Making Learning Cool

Guest post by Elizabeth Olsson, Policy Coordinator, TASC.

In his work with the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard, Ronald Ferguson has explored how strongly students (in addition to parents and teachers) influence each other’s attitudes toward learning and development. We all know that kids can promote a toxic culture within a peer group that rewards disruptive behavior and apathy toward school and learning. This is a situation I often confronted as a seventh grade English Language Arts teacher in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

At a recent colloquium hosted by Hunter College Center for Assessment, Research and Evaluation, Dr. Ferguson shared that when students were asked what their peers did to be cool, they identified behaviors like talking back to the teacher and swearing. What surprised me was that when students were asked what behaviors they wished their peers valued, they ranked doing well in school high on the list.

Students feel like they need to pretend they don’t care about learning to fit in. But they secretly want excelling in school to be cool. What could overcome such a paradox? No single change would be enough. But what if school was so relevant to students’ lives and interests that they couldn’t help but to be engaged? What it they felt like they were missing out on big opportunities if they wasted their time at school? I think more relevant learning could go a long way toward combating the problem.

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About Saskia Traill

Saskia is TASC’s Vice President for Policy and Research. She leads our policy development and advocacy work, oversees independent evaluation of TASC initiatives and works with our team of TASC researchers investigating the most urgent questions in the field of expanded learning opportunities. She came to TASC and New York from the Insight Center for Community Economic Development in Oakland.