Thinking less about getting it right

One of the key symptoms of our hypercompetitive, pressure-laden culture is the way in which students often view their work as something done for the teacher. As soon as the prospect of a grade enters the picture, students’ natural love of learning tends to shut down. Part of my job is rehabilitating the instinct to learn—centering the student in their own learning process and shifting them out of a mindset of performance and into the realm of mastery.

I studied Human Evolutionary Biology and Theatre, Dance and Media at Harvard. After a rocky first semester, I had to refocus on my studies. I was so focused on staying afloat in my first semester that I forgot what it was that made me love school—the nourishment that came from getting to learn. I gave myself time to study, to tell myself the story of the material, and noticed a great improvement in the work I was doing. Now, I try and cultivate a similar environment in all of the sessions I teach.

Let’s say I’m working with a student on stoichiometry, an advanced concept in chemistry. The student comes in with a formulaic understanding of how to convert moles to grams and vice-versa, clinging to a simple heuristic offered them in class. But what’s in a mole? When the student and I understand a mole as a fixed quantity, sort of like a dozen, and that some brilliant guy named Avogardo figured out that we can use that number to convert from the number of grams a substance has to the number of molecules, the student tends to be way more excited than when they’re “plugging and chugging.” My ears always perk up when I hear a student say that all they have to do is memorize____. Sure, there are aspects of any class that require memorization. But what that student is really telling me is that they haven’t quite mastered the story behind the concept and that they’re stuck in the mindset of getting results. Learning that story, facing the fear and relishing the challenge are all part of the exciting work we get to do in the tutoring space.

Or maybe we’re working on an essay. A student will often come in trying to “sell” a theme that they think will be successful in garnering that coveted A. I can hardly blame them. Essay prompts are often confusing, filled with recommendations and avenues for exploration, but leaving them with little in the way of access to their own insights and curiosities. I like to ask my students the simple question of—what moments really stood out? I encourage them not to worry too much about the overarching theme. That’s something that we can discover over time in the process of analyzing what’s simply on the page. Then, as we really see how the author is using language, we often discover that we’re speaking directly to some of the themes articulated in the prompt—but we’ve come about them in a way that feels authentic to the student (and often a lot more fun!).

Ironically, when we decenter “doing it right”, students often come closer to the results that they want. Taking the pressure off of achievement and putting it onto honest inquiry allows them to stop worrying so much about how they’re doing and to simply learn. This capacity has the potential to really change a student’s life.