Interview with Dr. Denise Pope from Challenge Success
by Reisa Schwartzman
Denise Pope, Ph.D., is a Senior Lecturer at the Stanford University School of Education. For the past twelve years, she has specialized in student engagement, curriculum studies, qualitative research methods, and service learning.
I sat down with her for a three-part interview. This is the first of the three parts.
Part 1: What is Success and How do we Grade it?
What is success? How do we define and determine Success today in our children? Do we demand achievement from our students and children with appropriate measures? What values and measurements are we using? Are they fair and just?
The dictionary defines success as the favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavors; the attainment of wealth, position, honors, or the like. The achievement of something desired, planned, or attempted. Does this mean it’s all about the grades our children achieve or is it ultimately about the people we are developing for the future?
I had the rare privilege of speaking with Dr. Denise Pope about her research and programs she offers to both parents and teachers about how we should measure success in our children and how we should best educate them for the future.
In this three part interview we will come to understand the values, strategy and pedagogue of her research and program Challenge Success and why as parents and educators, we need to reevaluate our own understanding and expectations of what success means today. She will also explain how playing games have great value in both the classroom and at home.
Dr. Denise Pope is a senior lecturer at Stanford University’s School of Education. She specializes in curriculum studies, service learning, student engagement, and qualitative research methods. She is particularly interested in student voices and the students' perspectives of school. She focuses on academic stress and its consequences for students' mental, physical, and spiritual well-being. Pope has received Stanford’s Outstanding Teacher and Mentor Award three times. Her 2001 book, Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic and Miseducated Students (Yale University Press), was named Notable Book in Education by the American School Board Journal.
Dr. Pope is also the co-founder of Challenge Success. A research and intervention project that aims to reduce unhealthy pressure on youth and champions a broader vision of youth success. Challenge Success is an expanded version of the SOS: Stressed-Out Students project that Dr. Pope founded and directed from 2003-2008. She lectures nationally on parenting techniques and pedagogical strategies to increase student health, engagement with learning, and integrity.
The just right challenge is a term that Dr. Pope used at looking at how to find the right balance for our children.
We look at the overall; the whole child’s well being. We look for signs in both the social and emotional learning. Every child must feel like it’s a safe space (school). It is just as important as the pedagogy or curriculum.
In a fundraiser that I also attended with Pope, she explained that she started out as a high school English teacher in Fremont, Calif.
I went back to school to get a PhD to look at specifically [how] to engage more students with effective learning. The study that I designed, that turned into the book Doing School, was shadowing these five successful students and determining what was working and how they were engaged. These students explain that they are busy at what they call "doing school." They realize that they are caught in a system where achievement depends more on "doing" - going through the correct motions - than on learning and engaging with the curriculum. Instead of thinking deeply about the content of their courses and delving into projects and assignments, the students focus on managing the work load and honing strategies that will help them to achieve high grades.
Today, it can seem reasonable that parents assume that their straight-A son or daughter is doing well, academically, mentally and otherwise, Pope said. In fact, even the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which acts to monitor and promote public health in the United States, uses grade point averages as a predictor of well-being.
What we’re trying to show them is that, actually, that’s not the case. You can be doing very well in school and getting all A’s and be very ill or have an eating disorder or have perfectionist tendencies, have suicide ideation or whatever. So, we’re trying to let people know, if you have a kid and they’re kind of doing well, that doesn’t mean, OK, phew, I can just not worry about them.
“They’re the ones going through this,” she said of her approach. “Everybody talks about students, talks about their characteristics, their test scores. It’s becoming less rare but, unfortunately, it is rare to go to the students themselves, who are actually experiencing the phenomenon.” Pope and her colleagues have surveyed more than 10,000 students.
Growing healthy and happy students doesn’t happen in a vacuum and students, their parents, teachers and administrators all have a role to play, said Pope.
For awhile, I was trying to prove that one mattered more. I kept trying, saying, well, who has the bigger influence, so that we know where to put our eggs in terms of policy changes and whatnot. We decided that you really need ... all the players working together toward a change and, by that, I mean, if the school is going to enact a homework policy, you need the parents and the students to be educated about what the purpose of homework is, as much as you need the teachers to be educated about what the purpose of homework is.... And you want people to be on the same page in terms of what is being valued and being fostered both at school and at home.
Can you paint a portrait of a stressed-out student?
Students manifest their stress in many different ways. When we talk about academic stress, we see students who have too much work to do and too little time in which to do it. They are overscheduled – both in school -- with too many classes, or too many advanced courses, and out of school - with so many extracurricular activities, sports, tutoring, etc. that they have no time to reflect on what they are learning/doing.
Many admit that they are simply "doing school" - not engaging in depth with material or even enjoying the activities that they do. As one student explains, "we are "robo-students" - just going page by page, doing the routine. School is lifeless." This particular student is taking 5 AP classes and participates in over 20 different activities in and outside of school. She often doesn't get home until 10 pm (after sports practice and club meetings) and then faces hours and hours of homework. She relies on caffeine and no-doze to stay awake, and she averages 3-5 hours of sleep each night. She skips meals to find more time to study and she lives in a constant state of stress.
What are the origins of all this pressure?
"Everyone" has a tutor, so must I - or if "everyone" is doing SAT prep courses, then I need to take these as well - or I will fall behind. And they feel pressure because they know that more students than ever before are applying to colleges, and that approximately 80 percent of these college-bound students are applying to the same small (approximately 20 percent) number of selective schools.
We send messages as parents, educators, and as a society, that those who get the best grades and who go to the best schools are considered successful. There are kids out there who believe that getting a B in a class is equivalent to failing. And that going to community college will shame their family and ruin their future. How wrong they are. ... I blame all of this on a problematic definition of success.
When did you see the goals shift from learning to just getting straight A's?
This has always happened to some extent. ... But historians agree with educators that they have seen a steady increase in this behavior since the 1980s, and that in the past 10 to 15 years, things have escalated to a point of frenzy.
What will this generation be like as adults?
We are finding that these overscheduled, stressed-out kids are actually less innovative than those who grew up with free, unstructured time to play, to make mistakes, to tinker around. Imagine if Steve Jobs had no time to tinker in his garage because he had to go to piano lessons and SAT prep class and art class and was on a travel baseball team that had practice five times a week and away games on the weekend. ... I am not sure he could have invented the Mac.
What are parents and students focusing on and what should they be focusing on?
Here's what they should be focusing on - what is best for each individual student. Look at your child's schedule. Are they taking courses they WANT to take?
Do they have enough time to play, relax, hang out with friends? Are they involved in extracurricular activities for the right reasons - not just to pad the resume or to please mom and dad? Even if they love everything they are doing, they might need to cut down for their health - to allow them to have a childhood or healthy adolescence.
Families need to sit down and discuss together - with the kids - what do we mean by success? What do we want out of our education? How do we want to spend our time?
They need to send the message that success can take many, many forms, and that this drive for the top grades/colleges is actually hurting our kids. Then they need to take actions to counter the system - including modeling this behavior themselves, working with the schools to change the messages being sent, and advocating on behalf of their children's health.
What do these stressed-out students think they're going to get out of this?
Quote from my book from a 10th grader: 'People don't go to school to learn. They go to get good grades, which bring them to college, which brings them the high paying job, which brings them to happiness, so they think.'
Students honestly believe that the better the college they go to - the better off they will be in life. This is a misconception that needs to be debunked. We have studies that show that you can go to over 100 different schools - some folks say over 200 -- and get an excellent education and have very little variation in income 20 years later from graduates of Ivy league universities.
I want students and families to believe that college is not a "trophy" and that they need to find the best match between school and student as opposed to go to the place with the most prestigious reputation.
What is your mission?
We work with schools, parents and youth to develop and implement action plans to improve student well-being and engagement with learning.
What is your vision for the future?
Our current educational system and parenting practices are out of alignment with the well-documented needs of children. As a result, we are seeing rising and debilitating levels of emotional distress and educational problems. Experts are documenting high levels of anxiety disorders, depression, stress, disengagement from learning, cheating, and boredom. This is as true for the student struggling to pass the high school exit exam, as it is for the student who is overloaded with AP courses and extracurricular activities.
Our culture’s current configuration of success is too narrow – focused primarily on a limited number of academic skills. In the world our students are about to enter, success comes in many forms. Without an appropriately broad notion of success, many students are working to the point of exhaustion, while many more are simply disengaging from a system that doesn’t address the diversity of skills, interests, and capacities that different children have. The tragedy is that many of these tolls on children are preventable.
The Challenge Success vision is to develop a plan to prevent these tolls and allow all youth to thrive.
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