Can class work be meaningful?

The problems

After watching Cal Newport’s wonderful lecture, a question comes to mind: “If you believe that deep work is important for the development of rare and valuable skills, what is the purpose of a teacher?”

As a teacher, I confess that I don’t have an answer, but unless students spend a significant portion of the class time honing rare and valuable skills, I suspect that we are not worth the opportunity cost our students are paying. Just how steep is this opportunity cost?

Let’s assume that 10,000 hours is necessary to achieve expert status in a given field.* We can now calculate that a particular class consumes 1.5% of this number. Unless students are doing something that is truly rare, “rare and valuable” expertise can not be cultivated. Note: the average class is not doing this by the definitions of “rare” and “average”.

The summer letter

Last spring, after reading Invent to Learn, I sent out the following letter to my students. I wanted them to think about what “substantial, sharable, and personally meaningful” work might look like:

Screen Shot 2014-04-15 at 1.29.24 PMThe initial results

This year, students have used our class’s democratic process to pass a motion allocating one period every week to their independent project work. They set up a blog** that is uniquely their own where they investigate a host of topics from the nature of glow in the dark materials to the philosophy of science. They are testing soil quality at our organic garden and doing many other projects they care about. Students have shared their demos, experiments, and essays with each other and the world. This work has been a vehicle through which they have honed many skills, including the problem-finding and problem-solving skills people value.

For the future

I want to end with a few reflections.

First, I don’t think I am rare. I am just like every other teacher who is trying to figure out what I should do in my classroom each day. But, over my four years as a teacher, the value proposition I offer has changed. When I began, I naïvely thought that my students would be experts in my field after a year with me. Today, I know that they only pass this test if I narrowly define the words “expert” and “field”.

Regarding the new discipline-specific skills, students are just beginning their mastery journey. This 1.5% represents the window I have to hook or sour them on a new pursuit. By opening up our classrooms to develop skills in concert, students tailor their education: simultaneously learning new skills and adding 1.5% to skills that were already in progress before they met me.

As teachers, we can adhere to our idiosyncratic preferences about the important topics within our disciplines, or we can offer students the opportunity to design the curriculum with us; where they choose the skills they want to hone and find a level of mastery for each skill. In short, I am asking, who gets to choose the skill set students practice? As a perpetual learner, I prefer that the students choose. ***



* Read this beautiful essay about expertise (PDF) by Ericsson, Prietula, and Cokely for more on this.

** No, I can’t take credit for the URL choice “” or the motto: “Come for the Celebrities, Stay for the Chemistry” both of which were chosen democratically to increase google search traffic to their site.

*** One last thought: I want to challenge the implicit notion that a student is primarily a recipient of—and secondary to—the knowledge within a field. When teachers make course decisions ahead of time, or without asking, students inevitably receive the message that the institution or the teacher knows best which rare and valuable skills they should master. I am willing to be convinced of this if student outcomes warrant it, but I refuse to accept it uncritically since the cost of the bargain is at least a measure of student autonomy—the first of Dan Pink’s motivation triumvirate.

I am a math and science teacher at a boarding school in Delaware.

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Posted in Deep work, Philosophy
2 comments on “Can class work be meaningful?
  1. John Burk says:

    I think your summer letter is inspiring, and I think our students need more chances to exercise choice in designing their educations. I think the most recent article in the Cardinal shows just how little choice they have. At the same time, it seems like many students don’t feel comfortable or ready to make these sorts of choices. They would rather have their teachers pick out the curriculum for them and tell them what to do. How do you overcome this?

    Also, have you thought of how having your students connect with experts outside the class and present to an authentic audience might further help them to see the value in what they are doing?

  2. John your idea of connecting students with experts in the field is wonderful. I would love to be able to introduce students to experts in the future and would love to get your thoughts on how we can do this most effectively.

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