“Sure doesn’t look like the classes I attended,” my father remarked, looking in at my students, who were clustered in small groups, staring at laptops.
Having flown in from Wisconsin to New Jersey, my parents were participating in Grandparents’ Day — an annual event at Newark Academy (New Jersey). They stopped by one of my classes and were peeking in while my students worked on their post-AP current events research paper. Indeed, if your standard for what a classroom should look like is one in which students are organized in rows and the teacher is at the head of the class, my classroom would look very unusual.
“That’s true,” I said with a shrug. “Changing times.”
“And another thing,” my father said, pointing out a wall poster stressing the values of mindfulness and metacognition, “What does that poster even mean?”
My father’s point was well taken. In education, things have changed so much that the terminology we use today is not inherently transparent to someone outside of education. My father’s comments are a good reminder that our assumptions about education are not immediately obvious to all of our constituents or the world beyond the school walls.
However, as I get older, I am also discovering that there is another group of people who may not have the full picture of what mindfulness and metacognition mean in context: the teaching population itself. Some of my new colleagues attended schools that were organized along the lines of my current classroom. This new model of education is all they know. In contrast, those of us who attended schools that were more teacher-centered have some perspective on the strengths and weaknesses of different models of education. And that is what I would like to examine here.
My goal is to move beyond some of the rhetoric about “progress” or rhetoric that implies there is something inherently right or wrong about different systems for organizing schools and classrooms. What we tend to overlook is that our teaching methods are in constant dialogue with broader economic and social forces.2 The classrooms of my childhood had their weaknesses, but they also had their strengths. The same must be said about the current movement that we call “student-centered” education3 and the language we use to validate that education (in this instance, the language of “mindfulness” and “metacognition”).
My hope is that we can put our discussions about education in a fresh context and be alert to the possibility that there may be downsides with our current practices.
Educational Disruption in the 1970s and 1980s
I am a child of the 1970s, which places my formal career in education (1974-1997) smack in the middle of a period of major technological, economic, and political upheaval. The staples of my pedagogical experience — overheads with acetate film, filmstrips, and lecture — were in their last gasps. Even then, we knew that their days were numbered. We had the first generations of personal computers, and we were starting to get access to digital reference materials — discovering not only that there was a world of easily available information out there but also that this information was sometimes of better quality than what we had been taught in class. At times this could lead to fireworks in the classroom, as older teachers jousted with some of the young upstarts over “what was true.” It was an interesting and sometimes scary period to be a student.
It has taken the better part of two decades for this change to work its way into daily teaching. In fact, for those of us who started teaching in schools that embraced the old method, it has been incredibly hard to envision teaching beyond content delivery. I started my teaching career in 1997, and even then I did not have my own email account. I had sporadic access to the internet, but found relatively little useful content online. But like many teachers, I also found myself being diverted away from the classic “lecture model,” both by the rapidly improving technology and market forces making it clear that the students didn’t need the old model. To put a finer point on it, no matter how I was trained, Wikipedia made it almost pointless for me as a teacher to communicate “what is.” And even if I were going to attempt to impose a lecture upon my students, I would face a revolt. My students broadly held memorization in contempt. To paraphrase what they tell me, information is fungible. Self-interest has forced educators to adapt.
Over the course of my career, I have been assured many times that “chalk-and-talk” practices persist in schools throughout the country. My own experience does not validate these claims. At least in my own discipline, the humanities, which is strongly informed by external assessments (Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate), the professionals I have met have refocused their pedagogy on teaching cognitive skills — especially causation, contingency, periodization, comparison, and framing. To do this, we have thrown out the lecture, and we work on problem-solving and decoding. If you need a lecture, you go to YouTube. While it is common to refer to this approach as “student-centered,” I think it’s more appropriate to say we have devolved many of the routine tasks of education to the students themselves. While I do not want to overstate this (the students depend heavily upon me to assist them in learning how to solve these problems), most of my teaching today revolves around skill development rather than content delivery.
Implications of Technology for Students
For newer teachers, this model of education is all they know, and constitutes the “conditions on the ground.” While there is nothing wrong with being comfortable with this new mode of education, I think it is helpful for the newer generation of teachers to appreciate that these changes come with both benefits and costs. As I alluded to above, in the last 15 years — merely the time that I have been at Newark Academy — I have observed that the children literally think differently than they did at the beginning of my career.
In 2002, when I joined the Newark Academy faculty, students routinely read print sources for pleasure. While it was already waning in frequency, the bulk of the students still wrote notes by hand. Often they composed essays and homework assignments by hand. They actually watched TV, rather than their laptops, and they infrequently called each other on cell phones.
On one level, this sounds trivial. On the other, the societal and educational changes have wrought powerful changes upon the way children think.
Compared to the students of 2002, the students of 2016 read less and read less well. Our current students have less tolerance for encountering challenging texts and are quick to turn to the internet to solve all of their interpretive problems.4 Compared to their predecessors, they struggle with memorization and reproduction. They never mastered penmanship; indeed, most were never taught it. And they show a much diminished capacity to compose in their heads. They are less social (or at least social in the way that I understand), and often quickly turn to their phones or computers for social connection, rather than to the people around them.5 Since they have almost never had to wait for a friend to meet them somewhere, or to wait for a taxi, or use the card catalog, they genuinely have a diminished capacity to delay gratification. Instead, they expect solutions immediately.
This does not mean that students who show these traits are somehow unworthy or immoral. The graduates of today are not less able than those of 2002. Rather, they are differently able. Before we go much further, I want to stress that my own thought on this has been animated by that of moral philosopher James Flynn.6 Following Flynn, I argue that whatever our students have lost in the skills I mention above, they have gained in quickness of mind and problem-solving capacity. That is to say, the graduates of 2016 tend to demonstrate significantly greater plastic intelligence than the graduates of 2002.
What do I mean? When it comes to mathematics achievement at Newark Academy, consider that in 1980, the majority of students took algebra in ninth grade. Today, you will not be accepted into the upper school unless you are ready for geometry. More than half the class will start ninth grade with trigonometry. When I started in 2002, between 20 and 30 students would take AP U.S. History during their junior year, and the average test score was about a 3.7 on a 5-point scale. Today, between 50 and 55 sophomores will take AP U.S. History, and while it is always dangerous to predict outcomes, if current trends serve as a precedent, the average achievement of our students will be between 4.5 and 4.7 on a 5-point scale. Indeed, an exceptionally strong argument is that the effect of Advanced Placement and the International Baccalaureate has been to shift a good deal of the collegiate curriculum into secondary schools. Granted, Newark Academy is an independent school; I cannot claim that I am working with an unbiased sample. Yet the magnitude of this change validates the assumption that modern students at Newark Academy are indeed cognitively different than the ones I taught at the start of my career.
But I think it is important that we acknowledge that, even if our students are seeing real cognitive gains, we have also experienced losses in areas that are important to life outcomes. By every measure, patience, persistence, the ability to delay gratification, and resilience in the face of setbacks are tightly correlated to better life outcomes.7 For all of its weaknesses, the industrially oriented, collectivist education of the past — accidentally or deliberately — directly trained students in all of those traits. By way of contrast, an inquiry-based model of education might be structured in such a way that a student learns key skills (organization, self-control, self-direction), but it also might facilitate social isolation, particularism, and impatience with work that does not immediately address one’s own agenda.
Challenges to the Schools
So how do we foster the development of inquiry-based curricula that attends to some of the skills that we need? It is my belief that the way that we talk about education in schools matters. Personally, I think we need to consider adopting new words to encourage teachers and students alike to value aspects of an inquiry-based education that serves broader social needs and reinforces positive mental habits.
To make this point clear, I would like to discuss how Newark Academy has previously talked about education, and to address the ways that this language mirrored broader social values. I hope to use this history to explain the rationale for some new vocabulary.
Articulating Clear Values In the past, we at Newark Academy tended to language our mission by referencing strenuous effort, sacrifice, and perseverance. For example, when I was hired, the head of school cheered me on by defining the school mission as one in which “we ask them to do the impossible, and then we show them how.” At that time, I was inspired by this slogan. While it does not read as well from a distance, in its context it moved me and, I would argue, made me a better teacher. It was a statement that was Olympian in scope; it evoked academic heroism and a muscular overcoming of learning challenges. And there were real merits to this approach; our students did learn the ability to quickly and easily acquire important information — a skill that has doubtless served them well.
Why does this statement fail to capture the imagination today?
In an era in which technology was only just beginning to make inroads into education, and where memorization and reproduction were more valued educational goals, this kind of language made sense. It was a language that resonated strongly in a certain time and place. The slogan of 2002, however, has outlived some of its utility. Beyond the fact that we are assessing students differently and stressing different skills, the very sentiments behind the 2002 slogan seem out of step with where we are currently headed. The issue before the Newark Academy faculty today is a sense that children are over-programmed, over-burdened, and under-slept. Our reputation is one of academic rigor, of which we are proud. We are also aware, however, that the level of challenge we offer is sometimes a source of concern for some students and parents. We are not alone in this; our peer schools hear the same thing. And we would be tone deaf if we did not listen to this feedback and rethink the Olympian slogan of 2002. So we have sought new words to talk about what we value.
At Newark Academy, as at many other independent schools, we currently spend much of our time talking about two current terms — mindfulness and metacognition. While these terms are rarely defined with any specificity, in my own understanding I believe “mindfulness” entails a move to slow down the learning process, to take time to reflect or to meditate, and to consider how pauses during the daily curriculum might improve student learning. I believe that people who talk about “metacognition” are encouraging us, as teachers, to make time in the curriculum for students to reflect upon their learning — to engage in a process of self-reflection in which they consider the meaning, value, and utility of their work. Many people who champion this movement often talk about cultivating an ethos of self-care and self-nurturing in the classroom.
Languaging and Value Mirroring
In our current context, this new language feels meaningful, appropriate, and perhaps even a little spiritual. It certainly can be all these things. But it is worth noting that in 2002, I believed the same to be true of the slogan, “Do the impossible.” The economies of education in 2002 made those words sensible, just as the economies of education in 2016 suggest that mindfulness is not only worthy but also inevitably better than demands for “the impossible.” I, however, think it is necessary to consider the ways that “mindfulness” and “metacognition” are worthy goals, but not inherently complete. In addition, this language does not directly address some of the skills that we lost in moving from a lectured-based to an inquiry-based model of education.
Let’s begin by considering why mindfulness and metacognition seem to have become so easily accepted in educational circles. As I’ve suggested, the educational models tend to follow economic realities. It is no accident then that our current era is sometimes called “the age of the entrepreneur.” To those who are less optimistic about the outcomes of self-employment and economic change, we might well also correlate this language to that of the language of self-care and mindfulness is tightly correlated to worsening employment conditions.8
The test that I think we should apply to this language is whether or not it accomplishes the outcomes we hope for. My response is a cautious “yes,” but with qualifications.
A rich literature does exist that supports the idea that certain metacognitive practices improve student outcomes.9 Yet, if we broaden our inquiry to consider life outcomes, it is apparent that these concepts, by themselves, are insufficient to push our practice solidly in the direction of developing student social sophistication and executive functioning. To put it another way, if carried to extremes, the language of mindfulness and metacognition stresses the importance of the individual’s own learning with little reference to others or group success. And in the era of customized metric-driven education, such as that offered by a variety of start-ups but perhaps most frequently exemplified by AltSchool, I do worry that we, as educators, may inadvertently foster a sense that the individual is all that matters.10 Beyond the realm of job preparation, these skills and values are central in cultivating ideals of citizenship and public service — the willingness and ability to compromise and to allow the needs of others to come first.
I am also concerned about the ways that the ideals of metacognition and mindfulness might unwittingly be abused by school personnel. My own school has seen mindfulness and metacognition as practices to address rising stress in the classroom. What we have had less success doing is talking about where these practices are going to fit, whether they are curricular, and if they will replace something in the curriculum. To frame the issue differently, one can imagine a scenario wherein mindfulness and metacognition might be added to a curriculum in ways that are stressful unto themselves. To make this more concrete, all curricula are finite. At my own school, if I were to implement five minutes of mindfulness practices per class session, I could easily end up having dedicated seven hours of my class time to mindfulness even before we hit Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams. Allocating time to mindfulness practices might make the remaining class time more productive. On the other hand, that time might be better allocated to discipline-specific skills and content development.
This discussion does beg us to consider, however, why we are feeling that our students are more stressed than perhaps they might have been two decades ago. One thing is certain — an inquiry-based education demands more from students than the lecture-based system that I was used to. As we ask students to participate less and less in collective educational activities (big group lecture, big group discussion, big group watching), and increasingly demand that they take responsibility for their own education (project- or inquiry-based learning), we are requiring students to be more active learners, while we also imitate wider changes in the economy which have resulted in an intensification and widening of work and the work day.
This kind of education makes for more active learners; it does yield better results. Our student productivity is indeed rising. This kind of education, however, is far more demanding than our older models. We are requiring students take greater responsibility for their own education than we ever did in the past. Ask any young person and they will fully admit that responsibility of any kind can be very stressful. If metacognition and mindfulness are used as rationales to avoid asking hard questions about the workload we assign to students, or if they are used to leverage more productivity from children, I think we have gone astray here as well. We must be mindfully mindful.
My belief is that we, as educators, have a burden to deliberately develop a new rhetoric of education that moves beyond appeals to effort (asking the “impossible”) and cleverness (metacognition). My suggestion is not that we discard these terms, but rather that we begin to talk specifically about community metacognition. My emphasis on the word community is critical, because I believe it to be important that we move the school community solidly back into this discussion. An education grounded in service to the community, partnered with an awareness of the welfare of the community, is essential because it focuses our attention on the stress of the group, rather than the performance of the individual.
The National Institutes for Health has done excellent work addressing the linkage between rising stress levels and diminishing learning outcomes.11 This supports substantial research that demonstrates that increasing hours at work significantly diminishes employee productivity — a lesson that most employers in the United States have unfortunately failed to learn.12 What I am urging educators to do is to deliberately begin to think in terms of group productivity and gains, rather than thinking about metacognition as an individual learning tool. Scholar after scholar, but particularly Tony Wagner, has pointed out that communities that ask less of students in terms of overall work, while insisting on greater quality of the work, have better outcomes. Our language should deliberately move us in that direction.
What might this community metacognition look like in practice? Although I have no doubt that different communities might develop different answers to this question, I think communities that rise to the challenge of designing a mindful education would tend to ask themselves similar questions.
The first questions might be: How do we go about measuring whether mindfulness is happening? What metrics might we use to assay whether our initiatives are buying students more space to think and reflect?
Second, we need to consider whether we are prepared to schedule in unscheduled time, and whether we are actually willing to make sacrifices in order to protect that time. In other words, if we believe that mindfulness has merit, we will need to make space for it and protect it. For example, we might begin by asking ourselves how many unstructured hours a 15-year-old should have outside of school. Would we say one hour? Two hours? In answering this question, we can begin to think about a whole host of demands that are placed on students — homework, sports, clubs — and to consider what we must cut to make space for our students to actually think.
Third, we need to examine whether our current discipline-driven educational model is best serving to protect and foster metacognition. In other words, does our tendency to teach works of literature in isolation from history and language, or treat math as a discrete topic from science, accomplish valuable aims, or are we reflexively repeating what has come before? That is to say, are we accomplishing something educationally by teaching four academic subjects or are we, in fact, keeping students busy.
Lastly, schools and their communities need to be prepared to ask whether their commitments to external assessments (SAT-II, AP, IB) are compatible with a mindful education. If the goals of an education are predetermined by someone else, can that education be considered to be truly “mindful”? These are hard questions, but it may be inherently worthwhile for any community to ask them.
1. I would like to thank colleagues Susan Dinan, Rebecca Gordon, Peter Reed, and Jeff Vinikoor for providing me valuable feedback and assistance in preparing this piece. I would like to thank Tom Ashburn, Newark Academy’s middle school head, for encouraging me to send this on to NAIS for publication.
2. TEDx Talks, Risk-Taking and the Future of Education | Benson Hawk | TEDxNewarkAcademy, accessed May 19, 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=dL9cGDucYSc.
3. I actively dislike this term; it ignores the way that what is learned is still culturally determined and entangled in a complex set of institutional arrangements.
4. “Is Technology Producing A Decline In Critical Thinking And Analysis?,” ScienceDaily, accessed May 19, 2016, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/01/090128092341.htm.
5. Belinda Luscombe, “Why Access to Screens Is Lowering Kids’ Social Skills,” Time, August 21, 2014, http://time.com/3153910/why-access-to-screens-is-lowering-kids-social-skills/.
6. James Flynn, Why Our IQ Levels Are Higher than Our Grandparents’, accessed May 19, 2016, www.ted.com/talks/james_flynn_why_our_iq_levels_are_higher_than_our_grandparents?language=en.
7. TED, Angela Lee Duckworth: The Key to Success? Grit, accessed May 20, 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=H14bBuluwB8.
8. “Capitalists Want You To Be Happy: Self-Improvement and Exploitation,” Buddhist Peace Fellowship / Turning Wheel Media, April 8, 2013, www.buddhistpeacefellowship.org/capitalists-want-you-to-be-happy-self-improvement-and-exploitation/.
9. Donna Wilson, “Metacognition: The Gift That Keeps Giving,” Edutopia, October 7, 2014, www.edutopia.org/blog/metacognition-gift-that-keeps-giving-donna-wilson-marcus-conyers.
10. Rebecca Mead, “Learn Different,” The New Yorker, March 7, 2016, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/03/07/altschools-disrupted-education.
11. “Stresses of Poverty May Impair Learning Ability in Young Children,” National Institutes of Health (NIH), September 30, 2015, www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/stresses-poverty-may-impair-learning-ability-young-children.
12. “Productivity in UK and France – Different Paths, Same Destination,” Prime Economics, accessed May 20, 2016, www.primeeconomics.org/articles/o91sdlu312b90filbobylfincxj5sb.