Colonoscopies, Contractors, and Composition

For decades, I’ve planned year-long composition courses so that the majority of my students would meet my annual objectives by the beginning of the sixth month of the nine-month academic calendar.

Unlike real educators, who begin with theoretical underpinnings and work toward practice, I grab something I think—or hope—will work and plunge ahead without thinking about educational theory. Sometimes I get lucky and my idea works.

Aiming to meet my annual objectives about two-thirds of the way through the course is one of the ideas that worked well. It allowed me to bring all students up to my standard of competence—what I call C level— by year’s end. Some years, all my students went beyond competence to writing at the A or B level by year’s end.

Learning to write nonfiction competently is a tough slog. Students don’t have to work terribly hard, but they have to put in consistent effort on a nearly daily basis for an extended period of time. And they often have to put up with some painful criticism along the way.

Considering how painful the process of learning to write is, I am always surprised at how little excitement students show when they get it right. The typical response is, “Yeah. OK.” No champagne corks, no bonfires, no balloons, just, “Yeah. OK.”

Why weren’t students more excited about mastering writing when the process was so painful?

I think I discovered the answer in New York Times Opinionator piece by Ezekiel J. Emanuel. Emanuel likened the pain of a colonoscopy to the pain of going through a home renovation: the last part of either experience determines its misery quotient.

Emanuel cites Daniel Kahneman’s studies on pain that found people remember the level of pain at the very end of an experience. If the pain lessened toward the end, people rate the total experience as less painful even if the experience overall all is longer and more painful.

My students suffer the protracted misery of learning to write. However, since I plan for the level of effort to begin to diminish about two-thirds of the way through the course, students are left with a general impression that learning to write isn’t all that tough.

Coincidentally, the tough work I have to do in teaching writing also begins to diminish about two-thirds of the way through the course, leaving me with the general impression that teaching writing isn’t all that tough.

[Broken link removed 2014-04-24.]

Set annual objectives in concrete

Teachers and schools need not only goals, but annual objectives. Annual objectives restrict the amount that must be taught while increasing the ways and number of times it can be taught.

It’s much easier to get all students to meet an objective if they’ve had multiple times to learn the content and skills it requires than if everyone is expected to be ready and able to master that content in a unit taught between Oct. 10 and Oct 19.

Objectives are valuable only if they are unchangeable as the laws of the Medes and the Persians. In his book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Lead … and Others Don’t, Jim Collins quotes Amgen co-founder George Rathmann on the subject of annual objectives.

When you set your objectives for the year, you record them in concrete. You can change your plans through the year, but you never change what you measure yourself against. You are rigorous at the end of the year, adhering exactly to what you said was going to happen. You don’t get a chance to editorialize. You don’t get a change to adjust and finagle, and decide that you didn’t intend to do that anyway, and readjust your objectives to make yourself look better. You never just focus on what you’ve accomplished for the year; you focus on what you’ve accomplished relative to exactly what you said you were going to accomplish—no matter how tough the measure. (122)

Rathmann’s observations are as applicable to education as they are to business.

Collins, Jim. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Makes the Leap … and Others Don’t. New York: Harper Business, 2001. Print.