draw me a picture or use blocks to show me?”
Chase stared at the problem, puzzled. I had yet to see him look so intently at a problem for that long. He was so accustomed to simply jumping in and executing the procedures he’d memorized over the years.
“No,” he replied. “I don’t. Will you teach me?” he asked with a sly smile on his face.
It was a big moment for Chase. He smiled so slyly because he realized I’d actually found something he didn’t know. This moment of humility and vulnerability made him slightly self-conscious and uncomfortable.
This moment wouldn’t have happened had I fallen into the all-too-typical trap of personalized learning programs. I could have continued to accelerate Chase through the curriculum, and his performance on standardized assessments likely would have confirmed that this approach would continue to be effective. But that’s only if I continued to use the flawed success metrics that define far too many of our schools.
Instead, I chose to look for something different in Chase. I chose to look for engagement, curiosity, and a strong conceptual foundation. I chose to notice his fast-paced procedural knowledge; I knew enough to question it. I chose to slow him down and engage him in his community of learners, as opposed to speeding him through a curriculum, under the guise of “letting him go at his own pace”.
It turned out that Chase’s pace was actually right there with the class’s pace. Inquiry, human connection, and deep understanding had prevailed. It wasn’t a change of pace that Chase needed: instead, he needed someone to take interest and to notice his unique needs, as opposed to letting the technology do that work.
Chase’s story ended well this year. He left the school year excited about math again and to come to school every day. His parents shared with me increased levels of engagement and a remarkably different attitude when coming home and sharing about his day. And it wasn’t because I accelerated him through a curriculum to “challenge” him more. It was because I saw him and what he needed to remain engaged and excited about school.
We live in a world that is increasingly beckoning us to let technology do the work on our behalf. This might work for automating e-mails and getting our news faster than ever before, but it won’t ever work for teaching or individualizing curriculum. In order to do this work, we need to roll up our sleeves, truly get to know our kids on a personal level, and give them an education that makes them constantly craving for more.
*All student names are pseudonyms.