The Hard-to-Tell Story of the High School Classroom

Now and then, an article lands in my inbox, promising that some technology will remake the classroom. Our schools, apparently, are as outdated as car-phones or medical leeches. It’s time to welcome the flipped classroom, the MOOC, the data-driven world.

It’s not all wrong, I’m sure. But it makes me wonder: How well do we actually know the classroom? Before we start drastic renovations, we should make sure we’ve got a clear view of the structure that’s already in place. And I’m not sure we do.

The story of the classroom is devilishly hard to tell.

Not long ago, I wrote a piece for The Atlantic on the difficulty of being honest about the classroom. While writing, I asked my sister (a teacher and instructional coach), “Do you find that the teachers who talk a good game might not always walk a good one?”

“Definitely,” she said. “They’re not totally uncorrelated, but they’re different skills. Just because you can describe a classroom well doesn’t mean you can run one—and vice versa.”

It’s a dichotomy I think about often. I teach, and I tell stories, and those are very different things.

This matters because our stories—streamlined and simplified as they are—almost always carry more weight in memory and decision-making than the full, undigested truth. Those technologies I hear about aren’t trying to remake the actual classroom; they’re trying to remake the slightly distorted version we talk about.

We thus run a risk: letting the classroom as discussed and the classroom as practiced drift apart, like continents with an oceanic gap spreading wide between them, until each shore is barely visible from the other.

How does this happen? I see three main challenges to telling the true story of the classroom.

Most stories have a protagonist: Hunger Games has Katniss, Star Wars has Luke Skywalker, and the Civil War has Abraham Lincoln. Heroes are fun. They’re simple. Their posters look great on dorm room walls.

But now, step into that teeming multicellular organism we call a classroom. You’ll see groups of students talking; a teacher circling quickly from student to student, the interactions brief but potent; crossover between groups; notes and texts and funny faces sent across the classroom; isolated kids bored in the back row; in short, a whole mess of complex relationships.

You’ve got 25 or 30 protagonists to pick from, each with equal claim on the title.

So much is happening at once that our tellings are inevitably selective. To capture the whole classroom, you’d need to go Game of Thrones on it: write a dozen books of epic length, leaping from one character to the next, with seven different scenes unfolding at any given moment.

A story is an incident. “Backpacking, I looked across the ravine, and I saw a mother bear and two cubs”—that’s a story.

“Backpacking, I typically bring a pair of flip-flops to wear around the campsite”—that’s not a story, it’s a dull fact about a routine, and if we’re chatting at a party, then you’re pointing to your empty cup and telling me how it’s been great talking but you’ve got to go get a refill now.

Stories are fun. Routines are dull.

The problem is that, in the classroom, the routine often is the story.

Inevitably, the 180 days in the school year blur together. If a moment stands out as a good story, that’s often because it’s atypical and unrepresentative. You don’t remember the 179 days that Annie sat there, yawning and fidgeting; you remember the one day that she raised her hand so eagerly the momentum knocked her out of her chair.

The most satisfying stories to tell can actually paint a totally misleading portrait.

The lifeblood of a classroom runs not through one-time incidents, but through the endlessly repeated ones. Habits. Rules. Enforcement of those rules. Class customs. Student culture. Key lessons driven home week after week. It’s a slow grind, and its essence is often lost when we try to tell stories of isolated moments.

The first rule of narrative is, “Show, don’t tell.”

Oops—broke it! Let me try again, a little more colorfully this time.

I’ve seen active, engaged classrooms full of kids learning nothing valuable.

I’ve seen quiet, somewhat dull-looking classrooms where kids soaked up important and enduring lessons.

The kind of stuff that’s necessary for compelling storytelling—sights, sounds, smells—doesn’t always point towards the right story. The crucial activity in a classroom is the invisible, inaudible, odorless shifting of gears that happens inside the students’ skulls. What matters is their inner psychology—what they’re learning, and what they’re not. Short of first-person narration, there’s no good way to access that.

“So what do we do about all this?” I asked my sister.

“Keep looking carefully at the classroom,” she told me. “Keep measuring our stories against the reality, as best we can see it.”

Every minute in every class, things go wrong. Distracted chatter. Bullying whispers, out of earshot. Misconceptions unchecked. Seconds wasted. No one runs a perfect classroom; teaching is a job that affords us so much to think about, so much to consider, that we can attend to only a few issues at a time.

But that’s the beauty of the classroom, too. It’s relentless and unflinching. The classroom isn’t just your best days. It’s all of them. Teaching isn’t like basketball, with constant timeouts and stoppages and pauses. It’s more like soccer football, with the clock always running.

I try to heed the stories I tell. In moments of despair, I recount my triumphs. In moments of confidence, I dare to face my shortcomings. And when I tell others—friends, family, strangers—about my teaching, I do my feeble best to indicate the thousand threads of the tapestry, knowing all the while that no story I tell is ever quite complete.

10 thoughts on “The Hard-to-Tell Story of the High School Classroom

  1. “our stories—streamlined and simplified as they are—almost always carry more weight in memory and decision-making than the full, undigested truth” – so stealing this

  2. SO TRUE!! Thank you for pointing this out: “I’ve seen active, engaged classrooms full of kids learning nothing valuable. I’ve seen quiet, somewhat dull-looking classrooms where kids soaked up important and enduring lessons.”

    I had many days as a high school teacher where my kids were excited and jumping up and down – but those were review games, mostly repetitive practice. The days where they were actually engaged in learning and thinking about mathematics looked pretty dull – and now I look back and see that even then my depth of mathematics was a 3/10. It looked good to me compared to the 1/10 that several teachers around me had – but even with math and physics bachelor’s degrees I hadn’t been exposed to what depth I could have been working with.

    In the end, when K-12 edu-experts talk about “engagement” they mean “engaged in the physical space of the classroom/teacher” and NOT “engaged with the ideas and material.” I suspect that is because, at least for math, they usually have no idea what the ideas should be – so they talk about what they can talk about.

    Its a completely ass-backwards kind of priority-setting. You can’t try to solve the shallowness of our curriculum, or our students’ bad performance compared with the rest of the First World, by focusing MORE on the most shallow aspects of the classroom!

    1. Thanks for commenting – I’m glad that line connected with you.

      To be fair, I can see why people fixate on those more superficial markers of engagement. There’s something to be said for getting kids excited about a lesson, even if it’s not the most enriching or nourishing lesson possible. Shallow engagement can be a gateway to the deeper kind.

      But it’s a hugely wasted opportunity if the engagement never moves into that second stage of depth.

      And, as you say, one main reason we focus on these superficial features is not terribly high-minded. It’s the simple fact that truly evaluating a classroom requires a level of content expertise that many observers lack.

  3. I think often the ‘innovations’ that are discussed revolve around changing the interaction between a clued-up teacher and a clued-up student – putting it online, letting the students direct, etc. But what you’ve mentioned before is the problem that happens (particularly in Maths) when a student is not keeping up, has not understood, or is losing faith in their ability to grasp the material.

    When that happens, I suspect the innovations are not a help, or even affect what happens. It seems like what is needed there is a teacher who notices, and then finds a way to reshape or restate the key point of the lesson around the mental block of the student, whilst encouraging their confidence.

    Frankly, a student who is sufficiently engaged could teach themselves everything from the library or the internet. A teacher is in that sense a lever to multiply comprehension, a guide to nudge the mind back on track, or a magnet to sustain the attention of the defocused. I don’t think that’s within the remit of technology.

  4. Excuse me. I object. Star Wars has Obi-Wan Kenobi as a protagonist. ‘Cause he’s the only good, human character who turns up in all six movies.
    Otherwise, great post. Between you and MacGyver, I’m currently passing math.

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