A Call for Natural Consequences: Tougher Lessons for Students

A week ago Thursday we had parent-teacher conferences at our high school.  I posted last week on the fact that I had two parents show up to talk about their child’ progress (https://jsteltz.wordpress.com/2010/02/05/engaging-parents-in-education/).  The post also discussed the significance of engaging parents in the education of their children to help raise student outcomes.

A conversation in our English Department meeting on Wednesday and a blog post I read on Thursday from Professor Tom Whitby (http://tomwhitby.wordpress.com/2010/02/11/the-little-red-schoolhouse/) has inspired this blog post.  If there is anything you can add to this discussion please do.  I believe that teachers and parents all over the world are seeking solutions to the issue of low achieving students.

In Whitby’s post he juxtaposes the traditional school our grandparents knew, the Little Red Schoolhouse, to the schools our children are experiencing today.  In fact, he even went so far as suggesting that we need to change the way we view our ‘schools’.  With technology we can be educators and learners and never enter a classroom.  There are so many ways to engage students outside of being in the classroom.  By the by, I agree with Whitby’s insight here.

In our department meeting on Wednesday we were discussing a growing concern of the low grades in our school.  We are all looking at each other, both teachers and admin, trying to figure out how to make this ‘go away’.

This leads me to what’s burnin’ my brain.  Our school has been on a search for curing the pandemic of low grades.  Often times teachers are finding themselves lowering their standards to ‘get’ kids to pass a class.  Teachers are often bailing these students out.  Now, please understand, I am not talking about the student that works hard but just doesn’t have the skills to apply to learning.  I am talking about the unmotivated student.  The student that finds no value in his education.  This student may be smart, but his grades are not reflecting it because he is not producing anything.

I believe in natural consequences in raising my children.  Don’t get me wrong, I will never allow them to get into harm’s way or be placed in a life threatening situation, but if my 6 year old son decides to go out into the snow with his sneakers on instead of boots after I have warned him of the potential consequences, then so be it.  He will learn that he doesn’t like to have wet, cold feet and wear his boots next time.

Maybe for this aspect of education, unlike the technological phenomenon, we need to go back in time.  What would happen if we went back to the life lessons taught in The Little Red Schoolhouse and allowed those students who are consciously making poor decisions in their education to fail instead of making up 6th grade curriculum for an 11th grader to pass…not including special needs students?  What if they had to actually retake the class?  Maybe some of you are in schools like these and I applaud your courage.  What about No Child Left Behind?  Is this why I am getting students in 9th grade that are struggling readers and writers?  I believe that it is not a teacher efficacy issue.  I am not convinced it’s all behavioral either.  I suppose it’s somewhere in the middle.

I believe natural consequences can have a powerful impact on behavior.  If we want behavior to change we must incite it intrinsically from our students.  What better way than to allow for natural consequences like they did at the Little Red Schoolhouse?  Let’s help our students learn from their mistakes, but let’s allow them to make mistakes and stop bailing them out.

Call it natural consequences, call it tough love, call it what you want…but where has it gone?

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About jpsteltz

Proud husband and father of four; Literacy Specialist; Reading Teacher; Literacy Coach; HS ELA Teacher; Published Author
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21 Responses to A Call for Natural Consequences: Tougher Lessons for Students

  1. Hans Mundahl says:

    Natural consequences are a powerful intrinsic motivator! Dan Pink’s book Drive is a great resource for this.

    Natural consequences are also a big part of experiential education and it requires a different kind of teaching environment where it is okay to make mistakes. The teacher facilitates a discussion about what to take from our mistakes.

    I teach a media class in which we produce a live tv show. Two weeks ago we produced a very poor show and we all saw it coming! I think the class took more from this crash and burn than they did from much else I could have done.

    Thanks for the great post.

    Like

    • jsteltz says:

      Hans- Thanks so much for your input. As you might guess, I agree with you. Your example illustrates the point that educators have to stop bailing students out…how is that learning?

      Like

  2. mrkeenan says:

    This post gets to the crux of what our school is facing as well. Natural consequences are great, but only go so far in motivating someone. What are the ‘natural consequences’ for these students? Well, even if they fail, the system will allow them to retry, their parents will likely take you to task, or pay for them to attend a ‘virtual school’ to complete. The argument of natural consequences is valid, but not the biggest issue here. We have to look at how our concept of school can change to accommodate better ‘consequences’ As Hans alludes to above, if we are creating authentic tasks and experiential learning, students become more worried about perception of the work than the grade. That’s where natural consequences become powerful.

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    • jsteltz says:

      Great post…great input. I like the idea of students creating authentic tasks then becoming more focused on the perception of the work than the grade itself. That is the bottom line. You are right. So…the next question is how can we share ideas w/ each other so we can create authentic opportunities all/most of the time for our students?

      Thanks for you input!

      Like

      • Heidi says:

        I am all for ANY kind of consequence at this point. Natural or unnatural 🙂
        So far in 13 years of teaching, the only one who has been faced with any consequences(ones that matter anyway) is me. If too many students fail, the consequence is that I end up with overloaded classes the next year. Unfortunately, there are some teachers who would use that as an excuse for lowering the bar. I can’t. I won’t. The other dilema I have is this:
        Can someone please describe what an “authentic opportunity” is? As an educator how do I make a lesson authentic to a 16 year old headed for college vs. one who can’t read? I teach students that are CD/LD/EBD, At-Risk, and College-bound in the same classroom everyday and I truly struggle with coming up with ways to engage them all and yet still teach the basic foundations of history and economics. Any efforts I have made at differentiating just seem like “tracking” on a smaller scale. And forget technology, I have limited access and am ecouraged to have the students do more with paper and pencil. I’m frustrated and torn. Any ideas????

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  3. Justin says:

    The reap and sow principle is a lesson every student should learn. Better to learn naturals consequences in the protected environment of the schoolhouse than at the mercy of a collection agent or in a foreclosure. Social passing only serves to delay the consequences.

    Like

    • jsteltz says:

      YES!!! One of the problems I see on this issue is that educators arm wrestle with parents…some parents keep bailing their kids out therefore the lessons provided by the teach can be undermined.

      Thanks so much for posting!

      Like

  4. jsteltz says:

    This post came via email to me from a colleague of mine. With my colleague’s permission, I thought it was an important part of this dialogue so I am pasting it here:

    John, I read the article-now tell me where did the child learn he will be bailed out? In the court of law I was given 14 days to pay over $70,000 of debt incurred by the boys mother- I was told by several bankers to claim bankruptcy to bail myself out- I paid the bill in 10 days and paid it off over 12 years as my sons went without trips, gifts, fancy clothes,etc. all the while including them as to why we were short on money. My sons took jobs to buy their own items that they wanted and did these jobs while going to school and playing 3 sports and keeping the house and meals up-everyone had a duty. All also keeping a B average. Excuses weren’t a part of their vocabulary because this was the life we were dealt. Today they are proud workers and college graduates. They don’t regret their life, or hold a grudge for trips not taken, they are thankful they were taught a lesson of real life. I am not sure retaking a class will teach a person if it is ingrained in them it is someone else’s fault-The genetic beginning of that individual should look in the mirror and take ownership! That is where it starts-just look at our youth sports today-It isn’t the player-it’s the coach or the ref. We can’t go back if people don’t want to look at the reflection. This is just an opinion-I have been wrong before!

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  5. Alyson says:

    I agree, there must be natural consequences, both positive and negative, in place and we must follow through with them. For me this ties into our system of standardized testing, there is no consequence to the person (student) actually taking the test. No matter what the score it has no affect on them. I know some states link high scores to college scholarship money, but what can we do to create some motivation for students who just don’t “care”.

    Like

    • jsteltz says:

      Heidi and Alyson…thanks so much for contributing and raising more questions in this discussion. I hope we can formulate some conclusions through this discussion or, at the very least, begin to understand how important this issue is.

      Like

  6. Heidi mentioned refusing to lower the bar. I have to admit, in the past four years I have lowered the bar and still my students do not achieve what I think they should. It’s like a miserable game of limbo. I drop the bar…they go under it. I don’t know if lowering the bar matters even.

    I work really hard to find different and interesting things for them to do. For example, one of my hours are making radio podcasts of the news. They don’t have to write anything and they only have to read short news articles. Minimal work on their part. Today they had to finish picking their articles, highlight the chunks they want to read, and write a draft of a 30 second commercial. Not one group did the commercial because they socialized 60% of the hour. It’s important to note that this is a credit recovery class too. They’re being thrown a favor here and it’s not interesting to them. I don’t know what really motivates them.

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    • Heidi says:

      Credit Recovery Class…. kind of says something all on its own. Back in the day it was called Remedial or Flunkies, etc. Glad to know you are working hard even though they aren’t. Wonder why good teachers give up??

      Like

      • jsteltz says:

        One of the questions I have now after reading these posts is how do we get students engaged when there is no concern over a consequence? I had a chat with a fellow educator via Twitter earlier today who made an interesting point about ‘children who live under the constant threat of violence or oppression don’t develop the kinds of instincts you describe.’ So I wonder whether or not this issue is not universal, but based on demographics or geography. Hmmm….

        Like

  7. Diana says:

    Thanks Heidi for the rhetorical question… I know why the good teachers give up. I like to believe I’m a good teacher, and I’m walking that line right now… It’s hard to stand in front of the classroom and watch the majority of these students display total apathy. But then, there’s always one or two of them that you reach and when you see the light bulb go on and the work ethic take hold… there’s just no “high” quite like that! Then there’s the guilt of not teaching those who want an education because of the amount of time spent coaxing, prodding, and babysitting for those who have this apathy toward education… Can’t give up, but could really use a life line that stays above the surface instead of floating along just below the surface…Random thoughts coming at me at the end of a very long week – forgive the bad metaphors and analogies.

    Like

  8. kate botsford says:

    As a not-yet-having-a-job student teacher, I find this post to be troublesome. We have studied a lot of national grade inflation in my education classes. We also arrogantly viewed each student as a college bound kid, therefore creating personal concern.

    However, now that I am here, running, gasping, trying to keep up with the big kids, I find that not every one of my students (even in my honors classes) will not be attending a four-year college or university. I am not saying that every kid who doesn’t plan on going to college should get a free pass, however these student’s levels of concern are so much lower than what I had expected while sitting on cushions and munching bonbons up at school. (I didn’t actually do that, for any sort of record.)

    So my question is, “What do I tell a student who says, ‘Who cares? I’m not going to college anyway.’?” Do I lower the bar for him or her? Or do I say, tough stuff, kid, do it anyway? I am not too comfortable with either option.

    I feel like a nag hanging over my student’s shoulders saying, “Do this. Do that.” From my limited experience, I have found that letting them flounder a bit, then going in for a save is helpful (although quite stressful and damaging to us.)

    Like

    • jsteltz says:

      Kate- You provide a great opportunity to illustrate the point that this is exactly why we have to keep asking these questions and seeking solutions…it never ends and we must continue to fight even when we are tired of the struggle.

      Thanks so much for the post!

      Like

  9. Nancy White says:

    This whole concept of lowering the bar is alarming to me. Also, giving “activities” to students without any substance. I think we need to look at how we can get students to own their own learning. Motivation is definitely the key. I just got my copy of Dan Pink’s new book Drive in the mail yesterday – can’t wait to get started on it! 🙂

    Like

    • jsteltz says:

      Nancy- Someone mentioned that book earlier today, ‘Drive’. My wife read the post and said we need to get the book re: our own children. I am sure the purchase has been made already.

      Thanks for responding!!

      Like

  10. Cece says:

    I honestly still believe that it is my responsibility to engage students and that all students are capable of learning. The willingness to learn is the struggle. How can I help my students desire learning?In the past, graduation was a goal or benchmark. It seems to me many students do not value this goal as early as 14 years old. They do not see the point of doing the assignments or passing the tests. Instead they long for attention… unfortunately many times this becomes only Negative attention. I reinforce this in my classroom by giving them negative attention. In 10 years of teaching, I have many different ways to manage negative behavior…however, many times I am trying so hard to help them achieve that I give them what they are looking for ….neg attention! I have tried to get to know the students and find what drives them….but many times I am unable to change their negative behavior or negative feelings towards school. Many students say…I hate all the teachers here! How is that possible??? We have so many teachers that are giving a part of their soul in their classrooms to their students. I will say that I do have students that do achieve and are motivated. Sadly for them at times, they lose learning possibilities because of the students striving for my negative attention. I am not perfect…I do love my job…I just wish we could find ways to show how education or continual learning makes life interesting, fascinating…even fun!

    Like

    • jsteltz says:

      I am so glad that you posted!! This provides great insight to this great discussion. Your thoughts are so meaningful in re to this topic. Thanks for sharing your experiences! I think your thoughts lead back to authentic learning again…what can we do as educators to get these kids to own their own learning??

      This is a great discussion that needs to continue!

      Thank you so much!!

      Like

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