The Path Taken: teachers, are you just creating student shortcuts?

We call them “short cuts.” I don’t know why.

If the long way isn’t necessary, why take it?  Kids sure won’t.

So teachers, are you just setting up unwanted shortcuts, or are you creating useful, relevant paths for your students?

Best Laid Plans?

Actually, no. In fact, most roads are created along lines of least resistance.  Wandering trails that humans have turned into roads were original pathways created by animals seeking grazing, water, and salt sources (see Salt Through the Ages and New England Trails History).

By definition, the “path of least resistance” is the simplest and best. Where resistance is added, complexity and difficulty follow. For every teacher complaint that “students don’t follow instructions,” I wonder if all those rules just aren’t necessary.  Teachers, next time your students “don’t follow instructions,” take another look at what you’re asking of them and see if you can’t simplify it. And I’m not talking dumbing down. Simple is not the same as easy.

Fewer Commas, More Periods.

My first week at college, a senior took me aside and gave me the best advice for a new college student: “If you want to graduate from this school, don’t use commas.”  Put a period after every subject – verb – object. You wont’ get into trouble.

With student writing, simple is best. I hope I have raised a few grades by passing along this advice to my students: “try a period instead.” (Now, now, please don’t count the commas and clauses in my blog posts. )

We adults can use more periods in our expectations of students, as well.

Simple is Not Necesssarily Easy and Convoluted Ain’t Necessarily Smart.

Simple enough. Think of all the trouble caused by convoluted rules and regulations? Now apply them to your lesson plans and classroom rules.

If the kids are taking shortcuts, question your route not theirs. Here’s a heroic example:

My heroes!

It’s a corner lot along a busy road with a sidewalk along the edges. The owner finally gave in and paved over the mud that was kicked up by peds too impatient to walk the length of the outer triangle.

I’ll have to ask my math friends for the correct equation, but I think it’s something like:

\sin A = \frac {\text{opposite side}}{\text{hypotenuse}} = \frac {a}{h}\,.= SHORTCUT

I wish teachers would embrace shortcuts, too. A shortcut is not always a sign of cheating or incomplete work. Maybe the expectation itself is unreasonable. And maybe people are going to take the shortcut, anyway, so you might as well pave that already worn path.

Empowered Cutting Short

Just last night I had a wonderful talk with a student who is trying to figure out high school. It’s a classic case of educational dysfunction: his history teacher refuses to fail him, so he’s got a ready-made excuse not to do any work, a shortcut.  But he’s not happy with that D.

On further discussion, he admitted that he knows what he needs to do, but he refuses it because he thinks it’s unreasonable of the teacher to expect him to read every page of his textbook. (I know a bit about this, having gone through fifty different strategies with history textbooks and unwilling students).

So I challenged him to meet his teacher halfway: take a different short cut that doesn’t hurt yourself! Okay, he said, talk. So we worked out a way for him to identify relevant information from the book that will be on the quizzes and tests without reading every word. It’s not what the teacher wants, but it will get him through those assessments. I’m hoping it works for him, as he really doesn’t want that D. And, even better, he loves the idea of the shortcut, which appeals to his sense of rebellion.

I just wish his teacher had taken a different path. Rather than refusing to fail the kids, he could have negotiated a different way to achieve the same outcomes he wants from the textbook. His kids are taking his own shortcut, that D, when there are better, easier paths right in front of them all.

Good luck, kid! And good luck teachers dealing with your own rules and student creativity in getting around them. Why don’t you at least meet them halfway?

– Michael