How much time and money is spent seeking “diversity” in our organizations around the world? How much value comes out of these activities?
My answers to those questions are a lot of money and very little .
Now before you think this is going to a political rant, let me assure you that the book we are discussing here, The Difference, by University of Michigan professor Scott Page, is all for diversity, but of a specific kind. Cognitive Diversity is what he is advocating, and he makes a very strong argument for it.
Many of our efforts to be diverse, based on race, gender, age, or some other broad stroke often miss the mark in producing better decisions and outcomes. Page believes that, when “solving a problem, cognitive diversity can trump ability, and when making a prediction diversity matters as much as ability” Taken seriously, this is quite an inflammatory statement.
Cognitive diversity is based on the “toolbox” each one of us carries with us, built from our individual experiences and education and trainings. Specifically the toolbox contains four “tools”: perspectives, heuristics, interpretations, and predictive models that we all use every day in every way. All of us have these tools in differing proportions and we all use them somewhat differently. When an organization manages to build teams emphasizing this type of diversity, desired outcomes – better decisions and better innovations – are far more likely.
This is a difficult book to read, despite the author’s humor and clear writing. It is a serious work of social science and an important work for anyone interested in how to better exploit organizational knowledge, using much more sophisticated methods than the very crude and ineffective tools we currently use.
Dr. Denise Pope is a co-founder of Challenge Success and a senior lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. She is the author of “Doing School”: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students, and co-author of Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids. Pope lectures nationally on parenting techniques and pedagogical strategies to increase student health, engagement with learning, and academic integrity. Challenge Success is a nonprofit school reform organization focused on promoting student well-being and academic engagement and is affiliated with the Stanford University Graduate School of Education.
“People don’t go to school to learn. They go to get good grades, which brings them to college, which brings them the high paying job, which brings them to happiness, or so they think.”
—Kevin Romoni, Grade 10, Doing School
Kevin was one of five students I shadowed for a year at a high-achieving high school in Silicon Valley. His classmates echoed his belief that future success was inextricably tied to high school performance. This narrow notion of success as defined by grades, test scores, and college admission ultimately took its toll on these teens. The pressure to over-achieve led to high levels of physical and emotional distress and exhaustion.
Since 2007, Challenge Success has surveyed more than 100,000 middle and high school kids in high-achieving public and independent schools across the country. We have found that Kevin’s narrow definition of success is overwhelmingly prevalent. In our fast-paced culture, kids are busy in and out of school, often maintaining schedules that are more hectic than those of the adults around them. Many students and parents feel they have no choice but to continue, day after day, at this frantic pace. They believe the prospect of a good education, future employment, and financial security are at risk if they don’t. But this “more is better” lifestyle takes a toll on student well-being and learning in many ways.
Our research shows that high school students get, on average, about six and a half hours of sleep each night, even though medical experts recommend eight to ten hours of sleep for healthy development. We know that there is a correlation between sleep deprivation and depression, anxiety, memory function, bullying, and car accidents in adolescents, according to the Stanford Medicine News Center.
Academic Worry and Emotional Distress
Nearly 75 percent of high school students surveyed report being often or always stressed by schoolwork. In fact, the National Association of Health Education Centers reports that academics are the leading cause of stress for middle and high school-aged students, and that prolonged stress can be debilitating.
Almost 40 percent of high school students we surveyed reported “doing school,” working hard but rarely finding schoolwork interesting, meaningful, or valuable. The pressure to perform often leads to a loss of engagement with learning and perpetuates a culture of “robo-students” — students who focus on getting the grades but do not find intrinsic motivation, meaning, or joy in the process. Our research shows that students who are not fully engaged affectively, behaviorally, and cognitively are less likely to achieve in school and more likely to suffer from symptoms such as depression and anxiety.
Cheating and Drug Use
When students are under pressure and lack sufficient sleep, they often engage in cheating behavior. Challenge Success research shows that 88 percent of high school and 75 percent of middle school kids admit to cheating in one form or another. Students tell us that “it’s cheat or be cheated,” and they feel they have no other options but to break the rules. Health professionals have also observed an increase in the overuse of prescription stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin, known as “study drugs.” Many adolescents believe that study drugs help them stay up and focus, and they are unaware of the severe health risks associated with abusing prescription medications.
All Kids Need Their SPACE in School
So, how do we break this cycle? How do we change our schools to emphasize meaningful and joyful learning and a broader definition of success? Challenge Success has used its research-based SPACE framework to guide solution-focused reform efforts with more than 150 schools in our School Program since 2003.
We typically begin working with our partner schools by surveying students to identify the school’s most pressing concerns, and we ask each school to bring a multi-stakeholder team — administrators, faculty, parents, counselors, and students — to our annual conferences. We encourage each school to examine its specific circumstances and then create a site-specific plan for change with a Challenge Success coach. Each school’s needs are unique and solutions can focus on one or more of the SPACE framework categories. For instance, schools might focus on professional development for deeper, interdisciplinary learning, and they may decide to strengthen teacher-student relationships via advisories.
One School’s Spotlight on the “S” in SPACE
Photo Credits: Woodside Priory School
One NAIS-member school, Woodside Priory, a 6–12 grade day and boarding school of 350 students in Northern California, participated in the Challenge Success School Program for several years. The school has shown extraordinary growth in the “S” category of SPACE, examining “students’ schedule & use of time.” Specifically, Woodside Priory recognized that student engagement and well-being could be improved by addressing two highly interrelated issues: the bell schedule and homework practices.
A Saner School Schedule
The school schedule has a substantial impact on engagement, teaching, and learning; it affects the entire school community and is an important lever for school improvement. Woodside Priory’s leaders recognized the need to make a change to the bell schedule based on results from the Challenge Success student survey. After learning that their students were only getting on average 6.5 hours of sleep each night, they decided to move the start time of the school from 8 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. four days a week, and to start even later (9:45 a.m.) once a week. This allowed students the opportunity for additional sleep each morning, and had the extra bonus of increased professional development time for faculty.
That year, they also changed from a traditional schedule to a modified block schedule. This meant that students had five classes per day for 65 minutes each, instead of seven classes for 45 minutes each. Students felt the benefits immediately. With more time in each class, they had more opportunities to engage deeply with the material and felt less rushed throughout the day with fewer transitions.
The shift to a block schedule also dramatically changed how students experienced homework. In the past, kids typically had homework from seven classes, every night. In a block schedule, students only had homework due for the five classes that met the next day. The result was that students had more control over how they managed their homework load and had more flexibility after school and in the evenings.
Homework: Quality vs. Quantity
Educators, parents, and students often confuse the concepts of “rigor” and “load.” Rigor is associated with depth of learning and mastery of a subject matter. Load is a measurement of the amount of work that is assigned to students. Research shows that students in courses that assign more hours of homework do not necessarily experience greater mastery or in-depth understanding. Because of this, Woodside Priory sought to reduce the daily quantity of homework and increase the quality of their assignments. They decided to place student learning, engagement, and well-being at the forefront of their new approach to homework.
The In-Class Experiment – Homework Week
To get started, Woodside Priory’s Head of Upper School Brian Schlaak asked all teachers in the upper school to allow 30 minutes during each class period to get homework done in class for one week.
Here is what they learned:
Teachers learned that students take varying amounts of time to do homework; some get stuck and need help right away, and others are done in ten minutes. This challenged teachers’ assumptions about how much time was actually needed to complete each assignment.
Teachers learned that sometimes students don’t understand the purpose of a homework assignment and, as a result, can perceive it as “busy work.”
Teachers noted that they saw an increase in the quality of the students’ work — students had time to ask the teacher for assistance during class and they seemed more engaged.
Teachers noticed that many students were not using appropriate note-taking methods when reading assignments for class. This observation prompted teachers to support students with additional guidance and study skills to reduce wasted time on tasks and to increase retention and mastery.
Students learned that they can be much more productive with homework when they aren’t on social media or other distracting devices, when they aren’t exhausted at the end of the day after sports practices and other extracurricular activities, and when they have a designated amount of time to focus on their work.
Woodside Priory’s Homework Week exercise led to a fruitful discussion and support for teachers to experiment with many different approaches to homework, including: self-graded assignments; revise and resubmit opportunities; homework-free nights, vacations, and classes; and optional homework. Teachers worked on better aligning their homework assignments with the enduring understandings of their courses, and observed which approach to homework seemed best for reducing load while maintaining appropriate rigor.
This year, the school continues to focus on enduring understandings, coupled with authentic assessment work, to eliminate extraneous content and busywork, and they are orienting their curriculum around five learning competencies — communication, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and resilience.
We know that school reform can be a daunting task. Rather than focusing on educational fads, our strategies are founded in educational research and built to have long-lasting effects in schools.
As a result of our work with schools across the country, students:
cheat less often,
engage in learning,
feel supported by teachers, and
perform just as well or better in school.
By embracing a new definition of success, we are ultimately defining what we value. Our students shouldn’t have to choose between health or stress, and academic rigor or engagement. By challenging the current, narrow view of success, students, families, and schools can find a healthy balance and thrive.
A group of middle school students in full beekeeping gear examines one of the hives their school keeps in the woods nearby. “Ooh, there’s honey!” says one excitedly. “I see nectar!” says another.
These eager fifth and sixth graders from Birmingham Covington, a public magnet school in suburban Michigan focused on science and technology, are empowered to become self-directed learners through hands-on experiences in and outside their classroom.
Birmingham Covington’s student-centered philosophy is embedded throughout the curriculum, from third- and fourth-grade classes focused on teaching individual resourcefulness to an almost wholly independent capstone class in seventh and eighth grade called Thinkering Studio. Teachers at the school often say they’re “teaching kids to teach themselves” and rarely answer questions directly; instead they ask students to consider other sources of information first. Even the classrooms, with their spacious communal tables and movable walls, emphasize fluid group and peer-to-peer dynamics over teacher-led instruction.
The 650-student school offers grades 3 through 8 only and pairs grades together, following research that shows that mixing age groups accelerates learning. For more than a decade, Birmingham Covington’s students have ranked at or above the 95th percentile in overall performance for all Michigan elementary and middle schools.
By relentlessly focusing the classwork on student interest and independence, the educators at Birmingham Covington hope to transform students into active learners who will be successful throughout their lifetimes.
“When you get kids collaborating together, they become more resourceful and they see themselves as experts,” said Mark Morawski, who’s been the principal since 2013. “All of a sudden you’ve opened the ceiling to what kids are able to do, and they surprise you sometimes.”
Solving Real-World Problems: The Bee Project
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Birmingham Covington’s unique bee project, like much of the coursework prioritized at the school, was driven by student interest. After reading an article about the extinction of honeybees in their science literacy class, fifth- and sixth-grade students said they wanted to do something to help.
In the class, which combines inquiry-based science and English language arts (ELA), students build their research, literacy, and collaboration skills through small group projects aimed at effecting lasting change around real-world problems. Working on a range of activities—from building a website to managing a real beehive—students become more active and engaged learners, teachers say.
“Science literacy is teaching our kids to be curious about the world around them, with the problems they identify,” said ELA teacher Pauline Roberts, who co-teaches the class. “Even as students, they are learning how to become effective agents of change. It’s bigger than the science content—it’s about helping to develop the citizens that we hope our children become.”
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Throughout Birmingham Covington, both coursework and instruction push students to learn lifelong skills like independence and resourcefulness, which teachers encourage early on in the primary grades.
Third- and fourth-grade teacher Jessie Heckman says she empowers her students to become more resourceful by solving common problems with the support of their classmates. Instead of raising their hands when they have a question or encounter a hurdle, for example, Heckman’s students clip clothespins to their computers and fellow students circulate around to troubleshoot—a system she calls the help desk.
“Kids need to learn teamwork-based skills because every other class in any other subject that they have—third through eighth grade—requires them to work in different sized groups accomplishing different tasks,” Heckman explains.
Modeling Collaboration: Teacher Labs
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Students aren’t the only ones at Birmingham Covington improving their collaboration skills—teachers also identify as a “community of learners” who use planned, peer-to-peer feedback to help each other raise student outcomes throughout the school.
The school’s voluntary Teacher Labs—facilitated by an instructional coach and organized around a clear, written protocol—enable teachers to reflect on their craft with support from their peers. Through the labs, small groups of teachers observe each other’s classes and then offer constructive feedback around a stated objective.
“We’re really asking teachers to step outside of their comfort zones,” said Roberts, who serves as the lead facilitator in the labs. “We are creatures who live behind closed doors. To experience being in someone else’s classroom is really powerful.”
Increasing Independence for Older Learners
George Lucas Educational Foundation
As they near the end of their time at the school, Birmingham Covington seventh- and eighth-grade students are accustomed to self-reliance and problem-solving. They put these skills to use in Thinkering Studio, an elective class where they design their own independent learning projects, and Engage, a class focused on design thinking—a system of solving problems that follows the steps of inquiry, ideation, prototyping, and testing.
In Engage, teachers Roy McCloud and Mathew Brown guide students to work on various self-directed, team-oriented projects like designing a new sport for third graders or building a roller coaster. Their support and feedback direct students toward the right resources while encouraging them to dig deeper: Did students ask the right questions? Did they get the right information? Did they go to other groups for feedback?
In these culminating classes, as in the curriculum more generally, teachers act as guides rather than instructors, directing students toward helpful resources but ultimately insisting they solve their own problems.
This innovative, student-centered approach to learning—the bedrock of the school’s vision—takes the long view, helping students develop skills and interests they can continue to draw on after they leave the school. The school believes that this model better prepares students for real-world challenges, since modern workplaces are increasingly collaborative and involve complex, interdisciplinary problem solving.
“The ultimate questions we’re going to be asked by future employers is ‘Can this person work well in a team? Does this person have the ability to problem solve and critically think?’” said Morawski. “Because our students are more resourceful, they have more intrinsic motivation in the learning process and ultimately, are learning to be learners.”
When presented with new material, standards, and complicated topics, we need to be focused and calm as we approach our assignments. We can use brain breaks and focused-attention practices to positively impact our emotional states and learning. They refocus our neural circuitry with either stimulating or quieting practices that generate increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, where problem solving and emotional regulation occur.
A brain break is a short period of time when we change up the dull routine of incoming information that arrives via predictable, tedious, well-worn roadways. Our brains are wired for novelty. We know this because we pay attention to every stimulus in our environment that feels threatening or out of the ordinary. This has always been a wonderful advantage. In fact, our survival as a species depended on this aspect of brain development.
When we take a brain break, it refreshes our thinking and helps us discover another solution to a problem or see a situation through a different lens. During these few minutes, the brain moves away from learning, memorizing, and problem solving. The brain break actually helps to incubate and process new information. Consider trying these activities with your class:
1. The Junk Bag
I always carry a bag of household objects containing markers, scrap paper, and anything that one would find in a junk drawer — for example, a can opener or a pair of shoelaces. Pick any object out of the junk bag and ask students to come up with two ways this object could be reinvented for other uses. They can write or draw their responses. Once students have drawn or written about an invention, they can walk the room for one minute sharing and comparing.
2. Squiggle Story
On a blank sheet of paper, whiteboard, or Promethean Board, draw one squiggly line. Give students one minute to stand and draw with their opposite hand, turning the line into a picture or design of their choice.
3. Opposite Sides
Movement is critical to learning. Have students stand and blink with the right eye while snapping the fingers of their left hand. Repeat this with the left eye and right hand. Students could also face one another and tap the right foot once, left foot twice, and right foot three times, building speed they alternate toe tapping with their partner.
4. Symbolic Alphabet
Sing the alphabet with names of objects rather than the letters.
5. Other Languages
Teach sign language or make up a spoken language. In pairs, students take turns speaking or interpreting this new language for 30 seconds each.
6. Mental Math
Give a set of three instructions, counting the sequence to a partner for 30 seconds. Example: Count by two until 20, then count by three until 50, finishing with seven until 80. Switch and give the other partner another set of numbers to count.
7. Invisible Pictures
Have a student draw a picture in the air while their partner guesses what it is. You could give them categories such as foods, places, or other ways to narrow the guessing.
8. Story Starters
A student or teacher begins a story for one minute, either individually or with a partner. The students then complete or continue it with a silly ending.
9. Rock Scissors Paper Math
With the traditional game, the last call-out is “math.” With that call, students lay out one, two, three, or four fingers in the palm of their hand. The best of three wins.
A focused-attention practice is a brain exercise for quieting the thousands of thoughts that distract and frustrate us each day. When the mind is quiet and focused, we are able to be present with a specific sound, sight, or taste. Research repeatedly shows that quieting our minds ignites our parasympathetic nervous system, reducing heart rate and blood pressure while enhancing our coping strategies to effectively handle the day-to-day challenges that keep coming. Our thinking improves and our emotions begin to regulate so that we can approach an experience with variable options.
For the following practices, the goal is to start with 60 to 90 seconds and build to five minutes:
Use the breath as a focus point. Have students place one hand close to their nose (not touching) and one hand on their belly. As they breathe in, have them feel their bellies expand. As they exhale, they can feel the warm air hit their hand. Students will focus on this breath for only one minute. Let them know that it’s OK when thoughts sometimes come into the mind uninvited. Tell them to exhale that thought away.
Visualize colors while focusing on the breath. Inhale a deep green, and exhale a smoky gray. Have the students imagine the colors as swirling and alive with each inhale. If a student is de-escalating from an angry moment, the color red is a great color to exhale.
For younger children, direct students to stand and, as they inhale, lift an arm or leg and wiggle it, exhaling it back to its original position. For younger grades beginning these focused-attention practices, it’s good to include an inhale and exhale with any type of movement.
4. The Deep-Dive Breath
We inhale for four counts, hold for four, and exhale slowly for four counts. You can increase the holding of breath by a few seconds once the students find the rhythm of the exercise.
5. Energizing Breath
We pant like a dog with our mouths open and our tongues out for 30 seconds, continuing for another 30 seconds with our mouths closed as we take short belly breaths with one hand on the belly. We typically take three energizing pant breaths per second. After a full minute, the students return to four regular deep inhales and exhales.
The use of sound is very powerful for engaging a calm response. In the three classrooms where I teach, we use rain sticks, bells, chimes, and music. There are many websites that provide music for focus, relaxation, and visualization. Here is one of my favorites.
7. Rise and Fall
As we breathe in and out through our noses, we can lie on the floor and place an object on our stomachs, enhancing our focus by watching the rising and falling of our bellies.
When we are focused and paying attention to our thoughts, feelings and choices, we have a much greater opportunity to change those thoughts and feelings that are not serving us well in life and in school. When we grasp this awareness, we see and feel the difference!
JOSÉ URBINA LÓPEZ Primary School sits next to a dump just across the US border in Mexico. The school serves residents of Matamoros, a dusty, sunbaked city of 489,000 that is a flash point in the war on drugs. There are regular shoot-outs, and it’s not uncommon for locals to find bodies scattered in the street in the morning. To get to the school, students walk along a white dirt road that parallels a fetid canal. On a recent morning there was a 1940s-era tractor, a decaying boat in a ditch, and a herd of goats nibbling gray strands of grass. A cinder-block barrier separates the school from a wasteland—the far end of which is a mound of trash that grew so big, it was finally closed down. On most days, a rotten smell drifts through the cement-walled classrooms. Some people here call the school un lugar de castigo—“a place of punishment.”
For 12-year-old Paloma Noyola Bueno, it was a bright spot. More than 25 years ago, her family moved to the border from central Mexico in search of a better life. Instead, they got stuck living beside the dump. Her father spent all day scavenging for scrap, digging for pieces of aluminum, glass, and plastic in the muck. Recently, he had developed nosebleeds, but he didn’t want Paloma to worry. She was his little angel—the youngest of eight children.
After school, Paloma would come home and sit with her father in the main room of their cement-and-wood home. Her father was a weather-beaten, gaunt man who always wore a cowboy hat. Paloma would recite the day’s lessons for him in her crisp uniform—gray polo, blue-and-white skirt—and try to cheer him up. She had long black hair, a high forehead, and a thoughtful, measured way of talking. School had never been challenging for her. She sat in rows with the other students while teachers told the kids what they needed to know. It wasn’t hard to repeat it back, and she got good grades without thinking too much. As she headed into fifth grade, she assumed she was in for more of the same—lectures, memorization, and busy work.
Sergio Juárez Correa was used to teaching that kind of class. For five years, he had stood in front of students and worked his way through the government-mandated curriculum. It was mind-numbingly boring for him and the students, and he’d come to the conclusion that it was a waste of time. Test scores were poor, and even the students who did well weren’t truly engaged. Something had to change.
He too had grown up beside a garbage dump in Matamoros, and he had become a teacher to help kids learn enough to make something more of their lives. So in 2011—when Paloma entered his class—Juárez Correa decided to start experimenting. He began reading books and searching for ideas online. Soon he stumbled on a video describing the work of Sugata Mitra, a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University in the UK. In the late 1990s and throughout the 2000s, Mitra conducted experiments in which he gave children in India access to computers. Without any instruction, they were able to teach themselves a surprising variety of things, from DNA replication to English.
Juárez Correa didn’t know it yet, but he had happened on an emerging educational philosophy, one that applies the logic of the digital age to the classroom. That logic is inexorable: Access to a world of infinite information has changed how we communicate, process information, and think. Decentralized systems have proven to be more productive and agile than rigid, top-down ones. Innovation, creativity, and independent thinking are increasingly crucial to the global economy.
And yet the dominant model of public education is still fundamentally rooted in the industrial revolution that spawned it, when workplaces valued punctuality, regularity, attention, and silence above all else. (In 1899, William T. Harris, the US commissioner of education, celebrated the fact that US schools had developed the “appearance of a machine,” one that teaches the student “to behave in an orderly manner, to stay in his own place, and not get in the way of others.”) We don’t openly profess those values nowadays, but our educational system—which routinely tests kids on their ability to recall information and demonstrate mastery of a narrow set of skills—doubles down on the view that students are material to be processed, programmed, and quality-tested. School administrators prepare curriculum standards and “pacing guides” that tell teachers what to teach each day. Legions of managers supervise everything that happens in the classroom; in 2010 only 50 percent of public school staff members in the US were teachers.
The results speak for themselves: Hundreds of thousands of kids drop out of public high school every year. Of those who do graduate from high school, almost a third are “not prepared academically for first-year college courses,” according to a 2013 report from the testing service ACT. The World Economic Forum ranks the US just 49th out of 148 developed and developing nations in quality of math and science instruction. “The fundamental basis of the system is fatally flawed,” says Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford and founding director of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. “In 1970 the top three skills required by the Fortune 500 were the three Rs: reading, writing, and arithmetic. In 1999 the top three skills in demand were teamwork, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills. We need schools that are developing these skills.”
That’s why a new breed of educators, inspired by everything from the Internet to evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and AI, are inventing radical new ways for children to learn, grow, and thrive. To them, knowledge isn’t a commodity that’s delivered from teacher to student but something that emerges from the students’ own curiosity-fueled exploration. Teachers provide prompts, not answers, and then they step aside so students can teach themselves and one another. They are creating ways for children to discover their passion—and uncovering a generation of geniuses in the process.
AT HOME IN Matamoros, Juárez Correa found himself utterly absorbed by these ideas. And the more he learned, the more excited he became. On August 21, 2011—the start of the school year — he walked into his classroom and pulled the battered wooden desks into small groups. When Paloma and the other students filed in, they looked confused. Juárez Correa invited them to take a seat and then sat down with them.
He started by telling them that there were kids in other parts of the world who could memorize pi to hundreds of decimal points. They could write symphonies and build robots and airplanes. Most people wouldn’t think that the students at José Urbina López could do those kinds of things. Kids just across the border in Brownsville, Texas, had laptops, high-speed Internet, and tutoring, while in Matamoros the students had intermittent electricity, few computers, limited Internet, and sometimes not enough to eat.
“But you do have one thing that makes you the equal of any kid in the world,” Juárez Correa said. “Potential.”
He looked around the room. “And from now on,” he told them, “we’re going to use that potential to make you the best students in the world.”
Paloma was silent, waiting to be told what to do. She didn’t realize that over the next nine months, her experience of school would be rewritten, tapping into an array of educational innovations from around the world and vaulting her and some of her classmates to the top of the math and language rankings in Mexico.
“So,” Juárez Correa said, “what do you want to learn?”
IN 1999, SUGATA Mitra was chief scientist at a company in New Delhi that trains software developers. His office was on the edge of a slum, and on a hunch one day, he decided to put a computer into a nook in a wall separating his building from the slum. He was curious to see what the kids would do, particularly if he said nothing. He simply powered the computer on and watched from a distance. To his surprise, the children quickly figured out how to use the machine.
Over the years, Mitra got more ambitious. For a study published in 2010, he loaded a computer with molecular biology materials and set it up in Kalikuppam, a village in southern India. He selected a small group of 10- to 14-year-olds and told them there was some interesting stuff on the computer, and might they take a look? Then he applied his new pedagogical method: He said no more and left.
Over the next 75 days, the children worked out how to use the computer and began to learn. When Mitra returned, he administered a written test on molecular biology. The kids answered about one in four questions correctly. After another 75 days, with the encouragement of a friendly local, they were getting every other question right. “If you put a computer in front of children and remove all other adult restrictions, they will self-organize around it,” Mitra says, “like bees around a flower.”
A charismatic and convincing proselytizer, Mitra has become a darling in the tech world. In early 2013 he won a $1 million grant from TED, the global ideas conference, to pursue his work. He’s now in the process of establishing seven “schools in the cloud,” five in India and two in the UK. In India, most of his schools are single-room buildings. There will be no teachers, curriculum, or separation into age groups—just six or so computers and a woman to look after the kids’ safety. His defining principle: “The children are completely in charge.”
The bottom line is, if you’re not the one controlling your learning, you’re not going to learn as well.
Mitra argues that the information revolution has enabled a style of learning that wasn’t possible before. The exterior of his schools will be mostly glass, so outsiders can peer in. Inside, students will gather in groups around computers and research topics that interest them. He has also recruited a group of retired British teachers who will appear occasionally on large wall screens via Skype, encouraging students to investigate their ideas—a process Mitra believes best fosters learning. He calls them the Granny Cloud. “They’ll be life-size, on two walls” Mitra says. “And the children can always turn them off.”
Mitra’s work has roots in educational practices dating back to Socrates. Theorists from Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi to Jean Piaget and Maria Montessori have argued that students should learn by playing and following their curiosity. Einstein spent a year at a Pestalozzi-inspired school in the mid-1890s, and he later credited it with giving him the freedom to begin his first thought experiments on the theory of relativity. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin similarly claim that their Montessori schooling imbued them with a spirit of independence and creativity.
In recent years, researchers have begun backing up those theories with evidence. In a 2011 study, scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Iowa scanned the brain activity of 16 people sitting in front of a computer screen. The screen was blurred out except for a small, movable square through which subjects could glimpse objects laid out on a grid. Half the time, the subjects controlled the square window, allowing them to determine the pace at which they examined the objects; the rest of the time, they watched a replay of someone else moving the window. The study found that when the subjects controlled their own observations, they exhibited more coordination between the hippocampus and other parts of the brain involved in learning and posted a 23 percent improvement in their ability to remember objects. “The bottom line is, if you’re not the one who’s controlling your learning, you’re not going to learn as well,” says lead researcher Joel Voss, now a neuroscientist at Northwestern University.
In 2009, scientists from the University of Louisville and MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences conducted a study of 48 children between the ages of 3 and 6. The kids were presented with a toy that could squeak, play notes, and reflect images, among other things. For one set of children, a researcher demonstrated a single attribute and then let them play with the toy. Another set of students was given no information about the toy. This group played longer and discovered an average of six attributes of the toy; the group that was told what to do discovered only about four. A similar study at UC Berkeley demonstrated that kids given no instruction were much more likely to come up with novel solutions to a problem. “The science is brand-new, but it’s not as if people didn’t have this intuition before,” says coauthor Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley.
Gopnik’s research is informed in part by advances in artificial intelligence. If you program a robot’s every movement, she says, it can’t adapt to anything unexpected. But when scientists build machines that are programmed to try a variety of motions and learn from mistakes, the robots become far more adaptable and skilled. The same principle applies to children, she says.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF ALTERNATIVE SCHOOLS
New research shows what educators have long intuited: Letting kids pursue their own interests sharpens their hunger for knowledge. Here’s a look back at this approach.
470 BC Socrates is born in Athens. He goes on to become a long-haired teacher who famously let students arrive at their own conclusions. His questioning, probing approach—the Socratic method—endures to this day.
1907 Maria Montessori opens her first Children’s House in Rome, where kids are encouraged to play and teach themselves. Americans later visit her schools and see the Montessori method in action. It spreads worldwide.
The first Waldorf school opens in Stuttgart, Germany. Based on the ideas of philosopher Rudolf Steiner, it encourages self-motivated learning. Today, there are more than 1,000 Waldorf schools in 60 countries.
1921 A. S. Neill founds the Summerhill School, where kids have the “freedom to go to lessons or stay away, freedom to play for days … or years if necessary.” Eventually, such democratic schools appear around the world.
1945 Loris Malaguzzi volunteers to teach in a school that parents are building in a war-torn Italian village outside Reggio Emilia. The “Reggio Emilia approach”—a community of self-guided learning—is born.
1967 Seymour Papert, a protégé of child psychologist Jean Piaget, helps create the first version of Logo, a programming language kids can use to teach themselves. He becomes a lifelong advocate for technology’s role in learning.
1999 Sugata Mitra conducts his first “hole in the wall” experiment in New Delhi, India. On their own, slum kids teach themselves to use a computer. Mitra dubs his approach minimally invasive education.
2006 Ken Robinson gives what will become the most frequently viewed TED Talk ever: “How Schools Kill Creativity.” Students should be free to make mistakes and pursue their own creative interests, Robinson argues.
2012 The Common Core, a new set of curriculum standards that include student-centered learning, is adopted by 45 US states. Math students, say, should “start by explaining to themselves the meaning of a problem.”
CREDITS: WALDORF SCHOOL: COURTESY OF WALDORF SCHOOL; ROBINSON: ROBERT LESLIE; MALAGUZZI: COURTESY OF REGGIO CHILDREN; REMAINING: GETTY IMAGES
Evolutionary psychologists have also begun exploring this way of thinking. Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College who studies children’s natural ways of learning, argues that human cognitive machinery is fundamentally incompatible with conventional schooling. Gray points out that young children, motivated by curiosity and playfulness, teach themselves a tremendous amount about the world. And yet when they reach school age, we supplant that innate drive to learn with an imposed curriculum. “We’re teaching the child that his questions don’t matter, that what matters are the questions of the curriculum. That’s just not the way natural selection designed us to learn. It designed us to solve problems and figure things out that are part of our real lives.”
Some school systems have begun to adapt to this new philosophy—with outsize results. In the 1990s, Finland pared the country’s elementary math curriculum from about 25 pages to four, reduced the school day by an hour, and focused on independence and active learning. By 2003, Finnish students had climbed from the lower rungs of international performance rankings to first place among developed nations.
Nicholas Negroponte, cofounder of the MIT Media Lab, is taking this approach even further with his One Laptop per Child initiative. Last year the organization delivered 40 tablets to children in two remote villages in Ethiopia. Negroponte’s team didn’t explain how the devices work or even open the boxes. Nonetheless, the children soon learned to play back the alphabet song and taught themselves to write letters. They also figured out how to use the tablet’s camera. This was impressive because the organization had disabled camera usage. “They hacked Android,” Negroponte says.
ONE DAY Juárez Correa went to his whiteboard and wrote “1 = 1.00.” Normally, at this point, he would start explaining the concept of fractions and decimals. Instead he just wrote “½ = ?” and “¼ = ?”
“Think about that for a second,” he said, and walked out of the room.
While the kids murmured, Juárez Correa went to the school cafeteria, where children could buy breakfast and lunch for small change. He borrowed about 10 pesos in coins, worth about 75 cents, and walked back to his classroom, where he distributed a peso’s worth of coins to each table. He noticed that Paloma had already written .50 and .25 on a piece of paper.
“One peso is one peso,” he said. “What’s one-half?”
At first a number of kids divided the coins into clearly unequal piles. It sparked a debate among the students about what one-half meant. Juárez Correa’s training told him to intervene. But now he remembered Mitra’s research and resisted the urge. Instead, he watched as Alma Delia Juárez Flores explained to her tablemates that half means equal portions. She counted out 50 centavos. “So the answer is .50,” she said. The other kids nodded. It made sense.
For Juárez Correa it was simultaneously thrilling and a bit scary. In Finland, teachers underwent years of training to learn how to orchestrate this new style of learning; he was winging it. He began experimenting with different ways of posing open-ended questions on subjects ranging from the volume of cubes to multiplying fractions. “The volume of a square-based prism is the area of the base times the height. The volume of a square-based pyramid is that formula divided by three,” he said one morning. “Why do you think that is?”
He walked around the room, saying little. It was fascinating to watch the kids approach the answer. They were working in teams and had models of various shapes to look at and play with. The team led by Usiel Lemus Aquino, a short boy with an ever-present hopeful expression, hit on the idea of drawing the different shapes—prisms and pyramids. By layering the drawings on top of each other, they began to divine the answer. Juárez Correa let the kids talk freely. It was a noisy, slightly chaotic environment—exactly the opposite of the sort of factory-friendly discipline that teachers were expected to impose. But within 20 minutes, they had come up with the answer.
“Three pyramids fit in one prism,” Usiel observed, speaking for the group. “So the volume of a pyramid must be the volume of a prism divided by three.”
Juárez Correa was impressed. But he was even more intrigued by Paloma. During these experiments, he noticed that she almost always came up with the answer immediately. Sometimes she explained things to her tablemates, other times she kept the answer to herself. Nobody had told him that she had an unusual gift. Yet even when he gave the class difficult questions, she quickly jotted down the answers. To test her limits, he challenged the class with a problem he was sure would stump her. He told the story of Carl Friedrich Gauss, the famous German mathematician, who was born in 1777.
When Gauss was a schoolboy, one of his teachers asked the class to add up every number between 1 and 100. It was supposed to take an hour, but Gauss had the answer almost instantly.
“Does anyone know how he did this?” Juárez Correa asked.
A few students started trying to add up the numbers and soon realized it would take a long time. Paloma, working with her group, carefully wrote out a few sequences and looked at them for a moment. Then she raised her hand.
“The answer is 5,050,” she said. “There are 50 pairs of 101.”
Juárez Correa felt a chill. He’d never encountered a student with so much innate ability. He squatted next to her and asked why she hadn’t expressed much interest in math in the past, since she was clearly good at it.
“Because no one made it this interesting,” she said.
PALOMA’S FATHER got sicker. He continued working, but he was running a fever and suffering headaches. Finally he was admitted to the hospital, where his condition deteriorated; on February 27, 2012, he died of lung cancer. On Paloma’s last visit before he passed away, she sat beside him and held his hand. “You are a smart girl,” he said. “Study and make me proud.”
Paloma missed four days of school for the funeral before returning to class. Her friends could tell she was distraught, but she buried her grief. She wanted to live up to her father’s last wish. And Juárez Correa’s new style of curating challenges for the kids was the perfect refuge for her. As he continued to relinquish control, Paloma took on more responsibility for her own education. He taught the kids about democracy by letting them elect leaders who would decide how to run the class and address discipline. The children elected five representatives, including Paloma and Usiel. When two boys got into a shoving match, the representatives admonished the boys, and the problem didn’t happen again.
Juárez Correa spent his nights watching education videos. He read polemics by the Mexican cartoonist Eduardo del Río (known as Rius), who argued that kids should be free to explore whatever they want. He was also still impressed by Mitra, who talks about letting children “wander aimlessly around ideas.” Juárez Correa began hosting regular debates in class, and he didn’t shy away from controversial topics. He asked the kids if they thought homosexuality and abortion should be permitted. He asked them to figure out what the Mexican government should do, if anything, about immigration to the US. Once he asked a question, he would stand back and let them engage one another.
A key component in Mitra’s theory was that children could learn by having access to the web, but that wasn’t easy for Juárez Correa’s students. The state paid for a technology instructor who visited each class once a week, but he didn’t have much technology to demonstrate. Instead, he had a batch of posters depicting keyboards, joysticks, and 3.5-inch floppy disks. He would hold the posters up and say things like, “This is a keyboard. You use it to type.”
As a result, Juárez Correa became a slow-motion conduit to the Internet. When the kids wanted to know why we see only one side of the moon, for example, he went home, Googled it, and brought back an explanation the next day. When they asked specific questions about eclipses and the equinox, he told them he’d figure it out and report back.
Juárez Correa also brought something else back from the Internet. It was the fable of a forlorn burro trapped at the bottom of a well. Since thieves had broken into the school and sliced the electrical cord off of the classroom projector (presumably to sell the copper inside), he couldn’t actually show them the clip that recounted the tale. Instead, he simply described it.
One day, a burro fell into a well, Juárez Correa began. It wasn’t hurt, but it couldn’t get out. The burro’s owner decided that the aged beast wasn’t worth saving, and since the well was dry, he would just bury both. He began to shovel clods of earth into the well. The burro cried out, but the man kept shoveling. Eventually, the burro fell silent. The man assumed the animal was dead, so he was amazed when, after a lot of shoveling, the burro leaped out of the well. It had shaken off each clump of dirt and stepped up the steadily rising mound until it was able to jump out.
Juárez Correa looked at his class. “We are like that burro,” he said. “Everything that is thrown at us is an opportunity to rise out of the well we are in.”
When the two-day national standardized exam took place in June 2012, Juárez Correa viewed it as just another pile of dirt thrown on the kids’ heads. It was a step back to the way school used to be for them: mechanical and boring. To prevent cheating, a coordinator from the Ministry of Education oversaw the proceedings and took custody of the answer sheets at the end of testing. It felt like a military exercise, but as the kids blasted through the questions, they couldn’t help noticing that it felt easy, as if they were being asked to do something very basic.
RICARDO ZAVALA HERNANDEZ, assistant principal at José Urbina López, drinks a cup of coffee most mornings as he browses the web in the admin building, a cement structure that houses the school’s two functioning computers. One day in September 2012, he clicked on the site for ENLACE, Mexico’s national achievement exam, and discovered that the results of the June test had been posted.
Zavala Hernandez put down his coffee. Most of the classes had done marginally better this year—but Paloma’s grade was another story. The previous year, 45 percent had essentially failed the math section, and 31 percent had failed Spanish. This time only 7 percent failed math and 3.5 percent failed Spanish. And while none had posted an Excellent score before, 63 percent were now in that category in math.
The language scores were very high. Even the lowest was well above the national average. Then he noticed the math scores. The top score in Juárez Correa’s class was 921. Zavala Hernandez looked over at the top score in the state: It was 921. When he saw the next box over, the hairs on his arms stood up. The top score in the entire country was also 921.
He printed the page and speed-walked to Juárez Correa’s classroom. The students stood up when he entered.
“Take a look at this,” Zavala Hernandez said, handing him the printout.
Juárez Correa scanned the results and looked up. “Is this for real?” he asked.
“I just printed it off the ENLACE site,” the assistant principal responded. “It’s real.”
Juárez Correa noticed the kids staring at him, but he wanted to make sure he understood the report. He took a moment to read it again, nodded, and turned to the kids.
“We have the results back from the ENLACE exam,” he said. “It’s just a test, and not a great one.”
A number of students had a sinking feeling. They must have blown it.
“But we have a student in this classroom who placed first in Mexico,” he said, breaking into a smile.
PALOMA RECEIVED THE highest math score in the country, but the other students weren’t far behind. Ten got math scores that placed them in the 99.99th percentile. Three of them placed at the same high level in Spanish. The results attracted a quick burst of official and media attention in Mexico, most of which focused on Paloma. She was flown to Mexico City to appear on a popular TV show and received a variety of gifts, from a laptop to a bicycle.
Juárez Correa himself got almost no recognition, despite the fact that nearly half of his class had performed at a world- class level and that even the lowest performers had markedly improved.
His other students were congratulated by friends and family. The parents of Carlos Rodríguez Lamas, who placed in the 99.99th percentile in math, treated him to three steak tacos. It was his first time in a restaurant. Keila Francisco Rodríguez got 10 pesos from her parents. She bought a bag of Cheetos. The kids were excited. They talked about being doctors, teachers, and politicians.
Juárez Correa had mixed feelings about the test. His students had succeeded because he had employed a new teaching method, one better suited to the way children learn. It was a model that emphasized group work, competition, creativity, and a student-led environment. So it was ironic that the kids had distinguished themselves because of a conventional multiple-choice test. “These exams are like limits for the teachers,” he says. “They test what you know, not what you can do, and I am more interested in what my students can do.”
Like Juárez Correa, many education innovators are succeeding outside the mainstream. For example, the 11 Internationals Network high schools in New York City report a higher graduation rate than the city’s average for the same populations. They do it by emphasizing student-led learning and collaboration. At the coalition of Big Picture Learning schools—56 schools across the US and another 64 around the world—teachers serve as advisers, suggesting topics of interest; students also work with mentors from business and the community, who help guide them into internships. As the US on-time high school graduation rate stalls at about 75 percent, Big Picture is graduating more than 90 percent of its students.
But these examples—involving only thousands of students—are the exceptions to the rule. The system as a whole educates millions and is slow to recognize or adopt successful innovation. It’s a system that was constructed almost two centuries ago to meet the needs of the industrial age. Now that our society and economy have evolved beyond that era, our schools must also be reinvented.
For the time being, we can see what the future looks like in places like Juárez Correa’s classroom. We can also see that change will not come easily. Though Juárez Correa’s class posted impressive results, they inspired little change. Francisco Sánchez Salazar, chief of the Regional Center of Educational Development in Matamoros, was even dismissive. “The teaching method makes little difference,” he says. Nor does he believe that the students’ success warrants any additional help. “Intelligence comes from necessity,” he says. “They succeed without having resources.”
More than ever, Juárez Correa felt like the burro in the story. But then he remembered Paloma. She had lost her father and was growing up on the edge of a garbage dump. Under normal circumstances, her prospects would be limited. But like the burro, she was shaking off the clods of dirt; she had begun climbing the rising mound out of the well.
Some schools are finding new ways for technology to fuel students’ curiosity so they can steer their own learning. —J.K.
Brooklyn Free School
Founded just under a decade ago, the Brooklyn Free School builds on a tradition of democratic education. In this “real, practicing democracy,” students are allowed to direct their own learning. There are no grades or mandatory assignments.
New Technology High School
No desks, no bells, and teachers who lecture by invitation: pretty much what you’d expect of a school dreamed up by Silicon Valley types. Students at this school in Napa, California, must demonstrate technology literacy, mastering skills like digital video production and Flash programming.
Laptop-toting students at this small school in Manhattan participate in an “online collaborative space” in which they interact with teachers and experts. And not just any experts: A NASA scientist and other luminaries have delivered lectures remotely.
High Tech High
Originally a single charter school in San Diego, High Tech High is now a 12-school network that serves more than 5,000 K-12 students. With access to sleek facilities—including labs for subjects like biotech, mechanical engineering, and graphic design—students develop multimedia research projects, consult with experts, and even present their work in professional venues.
Mooresville Graded School District
The eight schools in this district outside Charlotte, North Carolina, provide students from the fourth through twelfth grades with MacBook Airs. That means less lecturing and more projects, with students seeking answers online and sharing their discoveries with one another.
School of One
Multiple skills are taught at the same time in different parts of open-space classrooms in New York City. The program’s approach blends traditional lectures with computer exercises and virtual tutors, and a learning algorithm generates a daily plan for each student.
Being developed in India and England, cloud schools are education maverick Sugata Mitra’s vision for the future: spaces in which children learn on their own, with occasional encouragement from teachers via Skype.
The disintegration of Jake’s life took him by surprise. It happened early in his junior year of high school, while he was taking three Advanced Placement classes, running on his school’s cross-country team and traveling to Model United Nations conferences. It was a lot to handle, but Jake — the likable, hard-working oldest sibling in a suburban North Carolina family — was the kind of teenager who handled things. Though he was not prone to boastfulness, the fact was he had never really failed at anything.
Not coincidentally, failure was one of Jake’s biggest fears. He worried about it privately; maybe he couldn’t keep up with his peers, maybe he wouldn’t succeed in life. The relentless drive to avoid such a fate seemed to come from deep inside him. He considered it a strength.
Jake’s parents knew he could be high-strung; in middle school, they sent him to a therapist when he was too scared to sleep in his own room. But nothing prepared them for the day two years ago when Jake, then 17, seemingly “ran 150 miles per hour into a brick wall,” his mother said. He refused to go to school and curled up in the fetal position on the floor. “I just can’t take it!” he screamed. “You just don’t understand!”
Jake was right — his parents didn’t understand. Jake didn’t really understand, either. But he also wasn’t good at verbalizing what he thought he knew: that going to school suddenly felt impossible, that people were undoubtedly judging him, that nothing he did felt good enough. “All of a sudden I couldn’t do anything,” he said. “I was so afraid.” His tall, lanky frame succumbed, too. His stomach hurt. He had migraines. “You know how a normal person might have their stomach lurch if they walk into a classroom and there’s a pop quiz?” he told me. “Well, I basically started having that feeling all the time.”
Alarmed, Jake’s parents sent him to his primary-care physician, who prescribed Prozac, an antidepressant often given to anxious teenagers. It was the first of many medications that Jake, who asked that his last name not be used, would try over the next year. But none seemed to work — and some made a bad situation worse. An increase in dosage made Jake “much more excited, acting strangely and almost manic,” his father wrote in a journal in the fall of 2015. A few weeks later, Jake locked himself in a bathroom at home and tried to drown himself in the bathtub.
He was hospitalized for four days, but soon after he returned home, he started hiding out in his room again. He cried, slept, argued with his parents about going to school and mindlessly surfed the internet on his phone. The more school he missed, the more anxious he felt about missing school. And the more anxious he felt, the more hopeless and depressed he became. He had long wanted to go to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but now that felt like wishful thinking.
Not every day was bad. During spring break in 2016, Jake’s father wrote: “Jake was relaxed and his old sarcastic, personable, witty self.” A week later, though, Jake couldn’t get through a school day without texting his mother to pick him up or hiding out in the nurse’s office. At home, Jake threatened suicide again. His younger siblings were terrified. “It was the depth of hell,” his mother told me.
That summer, after two more hospitalizations, Jake’s desperate parents sent him to Mountain Valley in New Hampshire, a residential treatment facility and one of a growing number of programs for acutely anxious teenagers. Over the last decade, anxiety has overtaken depression as the most common reason college students seek counseling services. In its annual survey of students, the American College Health Association found a significant increase — to 62 percent in 2016 from 50 percent in 2011 — of undergraduates reporting “overwhelming anxiety” in the previous year. Surveys that look at symptoms related to anxiety are also telling. In 1985, the Higher Education Research Institute at U.C.L.A. began asking incoming college freshmen if they “felt overwhelmed by all I had to do” during the previous year. In 1985, 18 percent said they did. By 2010, that number had increased to 29 percent. Last year, it surged to 41 percent.
Those numbers — combined with a doubling of hospital admissions for suicidal teenagers over the last 10 years, with the highest rates occurring soon after they return to school each fall — come as little surprise to high school administrators across the country, who increasingly report a glut of anxious, overwhelmed students. While it’s difficult to tease apart how much of the apparent spike in anxiety is related to an increase in awareness and diagnosis of the disorder, many of those who work with young people suspect that what they’re seeing can’t easily be explained away. “We’ve always had kids who didn’t want to come in the door or who were worried about things,” says Laurie Farkas, who was until recently director of student services for the Northampton public schools in Massachusetts. “But there’s just been a steady increase of severely anxious students.”
For the teenagers who arrive at Mountain Valley, a nonprofit program that costs $910 a day and offers some need-based assistance, the center is usually a last resort after conventional therapy and medications fail. The young people I met there suffered from a range of anxiety disorders, including social anxiety, separation anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. (Though OCD and PTSD are considered anxiety disorders at Mountain Valley and other treatment centers, they were moved into separate categories in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.)
Mountain Valley teenagers spend a lot of time analyzing — and learning to talk back to — their anxious thoughts. During one group session in the summer of 2016 in a sunlit renovated barn with couches, a therapist named Sharon McCallie-Steller instructed everyone to write down three negative beliefs about themselves. That’s an easy exercise for anxious young people (“Only three?” one girl quipped), but McCallie-Steller complicated the assignment by requiring the teenagers to come up with a “strong and powerful response” to each negative thought.
She asked for volunteers. First, residents would share their negative beliefs and rebuttals with the group. Then others would act those out, culminating in a kind of public performance of private teenage insecurity.
Jake raised his hand. By then, he was in his third month at Mountain Valley, and he looked considerably less anxious than several of the newcomers, including one who sat slumped on a couch with his head in his hands. “I’m free to play the part of terrible, evil thoughts for anyone who needs them,” Jake said with a smile. He had already spent weeks challenging his own thinking, which often persuaded him that if he failed a single quiz at school, “then I’ll get a bad grade in the class, I won’t get into the college I want, I won’t get a good job and I’ll be a total failure.”
At Mountain Valley, Jake learned mindfulness techniques, took part in art therapy and equine therapy and, most important, engaged in exposure therapy, a treatment that incrementally exposes people to what they fear. The therapists had quickly figured out that Jake was afraid of failure above all else, so they devised a number of exercises to help him learn to tolerate distress and imperfection. On a group outing to nearby Dartmouth College, for example, Jake’s therapist suggested he strike up conversations with strangers and tell them he didn’t have the grades to get into the school. The college application process was a source of particular anxiety for Jake, and the hope was that he would learn that he could talk about college without shutting down — and that his value as a person didn’t depend on where he went to school.
Though two months in rural New Hampshire hadn’t cured Jake of anxiety, he had made significant progress, and the therapy team was optimistic about his return home for his senior year. Until then, Jake wanted to help other Mountain Valley teenagers face their fears.
Among them was Jillian, a 16-year-old who, when she wasn’t overwhelmed with anxiety, came across as remarkably poised and adultlike, the kind of teenager you find yourself talking to as if she were a graduate student in psychology. Jillian, who also asked that her last name not be used, came to Mountain Valley after two years of only intermittently going to school. She suffered from social anxiety (made worse by cyberbullying from classmates) and emetophobia, a fear of vomit that can be so debilitating that people will sometimes restrict what they eat and refuse to leave the house, lest they encounter someone with a stomach flu.
Jillian listened as Jake and other peers — who, in reality, liked her very much — voiced her insecurities: “I can’t believe how insignificant Jillian is.” “I mean, for the first three weeks, I thought her name was Susan.” “If she left tomorrow, maybe we wouldn’t even miss her.”
At the last one, Jillian’s shoulders caved, and her eyes watered. “I don’t want to do this,” she said, looking meekly at McCallie-Steller.
“If it’s too much, you can stop,” the therapist said, but Jillian considered the offer only long enough to reject it. She straightened her back. “No, I feel like I need to do this,” she announced. “I have a week and a half left. If I can’t get through something like this here …”
Her voice trailed off, but the implication was clear: The real world would be much more anxiety producing — and much less forgiving.
Anxiety isthe most common mental-health disorder in the United States, affecting nearly one-third of both adolescents and adults, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. But unlike depression, with which it routinely occurs, anxiety is often seen as a less serious problem.
“Anxiety is easy to dismiss or overlook, partially because everyone has it to some degree,” explained Philip Kendall, director of the Child and Adolescent Anxiety Disorders Clinic at Temple University in Philadelphia. It has an evolutionary purpose, after all; it helps us detect and avoid potentially dangerous situations. Highly anxious people, though, have an overactive fight-or-flight response that perceives threats where there often are none.
But sometimes there are good reasons to feel anxious. For many young people, particularly those raised in abusive families or who live in neighborhoods besieged by poverty or violence, anxiety is a rational reaction to unstable, dangerous circumstances. At the Youth Anxiety Center’s clinic in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, which serves mostly poor and working-class Hispanic youth, teenagers would object to the definition of anxiety I heard often at Mountain Valley: “The overestimation of danger and the underestimation of our ability to cope.”
“The fears can be very real for our kids,” explained Carolina Zerrate, the clinic’s medical director. “Oftentimes their neighborhoods are not safe, their streets are not safe and their families can feel unsafe if there’s a history of trauma and abuse.” The contemporary political climate can also feel “incredibly unsafe for the community of kids we serve,” Zerrate adds, explaining that many have undocumented family members.
And yet addressing anxiety is low on the priority list in many economically disadvantaged communities. Kids who “act out” are often labeled defiant or aggressive, while those who keep to themselves — anxiety specialists call them “silent sufferers” — are overlooked or mistaken for being shy. “If you go to a public school in a struggling urban area, teachers will talk about drugs, crime, teen pregnancy, violence,” Kendall says. “When you start to talk about anxiety, they’re like, ‘Oh, those are the kids we like!’ ”
Teenagers raised in more affluent communities might seemingly have less to feel anxious about. But Suniya Luthar, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University who has studied distress and resilience in both well-off and disadvantaged teenagers, has found that privileged youths are among the most emotionally distressed young people in America. “These kids are incredibly anxious and perfectionistic,” she says, but there’s “contempt and scorn for the idea that kids who have it all might be hurting.”
For many of these young people, the biggest single stressor is that they “never get to the point where they can say, ‘I’ve done enough, and now I can stop,’ ” Luthar says. “There’s always one more activity, one more A.P. class, one more thing to do in order to get into a top college. Kids have a sense that they’re not measuring up. The pressure is relentless and getting worse.”
It’s tempting to blame helicopter parents with their own anxiety issues for that pressure (and therapists who work with teenagers sometimes do), but several anxiety experts pointed to an important shift in the last few years. “Teenagers used to tell me, ‘I just need to get my parents off my back,’ ” recalls Madeline Levine, a founder of Challenge Success, a Stanford University-affiliated nonprofit that works on school reform and student well-being. “Now so many students have internalized the anxiety. The kids at this point are driving themselves crazy.”
Though there are cultural differences in how this kind of anguish manifests, there’s considerable overlap among teenagers from different backgrounds. Many are anxious about school and how friends or teachers perceive them. Some obsess about family conflicts. Teenagers with OCD tend to worry excessively about what foods they should eat, diseases they might contract or whatever happens to be in the news that week. Stephanie Eken, a psychiatrist and the regional medical director for Rogers Behavioral Health, which runs several teenage-anxiety outpatient programs across the country and an inpatient program in Wisconsin, told me that in the last few years she has heard more kids than ever worry about terrorism. “They wonder about whether it’s safe to go to a movie theater,” she said.
When I asked Eken about other common sources of worry among highly anxious kids, she didn’t hesitate: social media. Anxious teenagers from all backgrounds are relentlessly comparing themselves with their peers, she said, and the results are almost uniformly distressing.
Anxious kids certainly existed before Instagram, but many of the parents I spoke to worried that their kids’ digital habits — round-the-clock responding to texts, posting to social media, obsessively following the filtered exploits of peers — were partly to blame for their children’s struggles. To my surprise, anxious teenagers tended to agree. At Mountain Valley, I listened as a college student went on a philosophical rant about his generation’s relationship to social media. “I don’t think we realize how much it’s affecting our moods and personalities,” he said. “Social media is a tool, but it’s become this thing that we can’t live without but that’s making us crazy.”
In his case, he had little doubt that social media made him more self-conscious. “In high school, I’d constantly be judging my self-worth online,” he told me, recalling his tortured relationship with Facebook. “I would think, Oh, people don’t want to see me on their timeline.”
While smartphones can provoke anxiety, they can also serve as a handy avoidance strategy. At the height of his struggles, Jake spent hours at a time on his phone at home or at school. “It was a way for me not to think about classes and college, not to have to talk to people,” he said. Jake’s parents became so alarmed that they spoke to his psychiatrist about it and took his phone away a few hours each night.
At a workshop for parents last fall at the NW Anxiety Institute in Portland, Ore., Kevin Ashworth, the clinical director, warned them of the “illusion of control and certainty” that smartphones offer anxious young people desperate to manage their environments. “Teens will go places if they feel like they know everything that will happen, if they know everyone who will be there, if they can see who’s checked in online,” Ashworth told the parents. “But life doesn’t always come with that kind of certainty, and they’re never practicing the skill of rolling with the punches, of walking into an unknown or awkward social situation and learning that they can survive it.”
Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University who researches adolescent mental health and psychological differences among generations, used to be skeptical of those who sounded an alarm about teenage internet use. “It seemed like too easy an explanation for negative mental-health outcomes in teens, and there wasn’t much evidence for it,” she told me. She searched for other possible explanations, including economic ones. But the timing of the spike in anxious and depressed teenagers since 2011, which she called one of the sharpest and most significant she has seen, is “all wrong,” she said. “The economy was improving by the time the increase started.”
The more she looked for explanations, the more she kept returning to two seemingly unrelated trend lines — depression in teenagers and smartphone adoption. (There is significantly more data about depression than anxiety.) Since 2011, the trend lines increased at essentially the same rate. In her recent book “iGen,” and in an article in The Atlantic, Twenge highlights a number of studies exploring the connection between social media and unhappiness. “The use of social media and smartphones look culpable for the increase in teen mental-health issues,” she told me. “It’s enough for an arrest — and as we get more data, it might be enough for a conviction.”
Last fall, at a high school near the New Hampshire-Vermont border, I watched Lynn Lyons, a psychotherapist and author, deliver bad news to a packed auditorium of teachers and counselors. “We’re not getting the job done,” she said, pacing the stage at Fall Mountain Regional High School, where she had been asked to lead a professional-development training session about anxiety.
More than a decade ago, the school would have been unlikely to invite her to speak. Anxiety was barely on the radar of most educators back then, according to Denise Pope, another founder of Challenge Success, the Stanford-affiliated nonprofit. Pope remembers facing skepticism when she sounded the alarm about growing anxiety among teenagers. “We don’t have to convince them anymore,” she told me. “Schools are coming to us, eager for help.”
A gregarious speaker, Lyons kept her audience entertained by calling anxiety “the cult leader” — for its ability to convince people of falsehoods about themselves — and telling funny stories about overinvolved parents. But her main point was clear: In a seemingly well-meaning effort to help kids avoid what makes them anxious, administrators actually make anxiety worse. “Anxiety is all about the avoidance of uncertainty and discomfort,” Lyons explained. “When we play along, we don’t help kids learn to cope or problem-solve in the face of unexpected events.”
She pointed to the increasing use of “504 plans,” a popular educational tool that allows for academic accommodations for students with physical or mental disabilities. Though 504 plans for anxiety vary by student, a typical one might allow a teenager to take more time on homework and tests, enter the school through a back door — to avoid the chaos of the main entrance — and leave a classroom when feeling anxious.
Lyons believes in the necessity of 504 plans, and she is in agreement with many of the recommendations of Challenge Success, including later school start times, less homework and more project-based learning. But Lyons worries that too many 504 plans are “avoidance-based and teach zero skills.” She gave the example of a plan that allows a student to leave a classroom anytime he feels overwhelmed. Often, a teenager “can go wherever he wants and stay there for as long as he thinks he needs,” she said. Instead, she argued, a school should have a policy in place for the student to seek out a guidance counselor or nurse and do some role-playing that helps the student “externalize his worry,” similar to how Mountain Valley teenagers are taught to observe their thinking and talk back to it. Then the student should return to his regular classroom as soon as possible, Lyons said.
“If anxiety could talk, it would say, ‘You know, let’s just get out of here. We don’t have to do this!’ ” Lyons said from the stage. “But in order to retrain the brain, in order to create that message that says that even though I’m uncomfortable I can do this, we need to stop treating these anxious kids like they’re so frail, like they can’t handle things.”
Lyons sees a connection between how some schools deal with anxious students and what she worries is a generation of young people increasingly insistent on safe spaces — and who believe their feelings should be protected at all costs. “Kids are being given some really dangerous messages these days about the fact that they can’t handle being triggered, that they shouldn’t have to bear witness to anything that makes them uncomfortable and that their external environments should bend to and accommodate their needs,” she told me.
Among many teachers and administrators I spoke to, one word — “resiliency” — kept coming up. More and more students struggle to recover from minor setbacks and aren’t “equipped to problem-solve or advocate for themselves effectively,” a school counselor in suburban Oregon told me. In the last few years, the counselor said, she has watched in astonishment as more students struggle with anxiety — and as more of those “stop coming to school, because they just can’t.”
Some schools have taken drastic measures to accommodate what one administrator called “our more fragile students.” At Roxbury High School in Roxbury Township, N.J., there are two dedicated classrooms for anxious teenagers, including one next to a mural of Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream.” These students typically avoid the mammoth school cafeteria in favor of eating lunch in one of the classrooms, as they did on the day of my visit last May. They had just finished gym class, an anxiety-producing event for some even as the school did all it could to reimagine the concept. Music blasted throughout the gym as the teenagers halfheartedly played something vaguely approximating a game of volleyball. The ball was allowed to bounce once before being struck — not that anyone was keeping score.
I couldn’t help wondering what Lyons, and other therapists I spoke to who worry that schools inadvertently worsen anxiety, would think of this approach. Some of the programs’ teenagers hoped to go to college, where no special classrooms would await them. How was this preparing them for that?
“Some will say that this feeds the monster,” concedes Patricia Hovey, director of special services at Roxbury High. “But you’ve got to start where the kids are, not where you are or where you want them to be. We’ve got to get them in the building. Many of our students simply don’t come to school if they have to spend all day in” general-education classes. Once the students are in school, Hovey explained, staff members can help them build the confidence and skills to eventually transition to Roxbury’s regular classes — and stand a chance at navigating college or a job once they graduate.
Even with the promise of a special classroom, getting anxious kids to Roxbury High each morning demands a herculean effort from the program’s teachers and therapists. During my visit, I watched them text and call several no-show students in an effort to coax them out of bed. They also regularly communicate with parents, talking them through what to say to a teenager who refuses to leave his room. Paul Critelli, one of the program’s teachers, told me that many parents feel overwhelmed trying to get two or three kids ready for school each morning, and that their instinct is often to “sacrifice the anxious kid” in order to avoid morning hysterics and keep the family train running on time.
Mostly, though, Critelli wants to talk to the anxious students. “What’s the issue today?” I heard him ask during a phone call with a sophomore boy, who had missed his scheduled bus and was presumably speaking to Critelli from underneath his sheets. The call was a “Hail Mary,” as Critelli put it, because while he suspects that the boy sleeps with the phone “right next to his face,” he rarely responds when he’s feeling anxious. “I appreciate you picking up — you don’t normally do that,” Critelli told him, mixing in positive affirmation with a call to action. The school would be sending another bus, and Critelli expected him to be on it.
Critelli looked for any opportunity to push students out of their comfort zones. During an informal study period after lunch, I watched him confiscate cellphones he said the teenagers were using to “hide from, control and avoid” their feelings; scoff at a student who claimed to be too anxious to return a book to the school library; and challenge a particularly reserved boy who said he had nothing to work on.
Critelli looked at him incredulously. “Dude, you’re failing physics,” Critelli said. “What do you mean you don’t have anything to do?”
“There’s nothing I can do — I’m going to fail,” the student mumbled.
“So you’re just accepting that you’re going to fail?” The boy looked at his hands. “Here’s an idea,” Critelli continued. “You can email your teacher and say, ‘What can I do to improve my grade? What extra work can I do?’ ”
Critelli surveyed his classroom of anxious teenagers. “I’d love to see you advocate for yourselves!”
Jake is a remarkably minimalist emailer and texter, eschewing exclamation points and emojis in favor of an almost old-fashioned formality. It can be challenging to gauge his moods that way, so I checked in with him regularly by phone in the months after he left Mountain Valley. He usually sounded content when we spoke, an impression confirmed by his parents, who were relieved by the changes they saw in him. In the fall of his senior year, Jake was regularly attending school — on some days he “even enjoyed it,” he told me with a laugh.
While he was careful not to overschedule himself, anxiety still sometimes overtook him. One weekend, he had to leave a Model United Nations conference after he became anxious and his stomach started cramping. “That was really disheartening, but when I struggle now it doesn’t last long, and I can usually get myself out of it pretty quickly,” he said, by talking back to his negative thoughts.
Jake also confessed to some worry about his application to attend U.N.C. He had decided to be transparent with the school about his anxiety disorder, partly because it helped explain his junior-year absences and grades and partly because the months he had spent challenging his beliefs and ideas at Mountain Valley perfectly fit the application essay prompt: Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea.
In 650 thoughtful and sometimes uncharacteristically dramatic words, Jake explained that in middle school he had “aced the tests and seemed to many as the bright future of the American ideal.” But then came high school and fear of failure, the debilitating worry that he might not be good enough. He explained that going to treatment helped him change his perspective on learning and life. “Just being able to type this very essay would have been impossible months ago due to my fear of judgment,” he wrote. “College is the next step in my journey to find a true sense of self, both academically and personally. The future has reopened its doors.”
The doors had not reopened quite as wide for Jillian, whom I visited on an oppressively humid spring afternoon in Florida. It was a school day, but Jillian wasn’t at school. Instead, she was on the screened-in back patio of the townhouse where she lives with her mother, Allison. A talented artist, Jillian loves theater and special-effects makeup design, and she was hard at work on an outfit for a “Walking Dead” costume contest at a local car dealership.
While she painted her costume to make it appear blood-soaked, we half-watched an episode of the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” on her laptop. Jillian told me she could relate to many of the series’s themes, including cyberbullying. In middle school, she made a profile page on ASKfm, a social-networking site favored at the time by mean girls and their unsuspecting prey. Jillian was quickly targeted. “I’d get 30 mean questions or messages a day,” she said. “Most of them were like, ‘Just kill yourself.’ ”
Nothing like that happened at the small private high school Jillian attended after leaving Mountain Valley. Though the school is known for its flexibility and willingness to work with nontraditional students, Jillian still struggled to feel comfortable there. She didn’t want to open up and be known as “the anxious girl.” There were other students at school who had severe anxiety and depression — “It’s like the flu broke out here with anxious kids this year,” the headmaster told me — but Jillian didn’t feel comfortable hanging out with them, either. Several had yet to go to treatment, and “I don’t want to go backward,” she told me. But the end result, unsurprisingly, was that most students never got to know Jillian.
Her longtime pattern of missing school began again. She had the tools to challenge her anxious thoughts, but using them every day proved exhausting. “There’s feeling a weight on your chest, and there’s the feeling of 16 people sitting on top of each other on your chest,” she said. “As soon as I’d wake up, it was absolute dread.”
Needing to get to her job 40 minutes away each morning, Allison, who had sold her previous house in order to afford Mountain Valley, had little time to coax Jillian out of bed. They argued constantly. Jillian thought her mother — who was severely depressed during a year when Jillian was younger and especially needed support — could be insensitive. Allison struggled with when (and how hard) to push her daughter. She knew Jillian had a serious disorder, but she also knew it wouldn’t get better by letting her hide out in her room. Allison also couldn’t be sure when Jillian was genuinely paralyzed by anxiety and when she was “manipulating me to get out of doing whatever she didn’t feel like doing,” she said.
“The million-dollar question of raising an anxious child is: When is pushing her going to help because she has to face her fears, and when is it going to make the situation worse and she’s going to have a panic attack?” Allison told me. “I feel like I made the wrong decision many times, and it destroyed my confidence as a mother.”
Allison sometimes wondered how her own anxiety issues might have genetically predisposed her daughter to anxiety. Allison had done enough Google searches to know that anxious teenagers tend to come from anxious parents. Research points to hereditary genes that predispose children to an anxiety disorder, and studies have found that an overbearing or anxious parenting style can induce anxiety and risk-aversion in kids. In the parents’ workshop I attended in Oregon, Ashworth, the therapist, spent a lot of time urging family members to work on their own anxiety issues.
He also cautioned parents not to accommodate their children’s avoidance strategies. Families of children with OCD will routinely open doors for them, cook only the two or three specific foods they’ve agreed to eat and avoid saying certain words or sounds. Families of socially anxious kids will let them stay in the car while they go shopping, order for them at restaurants and communicate with a teacher because they’re afraid to. “So many teens have lost the ability to tolerate distress and uncertainty, and a big reason for that is the way we parent them,” Ashworth said.
While Ashworth can be blunt, he is also disarming and funny, with a self-deprecating sense of humor that appeals to both parents and their cynical children. Like many therapists who work with anxious teenagers, he tries to model a “let’s not take life — and ourselves — too seriously” approach. He also has an almost endless empathy for the challenges that these teenagers and their families face. He knows, for example, that raising a severely anxious child can feel counterintuitive. How, for example, do you set and enforce limits with an anxious teenager? If you send him to his room, “you’ve just made his day,” Ashworth told the parents in his workshop, who nodded knowingly.
Though Jillian had returned from Mountain Valley a more confident person with a nuanced understanding of her issues (and with her emetophobia largely under control), treatment didn’t solve her school struggles. As she fell further behind, her morning battles with her mother became increasingly untenable. In consultation with the school, Allison agreed to let Jillian drop out and study for the G.E.D. But Allison wasn’t happy about it; she considered it a momentary concession. “We basically said, ‘O.K., anxiety, you win.’ ”
Jillian was relieved never to have to set foot in another high school. “I’m just a lot more relaxed now,” she told me in her messy bedroom, where the walls were adorned with “Star Wars” posters and the bookshelf overflowed with young-adult fiction and sci-fi, as well as a worn copy of “Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul.” Near her bed were two prescription bottles — one for Prozac and another for Klonopin, a benzodiazepine tranquilizer. Jillian had been prescribed a number of drug combinations over the years, and while none were panaceas, she believed she would be “a lot worse if I wasn’t taking them.”
Though she spoke to a therapist once or twice a week online, Jillian otherwise ignored the structured daily schedule — including yoga, studying and cleaning her room — that she had agreed to with her mother. Jillian told me she often felt lonely at home, and she spent much of her days texting friends from around the country, some of whom she met at “Star Wars” conventions or on social media.
At the same time, Jillian was trying to make new friends. I watched her joke with fellow contestants at the costume contest (where she walked away with a $250 prize), and she was practically a social butterfly at a film event she attended with her mother. Bored with our company after the screening, Jillian spotted two teenagers talking to each other in a corner.
“O.K., I’m going to go mingle,” she announced.
On a busy weekday morning last May, a new crop of Mountain Valley residents were discovering that a key component of their treatment would involve repeatedly making fools of themselves. On the Dartmouth College campus, eight teenagers wore hand-painted white T-shirts that read “Ask Me About My Anxiety” and “I Have OCD.” They were encouraged by the therapy team to come up with scenarios that would make them uncomfortable. One teenager considered approaching random guys on campus and saying, “You must be a Dartmouth football player.” Later that afternoon, a second group of teenagers arrived. One feigned a panic attack at Starbucks. Another ordered nonsensically at a restaurant.
“What do we need to do to make your anxiety higher?” McCallie-Steller, the therapist, asked several teenagers as they prepared for their morning of exposure therapy. First developed in the 1950s, the technique is an essential component of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for anxiety, which a vast majority of researchers and clinicians believe is the most effective treatment for a range of anxiety disorders. In a large 2008 study of anxious youth published in The New England Journal of Medicine, more improved using CBT (60 percent) than the antidepressant Zoloft (55 percent), though the most effective therapy (81 percent) was a combination of the two.
But while exposure therapy has been proved highly effective, few teenagers receive it. “We’re much more likely to medicate kids than to give them therapy,” says Stephen Whiteside, director of the Child and Adolescent Anxiety Disorders Program at the Mayo Clinic. “And when we do give them therapy, it’s unlikely to be exposure. With a few exceptions, we’re not treating people with what actually works best.”
Part of the reason is that exposure work is hard. Anxious people aren’t typically eager to feel more anxious. “It’s also uncomfortable for many therapists,” Whiteside told me. “Most people go into therapy or psychology to help people, but with exposure therapy you’re actually helping them feel uncomfortable. It’s not much fun for anybody. It’s much easier to sit in a therapist’s office and talk about feelings.”
Researchers are trying to better understand how exposure works in the brain and to fine-tune its application for anxiety treatment. At U.C.L.A., scientists at the school’s Anxiety and Depression Research Center discovered that the more anxious a person feels going into an exposure exercise, and the more surprised he or she is by the result, the more effective it is at competing with an original negative association or traumatic memory. (That’s why McCallie-Steller did her best to ramp up the teenagers’ anxiety before they began their exposure work.) Other researchers are focused on virtual-reality-aided exposure therapy, which allows people to encounter the sources of their anxiety in a therapist’s office.
For two Mountain Valley 14-year-olds on the main quad at Dartmouth, the sources of their distress were numerous. One, a brown-haired boy who embarrassed easily, suffered from a dispiriting combination of social anxiety, OCD, binge-eating and depression. It was a lot to work on in three months, and he was often overwhelmed by the magnitude of the project. On this day, he had agreed to tackle his social anxiety by sitting next to a stranger on a park bench and striking up a conversation.
Earlier, another Mountain Valley teenager took part in a similar exercise, during which the stranger opened up about his own struggles with anxiety. The teenagers were sometimes surprised that others could relate to their issues. As one girl handed out fliers about anxiety on campus, she sometimes asked people, “Can I tell you about anxiety?” More than a few students — including one who looked as if he might actually be a Dartmouth football player — responded with some version of “Trust me, I know all about it.”
The brown-haired boy was highly anxious about his exposure. He bombarded the therapist, Bryan Randolph, with questions in a seeming attempt to run out the clock until they had to return to Mountain Valley. “Can I just sit on the bench for a minute?” he asked Randolph. “And can I sit down and then start talking? I mean, do I need to ask, ‘Do you mind if I sit there?’ It’s weird to just sit there, have a conversation, then get up and come running back to a group of people.”
“Even better — let’s make it weird,” Randolph told him.
The boy shook his head. “Maybe the guy’s on break and doesn’t want to be bothered.”
“Maybe,” Randolph said. “He might hate you. He might get real mad at you.”
“That’s terrifying,” the teenager confessed. “And what if we’re so close on the bench that we’re touching?”
“That would be awkward,” Randolph said with a half-smile.
The boy craned his neck to get a better look at the man. “Is he sitting in the middle of the bench?”
“I don’t know — he might be,” Randolph told him. “But are you going to ‘what if’ this to death, or are you going to do it?”
He eventually shuffled off toward the stranger, allowing Randolph to turn his attention to the other 14-year-old, Thomas, who stood sheepishly on a nearby corner holding his sign: “I’ve Been Bullied. Ask Me.” The “Ask Me” was hard to make out, because Thomas had also included many of the insults peers have hurled at him over the years, including “B*tch,” “F*ggot,” “Ur Fat” and “Kill Yourself.” Holding the sign on a busy corner had been Thomas’s idea; he thought it might ratchet up his anxiety and force him to interact with strangers, while having the potential added benefit of educating people about bullying.
Randolph and I watched dozens of students walk by, some giving Thomas’s sign a glance but most never slowing their stride. He had been bullied for years, and now he was being ignored. I felt anxious just looking at him.
Eventually, an attractive couple in their mid-20s stopped to read the sign. They smiled, Thomas beamed and after a minute or two of conversation they all hugged. “Oh, my God, that was the greatest,” Thomas announced upon his return.
I asked him what they’d talked about. “The muscular dude said he’s been bullied, too, in middle school, and that bullies get nowhere in life,” Thomas told us. “Then the girl said, ‘You’re really brave. Can I give you a hug?’ ”
“That’s not what you were expecting, huh?” Randolph said. “Instead of being mean to you, people actually treated you with compassion.”
“Yeah, it was awesome,” he said. “I feel so good!”
The brown-haired boy, meanwhile, returned from his brief visit to the bench: “It was sooooo awkward,” he reported. “The guy just kept texting. He was probably like, Why is this kid asking me questions?”
“And what if he was?” Randolph asked him. “You’re not responsible for what he’s thinking.”
The boy appeared to consider Randolph’s point as they made their way back to the van that would return them to Mountain Valley. Sometimes, Randolph told the boys, “exactly what you think will happen happens. Other times, the exact opposite of what you think will happen happens. Either way, it’s all manageable.”
The subject line of Jake’s email to me last winter read simply, “College Results.” I opened it: “Hey Benoit, I just wanted to tell you that I was accepted to U.N.C. Chapel Hill. Jake.” I emailed back to say that he could stand to sound a little bit more excited, to which he replied, “Trust me, I’m pretty excited!”
Last month, I visited him during his fourth week of college classes. It was a Sunday, and Jake met me outside his dorm wearing khaki shorts and a Carolina Panthers jersey. He looked happier than I’d ever seen him. “Let’s walk,” he said, leading me on a tour of campus and nearby Chapel Hill, where he went record shopping (he left with a Parquet Courts album) and played touch football with a few of his friends.
Since leaving Mountain Valley, Jake had prioritized his social life. “The health of my relationships with people is just as important as academics,” he told me on a bench overlooking the main quad. He had said something similar at Mountain Valley, but back then it sounded theoretical, aspirational. It felt true now. He had made new friends on campus and was keeping up with old ones from home — and some of his peers from Mountain Valley — via text and Snapchat, the only social-media platform he regularly uses these days. “My junior year, when things got really bad, I told myself that I didn’t need to hang out with my friends a lot, that all that really mattered was how well I did at school,” he said. “I don’t think like that anymore.”
That’s not to say that Jake doesn’t study. He does — usually days before he needs to. “Procrastination isn’t a good idea for me,” he said. But he was actually enjoying several of his college classes, especially Intro to Ethics, for which he was reading Plato’s “Republic.”
Jake had experienced only one intense bout of anxiety at U.N.C. For his info sciences course, he turned in an assignment online but realized days later that there had been a technical glitch and it hadn’t gone through. He said he felt “a sudden burst of anxiety” — his chest tightened, and adrenaline coursed through his body. What had he done? He sent a panicked email to his professor and told a friend who also has anxiety issues that he was “freaking out.” Then he took a nap, which had long been one of his coping strategies. When he awoke, the professor had emailed saying it wasn’t a big deal. “That ended that crisis,” Jake told me.
For the most part, Jake felt he was managing his anxiety. Over the summer, he met twice with Jonathan Abramowitz, a psychology professor who leads the university’s anxiety and stress lab, but Jake had put off finding a regular therapist for the school year. His parents kept bugging him about it. “I just haven’t felt like I need it here,” Jake told me. But then, a few beats later, he added: “I know I need to stop making excuses and just do it.”
I was curious how much of Jake’s newfound contentment had to do with being at U.N.C., with getting into his dream school. After all, a major component of his treatment at Mountain Valley was learning to accept that his value didn’t depend solely on academic achievement. How would he have reacted if his application was one of the 74 percent that U.N.C. rejected last year?
It was clear that Jake had thought about the question. “I would have been disappointed, but I really think I would have been O.K.,” he told me. “There are other schools in the world where I would have been happy. I definitely wouldn’t have believed that a couple years ago, but a lot’s changed.”
Before walking back to his dorm, where Jake’s friends were waiting for him, we stopped at the Old Well, a campus landmark where legend has it that students who drink from it on the first day of classes will get straight A’s that semester. The old Jake might have been first in line. But the new Jake? He hadn’t bothered to show up.
Teachers have long known that rote memorization can lead to a superficial grasp of material that is quickly forgotten. But new research in the field of neuroscience is starting to shed light on the ways that brains are wired to forget—highlighting the importance of strategies to retain knowledge and make learning stick.
In a recent article published in the journal Neuron, neurobiologists Blake Richards and Paul Frankland challenge the predominant view of memory, which holds that forgetting is a process of loss—the gradual washing away of critical information despite our best efforts to retain it. According to Richards and Frankland, the goal of memory is not just to store information accurately but to “optimize decision-making” in chaotic, quickly changing environments. In this model of cognition, forgetting is an evolutionary strategy, a purposeful process that runs in the background of memory, evaluating and discarding information that doesn’t promote the survival of the species.
“From this perspective, forgetting is not necessarily a failure of memory,” explain Richards and Frankland in the study. “Rather, it may represent an investment in a more optimal mnemonic strategy.”
The Forgetting Curve
We often think of memories as books in a library, filed away and accessed when needed. But they’re actually more like spiderwebs, strands of recollection distributed across millions of connected neurons. When we learn something new—when a teacher delivers a fresh lesson to a student, for example—the material is encoded across these neural networks, converting the experience into a memory.
Forgetting is almost immediately the nemesis of memory, as psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus discovered in the 1880s. Ebbinghaus pioneered landmark research in the field of retention and learning, observing what he called the forgetting curve, a measure of how much we forget over time. In his experiments, he discovered that without any reinforcement or connections to prior knowledge, information is quickly forgotten—roughly 56 percent in one hour, 66 percent after a day, and 75 percent after six days.
So what can be done to preserve the hard work of teaching? After all, evolutionary imperatives—which prune our memories of extraneous information—don’t always neatly align with the requirements of curriculum or the demands of the Information Age. Learning the times tables doesn’t avail when running from lions, in other words, but in the modern world that knowledge has more than proved its mettle.
The Persistence of Memory
The same neural circuitry appears to be involved in forgetting and remembering. If that is properly understood, students and teachers can adopt strategies to reduce memory leaks and reinforce learning.
MIT neuroscientists, led by Richard Cho, explain the mechanisms for synaptic strengthening in a 2015 article, also published in Neuron. When neurons are frequently fired, synaptic connections are strengthened; the opposite is true for neurons that are rarely fired. Known as synaptic plasticity, this explains why some memories persist while others fade away. Repeatedly accessing a stored but fading memory—like a rule of geometry or a crucial historical fact—rekindles the neural network that contains the memory and encodes it more deeply.
Researchers have also learned that not all new memories are created equal. For example, here are two sets of letters to remember:
For readers of English, the second set of letters is more memorable—the more connections neurons have to other neurons, the stronger the memory. The seven letters in NPFXOSK appear random and disjointed, while ORANGES benefits from its existing, deeply encoded linguistic context. The word oranges also invokes sensory memory, from the image of an orange to its smell, and perhaps even conjures other memories of oranges in your kitchen or growing on a tree. You remember by layering new memories on the crumbling foundations of older ones.
5 Teacher Strategies
When students learn a new piece of information, they make new synaptic connections. Two scientifically based ways to help them retain learning is by making as many connections as possible—typically to other concepts, thus widening the “spiderweb” of neural connections—but also by accessing the memory repeatedly over time.
Which explains why the following learning strategies, all tied to research conducted within the past five years, are so effective:
Peer-to-peer explanations: When students explain what they’ve learned to peers, fading memories are reactivated, strengthened, and consolidated. This strategy not only increases retention but also encourages active learning(Sekeres et al., 2016).
The spacing effect: Instead of covering a topic and then moving on, revisit key ideas throughout the school year. Research shows that students perform better academically when given multiple opportunities to review learned material. For example, teachers can quickly incorporate a brief review of what was covered several weeks earlier into ongoing lessons, or use homework to re-expose students to previous concepts (Carpenter et al., 2012; Kang, 2016).
Frequent practice tests: Akin to regularly reviewing material, giving frequent practice tests can boost long-term retention and, as a bonus, help protect against stress, which often impairs memory performance. Practice tests can be low stakes and ungraded, such as a quick pop quiz at the start of a lesson or a trivia quiz on Kahoot, a popular online game-based learning platform. Breaking down one large high-stakes test into smaller tests over several months is an effective approach (Adesope, Trevisan, & Sundararajan, 2017; Butler, 2010; Karpicke, 2016).
Interleave concepts: Instead of grouping similar problems together, mix them up. Solving problems involves identifying the correct strategy to use and then executing the strategy. When similar problems are grouped together, students don’t have to think about what strategies to use—they automatically apply the same solution over and over. Interleaving forces students to think on their feet, and encodes learning more deeply (Rohrer, 2012; Rohrer, Dedrick, & Stershic, 2015).
Combine text with images: It’s often easier to remember information that’s been presented in different ways, especially if visual aids can help organize information. For example, pairing a list of countries occupied by German forces during World War II with a map of German military expansion can reinforce that lesson. It’s easier to remember what’s been read and seen, instead of either one alone (Carney & Levin, 2002; Bui & McDaniel, 2015).
So even though forgetting starts as soon as learning happens—as Ebbinghaus’s experiments demonstrate—research shows that there are simple and effective strategies to help make learning stick.