What is on the minds of our students? We mostly have no idea. The Edupundits all seem to agree that the most important variable in student academic achievement is teacher quality. But isn’t the most important variable in student academic achievement really student academic work in the end?
The teacher can know a lot about her subject, can speak well, tell wonderful stories, have good control over the class, and so on, but if the student is thinking about something else, what is the result?
I have known first-rate teachers whose students didn’t do any work academically and mediocre teachers who had some students who achieved a lot academically.
All those hundreds of people spending many millions of dollars and countless months of effort on teacher assessment never seem to wonder what is going on in the minds of our students in a given class. How many times has an evaluator, visiting a class to judge the work of a teacher, ever thought to ask a few students, in those moments, what they know about the current subject, or even what they are thinking about at the time?
The Hindus say the mind is like a drunken monkey, and even a sober mind is pulled in many directions at once, by memories, worries, ideas, desires, impressions of all kinds, and even, occasionally, by the subject matter of the class the student is sitting in. But the point is that while we are teaching, even though we may get a student question from time to time, or we may ask a student for a comment from time to time, during the vast majority of the time we spend teaching, we have not the slightest insight into what is occupying the minds of almost all of our students while we are teaching our brains out.
A recent study found (mirabile dictu) that students who don’t come to class learn less than students who do. But the fact is that even when students do come to class, their attention and their minds may very well be absent from class. There are countless objects of interest to distract the minds of students from the current work of any class as presented by the teacher.
This is not to say that wonderful teachers cannot draw and hold the attention of almost all the students in their class for amazingly long stretches. But students have many concerns, both personal and academic. Not only the next athletic event, or personal relationship, but even the subject matter of the next class or the last class may occupy the minds of some or many of our students while we teach.
Teaching and learning are at least as subtle and complex as brain surgery, and the surgeon has one single anaesthetized patient, and the help of four or five other professionals, while the teacher may have thirty conscious high school students and no one to watch for signs of student distraction, if any…As every teacher knows it is ridiculously easy for a student to show every sign of serious attention while their mind is actually kilometers away on some other matter entirely.
Stitching knowledge and ideas into the existing mental and memory frameworks of students is a lot more difficult and intricate an undertaking than most of those designing teacher assessment projects even want to think about, but it is the actual daily venture of our teachers.
My main interest and experience are with history at the high school level, so I am not sure what bearing my suggestions would have for calculus, chemistry, or Chinese language courses. But I believe that the attention of our history students can be captured and rewarded by asking them to read at least one good complete history book each year, and to write one serious Extended Essay-type history research paper each year while they are in high school.
If they read and report on a good history book, the chances are that they will have given it their attention, and learned some history from it. If they write a 6,000-word history research paper (and I am regularly publishing 8,000-15,000-word papers by secondary students from 46 states and beyond), they will clearly have had to give the historical subject of their research their attention, and they will have learned some history (see: student academic achievement) in the process.
Of course, we should continue to try to recruit and retain the top 5% of college graduates as our school teachers, and we should encourage them to teach their hearts out. But unless we begin to look more closely in an effort to discover what, academically, is going on in the minds of students, we will continue to ignore the main engines of academic work in our schools. I hope one or two of our more elite and well-funded Edupundits may give this idea a passing thought or two.
“Teach by Example”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review 
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes 
National Writing Board 
TCR Institute 
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776-3371 USA