Teaching Knowledge and Goodness in the 21st Century

Phillips Academy is exploring a transition to a new daily schedule and annual calendar that would serve two major goals: supporting student learning and supporting student well-being. It arose as part of the strategic planning process that began in the fall of 2013 and was chosen by a faculty majority in early 2016.  During the process, Andover is providing faculty with curriculum-development programming and support. Kicking off the education series, Denise Pope, an expert in curriculum studies, student engagement, and qualitative-research methods, recently hosted a day of intensive and insightful discussions on campus for Andover’s opening faculty meeting. She began with a talk for faculty and staff, then held workshops for classroom teachers. Following is coverage of her introductory talk, which engaged the audience in a lively, interactive conversation about her research and new approaches to learning.

Research by Denise Pope shows that students doing more hours of homework experienced more academic stress, physical health problems and lack of balance in their lives.

Society has become too focused on grades, test scores, and performance, leaving little time for kids to develop the necessary skills to become resilient, ethical, and motivated learners, says Denise Pope, who recently visited Andover.

When Denise Pope, senior lecturer at Stanford Graduate School of Education and cofounder of Challenge Success, tracked five, top students at a top high school in Northern California, she gained an eye-opening view into student success. On the surface, the five students seemed to be doing everything right: participating in a range of extracurricular activities, achieving stellar GPA scores, and amassing an impressive collection of awards. But, after shadowing them for an entire academic year, Pope was astounded by what she saw behind-the-scenes. When she asked one of the male students to reflect upon a particular learning experience, he responded plainly:

“People don’t go to school to learn. They go to school to get good grades and get into college, which turns into a high-paying job and happiness.”

Pope, whose jaw dropped when she heard those words out loud, provides a detailed account of the yearlong study in her book, Doing School: How We Are Creating A Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students (2001). What she found overall is that students’ paths to success were not always as commendable as the resulting accomplishment.

“With such high expectations foisted upon them … many students compromise their values and do things they’re not proud of,” she said, speaking to faculty and staff at Phillips Academy during the morning session of opening faculty meeting on September 2 in Kemper Auditorium.

Indeed all five of the students whom Pope tracked during the study were so focused on outcomes and so disengaged from the learning process that they often sought drastic measures—lying, cheating, and scheming—to succeed. They were also anxious and stressed out, managing huge workloads.

“What we need to help students understand,” she said, “is that success is measured over the course of a lifetime, not at the end of a semester.”

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Content Overload

A major piece of the puzzle is homework, says Pope, who has found that more than 30 percent of students receive far too much of it—at least 3.5 hours—per night. Even more stunning is student perception of homework usefulness. Students surveyed found little relevance in their piles of take-home assignments.

“In reality, the benefits of homework start to decline significantly after two hours,” said Pope, who believes that teachers often incorrectly equate amount of work with rigor when they should instead give homework that targets specific learning goals.

Pressures like homework and cramming for a test affect mental and physical health, with the average student not sleeping enough. According to the National Sleep Foundation, the recommended amount of sleep for high schoolers is 9.25 hours a night, but they typically get only about 6.84 hours.

“When you’re not getting the sleep you need as a teen, the brain is not able to handle daily occurrences, and you get crabby,” she said, citing increased rates of bullying and obesity and data that shows a decline in students’ short-term and long-term memory in schools with exhausted kids. Poor sleep habits at this age can also lead to illness and disease as students grow into adulthood.

Working Strategies

During an open discussion about classroom strategies already being deployed at Andover, one faculty member called out the joy of learning as the cornerstone of a positive educational experience.

“In the dorm, have game night and, in the classroom, use subject-appropriate games. When you enjoy something, you are more likely to be engaged and pay attention,” said the faculty member.

Another faculty member said he gives students one night off from homework every week. Others talked about how they go deeper into fewer topics; give students more choice during tests; add flexibility into deadlines; support experimentation; encourage mindfulness; and try to provide comfortable spaces for collaboration.  

Outside of the classroom, Pope said she encourages students to employ a buffet strategy with extracurricular activities.

“Take the smallest plate, not the giant one. Go through and pick out a nice balance and then step away!” she said.

Looking out at the audience, she tells everyone she’s thrilled about the new schedule and calendar Andover is considering.

“Fewer transitions during the school day and more open time—that’s the wave of the future. It’s much more like a college model,” she said, also pointing out that she’s thrilled with the proposed later start time (8:30 a.m. instead of 8 a.m.), which will provide more time for sleep.

Redefining Success

Is it possible then for teachers and parents to help kids be successful learneimage1rs and also find balance in today’s fast-paced culture?

Using her SPACE model as a guide [see chart below], Pope suggests strategies like a strict lights-out policy at bedtime and curbing media use. She encourages a close review of students’ schedules to ensure they’re not trying to accomplish more than a 24-hour day and that they have plenty of downtime for things like a pickup basketball game with friends or reading for pleasure.

Adults should look at their own stress levels too and provide an environment of caring and support.

“Everyone has to be on board in order to make changes for health and well being successful,” said Pope.

Another focus for Pope is on reviewing models of assessment. Noting that the Latin root of the word assessment, assidere, means “to sit beside,” she encourages retests (“revision and redemption”) for students and multiple pathways for them to show what they know.

“Assessment doesn’t mean gotcha! It means understanding students and wanting them to learn and know deeply,” she said.

Developing successful kids also means teaching them 21st-century skills, including abilities to collaborate on projects and take interdisciplinary approaches to problem solving.

“Problems in this world don’t say: Hello I’m a biology problem!” she said with a laugh.

Of course a major factor in changing students’ attitudes toward success is in shifting how colleges review credentials, too. But Pope sees reason for hope. Colleges are relying less on standardized tests and discounting a laundry list of extracurricular activities.  

“What they want to see are meaningful contributions,” she said.


S: Students, schedule, and use of time.

P: Project and problem-based learning (relevance, rigor, student voice and choice).

A: Alternative and authentic assessment.

C: Climate of care (social/emotional learning, advisory). We are developing human beings.