Five habits of great students: Lessons from top-ranked STEM school | WSJ

I like this piece from the WSJ. The authors are a world history and an English teacher at the top-ranked high school for STEM education. They identify five habits of their most successful students:

1) frequent reading in a variety of subjects and genres;

2) writing often, even daily, and not just for the sake of assessments;

3) preparedness, both with material requirements (i.e. multiple pencils for an exam) and with a thorough conceptual understanding;

4) collaborating across subject areas and disciplines to develop basic skills, such as communicating and critical thinking; and

5) questioning one’s educators, because fostering the desire to questions means fostering a general desire to learn.

Their emphasis on education as a process of habituation, to me, is spot-on. Being successful is not just about being intelligent, but also about habituating oneself to be a thoughtful person who constantly engages with the world in a variety of creative ways – through writing, through reading, through communicating with individuals of diverse backgrounds and educations, or through the creative pursuit of one’s passion(s) in the course of a career.  

That being said, I have some issues with the authors’ underlying presumptions in their descriptions of these habits. Take the following points as an example:

For us, reading is the single most important factor leading to academic achievement.  You can’t be stupid and read a lot.

Smart is more than numbers and letters on a report card — it’s a way of life.  All students can be smart.  As parents and teachers, we just need to provide them with the opportunities to shine.

Intelligence here is being equated with academic achievement. I resist this equation becuase it thoroughly ignores (and, I think, disrespects) those whose intelligence is not recognized within the narrow design of our compulsory education system – and there are many such individuals. To put it crudely (and yet, I can’t help but think this is an implication of their presumption), people who do not test well are not categorically ‘dumber’ than those who do.

I agree that a basic level of education should be compulsory for a society that relies on democratic citizen engagement for its political thriving. However, defining this particular way of living as constitutive of intelligence – or even, in some sense, success at it as a measure of intelligence – also perpetuates this disrespect. Not all people learn this way, and that does not entail that they are any less intelligent for it. It is no accident that these are the particular habits of students who by definition are already successful within a particular model of education. The authors, I think, slip from describing an aspect of highly successful students in this particular STEM-heavy educational model (complete with rampant standardized testing) to prescribing that these habits are constitutive of intelligence in general.

Additionally, there is an implicit STEM bias that just makes me cringe – and all the more because these are educators in humanistic fields.

History, English and foreign language teachers need to find ways to integrate their courses with math and science. Employers looking for engineers ask for strong writing and communications skills, while those looking for scientists ask for critical reading and thinking skills.

The authors recognize that there are skills that a humanistic education offers to students that are highly prized in scientific and technical job markets, and that these demands not currently being met, it seems, in the course of educating scientists, engineers, and technicians. These conclusions seem to be absolutely correct.

And yet, they conclude that the burden of interdisciplinary engagement to meet these demands is on humanities educators to engage with scientific and technical educators. This is exactly backward, especially in an educational context where scientists, such as the famous C. P. Snow, have for decades questioned and belittled the value and/or purpose of liberal or humanistic learning. Keeping in mind that these educators teach in a high school, it is indicative that a well-rounded, balanced education (at least at this particular school) is less important, less valuable, than producing successful scientists, engineers, and technicians. The humanities are still devalued, or at least reduced to a crude instrumentality – they are useful for producing better scientists, engineers, and technicians, and not for facilitating educated citizens.

This bias toward valuing STEM fields at the expense of, or as more important than, the humanities manifestly is contrary to their point near the end – and here, I absolutely agree with them – that we ought to be educating our citizens to “understand that the world is one big, integrated place.” Successful interdisciplinary learning will only happen when there is mutual engagement between scientists and humanists, and not, rather, one party advising or demanding the capitulation of the other. Otherwise, as I have learned from four years of undergraduate education in the sciences, students pick up on and perpetuate the subtle subordination of one kind of knowledge to another.

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One Response to Five habits of great students: Lessons from top-ranked STEM school | WSJ

  1. Keith Brown says:

    Very well put, and you really hit on the strengths/weaknesses as well as the unthought in this piece.

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