Stress at Beaver

In recent years there has been increasing talk about stress and high school students (Race to Nowhere is still a big draw), and how schools should respond.  So what do I think schools need to do about this issue?

We need to create more stress for students.

OK.  Maybe that needs a little explanation.

Here are some examples of stressful situations students at Beaver encounter:
Playing for the League championship in soccer; having a big role in The Giver or Paradise Hotel;  collaborating with peers to complete a project for a NuVu studio; participating in a robotics competition.

What do all these stressful moments have in common?

  • They are real.  Nothing contrived about any of this.
  • They count. It really matters to students.
  • They require students to push themselves in new ways to achieve often novel results.
  • To achieve great outcomes, students must make mistakes.
  • In all of these scenarios they are doing what adults do.

These are all examples of good stress, the kinds of stress where students genuinely thrive.  So what’s the difference between artificial stress and good stress in the classroom?  We used to offer AP Calculus, and in that class students were asked to do calculations about how roller coasters work.  It took students five to ten minutes to solve each problem by plugging in numbers and formulas to create the right answer, never mind the fact that the answer to this problem created a roller coaster traveling at speeds that could never exist in the real world. Remember those word problems of old where if one train left Chicago and headed west at X miles an hour and another headed east traveling Y miles an hour then…?  The real answer to that question- who remembers and who cares?

So the Math department created an advanced calculus class, and in that class students take about a week to design roller coasters, a design that calls on physics and calculus, and that actually must work in a real amusement park.  In the end no two projects are ever the same.  Designers, mathematicians, physicists and project managers all play a role in getting to those novel solutions.  In addition, to succeed students must prototype and make mistakes.  They need to be creative and think outside of the box.  It’s hard work, it’s stressful in a good way, and the kids are genuinely proud of what they produce.

Again …

  • The work is real.
  • It counts because it matters to the students.
  • Students push themselves hard to achieve novel results.
  • They have to prototype and make mistakes to achieve those results.
  • And they are working as adults do.

And what about those AP problems?

  • They are contrived and artificial.
  • They don’t count because they don’t really mean anything to students.
  • The outcome is unremarkable as every one’s “right” answer is the same.
  • Students are forced to get it right the first time.  There is no prototyping, and mistakes are not tolerated.
  • No adult really works like that.

What could possibly be gained by asking students to stay up until 1 a.m. working on silly problems like that?  The same can be said for AP science “experiments” that take hours to complete and have the same answer every year.

Yesterday’s New York Times writes about schools that are beginning to think about this issue.  While it is encouraging that they are taking some action about work load, they (the schools and The Times) are missing the larger point: It is not enough just to cut down on the amount of artificial work we assign; rather we need to shift our focus to assigning students genuinely meaningful work.

Here are several ways we do that at Beaver, creating exciting positive stress for students:
Bridge building in physics; the Creative Scholars Project; applying math to current economic issues; Skyping with students from Afghanistan and Pakistan; posting work on blogs that wide audiences can view, etc.

There are opportunities for positive stress all around us.

As we move ahead we will continue to think about positive stress as we integrate design thinking into the curriculum, take advantage of the new science facilities, design authentic civic engagement opportunities for students and more.

At Beaver we are all about stress.

One Response to Stress at Beaver

  1. Alex Ablon November 18, 2011 at 8:46 pm #

    So true Peter. Thanks for your thoughtful insight!

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