The Evolution of the Modern Student

photo by Cheryl Lee, 2004

photo by Cheryl Lee, 2004

I was spending too much time browsing social media, and not enough time doing things like coming up with something to write here, when I came saw this article on The Atlantic called “My Daughter’s Homework Is Killing Me” by Karl Taro Greenfield. It was sitting there in my news feed/timeline/whatever they call it now. Chuck Wendig shared it. It figures. His shares usually inspire me to get off my ass and at least reshare, usually with a short commentary of my own.

This time, that just wasn’t enough. It tried. I really did. But the words kept coming and I couldn’t turn off the flow. So here I am. I have this underutilized forum just sitting here, lurking. Waiting for me to type words and spit them out into the universe. Here are those words.

“As I watch my daughter struggle through school days on too little sleep and feel almost guilty if she wants to watch an hour of television instead of advancing a few yards in the trench warfare of her weekly homework routine, I have my doubts. When would she ever have time to, say, read a book for pleasure? Or write a story or paint a picture or play the guitar?” – Karl Taro Greenfield

I taught in the arts at the secondary level for fourteen years. I watched the transition from the amount of homework I had in school, to the 3+ hours of homework a night, every night, that kids must complete today. While I don’t have any children of my own, I’ve seen plenty of them excel, struggle, complain, accept, cry, rant, and have just about every reaction imaginable on the subject of homework.

When I was in high school and college, I became an expert at prioritizing. I got my math and science homework out of the way, usually in class as soon as it was assigned, not paying attention to what the teacher was teaching, I could always read that in the textbook before class the next day. My history and English (my best subjects) assignments were done during my peak productive hours, which for me have always been between midnight and about 3-5 a.m. I could write an entire research paper or essay in one night, with one draft, on a typewriter (I didn’t have a word processor and couldn’t correct anything on my typewriter once I hit Enter at the end of a line), eschewing the traditional note cards and multiple drafts, and ALWAYS receive a 90 or higher for my final grade. I became an expert at editing in my head and putting a finished product on the paper from there. This really helped in the study of Music Theory, in which I excelled, as I could hear the assignment in my head and very rarely had to take it to a piano to play (my limited piano skills necessitated this. I usually studied for tests immediately before the test. I would often listen to others study, which usually gave me enough preparation to ace the test. I always got good grades, except when my brother was having a lot of issues and I spent my 10th grade year sleeping locked in a large closet they had built onto their bedroom because my parents were scared of what he’d do to me (true story). In college, I wasn’t always on the Dean’s List, but I always kept my GPA above a 3.0 on a 4 point scale. One of my college roommates used me as an example of how not to study. Yet, I usually outscored him on tests, even in his major subject, which wasn’t mine. Standardized tests? I scored well on all of them and maxed out several of them, including teacher certification exams.

In high school, I spent maybe 2 or 3 hours a week working on homework at home. Most of it was done at school. I would fit it into the time I spent at school, after my Dad dropped me off or, later, after I arrived in my ’79 Cougar. I worked on it waiting in the hallways, usually the band hallway, between classes or during lunch. I became adept at finding tiny slices of downtime at the beginning or end or classes, while the teacher was transitioning during class, or whenever there were a few moments to do a math problem, answer an essay question, or whatever. Just as often, I didn’t do my homework at all. By 11th grade, I found that I could rely on the other parts of my “game” to keep my grade around a “B” without turning in very much homework. I aced all of my tests. I did extremely well on creative assignments. My essays and term papers all received “A’s.” I was gaming the system. It worked.

I was managing my time so that I could spend the majority of my time doing the things I loved. I read more than a thousand pages for pleasure during some weeks. There wasn’t a week during high school that I didn’t at least read a few hundred pages, even by my booklight in the walk-in closet, or later, in the travel trailer my parents bought for me to live in and parked out in our backyard after that dreaded sophomore year in the closet.

Dungeons Dragons Basic Set

On top of all that reading, I played hours and hours of games. Yes, there were board games and video games (I was the first of my friends to own the original Nintendo Entertainment System), but my game of choice was Dungeons & Dragons.

When I was in high school, I played D&D almost every night. On weekends and during the summer, it was every night. Most nights when there wasn’t school the next day, we would play in my little 17′ travel trailer (my Dad made my friend Phillip and me refurbish it ourselves) until well after midnight. Sometimes players would drift in and out of the game as we took turns sleeping. Sometimes our games would last until the sun came up and even beyond, if nobody had to work that day. It was one of the best times of my life. Even though my brother was, at times, extremely violent and profoundly sick, I can still count those years as some of the best days of my life.

You could say I wasn’t learning, or maybe that I wasn’t learning the things that would be useful in life or higher education, but that would be absolutely untrue. Those days taught me so much more than 3-5 hours of homework ever could have. My wife and I have always had this inside joke that everything I ever learned in life came from role-playing games. While it isn’t true (I had some incredible teachers, as well as some truly terrible ones, same as anybody else, and my Mom encouraged my learning endeavors in any form), it is not that much of a stretch.

A Storm Upon Ulster

Through my reading and gaming, I acquired a sizable vocabulary. I learned about encumbrance and lycanthropy. I discovered the meanings of melee and milieu. I also learned about knights, castles, feudalism, and a laundry list of things from history. My reading of some of Kenneth C. Flint’s novels based in ancient Ireland led me to do much research on the ancient Celts and their lives and culture, which became one of my senior projects. For my senior English paper, I read every one of Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion novels (there are dozens), even though only three novels were required, and discussed the nature of the epic hero as set forth by Mr. Moorcock compared with the traditional epics we had studied in class. My 11th grade paper involved the use of a forgetful narrator in the works of Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, and a comparison of how they employed this device. My college freshman research paper was on the evolution of the vampire in culture and folklore from ancient to modern times. My wife, who was my girlfriend in college, made fun of me because I wrote research papers for fun.

My other geeky hobby was baseball. I was never a good player, and my only season of little league ball did not go well. I have never been an athletic person. My brother, on the other hand, was a gifted baseball player. He was also incredibly intelligent in the subjects that escaped me. While I gravitated towards literature, history, and music, my brother poured his mental energy into math, science, and sports. One of the greatest things he taught me, besides tying my shoes, was the mathematics of baseball. Baseball is a game of numbers. My brother taught me how to interpret the statistics on the backs of the baseball cards we loved to collect. He taught me how to figure batting average (AVG), earned run average (ERA), slugging percentage (SLG), and lots of other metrics with which to evaluate our favorite players. I can only imagine what his mind, if healthy, would be doing today with more advanced baseball metrics like OPS+, wOBA, UZR, WHIP, and xFIP.

What does this have to do with the article linked above and the evolution of the modern student?

I think the biggest difference between the student of my youth, and the student of today, is that much of our learning was self-guided. We could learn in our own way and still do well in school. We could explore the world and apply what we learned in the classroom to that world. One year during middle school, I bought an Audobon Society Field Guide to seashells, and my Mom and I combed the beach for shells on quiet mornings, comparing them to the examples in the book and classifying them. I hated science, but this was fun. As a child, my parents took my brother and me to baseball games and my brother taught me how to keep score. I hated math, but this was fun. It was fun because I loved the context. When I excelled in music theory in college, many people who knew me well asked how I could do so well in something that was so heavily infused with math. Context. I loved the sound of the music, so the math made so much sense that it effectively disappeared, lost in the swirl of notes and rhythms. Why did I grow to love reading, writing, and history so much? Likely, at least in part, because I could apply them in the context of the games and novels I loved.

Today’s students are drowned in tedium without context. They have no chance to apply their hours of homework to a context they love because they have no time or impetus to develop those contexts or contextual relationships. As a teacher, it was incredibly frustrating to have nearly half of my students absent on the release day of each new Harry Potter novel or each Halo video game (to be fair, I was only teaching when the first two installments were released). I was appalled that parents would allow their children to skip an entire day of school to read a new book or play a new video game. Now, I understand.

By the time I was wrapping up my time in public education, students were already on this insane homework upswing. As a teacher in the arts, I lost brilliant, gifted students to the grind of homework. They simply no longer had time for the arts. I realize now that even the insane rehearsal/practice schedule that I held my students accountable for, combined with the hours of homework given by every other teacher, along with sports, and other commitments (I saw many students who held jobs during the school year, some even full-time), were absolutely ridiculous. They were necessary for what the students were expected to accomplish, and many of my former students would tell you that they wouldn’t trade those grueling schedules for anything, but they were ridiculous.

If they were so ridiculous, why did so many of my students love every moment of them? Context. The arts gave my students a connection to a context they loved.

Do we expect too much of our students today? Do we have unrealistic expectations of today’s students? Why do we always see headlines about the problems in modern schools and inadequate test results? Are students doing it wrong? Are teachers doing it wrong? Is the modern American educational system broken?

There are a lot of variables involved in the answer to those questions, but one element of a solution to the problem of education is to remember what it was like to be a child or a teen. Get them off the educational assembly line and put the learning into contextual relationships with things they love. It is not the amount of work we can give students that makes them learn, it is the amount of connection they can find to their work. Give them the opportunity to find their passions, find books, films, sports, music, and games they love, and allow them to make the connections between those things and the subjects. Don’t force cookie cutter projects and materials down their throats.

I loved reading and writing from a very young age, but I never really felt connected to those classes in school until my 10th grade year of high school. Sure, I loved to read, but the stuff I loved to read was never the type of thing we were forced to read in class. The papers we had to write weren’t what I loved to write about. What changed during that terrible 10th grade year, the year my first dog died, the year I had to sleep in a locked closet because my brother may show up in my room with a baseball bat in the middle of the night?

Image from Dead Poets' Society, Touchstone Pictures, 1989.

Image from Dead Poets’ Society, Touchstone Pictures, 1989

My 10th grade English teacher was a revolutionary. His name was Pat Rapp. He did absolutely nothing by the rules. He was Mr. Keating from Dead Poets’ Society┬áthree years before that movie was made. We boxed up the required reading novels and unpacked books by the bestselling authors of the time. Our poetry was written by Bono, Jackson Browne, and The Dead Kennedy’s. Mr. Rapp did so much to get fired that year, from betting on football games along with those of us who had a lunch time football pool, to a pool party at his home, to a class field trip to meet his wife. He only lasted one more year before he disappeared from that school, but he taught me to break the rules, to make learning fun, and to relate the subjects we were learning in school to sports, pleasure reading, music, film, etc. He taught me that we learn from everything, all the time.

So stop trying to force it on today’s students to learn as much content as possible with as much rigor as possible, and allow them to make connections to the curriculum. Allow them to create and to connect passionately to the material, using whatever bait they will chomp on, whatever hook they chase. Stop forcing them to memorize and start allowing them to synthesize.

My 12th grade English teacher required us to memorize a huge chunk of the prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. We had to stand up in class and say the entire thing from memory. I still remember it. Why? Because she didn’t just make us memorize the words. She encouraged us to learn it with the accents, in proper middle English. What would have been just rote memorization became acting, role-playing. I really hammed it up when it was my turn.

I don’t really blame the teachers. I don’t even blame the administrators, the politicians, or the parents for the modern homework crunch. While there are many factors at work in this problem, I place a majority of the blame on the culture of the educational system. I used to cringe when people would tell me that teaching wasn’t a “real job” especially teaching in the arts. Teachers work harder, for longer hours, and under worse conditions than many other professions. The problem is that most teachers spend their entire careers teaching, and don’t get to spend time in other professions.

“Boys, you must strive to find your own voice. Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau said, ‘Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.’ Don’t be resigned to that. Break out!” –┬áDead Poets’ Society

When I left teaching, I realized that many teachers are out of touch with what life is like in professions that aren’t education. I’m not saying they’re in an ivory tower, but they are in a fortress. The walls of the school and the walls created by modern educational culture are barriers to what is outside of those walls. Some would suggest privatizing schools or putting corporate CEO’s in charge of education. This is not the answer either. Those solutions just exchange one type of fortress for another. If you want to see teacher’s that know what is really going on, look for the teachers that wait tables or work retail on weekends and during summers. Look for the teachers who help place students and graduates into jobs in the local economy. Look for teachers that know what it is like to have all the demands of teaching, plus another job, raising children, taking care of aging parents, etc. and keep a positive attitude, and are loved by the majority of their students, who will say they made learning fun. Find those teachers. Learn what they know. I have a feeling I know what they will tell you:

When it comes to success in school, or in life, it’s not how much work their students do, it’s how much the students love their work.


Darren is a life-long geek, an avid gamer (both tabletop role-playing and video games), and a writer and editor. He lives in South Carolina with his wife Barbara and his three rescued Siberian Huskies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *