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Have We Made Things TOO Easy for Today's Kids?

Blogger's Note:  My thinking in this post is unpolished, y'all.  

While I'm wrestling with homework and grading policies and the role that schools play in teaching kids to be responsible, I certainly don't have any clear answers to what are obviously knotty questions.  I thought the conversation was worth having, though -- and hope you will join me in thinking about a challenging topic.

- - - - - -  - - - - - -

No joke:  When I found out who my fifth grade teacher was going to be, I almost crapped my preteen pants.  You see, Mrs. Morosini had a BRUTAL reputation in the circles of ten-year-olds who lived in my neighborhood.  Her nickname -- Meanie Morosini -- had been earned only after YEARS of putting the kids assigned to her classroom through the educational meat-grinder.  Had Harry Potter been written in the early 1980s, I'm sure we would have called her a Death Eater.

#nojoke

As an example of her no-nonsense approach to taking care of business, Morosini gave us homework in pretty much every subject every single night.  Each school day started with frantic scribbling in our pocket assignment notebooks -- remember those? -- as Mrs. Morosini stood at the front of the room droning out task after task.  Nothing was posted on the board for us to copy.  The expectation was keep up and stay organized or you're screwed.

And "you're screwed" took on new meaning in Morosini's classroom simply because missing ANY task on the day that it was due meant redoing EVERY task assigned FIVE times.  Forget to practice your cursive letters?  Better be ready to do your math problems again (and again and again and again and again).  Leave your salt map of Africa -- remember those? -- home on presentation day?  Better be ready to do your science worksheet again (and again and again and again and again).

#noexcuses

Complicating matters for those of us trying to survive Morosini's class was the fact that we were born before the Internet became a basic tool for communicating expectations between home and school.  Morosini wasn't posting regular updates and extra copies of handouts online for our moms and dads to check.  Heck, Morosini wasn't even posting regular updates or extra copies of handouts in our classroom for us to check.  Lose your paper in Morosini's room and you had to borrow a friend's to copy it by hand.  The mimeograph machine -- remember those? -- was too expensive to operate for teachers to give irresponsible kids new papers every time something went missing in the bottom of a backpack.

Complicating matters even MORE for those of us trying to survive in Morosini's class was the fact that we were born before parents saw it as their primary role to stick up for their kids in every circumstance.  My mother and father didn't send emails to Mrs. Morosini every time that I had to spend hours recopying homework assignments as a punishment for forgetting a task.  Instead, they grounded me to my bedroom -- where my Carl Douglas Kung Fu Fighting album (remember those?) was my only entertainment -- as soon as I was finished with Morosini's consequence as a reminder to be more responsible the next time.

#nofun

On the surface, Morosini's approach to homework -- and my parents' tolerance of it -- seems unreasonable.

As a guy who has always worked to give kids extra chances to complete tasks and who has used the Internet to post homework since Geocities made websites -- remember those? -- doable for regular people, part of me can't believe that there was a time when kids were expected to spend hours and hours on school tasks every evening, where the only communication that parents expected was a grade on a report card at the end of each nine-week marking period, and where severe consequences for missing work were expected, maybe even appreciated, by most families.

But one thing's for sure:  As hard as Morosini's class was, I learned a TON about the importance of paying attention, being responsible and finishing my work on time.

The consequences for forgetting were very real and very relevant to me.  No one was going to bail me out if I didn't have my homework done each day; no one was posting tasks online that I could access if I forgot to copy my homework down or file my handouts properly in my binder; no one was going to accept late work for full credit until the last day of the quarter no matter when the original due date was.  Instead, everyone was expecting me to follow through -- and following through is something I got REALLY good at after being grounded to a bedroom with nothing but a record player and a book shelf a few times.

#nophones

#nocabletv

#novideogames

I guess what I'm wondering is in a world where teachers are always just an email away, where homework is constantly posted online, where grading policies favor second chances over consequences, and where schoolwork doesn't sit at the top of anyone's to-do list, have we inadvertently made things too easy for today's kids?

Was there merit in Morosini's practices?  As coercive as they were, did they make me a better person -- someone who understands that in the end, deadlines matter and that the responsibility for completing tasks rests on my shoulders?

Or were Morosini's practices unproductive and hurtful?  Did they take away from my ability to enjoy learning for learning's sake or interfere with my ability to spend time pursuing passions beyond school?  More importantly, did they work better for me just because I had a mom and a dad who were ready and willing to support me once I got home?  Is it possible that my peers from struggling families learned nothing about "being successful" from Morosini simply because "being successful" in their homes meant keeping the light and heat bill paid and the children fed from month to month?

I know there's no easy answers to any of these questions, but if we still believe that kids need to learn to be persistent and responsible in order to be successful -- if we believe that work behaviors matter -- I think this is a conversation worth having.

_____________________

Related Radical Reads:

Giving Zeros Just Doesn't Work

More Thoughts on Why Giving Zeros Just Doesn't Work

Does Persistence Matter for Today's Kids?

Saying Thank You to Mrs. Morosini

 

18 Comments

Johnny Bevacqua commented on September 22, 2013 at 10:34am:

Hey Bill

Hey Bill

just yesterday I attended #edcamp2031 where this conversation came up. No easy answers for sure. We do need to teach and model a good work ethic etc. I think ultimately the issue comes down to deeply listening to the words

and actions of the individuals in our care. At our school, we developed an assessment and grading guide that, in my opinion, guided the teacher to a greater understanding what the issue might be for a student who was not meeting deadlines. On one extreme, if the student hadn't fully developed proper work habits, they were given time with the administration to sort that out. On the other end of the spectrum, students who clearly could not get their work done because they were at risk (and this was usually the case) were supported in a very strategic, supportive and caring manner. In end it was about supporting the Learning needs of each student. 

Bill Ferriter Bill Ferriter commented on September 23, 2013 at 6:44pm:

I love this, Johnny, because

I love this, Johnny, because what you're saying is that there's no one right answer to this question.  Sometimes I get bogged down in trying to find the RIGHT solution to implement in every circumstance.  The truth is that there will probably never be one solution to anything in our profession. 

Thanks for the reminder,

Bill

crazed mummy commented on September 22, 2013 at 4:59pm:

Just had a kid who missed

Just had a kid who missed going to the college of her choice because she missed a deadline for confirming attendance - we didn't teach about deadlnes. Got another who can't get into med school because of low MCAT scores - we don't teach math without a calculator. Got a kid who was fired after 3 weeks at work because he didn't file the paperwork. 2 doctors here were just fired for posting on facebook while at work.

Sure you can argue that all of these were kid choices, or that parents should teach all that. But schools look the other way and accommodate so that they say one thing but do another - what is a kid supposed to learn? Mine have learned they are worth $10K a year to administrators and they can do whatever they want. Too bad the rest of the world isn't so accommodating.

Feng Ming Hui commented on September 24, 2013 at 12:35am:

Darwin is great

Tough apples.  It's survival of the fittest -- schools cannot hold everyone's hands and guide them through life -- those situations are upsetting to educators as well, since no teacher wants to hear that their former students were blocked from something they wanted due to their own ignorance/stupidity/irresponsibilty.

You think Annie Sullivan gave up when Helen Keller screamed and threw tantrums the first 100 times she wrote letters on Helen's hand?  If these kids give up after the first set back, they didn't want it bad enough.

Sandy Merz commented on September 22, 2013 at 10:47pm:

What about the snow?

I think you forgot to mention having to walk through the snow five miles to school. 

Actually, I'm torn on the issue.  On the one hand I agree with Clay Shirkey that we tend to make a task that was formerly a pain in the neck, like having to rememeber phone numbers, into a virtue after a technology has made it oblsolete and we can no longer do it. 

I don't know my friends' phone numbers; I don't have to.  And I don't think it's a loss of character that I used to, because I do know how to find pretty much any information I need, and I do carry in my head a load of crap I need to have at the tips of my neurons at all times.

But kids not paying attention drives me crazy, too.  In my first year teaching, in 1987, I complained to my principal that I had to repeat everything too much.  She said that "research shows" that if you want to be sure 25 kids hear something you pretty much need to say it 25 times! Gad.

I don't know if being an email away from parents have made things too easy for kids.  I certainly remember talking during the Reagan Administration about kids not owning their responsibilities or being doted on too much by their parents.  Nowdays when kids aren't paying attention they say they're multi-tasking.  I say they're actually multi-distracting.  It gets a laugh.  But then I'll hear teachers in a meeting claim they're multi-tasking.

Meanie Morosini would have been the best possible teacher for my sister and the worst for me.  She would have never had to copy anything over, I would have been a 5th grade drop out.  She would consider MM the teacher who made the biggest difference in her life, I would consider MM the teacher that represents the worst in education.  I say that because instead of having MM in 5th grade my sister had her soul mate, Mrs. Olberg, in 9th grade.  I fortunately had Ms. Smith, the cool teacher.  Oddly, both my sister and I earned advanced degrees in technical subjects and have reached the heights of what our respective careers have to offer. 

So, like you, I don't know either.  I try to structure things I want kids to pay attention to in a way that they realize they need to pay attention to it.  I offer lots of reminders.  I do some quizzing and cold-calling to see who was listening.  I give them one more chance and then claim the right to get mad if after the last chance anyone asks me about something I just said.

Does any of it work?  Not to my satisfaction. 

Bill Ferriter Bill Ferriter commented on September 23, 2013 at 6:51pm:

Sandy wrote:

Sandy wrote:

I agree with Clay Shirkey that we tend to make a task that was formerly a pain in the neck, like having to rememeber phone numbers, into a virtue after a technology has made it oblsolete and we can no longer do it. 

- - - - - - - - -

I'm a huge Shirky fan too, Sandy -- but I'm not sure that technology has made things better in this case. Instead, I think it has inadvertantely led to a shifting of responsibility from the learner back to the teacher.  When homework doesn't get done now, it's because the teacher didn't have it posted on their websites.  When students fail tests now, it's because teachers didn't have enough independent review activities posted online.  When parents are clueless about their child's grades now, it's because teachers haven't updated their gradebooks.

In a lot of ways, I think we've used technology to wipe our hands of our responsibility for finding solutions to our own problems -- and that scares me.  We assume that just because technology should make it easier for companies/schools/teachers to give us what we want in the way that we want, that when we don't get something delivered to us in the way that we want, the company/school/teacher is at fault.

Any of this make sense?

Bill

Jane Kise commented on September 23, 2013 at 8:06am:

Sharing Responsibility

Hi Bill--I think the trick is getting the right balance between the role teachers play and the role students play in overall success. It's an ongoing tension, in fact, and I made it the opening example in my upcoming Corwin book because every educator can relate to it! If teachers take too much responsibility, constantly providing second, third and fourth chances, students become dependent or lazy or ______--you name it. Yet as one urban teacher put it, as we tried to reduce horrific failure rates, "Our kids know how to fail. We need to help them experience success."

And balancing parent roles makes it even more complex. I've worked in schools where parents who work three different jobs simply can't oversee everything (and many of the children become deeply responsibile). And I've worked in schools where, for example, all work for National History Day projects needed to be done in class to prevent parents from doing the work.

If we name all of this not as a problem to solve but as an overall tension that needs to be carefully managed--and which calls for different solutions in different places--we jjust might create the right mix for the students in front of us.

Bill Ferriter Bill Ferriter commented on September 23, 2013 at 6:54pm:

Jane wrote:

Jane wrote:

If we name all of this not as a problem to solve but as an overall tension that needs to be carefully managed--and which calls for different solutions in different places--we jjust might create the right mix for the students in front of us.

- - - - - - - -

I love this language, Jane.  Just renaming it from a problem to a tension makes it seem less absolute in my mind -- and remembering that I'm not looking for a single answer to the question is almost always a good thing!
 

Hope you're well,

Bill

Brad Clark commented on September 23, 2013 at 10:09am:

It is about Equilibrium

I think we make it too easy for kids when we do the lionshare of the thinking. There are times when I work the kids like they are doing manual labor on a chain gang. This teaches them perseverance and is valid, but you can only hold a kid's foot to the fire for short durations of time.  

The one thing that I can do on a daily basis that will increase the ...wait for it...rigor of the classroom is managing who is doing the thinking in the classroom.  It does not benefit a student for me to do the thinking for them.  They must build their own meaning in order to create & develop deep, conceptual learning.

When we do the thinking, we are not only making it too easy for students, we are cheating them out of the learning experience.  If the relationship between teaching and learning in my class were represented in a pie chart, how much of the pie would be learning?  As learning increases, teaching becomes facilitation and our students grow more independent.

Al Deming commented on September 23, 2013 at 2:34pm:

Tech Ed

PLC meeting the other day having the same discussion. The central office was of a mind that it did matter about deadlines as long as the work was OK. I am more of the responsibility type. The problem is not the students but the expectations we have raised with parents. Trying to hold that line, of students being responsible, is becoming to hard to hold. As a teacher I have to be ready for all the heat fro parents and perhaps even administrators for being to tough on students. I am not sure if we wanted to we could back away from our hyper communication.

 

John commented on September 23, 2013 at 3:13pm:

Science

There is a balance, but kids today have it WAY too easy when it comes to their responsiblity.  We need more Mrs. Morosini's.  There are many teachers who give no homework, answer emails 24 hrs/day for directions, or don't even count homework.  Kids are trained NOT to listen.

I have had parents just take over their kids' responsibilities, then ask for extra time.  Yet they still have smartphones, cars, video games, cable TV in their rooms, choice of which fast food to eat nightly and spend all night on Facebook. Why should a kid like that take any responsibility?

Jené Wilson commented on September 23, 2013 at 4:00pm:

Have we made things too easy

There has to be a middle ground between Meanie Morosini and not expecting kids to be responsible at all.  Her approach probably left lots of kids behind - many kids cannot process the verbal information quickly, let alone process it and write it down in a discernible fashion.  And what was the point of making you redo EVERY assignment five times for forgetting one?  That certainly seems like cruel and unusual punishment, from which you probably didn't learn much.

We have universal design tools available to help students - ALL students - succeed in school, and that is our job.  Helping them learn to be responsible, and fail in small ways initially, is also part of ours and parents jobs. Punishment does not seem to fit in this paradigm.

Randy Barron commented on September 23, 2013 at 5:41pm:

Defining "Too Easy" is Hard

You compare education today with what you experienced as you grew up, but you neglect to address changes in the world since that time. Children are no longer going to be going to factory-type jobs (including "cube farms" in office buildings), but competing for positions with companies that value creativity, communication skills, and earned self-confidence, empathy, and teamwork. We don't help our children learn those things by essentially throwing them in the deep end like your teachers did.

When we engage ALL students in every classroom by using multiple means of representation (e.g. writing on board, showing icon pictures, AND stating verbally), we are extending footholds and handholds to our children without doing the work for them. They still have to dig in and make meaning out of our prompts, and they still have to do the research, writing, and explaining that illustrate their understanding.

You write that "grading policies favor second chances over consequences." This betrays a fixed mindset that does not allow for the possibility of refining, editing, and clarifying thinking as part of learning. Too much of what is called "assessment" in schools is reallly just a "gotcha" moment, like a drill sergeant pulling a surprise inspection. We want children to actually know and to be able to use the information they regurgitate on standardized tests, and that requires them to question their own answers, revisit their assumptions, and put their answers into a bigger context.

We cannot rely on the old factory-style system of education for answers to educating children for a new world. You should let go of that stifling, punitive, Dickensian view of humanity. Embrace instead a playful, empathic, meaningful, story-filled vision of what education can and should be.

Laura Bradley commented on September 23, 2013 at 5:55pm:

Too easy

Yes, we have made things too easy for kids and their parents, and yet I see the same number of kids failing my class now as I did in 1988 when I taught without handouts posted on a website, emails to parents, etc.

I think we need to find that balance between MM and "too many chances." Both ends of the spectrum hurt kids:  I don't think most students benefit from being terrified in school, nor is it valuable to have them repeat work over and over.  But failing to teach them about the need to meet deadlines, about the consequences of shoddy work, about the responsibilities of learning is a disservice, too.

But it took me many years of teaching before I figured out how to work less and make my students work more.  We are nurturers, right?

Ron Woods commented on September 23, 2013 at 6:13pm:

High School English

As a teacher of high school English -- from inclusion freshmen to honors and AP seniors -- for the past 26 years, I am of the firm belief that students  must be taught to be accountable for their decisions to miss deadlines, avoid reading, putting things off until the last minute, forgetting important assignments at home....The list goes on and one, does it not?

If we are to prepare students for anything remotely resembling the "real world," we must hold them to the same rigors and standards that will be expected of them.  To do or expect less is to leave them short-changed and ill prepared for life's realities.  That said, I do not agree with the harsh penalties exacted by Mrs. Morosini.  I do, however, think that refusing to accept late work (especially work that has been assigned for weeks) is both fair and reasonable.

My students know -- and those who do not know learn very quickly -- that I am fair and consistent with this practice.  I send it home in writing at the beginning of each term, and I stick to it.  Students accept it more willingly than their parents, but I do not teach their parents (at least not directly).  Graduates have contacted me to say "thanks for raising the bar and for preparing me."  That is all the affirmation I need.

Matt Townsley commented on September 23, 2013 at 9:27pm:

Honoring the learner

Hey Bill,

I hear where you're coming from when asking about the compatibility of persistence, responsibility and reformed grading practices.  I really do.

My struggle comes when I try to reconcile traditional grading practices with what I know about learners.  Almost all of the educators I know agree students learn at different rates/paces, yet the "one and done...learn it by Friday or else" approach seems to be the norm.  How do we honor students who learn at different rates while simultaneously embracing persistence and responsibility?  #milliondollarquestion

Enjoy thinking alongside of you, pal.  

Aaron Davis commented on September 27, 2013 at 6:08pm:

Different Times, Produces Different Answers

Great post Bill. Personally, I think that education is clearly different today, but in some respect that what it is, different. In some respects, it could be argued to be better (no pointless lines being copied out) but in some respects worse (onus seems to be on the teacher, rather than the student). However, in the end, it is nothing more than than different. For example, you could not have the same system from the past with the developments that we have made in regards to technology and the Internet, while you it is hard to garner the same sense of responsibility in a connected environment.

Kris Giere commented on September 30, 2013 at 8:45pm:

I understand where you are

I understand where you are coming from, Bill.  And I agree with Sandy above as I too would have never lasted in Mrs. Morosini's class.  In my current role, I have instructors who are Morosini-esque and ones who probably resemble Sandy's Ms. Smith and many who fall somewhere in between.  At least a few times each semester, I work with members of my faculty to tackle these sorts of questions.  How much is too much?  Can I give chances?  Am I too soft/hard on my students?  Should I teach deadlines?  The list goes on, but the theme is the same.

If there is only one answer to your question, I doubt I'll ever find it.  My response to my faculty is nearly the same every time.  Are you putting the student first?  What is best for them and their peers?  Can you hold this standard all year long?  Are they learning?  In the end, I believe that we must continually adapt to the students in front of us (the group Jane mentions) because education is not a one-size-fits-all, a formulaic process, or anything like that.  Education is cultural, and as our culture shifts, we must evolve.  This is not a condemnation of how things were taught before, but rather it is an opportunity to grow and learn alongside our students.

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