What students and teachers are really thinking about

People often talk about what we learn in school, and offer suggestions on how to change or upgrade our schools’ curriculum. (I, for one, have several recommendations on this front. More on those in the future!) But I have yet to see someone outline a step-by-step process of schooling that students go through in our system. So here’s my first attempt at it.

Let’s look at the process of what goes on when a student writes an essay for school.

Note: I’m saying “essay” here, but you can replace this with “research paper,” “project,” “lab report,” or any other long piece of text that a student is asked to write.

  1. The teacher explains the instructions of the essay to the class.
  2. The student writes the essay.
  3. (optional) The student visits/emails/calls the teacher because they have questions about the essay.
  4. The teacher corrects the essay.
  5. The teacher hands the essay back to the student and the student reviews their essay.
  6. (optional) The teacher and student sometimes meet to discuss the essay.
  7. The essay is put away and rarely (if ever) looked at again. Either,

a) The student throws it away at the end of the school year.
b) The teacher stores it, and then shreds it after a few years.
c) The student stores it in their room, closet, or basement. They usually never look at it again, except on occasion, when they feel like reminiscing.

Alright, so what’s on their minds?

Let’s look at this process from the perspective of moment-by-moment consciousness. In other words, what are the students and teachers thinking about during each of these stages? What’s occupying their minds? What’s motivating them to act?

  1. The teacher explains the instructions of the essay to the class.
    They describes the main purposes of the essay, and how it fits into the curriculum, and this is great. But it doesn’t last very long. The discussion quickly segways into grading, rules, timing.
    Student questions revolve around grading:
    “How many pages long should it be?”, “Do we need a cover page?”, “What’s the late penalty?” etc.
  2. The student writes the essay.
    Their primary goal here is to get a good grade.
  3. (optional) The student visits/emails/calls the teacher because they have questions about the essay.
    Their questions usually revolve around optimizing their grade. Because, after all, the students who get the best grades are the ones who are able to “psych out” their teacher a bit.
  4. The teacher corrects the essay.
    While they’re reading, they’re mainly focusing on how well they hold up against the criteria that they previously established. (Granted, I’ve personally only ever had one experience with grading papers, but I can attest that was the #1 thing on my mind the entire time I was correcting.)
  5. The teacher hands the essay back to the student and the student reviews their essay.
    The student looks through the paper to make sure that they got a fair grade. They make sure the teacher added up the points correctly. Many of them only look at the questions/parts where they lost points. They don’t even care to look at what they did right, because hey, as long as you got the credit, what else matters??
  6. (optional) The teacher and student sometimes meet to discuss the essay.
    Most of the time, the student is here to contest the parts of the essay they think were wrongly graded as incorrect/poor.
  7. The essay is put away and rarely (if ever) looked at again.

Notice how at every step of the process, everyone’s main focus is on the grading of the essay. De jure, grades are supposed to be a means to an end, but de facto, the subject material is treated as the means, while the grades is treated like the end. As John Holt puts it, “We encourage [students] to feel that the end and aim of all they do in school is nothing more than to get a good mark on a test, or to impress someone with what they seem to know.”


Now, admittedly the above analysis makes a lot of sweeping generalizations.

1. First of all, students actually do spend a lot of time thinking about the course material. It’s not like it’s being ignored or anything! And some of these essays, and teacher-student conversations can and do get very deep.

I would argue, however, that the breadth and depth of their contemplation is only as deep as the grading asks of them. Most students are very busy, and their grades in their other classes would suffer if they went deeper or more broad then what is required of them. This only gets worse in university, when students are pressured to read more and write more in a shorter amount of time. The pressure to do well also increases, as students are now working towards a GPA, and are facing tougher “competition” among their classmates. Then, there are even less opportunities for deeper thinking and creative insights.

Some schools pride themselves on how they set “high standards” for their students, by requiring them to do more, read more, and memorize more. But ironically, these “higher standards” often lead to lower quality education.

2. Second of all, there are also individual differences between students. Some will be more intrinsically motivated in each subject than others. And that’s to be accepted, understood, and even celebrated in my opinion. But that doesn’t take away from how, I believe, the dominant culture among students is to be grade-focused and extrinsically motivated.

3. The second diagram is called an “ideal” for a reason. Reaching this ideal is easier said than done, and it’s impractical for it to be reached 100% of the time. But that’s OK, and it doesn’t take away from us striving towards that ideal, letting students know about this ideal, and reminding students about this ideal when times get rough or boring.


What’s more important: learning, or measuring our learning?

MindShift posted this question on their Facebook page.

“Why do students go from unbounded curiosity to learning in school that knowing the right answer is far more important than asking a thoughtful question.”


And here was my response:

“1) Because teachers implicitly endorse the worldview that has been passed on to them throughout their own schooling: that being an intellectual is more about how much knowledge you’ve acquired and retained, rather than about HOW you think and process whatever enters yours life. (When really, it’s a mix of both!)

2) Because we’re uncomfortable with not knowing to what degree our teaching is being effective. So we design our curricula around things that are quickly and easily measurable. And “knowing the right answer” on a multiple choice test is far easier to measure than “asking a thoughtful question.””

Introducing Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

One of my “3 big causes” that I outline in this blog’s tagline is intrinsic motivation. This will be a concept that I intend on coming back to again and again. Now I know that most of you already know what these are… I just want to make sure that we’re all on the same page before I start flaunting these terms around!

Intrinsic Motivation (IM) is when you engage in an activity for its own sake. You do it, because you want to do it, and you fully endorse what you’re doing. The activity itself rewards you with a sense of satisfaction, pleasure, or enjoyment.

Extrinsic Motivation (EM) is the complete opposite of IM. It’s when you do an activity in order to receive an external reward, such as money, grades, or prizes. You perceive the activity you engage in as a means to an end.

IM and EM have been studied quite a lot in social psychology. They are at the heart of many psychological theories, including Cognitive Evaluation theory, and Self-Determination Theory. Countless studies have been done that look at the difference in effects of IM and EM, ever since the 1960s, and continuing today. Even as we speak. Heck, I’m currently a participant in a longitudinal study about EM, IM, and life goals!

For instance, studies have shown that the following correlate positively with intrinsic motivation:

1. Enjoyment
2. Pursuit of challenge
3. Cognitive flexibility and Creativity
4. Spontaneity and Expressiveness
5. Positive Emotional Tone in relating to other

The concepts of IM and EM apply so well to education. For instance, in her studies, Susan Harter found that students’ level of curiosity and interest in school actually decrease as they age (and move through the school system). There was a particular drop when students moved from elementary to junior high school. All of the following were found to be external motivators which caused this:

3.Negative Reinforcement (Threats)
7.Goal Imposition

Don’t these sound all too familiar in our current educational system? And while the solution to this is most certainly not to simply get rid of all of those external motivators, this most definitely opens the door to break down our assumptions about each of these external motivators, and to question their effectiveness. For instance, grades may be a great way to get a student to read throughout the semester, but if done in a controlling way, it may lead to students wanting to read less after they graduate from school – not quite the “future-oriented” result we were looking for!

It is often said that our current educational system was born during the time of the industrial revolution. But, I believe, now that we have made huge progress in the field of motivational psychology, it is about time to have our educational system catch up! We need to start approaching these techniques in light of the psychological advances we’ve been making over the past few decades. And I intend to help out in this effort in some of my future posts.

In the meantime, I encourage you to watch “Dan Pink on the surprising science of motivation” if you haven’t seen it already.

Multiple ways of conveying information

Just now, browsing around in this library, I picked up a large book called History: The Definitive Visual Guide, by Dorling Kindersley. It’s an amazing textbook which brings history to life. Captioned pictures, diagrams, maps, and timelines abound in this book. Each double page is a “capsule” which gives an overview of one topic in history (e.g. Cleopatra, the Napoleonic Wars, The Slave Trade, etc.) which the reader can research further if they’re interested.

The value of images

Having lots of pictures in textbooks is currently viewed as a sort of crutch. That it helps to pique students’ interest, but is ultimately a lesser form of knowledge than text. So as one moves up in the educational system, texts become accompanied with less and less pictures, and students become increasingly discouraged (or at the very least, less encouraged) from including pictures in their schoolwork. To the point where many academic papers contain nothing but text at all. As if pictures are to be associated with weakness, immaturity, and childhood.

The same sometimes goes for audio/visual materials as well. They’re seen as lower down on the totem pole to text, in the same sort of mental hierarchical pecking order people give to different disciplines, as Ken Robinson points out in his famous TED talk. (I’ll get to that in a future post!)

But I completely disagree with this notion. Not only are pictures, graphs, flowcharts, maps, and diagrams a motivating factor for visual students such as myself, but they also convey a whole plethora of information. They “complete the picture” (no pun intended!) where text leaves off. They instantly show multiple connections between many concepts where texts struggle to do the same. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words!


Let’s encourage our academic paper writers and textbook editors to include more pictures, flowcharts, and diagrams in their works when they contribute to students’ understanding and mastery of the material.

Study technique for visual learners

On a personal level, here’s a technique I sometimes use to memorize lists of concepts. I draw a simple picture that includes one symbol for each of the items I need to memorize. I make sure to annotate the picture with numbers and arrows connecting each number to its respective symbol on the pic. And during test time, if I’m stuck, I simply redraw the picture. It works like a charm!

4 purposes of history class we can convey to students

After I posted her wonderful TED talk, Adora Svitak responded to my post about future-oriented education. I was very inspired by her response, and the article she wrote and sent me called “Do We Treat History Like a Dead Language?”  So much so, that it spun me into 3 different tangents, which will make up my next 3 posts.

The 2 issues I see with our current version of history class are (1) lack of motivation to learn the subject, and (2) lack of understanding the importance of the subject. One of these issues is to perspective, as the other is to action. As they are very interrelated, often resolving one helps to resolve the other.

In Johnmarshall Reeve’s article, “Teachers as Facilitators: What Autonomy-Supportive Teachers Do and Why Their Students Benefit” one of the things  teachers can do to increase student motivation is to “communicate value and provide rationales.” As he goes on, “when asking students to engage in a requested activity […] autonomy-supportive teachers make a special effort to identify and explain the use, value, importance, or otherwise hidden personal utility within the undertaking […] then students understand why they are being asked to invest their attention and effort in a requested activity.”

Anyways, the key here for teachers and textbook writers is to identify the purposes of history education, and then convey those purposes to the students as best they can. This conveying can be both explicit (e.g. make a poster out of this and post it on your chalkboard!) and implicit (e.g. embedded in the lessons.)

Note: Notice both how this quote, and this sentence bridge students’ perspectives and actions. Indeed, wonderful things can happen when one’s attitudes and actions are in alignment.

So what then are the purposes of history class? There are many, but here are 4 major ones that I’ve come up with that can be a guiding force behind all of the lessons:

1. History as a way to collect, record and remember our past.

It is important for humanity to keep recording its past, to preserve it, for continuity’s sake. But this purpose is already well-covered in history classes. My recommendation here is not to eliminate this emphasis, but to reduce it to give way to the other 3…

2. History as a way to answer questions, to better understand ourselves.

I think that a great way to approach some lessons would be to start off with a question, rather than an answer. e.g. When did we decide to live in houses, usually family by family? Who decided to place the leap day on February 29, and who name it February, and after whom? Why did it take so long for the Olympics to come back? Why are the keys on the keyboard arranged that way? etc. Students can supply some of the questions (I hear they’re good at that kind of thing!), and teachers can provide students with questions, in order to keep the class focused on a particular theme.

This is what history is great at: at helping us figure out why we came to be the way we are now. Why we’ve decided to set up our society and institutions in such a fashion. And pursuing these answers can often be more exciting than just receiving facts.

3. History as storytelling.

History is full of stories: life stories of a historical figures, events that lead to other events, and stories of civilizations as they rose and fell. Why not present it as such? The important thing here is to string facts and details together to form narratives. These narratives can be compelling for students read and listen to.

4. History as teaching lessons, as showing linkages between actions and consequences.

One way to prevent this from being cliche is to present the “lessons” in a non-perscriptivist manner. For instance, instead of saying, “Rome fell because they couldn’t manage their money properly, so when you lead groups in the future, remember the bottom line,” you can have students fill out a worksheet with the following questions:
– Why did such-and-such happen?
– How did people react to it?
– What happened as a result of it?
– How could they have reacted differently? What could’ve ended up happening?
– What can we learn from this?
– What are instances in which you can apply this to your life (past, present, or future)?


Reeve says that we need to identify students’ needs, interests, and preferences and create classroom opportunities for students to have these internal states guide their behaviour. Here, I’ve identified 4 principles that relate well to our needs as humans. Hopefully, once teachers convey them to students, students can get excited about learning history, and to see it as a “present, living reality,” as Svitak would say.

A recipe for a future-oriented curriculum

It’s often said in graduation speeches that “education is the future.” But most of our schooling is based on the past. We read books that were written in the past, discoveries that were made in the past, quotes people said in the past, and so forth. Much of what students do is simply reproducing the culture of the past. The present and the future are still largely neglected, if not completely ignored at the moment.

I think that schooling should show more of a balance between the past, the present, and the future. We should move the notion that “education is the future” from cliché, to reality, as much as we can.

But don’t get me wrong, I think it is also extremely important that students learn about the foundation of knowledge that the humanity before them has laid out for them. So, overall, the majority of the time spent should focus on the past. So if (hypothetically), the percentages are at: 80% past, 15% present, 5% future, we should try to shift it to something like 55% past, 20% present, 25% future.

So while I’ll cover “the present” in a future post (perhaps there are puns intended…), here’s my Recipe for a Future-Oriented Curriculum which can be applied to mostly any subject:

The future of society: Write papers envisioning what they think the future of our society will be like, or what they hope the future will be like. (Focusing on 1 aspect of it, the topic will vary from course to course.)

Future leaders of society: Read and talk about leaders in the world today who have a long-term vision, and are trying to bring about that vision on a practical level

Their future role in society: Write, or talk about how they see themselves being a part of / contributing to this future society. Have them ask themselves, “Am I going to be a part of the problem, or a part of the solution? And how can I remind myself of these commitments in the future?” –> Hopefully, this can contribute to their moral foundation that can guide them later on in life. We see all too often examples of fully grown adults who have clearly forgotten what they learned in kindergarten!

The future of their personal lives: Have students write about their personal life will be like, to set long term goals for themselves. Ok, so I remember in Grade 8, we actually did something like this. We set short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals. And this is great. But, as with much of what we did in school, there was never any follow up with our goals. My suggestion here is to have students hold on to these plans (or have the teacher hold on to them), and to bring them out twice a year to have student check-up on how they’re doing. To add a sense of continuity to the exercise.

The future of a body of knowledge: For science, social studies, and other classes, have students try to come up with their own theories, or new insights they can add to the material they’re learning. It can either be a theoretical insight, or an applied one e.g. In biology class, a student can ask what allows plants to stay upright and grow, or how the emotions of animals differs from the emotions of humans (ok, ok, that was something I asked in biology class!) But instead of having it be a passing thought, allow the class to incorporate the student’s suggestions and interests and discoveries.

Not only will implementing this be a virtue in and of itself, but having a future-oriented curriculum, I believe, would actually be very intrinsically motivating for students. Knowing how what they’re learning is going to affect their future gives students an extra sense of purpose and meaning in school.


Learning and producing knowledge generally go in that order, but it’s not absolutely necessary that they do. They can also go hand in hand, you know…

The way our system is set up, it is assumed that students have to keep acquiring knowledge until they reach graduate school at around age 22. For two reasons. 1) It’s assumed that only then are they mature enough to start producing new knowledge and have the rest of the world take them seriously. And while I agree that maturity is a factor that shouldn’t be ignored, children and teens offer something special: extra doses creativity and passion. A lot about making a new discovery requires creativity, and children are full of it. Why don’t we leverage that?

2) Our traditional educational model assumes that you need to learn everything that has been researched in an academic field before being able to contribute to it. But I disagree with this notion. I believe students have the capability to come up with insights, knowledge, and new questions to be explored as they spend years exploring the material. Okay, so students at a young age might have all of the experience necessary to write a lit review for their paper, but this is where teachers can help them out. To work with the student, rather than lecture at him or her.

For instance, even in the second year a student learns biology, they are capable of coming up with new hypotheses to be tested. If a student comes up with something novel, their teacher could help explore that topic, by providing them with whatever resources they need, and by offering them with advice. The student should feel free to take a break from their usual schedule of learning, to go into further depth on their topic of choice, on occasion, to conduct real research to a real audience, and then to return to whatever else they were “supposed” to be learning at that time.

This is all about sending the right messages to kids. At the moment, we send the message that society won’t listen to them, and doesn’t really care about that they think until they become an adult. I think it’d great if we started sending them different messages.

PS: If you’re interested in this last topic I brought up, check out this wonderful related TED talk by Adora Svitak:

Consistency or brilliance?

It’s pretty much a given that schools are the best at measuring a student’s level of consistency… consistently attending class, consistently doing homework, and consistently submitting papers. Each day has the same # of classes (until high school graduation), each class is the same length of time, every class is consistently graded out of 100%. You get the picture.

But what about brilliance? While consistency seems to be very well taken care of, brilliance has yet to be adequately valued in the system. Strokes of brilliance don’t come often, but when they do, they can be meaningful, memorable, and worthwhile experiences. They can even change a student’s life.

I’d like to see the value of brilliance (as well as consistency, in some senses of the matter) be infused into the organizational culture of our schools. We need to show students how they, too, can have moments of brilliance, moments of Flow, and profound moments of discovery that they can remember forever.