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Helping Students Thrive Now

Angela Duckworth and other behavioral-science experts offer advice to teachers based on scientific research. To submit questions, use this form or #helpstudentsthrive. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

What Teachers Should Worry About Right Now

By Angela Duckworth — April 27, 2020 1 min read

How do I make sure students are getting schoolwork done during distance learning?

A good teacher worries about her students. The question is, what specifically should we be worrying about?

When schools first shut down, many educators worried about getting students access to basic needs, like meals, and technology resources, like laptops.

Assuming those needs are met, what should we worry about now?

A lot of teachers are now concerned that students aren’t getting enough work done. That’s understandable, but a recent conversation with Ron Berger makes me think that this concern is slightly off-target. Ron is the chief academic officer of the nonprofit EL Education. When I asked him this question, he suggested we redirect our concern toward what students are learning.

Wait, isn’t “work done” the same as “learning”?

Not exactly. The aim of education is for students to learn things they didn’t know before. Worksheets, online assignments, and other forms of schoolwork are designed to facilitate learning—but they are the means, not the end, of education.

Instead, Ron recommends setting clear and specific learning goals, then giving students more autonomy in charting and tracking their progress toward those goals:

We can be clear with students about what we hope they will learn, and ask them to keep track of their learning, collect evidence of it, and share it with others. We can structure ways for students to share their learning with classmates, teachers, or (if possible) with family, through presenting it verbally or posting work online or in their home and reflecting on it.

In other words, the name of the game is learning, not compliance.

If, for example, your learning goal is to understand the scientific method, your first thought might be to make a worksheet and check its completion. Or instead, you can simply name that goal, give students models for how they might accomplish that goal, and schedule a “virtual science fair” where each student presents what they’ve learned, and how they decided to learn it, to their classmates and, if appropriate, family members, too.

One reason I love this shift in priorities is that it helps students practice both self-control and creativity. Another is that this approach sends the message to students that they are leaders, not followers, in their own learning. A good teacher worries about his students; a great teacher makes sure those worries are well-placed.

Angela Duckworth, the founder and CEO of the education nonprofit Character Lab, is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. You can follow Character Lab on Twitter @TheCharacterLab.


The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.