Hundreds of people march peacefully with lit candles across the University of Virginia campus on Wednesday in Charlottesville, Va. (SALWAN GEORGES/THE WASHINGTON POST/GETTY IMAGES)
If you prompt Nikki Franklin’s former students with the words “the time is,” they’ll reply in unison: “always right to do right.” That’s the advice Martin Luther King Jr. gave students during a commencement address at Oberlin College in 1965, and it’s the same mantra Franklin tries to instill in her students each year.
“It usually takes me the whole year to emphasize that and teach them that,” says Franklin, who grew up in northern Virginia and has been an elementary school teacher in the Charlottesville City Schools system since she graduated from the University of Virginia in 2004.
“The younger grades really do revolve around building the skills that will allow students to identify what is respect, how do you show respect and love,” she says. “In general, we focus on the broader skills that will create good citizens. “Ever since this weekend, I’m thinking about how that needs to be emphasized more.”
When students in Charlottesville return to the classroom from summer break on Tuesday, a little more than a week will have passed since white nationalists, white supremacists and neo-Nazis descended on the city to protest a plan to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The gathering turned deadly when a car plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one and injuring dozens.
“I don’t know what students saw, what kind of conversations they’ve had,” Franklin says. “I don’t know exactly what situations will come up. I realize that this year is going to be different. I can’t tell you exactly how.”
For teachers in Charlottesville and across the country, the violent rally put an indelible blot on the start of the school year, leaving many unsure of the type of support their students may need upon returning, and uncertain how they should talk about and teach what happened in their classrooms.
Among the repercussions of the events in Charlottesville has been a heightened re-examination of Confederate memorials, as well as buildings named for those who supported the Confederacy. According to a 2016 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, 109 public schools were still named for Confederate icons, about 25 percent of which had a student body that was majority black.
But the incident also has reignited a conversation among educators about the responsibility to teach U.S. history without sanitizing the country’s ugly moments – as shameful as they may be.
“I think teachers do have a responsibility to bring quality historical perspective to bear on historical issues that’s evidence-based,” says Zach Bullock, chairman of the history and social sciences department at Charlottesville High School, where he’s been teaching for seven years. “That’s more important now than ever before maybe.”
Those sentiments are bolstered by revelations in recent years about the content of some textbooks, such as a high school geography book in Texas that portrayed African slaves as an immigrant group and “workers.” A Connecticut school district, meanwhile, last year said it would pull a textbook after a parent complained about a passage that said slave owners “often cared for and protected [slaves] like members of the family.”
“I think what we have to do is help [students] come to good conclusions using good information, good news and certainly bringing a historical perspective to bear on it as well,” Bullock says. “Helping them wade through all of the things they hear and see.”
To that end, numerous organizations have resources posted online for teachers that are specifically geared toward helping them teach about race, diversity and empathy.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, for example, has an empathy lesson plan. The National Network of State Teachers of the Year recently released a list of books for grade levels that have strong social justice themes, to help teachers create equitable learning environments. And educational development organization Facing History and Ourselves has resources to help teachers “foster humanity” in their classrooms in the wake of tragedies like Charlottesville.
“Educators will need to be even more reflective and teach the subject matter around race, character and civics in an intentionally deeper way,” Franklin says. “Every educator can revisit their own practice and find areas of improvement.”
On Twitter, the hashtag #CharlottesvilleCurriculum, started by an education writer for The Atlantic, prompted teacher and education organizations to highlight and share useful resources.
Many of the guides available stress the importance of case studies and field trips, followed up by conversations that can help students understand how historical events relate to modern ones.
In Charlottesville, students visit Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation, where slaves were used to cultivate tobacco and other crops, as early as second grade.
“For a lot of kids, that’s the first time they have a school experience with race in a sticky kind of way,” Franklin says, adding that she’s never had the same conversation twice when talking to students about race, diversity and the country’s history of slavery.
“I really let the students, their knowledge, their comfort lead those kinds of conversations, always with me in the background knowing I need to reinforce the parts of the conversation that get us to my students leaving our classroom knowing that love is important, that being a kind person is important,” she says.
Franklin hasn’t yet settled on a lesson plan for how she’ll approach the recent events that put her city and that of her students in the national spotlight.
“We have this hard work to do, but we’re going to do it,” she says. “We’re going to lean on each other.”
Few middle schoolers are as clued in to their mathematical strengths and weakness as Moheeb Kaied. Now a seventh grader at Brooklyn’s Middle School 442, he can easily rattle off his computational profile.
“Let’s see,” he said one morning this spring. “I can find the area and perimeter of a polygon. I can solve mathematical and real-world problems using a coordinate plane. I still need to get better at dividing multiple-digit numbers, which means I should probably practice that more.”
Moheeb is part of a new program that is challenging the way teachers and students think about academic accomplishments, and his school is one of hundreds that have done away with traditional letter grades inside their classrooms. At M.S. 442, students are encouraged to focus instead on mastering a set of grade-level skills, like writing a scientific hypothesis or identifying themes in a story, moving to the next set of skills when they have demonstrated that they are ready. In these schools, there is no such thing as a C or a D for a lazily written term paper. There is no failing. The only goal is to learn the material, sooner or later.
For struggling students, there is ample time to practice until they get it. For those who grasp concepts quickly, there is the opportunity to swiftly move ahead. The strategy looks different from classroom to classroom, as does the material that students must master. But in general, students work at their own pace through worksheets, online lessons and in small group discussions with teachers. They get frequent updates on skills they have learned and those they need to acquire.
Mastery-based learning, also known as proficiency-based or competency-based learning, is taking hold across the country. Vermont and Maine have passed laws requiring school districts to phase in the system. New Hampshire is adopting it, too, and piloting a statewide method of assessment that would replace most standardized tests. Ten school districts in Illinois, including Chicago’s, are testing the approach. In 2015, the Idaho State Legislature approved 19 incubator programs to explore the practice.
More than 40 schools in New York City — home to the largest school district in the country, with 1.1 million students — have adopted the program. But what makes that unusual is that schools using the method are doing so voluntarily, as part of a grass-roots movement. In communities where the shift was mandated — high schools in and around Portland, Me., for example — the method faced considerable resistance from parents and teachers annoyed that the time-consuming, and sometimes confusing, change has come from top-tier school administrators. Some contend that giving students an unlimited amount of time to master every classroom lesson is unrealistic and inefficient.
New York City Department of Education officials have taken a contrasting position. The city has a growing program called the Mastery Collaborative, which helps mastery-based schools share their methods around the city, even as they adopt different styles. To date, there are eight lab schools, whose practices are being tested, honed and highlighted for transitioning schools. M.S. 442 is one of them. Some struggling schools hope the shift will raise test scores. But the method is also growing in popularity among high-performing, progressive schools, as well as those catering to gifted and talented students and newly arriving immigrants.
This fall, the Education Department plans to spread the method further, by inviting schools to see how the Mastery Collaborative works, even if they aren’t yet considering making the switch. They will be encouraged to attend workshops and tour schools, with the hope, one D.O.E. official said, that they will find elements that they can use in their own classrooms.
Several factors are driving this. The rise of online learning has accelerated the shift, and school technology providers have been fierce advocates. It’s no surprise that schools adopting the method are often the same to have invested heavily in education software; computers are often ubiquitous inside their classrooms.
Mastery-based learning can be traced to the 1960s, when Benjamin Bloom, a professor at the University of Chicago and an education psychologist, challenged conventional classroom practices. He imagined a more holistic system that required students to demonstrate learning before moving ahead. But the strategy was not widely used because it was so labor intensive for teachers. Now, with computer-assisted teaching allowing for tailored exercises and online lessons, it is making a resurgence.
Government policy has also contributed to its adoption. Under the federal education bill passed in 2015, states are permitted to forgo single end-of-year subject tests for nuanced measures. In the mastery-based learning world, this is largely seen as a positive move.
Joy Nolan, one of the directors of New York’s Mastery Collaborative, said the method gives students more agency and allows them to gain traction, no matter their level. “The mastery approach really puts the focus on you and your growth,” she said.
Some of the schools she assists — like the North Queens Community High School — came to mastery-based learning as a way to help disillusioned and at-risk students.
“It’s the narrative we want to change,” said Winston McCarthy, the school’s principal. “We want to change the conversation from ‘I’m not successful at this’ to ‘This is where you are on the ladder of growth.’”
Mastery-based learning, of course, has its critics. Amy Slaton, a professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia who studies the history of science and engineering in education, worries that the method is frequently adopted to save costs. (When paired with computers, it can lead to larger classrooms and fewer teachers.)
Jane Robbins, a lawyer and senior fellow at the American Principles Project who has written critically about mastery-based education, said she finds the checklist nature of the system anti-intellectual. While it may work to improve math skills, it is unlikely to help students advance in the humanities, she said.
Others question the method’s efficacy. Elliot Soloway, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Education, contends that students learn by slowly building on knowledge and frequently returning to it. He rejects the notion that students have learned something simply because they can pass a series of assessments. He suspects that shortly after passing those tests, students forget the material.
“Mastery folks don’t understand the fundamentals of what learning is about,” Mr. Soloway said.
In any event, advocates argue, the current education system is not working. Too many students leave high school ill prepared for college and careers, even though traditional grading systems label many top performers. Last year, only 61 percent of students who took the ACT high school achievement test were deemed college-ready in English. In math, only 41 percent were deemed college-ready.
Even proponents say the system has its problems. Switching to mastery-based learning requires a great deal of coordination. “It’s not an overnight thing,” said Lisa Genduso, the math coach for M.S. 442. It can also meet with resistance from faculty members who aren’t keen on experimentation. The year M.S. 442 moved away from the traditional system, it lost seven teachers.
But Moheeb defended his school’s approach. It encourages students to “work on what they’re struggling with,” he said.
“It’s different for different kids,” Moheeb said with a shrug.
In New York, where students speak more than 200 languages and arrive in classrooms with varying degrees of proficiency, some schools adopted the method out of necessity.
At Flushing International High School, whose student body is dominated by recent immigrants, mastery-based learning lets students concentrate on learning English. This gets them speaking, reading and writing as quickly as possible, while also rewarding them for picking up academic skills and knowledge. In a biology classroom, for example, lab reports are evaluated on the student’s understanding of concepts as well as on a command of scientific vocabulary.
The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria educates girls who may become the first in their families to go to college. In addition to fulfilling Common Core requirements, assignments are designed to help students learn critical thinking and workplace skills. Students engaged in a group history project, for example, may need to demonstrate that they have learned to collaborate and investigate. For a solo science assignment, they may be asked to demonstrate that they can innovate.
At Moheeb’s middle school, the approach has been transformative. In the 2013-14 school year, 7 percent of its students read at grade level, and 5 percent met the state’s math standards. Two years later, 29 percent were proficient in English, and 26 percent proficient in math, pulling the school close to the city average.
This year, all the eighth graders at the school who took the algebra Regents exam and 85 percent who took the earth science exam were marked proficient. The scores signified a high point for M.S. 442, teachers said.
To make the system work, teachers used New York State curriculum guidelines and Common Core standards to develop a rubric of every skill students needed before they could move to the next grade. In Moheeb’s sixth-grade class, there were 37 skills designated in math and 37 in English. They included the ability to add and subtract decimals; identify, understand and describe unit rate; recognize story elements; and discern what is important in a text.
In lieu of grades, students are assessed on a color-coded scale: Red means not yet meeting the standard; yellow, approaching it; green, meeting a standard; and blue, exceeding it. The scale is designed to be visually appealing and to encourage students to think of learning as a process. To meet grade level for each skill, students need to prove three times that they have acquired it. They may explain to a teacher their process for working through problems as a way to show they understand the material. Or they may perform well on an online test or a quiz.
Progress throughout the year is cumulative, meaning that even if students don’t grasp something early on, if they learn it by the end of the year, they will get a “good” grade. The school also has an online point system for behavior.
Ms. Genduso, of M.S. 442, said the approach was introduced at a challenging time for the school. A third of the students at the school require special-education assistance and attend classes that include a number of high-performing students. Even with two teachers (one trained for special education), it was difficult to engage everyone.
“We were not reaching all of these kids,” Ms. Genduso said.
In late 2012, educators at the school were trying to think big. Housed on the second floor of a sprawling brick building on Hoyt Street, M.S. 442 was 14 years old and struggling with low test scores and declining enrollment. It had done a poor job of attracting families from the neighboring brownstones, and many of the teachers were dispirited. The school shed its name, New Horizons Middle School, and introduced computers. Some teachers began using computers for in-class lessons. Another group thought it would complement the student advising system. The changes led to conversations about what had been happening inside classrooms and whether a new approach was needed.
Eventually, the school decided to switch to mastery-based education. Still, the move was slow. First, the school offered more hands-on group activities. For a seventh-grade math unit on ratios and proportion, for example, the class opened a pretend catering company. Students practiced their math skills as they figured out pricing and discounts for their menus.
The next year, the school transformed its mentoring program. Students set behavioral goals and logged online. They could determine to be on time more often, do their homework more regularly or talk less in science class. Their mentors noted their goals and the progress made. The platform was a hit with students and with teachers, who believed it empowered children to think about their growth in new ways.
In the 2013-14 school year, educators at the school came up with a list of desired academic outcomes. If students could be motivated by an online log to stop talking in class, perhaps a log would motivate them to learn to write an introductory paragraph or add fractions.
Engaged by the project, Jared Sutton, a 27-year-old algebra teacher, helped develop a software program for grading called the Hive. It’s the program that Moheeb uses, via his iPhone or a classroom computer, when he wants to check his progress, which he does multiple times a day.
Parents, however, remained skeptical. While students received end-of-year report cards with their mastery points translated into percentage grades (necessary when applying to high school), many parents were confused by the frequent progress reports detailing dozens of outcomes for each subject. Some simply wanted to know whether their children were passing.
“There can be a real concern that they don’t understand,” said Noreen Mills, principal of M.S. 442. “But once they understand, they get on board.”
On a sunny morning last spring, the new approach was visible in a sixth-grade math class. Signs around the room reinforced the school’s philosophy: “Failing proves that you are trying,” one read; another, “Being wrong is the key to being successful.”
Students in T-shirts and hoodies organized into four groups. At one table, they worked on a conversion problem, trying to determine when a dog owner would need to buy more dog food. The dog owner had 45 pounds of kibbles, and the dog ate 10 ounces a day. The problem tested a math skill they would need to master by the end of sixth grade: “I can convert from one unit of measurement to another.”
“He’s confused,” one boy said of his seatmate, who had circled the correct answer but was puzzled by the procedure. “But at least he got the right answer.”
“I don’t think we should leave it at that,” said Priyanka Katumuluwa, their teacher, who leaned over their desks as she pointed to the problem. Both boys looked up at her, then down again at the page. They were listening intently.
When Paula Gosal took over as principal of the Chilliwack Middle School, she walked smack into the middle of a long-standing debate among the staff over awards. It wasn’t exactly a rumble that Gosal was tossed into so abruptly in the fall of 2016. Most of the teachers at this school for seventh- through ninth-graders in British Columbia had read the literature on awards, and were looking for feedback and support from their new principal. The majority wanted to do away with the school’s awards and awards assemblies, and needed the backing of their principal to make it happen.
“I did not have to be persuaded,” Gosal said. She called for a vote, and the staff unanimously decided to stop handing out awards.
Though data on the extent of school award-giving is scarce, the practice of delivering them is so customary that the Common Application to U.S. colleges includes spaces to report honors and other forms of recognition. Alongside their ubiquity, however, is abundant research showing that awards, rewards and other external incentives undermine intrinsic motivation.
“This is one of the most robust findings in social science—and also one of the most ignored,” wrote Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Pursuit of the trinket or prize extinguishes what might have been a flicker of internal interest in a subject, suffocating the genuine sources of motivation: mastery, autonomy and purpose. “To say ‘do this, and you’ll get that’ makes people lose interest in ‘this,’ ” said Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards. Awards are that much worse than rewards, Kohn added, because they are simply prizes made artificially limited.
For the majority of students who don’t receive public honors, awards ceremonies spur boredom, anger or resentment, said Marvin Berkowitz, a professor at the University of Missouri—St. Louis and author of You Can’t Teach Through a Rat. Watching a peer receive an award inspires not a drive to succeed but rather a lingering bitterness, as well as an unfortunate association of school-sanctioned success with tedium.
“A key takeaway here is that awards aren’t bad just because the losers are disappointed; everyone (including the winners) ultimately lose when schooling is turned into a scramble to defeat one’s peers,” Kohn said.
Understanding the intellectual rationale for doing away with awards, as Gosal and her staff did, made their decision a lot easier. But there were other reasons. Teachers at Chilliwack bad been bothered by the exclusionary nature of the awards ceremonies; they noticed the same students and families being recognized year after year. As well, Gosal had been troubled in the past by the ugly encounters she’d witnessed among teachers who had argued for or against a particular student receiving an award. “My experience of watching teachers debate over children was unsettling,” Gosal said.
She and her staff also sought to change what motivated kids to work, so that they’d learn for the sake of it rather than for a prize. And they all had begun to realize that student life outside the classroom was just as rich as it was inside, and that those endeavors were just as worthy of notice.
In May of 2017, Gosal told parents in her weekly newsletter that the June awards ceremony was off. Instead, the school would be hosting a success showcase for all students. “I wanted to marry the two worlds, who you are inside of school and who you are outside,” Gosal explained. The showcase would be more than a talent show, she added. It’s “this is who I am,” she said.
About 200 parents and children walked through the school halls on the night of the showcase. Everywhere, the students displayed their unique skills and interests: some danced, played a jazz set or sang. Others dribbled and scored on the basketball court, or demonstrated knot-tying, or dueled one another at a gaming station they had set up especially for the showcase. One child with training in professional dog handling showed her prowess to the crowd, and scores of others displayed their art, poetry and other creative work in the school gallery. Plastered throughout the school were one-page statements every child filled out that finished the phrase, “I am proud of ___.”
Chris Wejr, the principal of James Hill Elementary School in British Columbia, eliminated awards and the ceremonies that go with them after talking with teachers and parents about the school’s practices and mission. He had wondered if the regular “student-of-the-month” assembly violated the everyday message of community they were attempting to build; the award seemed to be suggesting that “we’re one community—but you’re a little bit better,” he said. This approach also seemed to contradict the strengths-based model of education they sought to instill, which emphasized each student’s abilities and aptitudes.
“Every single person in school has strengths, skills and talents, and it’s our job to bring them out more,” Wejr said.
Together with the staff, they decided that handing out awards neither aligned with their beliefs nor brought out the best in their students—even for the sliver of kids who received awards. “Winners” got the message that product rather than process is what matters in education, Wejr said. “Learning should be the reward,” he added. And the far more plentiful “losers” heard that they weren’t good enough to be spotlighted on stage, or that their unique combination of attributes didn’t truly count.
Wejr replaced the ceremony that called out one student with a series of assemblies that highlighted chunks of fifth-graders, so that by the end of the year every graduating child was honored. Students said they learned more about their peers in the ceremony, Wejr said. And some appreciative parents approached him afterward to say that their child had never been recognized this way before. “If we believe all students can achieve, our practices have to align with that,” he said.
Neither Wejr nor Gosal heard much in the way of criticism from parents or students after they eliminated their school awards. From a population of 575 students, just two parents at Chilliwack Middle School sent emails questioning the decision, and social media channels were quiet. “The ease of the change has been surprising,” Gosal said. Though Wejr heard some grumbling outside the school about the educational system drifting toward mediocrity, he was quick to point out that marks of achievement at James Hill Elementary School have gone up since they eliminated awards.
“It’s not an award at the end of the year that drives achievement,” Wejr said. Excellence comes from a school culture that fosters collaboration and provides opportunities for students to lead, especially in those areas where children have special talents and skills, he added.
When people challenge him about the wisdom of removing school prizes, Wejr asks, “When was the last time you handed out family awards?” If school is an actual community, separating out individuals for special notice makes no sense. School leaders ought to be looking beyond the short term and thinking more about what kinds of adults they’re trying to develop. He added, “We hope that they continue to develop their best selves for their own benefit—not because someone tells them to or because there’s an award at the end of the year.”
The studio for what is arguably the world’s most successful online course is tucked into a corner of Barb and Phil Oakley’s basement, a converted TV room that smells faintly of cat urine. (At the end of every video session, the Oakleys pin up the green fabric that serves as the backdrop so Fluffy doesn’t ruin it.)
This is where they put together “Learning How to Learn,” taken by more than 1.8 million students from 200 countries, the most ever on Coursera. The course provides practical advice on tackling daunting subjects and on beating procrastination, and the lessons engagingly blend neuroscience and common sense.
Dr. Oakley, an engineering professor at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., created the class with Terrence Sejnowski, a neuroscientist at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, and with the University of California, San Diego.
Prestigious universities have spent millions and employ hundreds of professionally trained videographers, editors and producers to create their massive open online courses, known as MOOCs. The Oakleys put together their studio with equipment that cost $5,000. They figured out what to buy by Googling “how to set up a green screen studio” and “how to set up studio lighting.” Mr. Oakley runs the camera and teleprompter. She does most of the editing. The course is free ($49 for a certificate of completion — Coursera won’t divulge how many finish).
“It’s actually not rocket science,” said Dr. Oakley — but she’s careful where she says that these days. When she spoke at Harvard in 2015, she said, “the hackles went up”; she crossed her arms sternly by way of grim illustration.
This is home-brew, not Harvard. And it has worked. Spectacularly. The Oakleys never could have predicted their success. Many of the early sessions had to be trashed. “I looked like a deer in the headlights,” Dr. Oakley said. She would flub her lines and moan, “I just can’t do this.” Her husband would say, “Come on. We’re going to have lunch, and we’re going to come right back to this.” But he confessed to having had doubts, too. “We were in the basement, worrying, ‘Is anybody even going to look at this?’”
Dr. Oakley is not the only person teaching students how to use tools drawn from neuroscience to enhance learning. But her popularity is a testament to her skill at presenting the material, and also to the course’s message of hope. Many of her online students are 25 to 44 years old, likely to be facing career changes in an unforgiving economy and seeking better ways to climb new learning curves.
Dr. Oakley’s lessons are rich in metaphor, which she knows helps get complex ideas across. The practice is rooted in the theory of neural reuse, which states that metaphors use the same neural circuits in the brain as the underlying concept does, so the metaphor brings difficult concepts “more rapidly on board,” as she puts it.
She illustrates her concepts with goofy animations: There are surfing zombies, metabolic vampires and an “octopus of attention.” Hammy editing tricks may have Dr. Oakley moving out of the frame to the right and popping up on the left, or cringing away from an animated, disembodied head that she has put on the screen to discuss a property of the brain.
Sitting in the Oakleys’ comfortable living room, with its solid Mission furniture and mementos of their world travels, Dr. Oakley said she believes that just about anyone can train himself to learn. “Students may look at math, for example, and say, ‘I can’t figure this out — it must mean I’m really stupid!’ They don’t know how their brain works.”
Her own feelings of inadequacy give her empathy for students who feel hopeless. “I know the hiccups and the troubles people have when they’re trying to learn something.” After all, she was her own lab rat. “I rewired my brain,” she said, “and it wasn’t easy.”
As a youngster, she was not a diligent student. “I flunked my way through elementary, middle school and high school math and science,” she said. She joined the Army out of high school to help pay for college and received extensive training in Russian at the Defense Language Institute. Once out, she realized she would have a better career path with a technical degree (specifically, electrical engineering), and set out to tackle math and science, training herself to grind through technical subjects with many of the techniques of practice and repetition that she had used to let Russian vocabulary and declension soak in.
Along the way, she met Philip Oakley — in, of all places, Antarctica. It was 1983, and she was working as a radio operator at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. (She has also worked as a translator on a Russian trawler. She’s been around.) Mr. Oakley managed the garage at the station, keeping machinery working under some of the planet’s most punishing conditions.
She had noticed him largely because, unlike so many men at the lonely pole, he hadn’t made any moves on her. “You can be ugly as a toad out there and you are the most popular girl,” she said. She found him “comfortably confident.” After he left a party without even saying hello, she told a friend she’d like to get to know him better. The next day, he was waiting for her at breakfast with a big smile on his face. Three weeks later, on New Year’s Eve, he walked her over to the true South Pole and proposed at the stroke of midnight. A few weeks after that, they were “off the ice” in New Zealand and got married.
Dr. Oakley recounts her journey in both of her best-selling books: “A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if You Flunked Algebra)” and, out this past spring, “Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential.” The new book is about learning new skills, with a focus on career switchers. And yes, she has a MOOC for that, too.
Dr. Oakley is already planning her next book, another guide to learning how to learn but aimed at 10- to 13-year-olds. She wants to tell them, “Even if you are not a superstar learner, here’s how to see the great aspects of what you do have.” She would like to see learning clubs in school to help young people develop the skills they need. “We have chess clubs, we have art clubs,” she said. “We don’t have learning clubs. I just think that teaching kids how to learn is one of the greatest things we can possibly do.
Four Techniques to Help You Learn
FOCUS/DON’T The brain has two modes of thinking that Dr. Oakley simplifies as “focused,” in which learners concentrate on the material, and “diffuse,” a neural resting state in which consolidation occurs — that is, the new information can settle into the brain. (Cognitive scientists talk about task-positive networks and default-mode networks, respectively, in describing the two states.) In diffuse mode, connections between bits of information, and unexpected insights, can occur. That’s why it’s helpful to take a brief break after a burst of focused work.
TAKE A BREAK To accomplish those periods of focused and diffuse-mode thinking, Dr. Oakley recommends what is known as the Pomodoro Technique, developed by one Francesco Cirillo. Set a kitchen timer for a 25-minute stretch of focused work, followed by a brief reward, which includes a break for diffuse reflection. (“Pomodoro” is Italian for tomato — some timers look like tomatoes.) The reward — listening to a song, taking a walk, anything to enter a relaxed state — takes your mind off the task at hand. Precisely because you’re not thinking about the task, the brain can subconsciously consolidate the new knowledge. Dr. Oakley compares this process to “a librarian filing books away on shelves for later retrieval.”
As a bonus, the ritual of setting the timer can also help overcome procrastination. Dr. Oakley teaches that even thinking about doing things we dislike activates the pain centers of the brain. The Pomodoro Technique, she said, “helps the mind slip into focus and begin work without thinking about the work.”
“Virtually anyone can focus for 25 minutes, and the more you practice, the easier it gets.”
PRACTICE “Chunking” is the process of creating a neural pattern that can be reactivated when needed. It might be an equation or a phrase in French or a guitar chord. Research shows that having a mental library of well-practiced neural chunks is necessary for developing expertise.
Practice brings procedural fluency, says Dr. Oakley, who compares the process to backing up a car. “When you first are learning to back up, your working memory is overwhelmed with input.” In time, “you don’t even need to think more than ‘Hey, back up,’ ” and the mind is free to think about other things.
Chunks build on chunks, and, she says, the neural network built upon that knowledge grows bigger. “You remember longer bits of music, for example, or more complex phrases in French.” Mastering low-level math concepts allows tackling more complex mental acrobatics. “You can easily bring them to mind even while your active focus is grappling with newer, more difficult information.”
KNOW THYSELF Dr. Oakley urges her students to understand that people learn in different ways. Those who have “racecar brains” snap up information; those with “hiker brains” take longer to assimilate information but, like a hiker, perceive more details along the way. Recognizing the advantages and disadvantages, she says, is the first step in learning how to approach unfamiliar material.
On a bright July morning in a windowless conference room in a Manhattan bookstore, several dozen elementary school teachers were learning how to create worksheets that would help children learn to write.
Judith C. Hochman, founder of an organization called the Writing Revolution, displayed examples of student work. A first grader had produced the following phrase: “Plants need water it need sun to” — that is, plants need water and sun, too. If the student didn’t learn how to correct pronoun disagreement and missing conjunctions, by high school he could be writing phrases like this one: “Well Machines are good but they take people jobs like if they don’t know how to use it they get fired.” That was a real submission on the essay section of the ACT.
“It all starts with a sentence,” Dr. Hochman said.
Focusing on the fundamentals of grammar is one approach to teaching writing. But it’s by no means the dominant one. Many educators are concerned less with sentence-level mechanics than with helping students draw inspiration from their own lives and from literature.
Thirty miles away at Nassau Community College, Meredith Wanzer, a high school teacher and instructor with the Long Island Writing Project, was running a weeklong workshop attended by six teenage girls. The goal was to prepare them to write winning college admissions essays — that delicate genre calling for a student to highlight her strengths (without sounding boastful) and tell a vivid personal story (without coming off as self-involved).
Ms. Wanzer led the students in a freewrite, a popular English class strategy of writing without stopping or judging. First, she read aloud from “Bird by Bird,” Anne Lamott’s 1995 classic on how to write with voice. “You get your intuition back when you make space for it, when you stop the chattering of the rational mind,” the memoirist writes. “Rationality squeezes out much that is rich and juicy and fascinating.”
Ms. Wanzer then asked the students to spend a few minutes writing anything they liked in response to the Lamott excerpt. Lyse Armand, a rising senior at Westbury High School, leaned over her notebook. She was planning to apply to New York University, Columbia and Stony Brook University and already had an idea of the story she would tell in her Common Application essay. It would have something to do, she thought, with her family’s emigration from Haiti following the 2010 earthquake that devastated the island. But she was struggling with how to get started and what exactly she wanted to say.
“What voice in my head?” she wrote in her response to the Lamott essay. “I don’t have one.”
Lyse needed a sense of “ownership” over her writing, Ms. Wanzer said. Lyse had solid sentence-level skills. But even when Ms. Wanzer encounters juniors and seniors whose essays are filled with incomplete sentences — not an uncommon occurrence — she limits the time she spends covering dull topics like subject-verb agreement. “You hope that by exposing them to great writing, they’ll start to hear what’s going on.”
Three-quarters of both 12th and 8th graders lack proficiency in writing, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress. And 40 percent of those who took the ACT writing exam in the high school class of 2016 lacked the reading and writing skills necessary to complete successfully a college-level English composition class, according to the company’s data.
Poor writing is nothing new, nor is concern about it. More than half of first-year students at Harvard failed an entrance exam in writing — in 1874. But the Common Core State Standards, now in use in more than two-thirds of the states, were supposed to change all this. By requiring students to learn three types of essay writing — argumentative, informational and narrative — the Core staked a claim for writing as central to the American curriculum. It represented a sea change after the era of No Child Left Behind, the 2002 federal law that largely overlooked writing in favor of reading comprehension assessed by standardized multiple-choice tests.
So far, however, six years after its rollout, the Core hasn’t led to much measurable improvement on the page. Students continue to arrive on college campuses needing remediation in basic writing skills.
The root of the problem, educators agree, is that teachers have little training in how to teach writing and are often weak or unconfident writers themselves. According to Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a scan of course syllabuses from 2,400 teacher preparation programs turned up little evidence that the teaching of writing was being covered in a widespread or systematic way.
A separate 2016 study of nearly 500 teachers in grades three through eight across the country, conducted by Gary Troia of Michigan State University and Steve Graham of Arizona State University, found that fewer than half had taken a college class that devoted significant time to the teaching of writing, while fewer than a third had taken a class solely devoted to how children learn to write. Unsurprisingly, given their lack of preparation, only 55 percent of respondents said they enjoyed teaching the subject.
“Most teachers are great readers,” Dr. Troia said. “They’ve been successful in college, maybe even graduate school. But when you ask most teachers about their comfort with writing and their writing experiences, they don’t do very much or feel comfortable with it.”
There is virulent debate about what approach is best. So-called process writing, like the lesson Lyse experienced in Long Island, emphasizes activities like brainstorming, freewriting, journaling about one’s personal experiences and peer-to-peer revision. Adherents worry that focusing too much on grammar or citing sources will stifle the writerly voice and prevent children from falling in love with writing as an activity.
That ideology goes back to the 1930s, when progressive educators began to shift the writing curriculum away from penmanship and spelling and toward diary entries and personal letters as a psychologically liberating activity. Later, in the 1960s and 1970s, this movement took on the language of civil rights, with teachers striving to empower nonwhite and poor children by encouraging them to narrate their own lived experiences.
Dr. Hochman’s strategy is radically different: a return to the basics of sentence construction, from combining fragments to fixing punctuation errors to learning how to deploy the powerful conjunctive adverbs that are common in academic writing but uncommon in speech, words like “therefore” and “nevertheless.” After all, the Snapchat generation may produce more writing than any group of teenagers before it, writing copious text messages and social media posts, but when it comes to the formal writing expected at school and work, they struggle with the mechanics of simple sentences.
The Common Core has provided a much-needed “wakeup call” on the importance of rigorous writing, said Lucy M. Calkins, founding director of the Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College, Columbia University, a leading center for training teachers in process-oriented literacy strategies. But policy makers “blew it in the implementation,” she said. “We need massive teacher education.”
One of the largest efforts is the National Writing Project, whose nearly 200 branches train more than 100,000 teachers each summer. The organization was founded in 1974, at the height of the process-oriented era.
As part of its program at Nassau Community College, in a classroom not far from the one where the teenagers were working on their college essays, a group of teachers — of fifth grade and high school, of English, social studies and science — were honing their own writing skills. They took turns reading out loud the freewriting they had just done in response to “The Lanyard,” a poem by Billy Collins. The poem, which is funny and sad, addresses the futility of trying to repay one’s mother for her love:
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart, strong legs, bones and teeth, and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered, and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
Most of the teachers’ responses pivoted quickly from praising the poem to memories of their own mothers, working several jobs to make ends meet, or selflessly caring for grandchildren. It wasn’t sophisticated literary criticism, but that wasn’t the point. A major goal of this workshop — the teacher-training component of the Long Island Writing Project — was to get teachers writing and revising their own work over the summer so that in the fall they would be more enthusiastic and comfortable teaching the subject to children.
“I went to Catholic school and we did grammar workbooks and circled the subject and predicate,” said Kathleen Sokolowski, the Long Island program’s co-director and a third-grade teacher. She found it stultifying and believes she developed her writing skill in spite of such lessons, not because of them.
Sometimes, she said, she will reinforce grammar by asking students to copy down a sentence from a favorite book and then discuss how the author uses a tool like commas. But in general, when it comes to assessing student work, she said, “I had to teach myself to look beyond ‘There’s no capital, there’s no period’ to say, ‘By God, you wrote a gorgeous sentence.’ ”
Mrs. Sokolowski is right that formal grammar instruction, like identifying parts of speech, doesn’t work well. In fact, research finds that students exposed to a glut of such instruction perform worse on writing assessments.
A musical notion of writing — the hope that the ear can be trained to “hear” errors and imitate quality prose — has developed as a popular alternative among English teachers. But what about those students, typically low income, with few books at home, who struggle to move from reading a gorgeous sentence to knowing how to write one? Could there be a better, less soul-crushing way to enforce the basics?
In her teacher training sessions, Dr. Hochman of the Writing Revolution shows a slide of a cute little girl, lying contentedly on her stomach as she scrawls on a piece of composition paper. It’s the type of stock photograph that has probably appeared in a hundred educators’ PowerPoint presentations, meant to evoke a warm and relaxed learning environment, perhaps in one of the cozy writing nooks favored by the process-oriented writing gurus.
“This is not good writing posture!” Dr. Hochman exclaimed. Small children should write at desks, she believes. And while she isn’t arguing for a return to the grammar lessons of yesteryear — she knows sentence diagramming leaves most students confused and disengaged — she does believe that children should spend time filling out worksheets with exercises like the one below, which demonstrates how simple conjunctions like “but,” “because” and “so” add complexity to a thought. Students are given the root clause, and must complete the sentence with a new clause following each conjunction:
Fractions are like decimals because they are all parts of wholes.
Fractions are like decimals, but they are written differently.
Fractions are like decimals, so they can be used interchangeably.
Along the way, students are learning to recall meaningful content from math, social studies, science and literature. By middle school, teachers should be crafting essay questions that prompt sophisticated writing; not “What were the events leading up to the Civil War?” — which could result in a list — but “Trace the events leading up to the Civil War,” which requires a historical narrative of cause and effect.
“Freewriting, hoping that children will learn or gain a love of writing, hasn’t worked,” Dr. Hochman told the teachers, many of whom work in low-income neighborhoods. She doesn’t believe that children learn to write well through plumbing their own experiences in a journal, and she applauds the fact that the Common Core asks students to do more writing about what they’ve read, and less about their own lives.
“I call it a move away from child-centered writing,” she said approvingly, and away from what she considers facile assignments, like writing a poem “about a particular something they may have observed 10 minutes ago out of the window.”
“I don’t mean to be dismissive,” she continued, “but every instructional minute has its purpose.”
Her training session lacks the fun and interactivity of the Long Island Writing Project, because it is less about prompting teachers to write and chat with colleagues and more about the sometimes dry work of preparing worksheets and writing assignments that reinforce basic concepts. Nevertheless, many teachers who learn Dr. Hochman’s strategies become devotees.
Molly Cudahy, who teaches fifth-grade special education at the Truesdell Education Campus, a public school in Washington, D.C., said she appreciates Dr. Hochman’s explicit and technical approach. She thought it would free her students’ voices, not constrain them. At her school, 100 percent of students come from low-income families. “When we try to do creative and journal writing,” she said, “students don’t have the tools to put their ideas on paper.”
There is a notable shortage of high-quality research on the teaching of writing, but studies that do exist point toward a few concrete strategies that help students perform better on writing tests. First, children need to learn how to transcribe both by hand and through typing on a computer. Teachers report that many students who can produce reams of text on their cellphones are unable to work effectively at a laptop, desktop or even in a paper notebook because they’ve become so anchored to the small mobile screen. Quick communication on a smartphone almost requires writers to eschew rules of grammar and punctuation, exactly the opposite of what is wanted on the page.
Before writing paragraphs — which is often now part of the kindergarten curriculum — children do need to practice writing great sentences. At every level, students benefit from clear feedback on their writing, and from seeing and trying to imitate what successful writing looks like, the so-called text models. Some of the touchy-feel stuff matters, too. Students with higher confidence in their writing ability perform better.
All of this points toward a synthesis of the two approaches. In classrooms where practices like freewriting are used without any focus on transcription or punctuation, “the students who struggled didn’t make any progress,” Dr. Troia, the Michigan State professor, said. But when grammar instruction is divorced from the writing process and from rich ideas in literature or science, it becomes “superficial,” he warned.
Considering the lack of adequate teacher training, Lyse may be among a minority of students exposed to explicit instruction about writing.
In Ms. Wanzer’s workshop, Lyse and her classmates went on to analyze real students’ college essays to determine their strengths and weaknesses. They also read “Where I’m From,” a poem by George Ella Lyon, and used it as a text model for their work. Lyse drafted her own version of “Where I’m From,” which helped her recall details from her childhood in Haiti.
Lyse wrote: “I am from the rusty little tin roof house, from washing by hand and line drying.” It was a gorgeous sentence, and she was well on her way to a moving college application essay.
Sunday 11 June 2017 01.00 EDTLast modified on Friday 23 June 2017 13.19 EDT
Four years ago, completely spent, blood transfused into me in a frantic effort to allow me to walk, I lay on a hospital bed having given birth the day before. To the joy of my family, I had brought them a son. Blue balloons foretold a man in the making. Not just the apple of my eye, but the one who would one day open jam jars for me. The hero who would do the DIY and put out the rubbish. He who was born to be strong because he is male.
But then, physical strength can be defined in different ways. What I was yet to learn was that, beneath our skin, women bubble with a source of power that even science has yet to fully understand. We are better survivors than men. What’s more, we are born this way.
“Pretty much at every age, women seem to survive better than men,” says Steven Austad, an international expert on ageing, and chair of the biology department at the University of Alabama. For almost two decades, he has been studying one of the best-known yet under-researched facts of human biology: that women live longer than men. His longevity database shows that all over the world and as far back as records have been kept, women outlive men by around five or six years. He describes them as being more “robust”.
Robustness, toughness or pure power – whatever it’s called – this survival ability cracks apart the stereotype. The physically strong woman is almost a myth. We gaze upon great female athletes as though they’re other-worldly creatures. Greek legend could only imagine the Amazons, female warriors as powerful as men. They break the laws of nature. No, we everyday women, we have just half the upper body strength of men. We are six inches shorter, depending on where we live. We wield power, but it’s emotional and intellectual, we tell ourselves. It’s not in our bodies.
Not so, says Austad. He is among a small cadre of researchers who believe that women may hold the key to prolonging life. In extremely old age, the gap between the sexes becomes a glaring one.
According to a tally maintained by the global Gerontology Research Group, today, 43 people around the world are known to be living past the age of 110. Of these supercentenarians, 42 are women. Interviews with the world’s current oldest person, 117-year-old Violet Brown, who lives in Jamaica, reveal she enjoys eating fish and mutton. She once worked as a plantation worker. Her lifestyle betrays few clues as to how she has lived so long. But one factor we know has helped is being a woman.
Yet there is bizarrely little research to explain the biology behind this. What scientists do know is that this edge doesn’t emerge in later life. It is there from the moment a girl is born. “When we were there on the neonatal unit and a boy came out, you were taught that, statistically, the boy is more likely to die,” says Joy Lawn, director of the Centre for Maternal, Adolescent, Reproductive, and Child Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She explains that, globally, a million babies die on the day of their birth every year.
But if they receive exactly the same level of care, males are statistically at a 10% greater risk than females. What makes baby girls so robust remains mostly a mystery. Research published in 2014 by scientists at the University of Adelaide suggests that a mother’s placenta may behave differently depending on the sex of the baby, doing more to maintain the pregnancy and increase immunity against infections. For reasons unknown, girls may be getting an extra dose of survivability in the womb.
Wherever it comes from, women seem to be shielded against sickness later on. “Cardiovascular disease occurs much earlier in men than women. The age of onset of hypertension [high blood pressure] also occurs much earlier in men than women. And there’s a sex difference in the rate of progression of disease,” says Kathryn Sandberg, director of the Centre for the Study of Sex Differences in Health, Ageing and Disease at Georgetown University.
Austad found that in the United States in 2010, women died at lower rates than men from 12 of the 15 most common causes of death, including cancer and heart disease, when adjusted for age. Of the three exceptions, their likelihood of dying from Parkinson’s or stroke was about the same. And they were more likely than men to die of Alzheimer’s disease. “Once I started investigating, I found that women had resistance to almost all the major causes of death,” he says.
Even when it comes to everyday coughs and colds, women have the advantage. “If you look across all the different types of infections, women have a more robust immune response,” adds Sandberg. “If there’s a really bad infection, they survive better. If it’s about the duration of the infection, women will respond faster.” One explanation for this is hormones. Higher levels of oestrogen and progesterone could be protecting women in some way, not only by making our immune systems stronger, but also more flexible. This may help maintain a healthy pregnancy. A woman’s immune system is more active in the second half of her menstrual cycle, when she’s able to conceive.
On the downside, a powerful immune response also makes women more susceptible to autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. The body is so good at fighting off infection that it attacks its own cells. And this may explain why women tend to report more pain and sickness than men. “This is one of the penalties of being a better survivor. You survive, but maybe not quite as intact as you were before,” says Austad. Another factor is simply that men are dying more. “Part of the reason there are more women than men around in ill health is to do with the fact that women have survived events that would kill men, so the equivalent men are no longer with us,” he adds.
When it comes to biological sex difference, though, everything isn’t always as it seems. At least some of the gaps in health and survival may be social, reflecting gender behaviour. Women may be more likely to seek medical help, for instance. Men may have less healthy diets or do more dangerous work. Nonetheless, Austad and Sandberg are convinced that nature accounts for a good deal of what we see.
If they are right, this raises a deeper scientific conundrum. Our bodies adapted over millennia to our environments. So what could it have been in our evolutionary past that gave the female body a little more of this magical robustness? How and why would one sex have developed a survival edge over the other?
Studies of hunter-gatherer societies, who live the way we all may have done before fixed settlements and agriculture, provide a few clues. Many anthropologists studying tribal communities in Africa, South America, Asia and Australia believe early humans lived fairly equal lives, sharing responsibility for food, shelter and raising children. The Flintstones model, with wife at home and husband bringing back the bacon, just doesn’t stand up. Instead, the evidence shows that women would have done at least the same physical work as men, but with the added burden of bearing children.
“There’s a general consensus now that hunting-gathering societies, while not perfectly egalitarian, were less unequal, particularly with regard to gender equality,” says Melvin Konner, professor of anthropology at Emory University in Atlanta, who has spent years doing fieldwork with hunter-gatherers in Africa. “Because of the scale of the group dynamics, it would be impossible for men to exclude women.”
The more research that is done, the more this is reinforced. Even hunting – that prototypical male activity – is being recast as a female one, too. Anthropologist Rebecca Bliege Bird, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, offers me the example of the Martu, an aboriginal tribe in Western Australia. “When Martu women hunt, one of their favourite prey are feral cats. It’s not a very productive activity, but it’s a chance for women to show off their skill acquisition.”
Indeed, women are known to be particularly good at endurance running, notes Marlene Zuk, who runs a lab focusing on evolutionary biology at the University of Minnesota. In her 2013 book Paleofantasy, she writes that women’s running abilities decline extremely slowly into old age. They’ve been known to go long distances even while pregnant. In 2011, for example, Amber Miller ran the Chicago marathon before giving birth seven hours later. World record holder Paula Radcliffe has trained through two pregnancies.
Why, then, are we not all Amazons? Why do we imagine femininity to mean small, waif-like bodies? The lives of most ordinary women, outside the pages of magazines, destroy this notion. Visiting India’s cities, I see female construction workers lining the streets, hauling piles of bricks on their heads to building sites. In Kenya, I meet female security guards everywhere, patrolling offices and hotels. Out in rural areas, there are women doing hard physical labour, often hauling their children in slings. Our ancestors would have done the same.
In evolutionary terms, these were the circumstances under which our bodies were forged. For an enormous chunk of early human history, as we migrated through Africa to the rest of the world, women would also have travelled hundreds or thousands of miles, sometimes under extreme environmental conditions. “Just reproducing and surviving in these conditions, talk about natural selection!” I’m told by Adrienne Zihlman, an anthropologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, when I visit her at her home in San Francisco.
Zihlman has dedicated her career to understanding human anatomy, and in particular the evolution of women’s bodies. “Women have to reproduce. That means being pregnant for nine months. They’ve got to lactate. They’ve got to carry these kids. There’s something about being a human female that was shaped by evolution. There’s a lot of mortality along the way that really can account for it.”
When I gave birth to my son, I did the most physically demanding thing a human can do. Yet I am considered the weaker sex. Zihlman reminds me that my body was made strong by the struggles of countless generations of women who went before. “There is something about the female form, the female psyche, just the whole package, that was honed over thousands and thousands, even millions, of years to survive,” she smiles. I happen to remember, in that moment, that at home I do all the DIY.
Myths and misses: five more things you didn’t know about women and men
Separate symptoms Women and men present different symptoms for the same medical conditions. Women are more likely to have insomnia and fatigue in the weeks before they have a heart attack, rather than the chest pain commonly experienced by men.
Changes of life Women in India, Japan and China experience far fewer menopause symptoms than western women who commonly report hot flushes, night sweats, depression and insomnia. Scientists at King’s College London argue this could be due to women lumping together their experience of growing older with the menopause.
Casual sex Women are choosier but not more chaste than men. A study by two German researchers, Andreas Baranowski and Heiko Hecht, found that women want casual sex just as much as men and were as likely as males to have sex with a stranger, as long as it was in a safe environment.
Boys’ toys A 2010 study by Professor Melissa Hines at the University of Cambridge found that girls on average were genetically predisposed to prefer dolls while boys liked to play with mechanical toys such as trains.
Risky business Testosterone is associated with higher levels of optimism, rather than aggression. Saliva samples taken from traders on the London Stock Exchange confirmed they had higher than average testosterone levels. Scientists from Britain, the USA and Spain concluded this increase made the traders more optimistic so more likely to take big financial risks.
Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini is published by Fourth Estate at £12.99. To order a copy for £11.04, go to bookshop.theguardian.com
Main photograph: Acrobats JD and Nikki; Stylist Hope Lawrie; special effects make-up Julia Bowden
A Smith College initiative called “Failing Well” is one of a crop of university programs that aim to help high achievers cope with basic setbacks.
NORTHAMPTON, Mass. — Last year, during fall orientation at Smith College, and then again recently at final-exam time, students who wandered into the campus hub were faced with an unfamiliar situation: the worst failures of their peers projected onto a large screen.
“I failed my first college writing exam,” one student revealed.
“I came out to my mom, and she asked, ‘Is this until graduation?’” another said.
The faculty, too, contributed stories of screwing up.
“I failed out of college,” a popular English professor wrote. “Sophomore year. Flat-out, whole semester of F’s on the transcript, bombed out, washed out, flunked out.”
“I drafted a poem entitled ‘Chocolate Caramels,’ ” said a literature and American studies scholar, who noted that it “has been rejected by 21 journals … so far.”
This was not a hazing ritual, but part of a formalized program at the women’s college in which participants more accustomed to high test scores and perhaps a varsity letter consent to having their worst setbacks put on wide display.
“It was almost jarring,” said Carrie Lee Lancaster, 20, a rising junior. “On our campus, everything can feel like such a competition, I think we get caught up in this idea of presenting an image of perfection. So to see these failures being talked about openly, for me I sort of felt like, ‘O.K., this is O.K., everyone struggles.’”
The presentation is part of a new initiative at Smith, “Failing Well,” that aims to “destigmatize failure.” With workshops on impostor syndrome, discussions on perfectionism, as well as a campaign to remind students that 64 percent of their peers will get (gasp) a B-minus or lower, the program is part of a campuswide effort to foster student “resilience,” to use a buzzword of the moment.
“What we’re trying to teach is that failure is not a bug of learning, it’s the feature,” said Rachel Simmons, a leadership development specialist in Smith’s Wurtele Center for Work and Life and a kind of unofficial “failure czar” on campus. “It’s not something that should be locked out of the learning experience. For many of our students — those who have had to be almost perfect to get accepted into a school like Smith — failure can be an unfamiliar experience. So when it happens, it can be crippling.”
Ms. Simmons would know. She hid her own failure (dropping out of a prestigious scholarship program in her early 20s; told by her college president that she had embarrassed her school) for close to a decade. “For years, I thought it would ruin me,” she said.
Which is why, when students enroll in her program, they receive a certificate of failure upon entry, a kind of permission slip to fail. It reads: “You are hereby authorized to screw up, bomb or fail at one or more relationships, hookups, friendships, texts, exams, extracurriculars or any other choices associated with college … and still be a totally worthy, utterly excellent human.”
A number of students proudly hang it from their dormitory walls.
Preoccupied in the 1980s with success at any cost (think Gordon Gekko), the American business world now fetishizes failure, thanks to technology experimentalist heroes like Steve Jobs. But while the idea of “failing upward” has become a badge of honor in the start-up world — with blog posts, TED talks, even industry conferences — students are still focused on conventional metrics of achievement, campus administrators say.
Nearly perfect on paper, with résumés packed full of extracurricular activities, they seemed increasingly unable to cope with basic setbacks that come with college life: not getting a room assignment they wanted, getting wait-listed for a class or being rejected by clubs.
“We’re not talking about flunking out of pre-med or getting kicked out of college,” Ms. Simmons said. “We’re talking about students showing up in residential life offices distraught and inconsolable when they score less than an A-minus. Ending up in the counseling center after being rejected from a club. Students who are unable to ask for help when they need it, or so fearful of failing that they will avoid taking risks at all.”
Almost a decade ago, faculty at Stanford and Harvard coined the term “failure deprived” to describe what they were observing: the idea that, even as they were ever more outstanding on paper, students seemed unable to cope with simple struggles. “Many of our students just seemed stuck,” said Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former dean of freshmen at Stanford and the author of “How to Raise an Adult.”
It was Cornell that, in 2010 after a wave of student suicides, declared that it would be an “obligation of the university” to help students learn life skills. Not long after, Stanford started an initiative called the Resilience Project, in which prominent alumni recounted academic setbacks, recording them on video. “It was an attempt to normalize struggle,” Ms. Lythcott-Haims said.
A consortium of academics soon formed to share resources, and programs have quietly proliferated since then: the Success-Failure Project at Harvard, which features stories of rejection; the Princeton Perspective Project, encouraging conversation about setbacks and struggles; Penn Faces at the University of Pennsylvania, a play on the term used by students to describe those who have mastered the art of appearing happy even when struggling.
“There is this kind of expectation on students at a lot of these schools to be succeeding on every level: academically, socially, romantically, in our family lives, in our friendships,” said Emily Hoeven, a recent graduate who helped start the project in her junior year. “And also sleep eight hours a night, look great, work out and post about it all on social media. We wanted to show that life is not that perfect.”
At the University of Texas, Austin, there is now a free iPhone app, Thrive, that helps students “manage the ups and downs of campus life” through short videos and inspirational quotes. The University of California, Los Angeles has what it calls a head of student resilience on staff. While at Davidson College, a liberal arts school in North Carolina, there is a so-called failure fund, a series of $150 to $1,000 grants for students who want to pursue a creative endeavor, with no requirements that the idea be viable or work. “We encourage students to learn from their mistakes and lean into their failure,” the program’s news release states.
“For a long time, I think we assumed that this was the stuff that was automatically learned in childhood: that everyone struck out at the baseball diamond or lost the student council race,” said Donna Lisker, Smith’s dean of the college and vice president for student life. “The idea that an 18-year-old doesn’t know how to fail on the one hand sounds preposterous. But I think in many ways we’ve pulled kids away from those natural learning experiences.”
And so, universities are engaging in a kind of remedial education that involves talking, a lot, about what it means to fail.
“I think colleges are revamping what they believe it means to be well educated — that it’s not about your ability to write a thesis statement, but to bounce back when you’re told it doesn’t measure up,” said Ms. Simmons, the author of two books on girls’ self-esteem who is publishing a third, “Enough as She Is,” next year. “Especially now, with the current economy, students need tools to pivot between jobs, between careers, to work on short-term projects, to be self-employed. These are crucial life skills.”
If it all feels a bit like a “Portlandia” sketch, that’s because it actually was one: in which Fred and Carrie decide to hire a bully to teach grit to students, one who uses padded gym mats to make sure the children don’t actually get hurt.
Add “teaching failure” to nap pods (yes, those exist) and campus petting zoos (also common), and you’ve got to wonder, as a cover story in Psychology Today questioned last year: At what point do colleges end up more like mental health wards than institutions of higher learning?
“Look, I don’t think there’s anything fundamentally wrong with trying to create experiences that are calming,” said Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at Penn. “But I’d like to spend a bit more time figuring out what’s causing those stresses.”
Researchers say it’s a complicated interplay of child-rearing and culture: years of helicopter-parenting and micromanaging by anxious parents. “This is the generation that everyone gets a trophy,” said Rebecca Shaw, Smith’s director of residence life. College admissions mania, in which many middle- and upper-class students must navigate what Ms. Simmons calls a “‘Hunger Games’-like mentality” where the preparation starts early, the treadmill never stops and the stakes can feel impossibly high.
It is fear about the economy — Is the American dream still a possibility? Will I be able to get a job after graduation? — and added pressure to succeed felt by first-generation and low-income students: of being the first in their families to go to college; of having to send money home; or simply overcoming the worry that, as one engineering student put it, “maybe I was a quota.”
“I’m coming from a low-income, predominantly African-American community where there just aren’t resources,” said Arabia Simeon, 19, a junior at Smith. “So there is this added pressure of needing to do well.”
And there’s the adjustment, for many high-achieving students, of no longer being “the best and brightest” on campus, said Amy Jordan, the associate dean for undergraduate studies in the school of communication at Penn. Or what Smithies call “special snowflake syndrome.”
“We all came from high schools where we were all the exception to the rule — we were kind of special in some way, or people told us that,” said Cai Sherley, 20, seated in the campus cafe. Around her, Zoleka Mosiah, Ms. Simeon and Ms. Lancaster nodded in agreement. “So you get here and of course you want to recreate that,” Ms. Sherley said. “But here, everybody’s special. So nobody is special.”
Social media doesn’t help, because while students may know logically that no one goes through college or, let’s be honest, life without screw-ups, it can be pretty easy to convince yourself, by way of somebody else’s feed, “that everyone but you is a star,” said Jaycee Greeley, 19, a sophomore.
It is also a culture that has glorified being busy — or at the very least conflates those things with status. “There’s this idea that I’m not worthy if I’m not stressed and overwhelmed,” said Stacey Steinbach, a residential life coordinator at Smith. “And in some sense to not be stressed is a failing.”
It’s what Ms. Simmons calls “competitive stress”: the subject of her afternoon workshop on the campus lawn, to which she was luring students with ice cream and bingo.
When students arrived, the sundaes were there. But the bingo cards were a little different — filled with things like “I have 20 pages to write tonight,” “I’m too busy to eat” and “I’m so dead.” It was called “Stress Olympics.”
“It’s basically a play on competitive suffering,” said Casey Hecox, a 20-year-old junior. “It’s when we’re like, ‘I have three tests tomorrow.’ And then someone’s like, ‘I have five tests tomorrow, and all I’ve eaten is 5-hour Energy, and my dog is sick.’”
With only a few weeks before school was to let out, the stress pinwheel over summer internships and jobs — applications, recommendations, networking — was already at a steady buzz. What if they didn’t get one? Or the right one? “I’m not used to the whole ‘summer job’ concept, and I found the process quite intimidating,” said Ms. Mosiah, 21, a sophomore. “I had to ask for help from my friends and the on-campus resources to work through this. I’m not used to asking for help or being rejected this often, so I was really taken aback.”
Ms. Lancaster said, “Sometimes it’s hard not to take each and every rejection letter as a failure, but I’m trying to stay positive.”
Whatever happens, there will be plenty of time to talk about it when students return to campus in the fall.
Correction: July 2, 2017
An article last Sunday about colleges that offer courses in embracing failure misidentified the position that Amy Jordan holds at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the associate dean for undergraduate studies in the school of communication, not for the entire university.