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Following up on 1 hour of learning with my students

January 26, 2012

Today I tried to follow up on the 1 hour of learning idea with my honors physics classes and weave it into a discussion of helping them make decisions about their schedules for next year, and even more importantly, a plan for how they’ll make decisions to lead meaningful lives in high school and beyond.

Establishing meaningful rituals

I started by handing out the Renaissance Man article along with the selection of suggested learning experiences recommended by Jeremy Gleick. After that, we discussed the article, and I was surprised by how much students enjoyed the article, how likable they found Mr. Gleick, and how relatable they found his accomplishment, while still recognizing what a tremendous accomplishment it is to devote an hour each day to learning. I think I found this surprising because previously, some of my students have found some of the tales of students accomplishing extraordinary things (like this student who attended a UN conference on climate change) un-relatable and a bit of a turn off.

In our discussions, students could clearly see how interesting Jeremy Gleick was, and when I asked, “would you want to eat lunch with this guy?”, many responded with an enthusiastic yes. When I asked students if they could see themselves doing this, most said they could, if… and then we listed a ton of things keeping them from doing this. If they gave up another hour of sleep, if they didn’t have so much homework, if they didn’t have so many extracurricular involvements, etc.

My second class said what was interesting was that Jeremy had created a ritual of learning. Students could see some of their own rituals in their lives, be it a sport, debate or an instrument. We also talked about how difficult it is to maintain a ritual when you don’t enjoy it. I really like this meaningful ritual notion, and am going to try to incorporate it more into my language.

How students’ schedules play into rituals and a life of meaning

This was a perfect segue in a topic students are currently thinking about a lot—their schedules for next year. One of the most pressing questions for my students is whether or not they will enroll in AP Chemistry next year as sophomores. Students who take AP Chemistry take it as their first chemistry course, and the pace of the course is very fast.

In order to help students make this decision, I asked a couple of former students who had struggled with the decision to take the course last year to write up their experience and advice about making the decision in a couple paragraphs that I might share anonymously with students. The students wrote beautiful reflections that do a great job of characterizing the difference between AP and honors chemistry, and the questions one should consider when making the decision.

I tried to help the students see that the experience they’ve gotten in my course, and the experience they are likely to get if they choose to enroll in AP are simply different. One isn’t harder than the other, no more than sprinters are better athletes than distance runners. Our classes have different goals, but it can be a good thing to be stretched in different ways.

We then discussed why one should choose to take the AP Chemistry course, and I tried to present a few reasons—you’re interested in a possible career in the sciences, you feel like you might benefit from a very fast paced course that is going to push you to keep up with the pace of the course, and stretch you to learn more material than you thought possible. But I also said one thing that I think students should not be using as a factor to drive their decision—whether or not it looks good for college.

The AP arms race

Long ago, taking an AP course truly made students stand out. It was seen equivalent to doing college work in high school. Strong performance on an AP showed interest in the subject, and colleges would often see this as a sign that those students were especially well prepared to go on to major in that discipline. But that is before the AP arms race led every student thinking he or she must take as many APs as possible just to have a chance of admission at college. Colleges have seen more and more students skip introductory classes with AP credit and struggle in subsequent courses, making them far less likely to grant credit for AP. They also see students who have 5’s in a subject and then don’t go on to do anything in the subject in college. Overall, APs become a greatly diluted metric of accomplishment, which only amplifies the arms race. It used to be taking 5 APs in a college career was unheard of. Now, some students think they need 8 or more.

Of course, this is ludicrous, and it’s a distortion of the advice you hear at many college info sessions about wanting to see applicants take the most “demanding schedule possible.” What colleges want to see is that students will take advantage of the many opportunities each college offers, and a good indicator of this is how well a student takes advantage of the opportunities available to him/her in high school. But opportunities is one and the same to AP courses—it’s only our desire to come up with shallow and easy metrics that ever to admissions officers, teachers, or students making this false equivalence.

I doubt Jeremy Gleik took every AP course at his Los Angeles private school. I say this, because I think if he did, he would never have found the time develop his one hour of learning ritual. And though it should be obvious, I think almost any college admissions officer would find his love of learning, which probably oozed from his application and his discussion of his 1 hour of learning ritual. The didn’t need to waste their time counting how many AP classes he took.

The risk of doing very time consuming things just to look good for college

This is the danger that students risk when they do things just to look good for college—they very easily can find themselves in over their heads in courses and activities they have little interest in. This will inevitably reduce their motivation to do well in these classes and activities, and that could have a negative impact on the college process. Even more importantly, if students fill up your time with demanding classes and activities they don’t enjoy, they may not have the time to find that ritual they will enjoy—the one that will add meaning to their lives.

My goal in having this conversation isn’t to get students to not sign up for AP chem. As I said before, there are many great reasons to take the course. But I do want students to think carefully about why they are taking the courses they choose, and how those choices fit into the bigger picture of learning to live a happy and meaningful life.

After these discussions I always wonder if they have any effect. But today, I got this email:

Hey Mr. Burk!
I just wanted to tell you that I really enjoyed class today and the article we read. I’m really glad we talked about the stuff for next year, and I thought some of the stuff you said will be really helpful in decision making. Just letting you know.

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 9, 2012 6:12 pm

    Hello Mr. Burk,

    This is the last comment that I will follow you on. During my first year of college, I had a talk like this given to me and I chose to to accept the decision to slow down and actually learn what is being taught to me. I had to take remedial classes my first semester of college and it was actually very helpful when I got into college level courses. I am currently taking a Math class and so far, all that we have covered, I already have done in remedial classed. I was never applicable to take AP or honor courses, but I did succeed in regular classes and came out of high school with a 3.7 GPA. In my opinion, students should push themselves, but don’t over-do their abilities and fail a course because of college acceptance. I made a 17 on my ACT and I still got accepted into the University of South Alabama, a great college. Most colleges look at GPA’s and ACT scores, not extra curricular activities. Yes, those extra activities do make life more fun and meaningful, but so does success. And when success is achieved, it is an award in itself, like an extra activity.

    Melissa Mark
    Dr. Strange

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