Are you concerned about teens and social media?
I am. That’s why my ears perked up when I heard that Seattle Public Schools decided to sue social media companies over the harmful effects they are having on school children in their district. According to NPR, the suit targets:
"...TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat, seeking to hold them accountable for the mental health crisis among youth. Seattle Public Schools filed the lawsuit [in January] in U.S. District Court. The 91-page complaint says the social media companies have created a public nuisance by targeting their products to children. It blames them for worsening mental health and behavioral disorders including anxiety, depression, disordered eating and cyberbullying; making it more difficult to educate students; and forcing schools to take steps such as hiring additional mental health professionals, developing lesson plans about the effects of social media, and providing additional training to teachers."
I found their approach to be interesting—and promising. This comes two years after the revelations of Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen in 2021. She released reams of internal research by the social media giant into the way Facebook products were impacting teens’ mental health in negative ways. Some social media company executives have long understood how harmful their services are for teens, and yet they seem to refuse to change the way they operate. Maybe lawsuits will apply the pressure needed to shift things?
This news comes as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just announced the results of a new survey of teens this week—one with very troubling findings. The Youth Risk Behavior Survey for the decade ending in 2021 showed that nearly 3 out of 5 high-school girls in the US reported feelings of persistent sadness or hopelessness. That was an increase of around 60% over the past decade. Both girls and boys said they have mental health challenges, but girls reported much more sadness/hopelessness (57% in girls vs. 29% in boys) and serious consideration of suicide (30% in girls—that is 1 in 3 girls—and 14% in boys) than boys. Overall, 41% of girls reported poor mental health in the previous 30 days, and 18% of boys did.
Social media was not the focus of this study in particular—but it did find that girls were almost twice as likely as boys to be electronically bullied via text and social media. In the survey, 20% of girls reported being cyberbullied in the past year (and 11% of boys). Clearly this is one factor affecting our teens, and teen girls especially. It’s extremely sobering.
The survey included over 17,200 respondents and led to calls for more help from schools to support students’ mental health, and to improve “connectedness” with school communities. The federal researchers said that teen girls in particular are “engulfed in a growing wave of violence and trauma,” according to The Washington Post.
This situation is all the more real to me because of my own daughters’ relationship with social media, especially Instagram, which is very prevalent among their peer group. My older daughter took a stand against Instagram a couple times, first as a young teen when she deleted the app because of all the distractions it caused. In her high school years, she felt she needed it to keep up with school, club, and student athletics news and with some of her friends and peer group.
But again last month, she deleted it from her phone once more, after explaining to me how detrimental the app is for teens. Top among its faults: The app’s constant pull towards social comparison, and a panoply of competitive achievements of one’s peers flashed right before your eyes.
If you think about it, what are two of the most judgmental places in the world? High school and social media! Combining these two together makes for an ultra-toxic environment. As my daughter pointed out, people showcase a very small sliver of their existence, which is meant to look exciting and amazing and enviable, and is often quite fake. On the other hand, those teens who try to show a bit of their “real” selves get really negative responses in the comments, simply because they post an unpolished video, or a share a creative project.
To top it all off, I’ve recently learned about incidents in our school community of cyberbullying, including body shaming, the use of stereotypes and defamatory language, and starting negative rumors about students. It’s all very worrying to see what’s happening with our teens online.
Here we should recall Marcus Aurelius’ words in the Meditations: “The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.” Food for thought.
As the Seattle lawsuit points out,
"Defendants have successfully exploited the vulnerable brains of youth, hooking tens of millions of students across the country into positive feedback loops of excessive use and abuse of Defendants' social media platforms," the complaint said. "Worse, the content Defendants curate and direct to youth is too often harmful and exploitive ...."
But it’s hard to quit, and not just because the platforms are intentionally addictive. In a sense, we NEED to keep up with social media because of how reliant people at my kids’ school and local organizations are on social media to get the word out about everything from e-waste collections to sports team tryouts.
In the past two years, I have learned much more about my daughters’ campus and what’s happening there from the Instagram accounts of the student newspaper, clubs, and the athletics department than I have from reading any number of emails I receive. The news is fresher, pithier, and more clear, and I feel obliged to check Instagram stories to find out about school events and news.
My younger daughter is now in high school but hasn’t yet downloaded social media apps, by her own choice. She has to ask ME for information about her school sports teams because she literally does not get the updates they are sharing via Instagram. So I send her screenshots from social media! We have determined together that she may have to get Instagram soon, just to read these announcements… but with mixed emotions.
Is there a better way to get the information we need from our schools and activities? Without these money-making platforms that have super negative effects on student mental health and well-being?
Going back to Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen: She recently diagnosed the problems that develop the more time that teens (or anyone) spend on social media well in a recent roundtable discussion, summarized here:
"What we have seen from Facebook's own research is that Facebook knows that the products it makes are very engaging. They're designed to be engaging," she said. "Unfortunately, in the case of children and young adults, that can lead to very high rates of what we call 'problematic use.'"
Facebook's algorithms are not neutral, Haugen explained. Content that gets a reaction from people gets distributed more widely. That's how an innocent search for "healthy recipes" on Instagram might lead a teenager to eating disorder content instead.
Haugen said Instagram's algorithms can lead to addiction in its young users by creating "little dopamine loops." In the first ten minutes on Instagram, people will see content from their friends or pages they follow, she says. As they stay longer on the site, the algorithm will reach further to show them new and engaging content in an effort to keep them there.
"Once you get an hour or two in, Facebook's algorithms are the main thing that's choosing what you're focusing on," she said. "Now you're in the zone where you really are just putting yourselves in the algorithm's hands."
Do we really want our kids in those hands?
My daughter and I recently read and chatted about an article focusing on a “Luddite club” formed by high school students who decided to give up their smartphones and return to paper books and drawing pads, and to chatting together at the local park. She thought it sounded idyllic.
In a Stoic sense, I hope my kids will continue to question their impressions about social media and its impact on themselves and their peers… and that they will use their own judgment to guide how they use their time and where they get their dopamine—not rely on that of an algorithm on a money-making social media platform.
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“What are you thinking?”
This infamous question has torpedoed many a new romantic relationship. People famously hate answering it. It feels like someone else is trying to get into our mind when we’re lost in thought.
But here’s a different take on it: I think we should be asking ourselves this question, frequently, to get a sense for how we are actually using our mental energy. And, in a Stoic sense, this question can help us practice some home improvement on our inner citadels—the place we can retreat to inside our minds, as described by Marcus Aurelius.
Marcus also reminds that “the soul becomes dyed by the color of its thoughts.” In other words, to some extent, “you are what you think.”
To test how I’m doing on this, I asked myself recently in a more serious way: What am I thinking? What’s occupying my mind?
I wasn’t too pleased by the answer.
Let me explain. This fall, I attended a meditation workshop (I wrote about it in The STOIC magazine’s November 2022 edition). As I sat for meditation sessions of 20 minutes, I inquired what was going on in my mind.
It turned out to be simple, but devastating: I was thinking of my endless mental to-do list, filled with reminders, admonishments, and a sense of dread at not being able to get it done.
It often felt impossible to detach myself from “here’s what I have to do next, for whom, by when, and all the obstacles I’ll face in trying to get it done.”
Over the next couple weeks, I realized I needed to take a closer listen to my inner dialogue. I resolved to take a listen the very next morning. As I woke up with my mind filled with all the work I needed to do for my family and my colleagues, I was shocked by how limiting that inner dialogue felt, and how stressful.
Why am I occupying my entire brain with a to-do list?
Believe me, this isn’t a to-do list of fun things. It’s about me figuring out how to help folks get crap done. Largely, stuff that they don’t want to do… stuff I’m either stepping in to do, to remind them to do, or to worry about no one successfully doing.
Case in point. I’ve gotten on my kids’ cases umpteen times in the past weeks about getting things done in their schedules. Have they responded to the Girl Scout meeting invitation? Have they figured out which students to carpool with to basketball? Have they checked with their teachers about making up the tests from when they were out sick? Have they filled in that scholarship application they mentioned last week, and sent in their transcript by the deadline?
My kids are teens, and they are perfectly capable of handling many of these things, for the most part on their own. But habit is strong, I guess. I’m still “the mom” who is checking if everything is going smoothly for everyone else in my family. I still put myself mentally in charge of checking stuff has gotten done , and making the up the difference if they don’t. I find myself doing this with—and to—my husband, too. Again, he’s capable. But yet I feel responsible for making sure things happen, on time and without headaches that result from forgotten things.
For my work, too, I tend to goad myself with reminders throughout the day, not fun or pleasant ones, but ones filled with dread about the next tasks to come—especially the ones I don’t think I’ll have time to finish by the necessary deadlines.
I can’t help but think that I’d be better able to set long-term goals and be more creative about achieving them if I could get unstuck from this to-do list attitude and this mental load. Saying all this stuff inside my head, about what I need to do for other people, is stressful in part because much of it is outside my control (again, a helpful Stoic reminder). That increases the burden and the frustration.
It feels like a cloud is hanging over my days—the cloud of the never-ending to-do list of tasks that invades my every moment. To be clear, I know I’m fortunate to not be suffering from something truly awful or distressing. My situation is just busy and stretched very thin, with everyday stress and a demanding job on top of teenage kids and volunteer work. I know I shouldn’t really be complaining. And that means that now I have to add to my to-do list: “Remember to stop complaining.” (This resonates with Stoicism, and also with my meditation teacher who has been posting on Instagram about a month-long no complaining challenge… and yet, the way I frame that as another add-on to my list, too, is a bit problematic…. right?!?)
How to get out from under this cloud? I have to begin with an unlearning of habits of taking on “mental load” over the years. Even younger kids can do more than we often give them credit for. Did you hear about the Japanese TV show sensation Old Enough!, focused on giving toddlers important tasks and setting them loose to handle things on their own? We’re talking about 2- and 3-year-olds!
I could take a page from my older daughter, a role model for how to think imaginatively and creatively outside of a to-do list mentality. Despite a crushing load of schoolwork as a high school senior, she is working on a fantasy novel, and participated in November’s NaNoWriMo. She spends her free time wondering how to evolve her plot and characters, and putting creative words on the page. And I spend time trying to keep my to-do list fresh in my head so I will remember to get stuff done for other people. Hmmmm.
I used to do a lot more creative writing, and I still write poetry when I can find the time. (Check out a Marcus Aurelius-inspired poem I wrote here.) But these days, I find it very hard to access that part of my contemplative brain.
One promising technique that could help is actually a very old-fashioned one, with a new-fangled name: “Cognitive off-loading.”
The concept really simple. Take that to-do list out of your brain and WRITE IT DOWN! That way, you’ve loaded it onto an external vehicle outside your brain, like a simple notebook, or your notes app in your phone, or any one of a million apps with reminder functions. Keep it somewhere you can find it. This lessens the mental load, and could increase access to creativity and to restful downtime.
Aristotle and other ancient thinkers advocated devoting time to contemplation. Ancient Romans from well-heeled backgrounds spent their free time on “otium,” leisure time that often included the pursuit of culture and ideas.
Granted, most people in history, aside from the very wealthy, haven’t had a lot of contemplative free time. But having some mental space could be a goal for those of us with access to labor-saving appliances and computers to help us with our tasks. We’ll never get that to that place if we are constantly overworked, overbooked, and burned out with our to-do lists.
This winter, I’ll be chipping away at my inner dialogue one day at a time, asking myself what I’m thinking. And I’ll be using lists that store to-dos outside of my brain, and will tell my brain to refer to those instead of keep its whole bandwidth fraught with tasks.
As I work on this myself, I challenge you to build your own inner citadel this way, to try to carve out a mental space unburdened by the to-list’s mental load.
Ask yourself what you’re thinking. Is it a to-do list?
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Whenever my kids are heading back to school, I have an early warning system: My stomach kicks into action, summersaulting and twisting, and I start popping Tums like there’s no tomorrow.
(The candy-colored coated chewy ones don’t taste sooooo bad. I’ve recently used up a full jar of the stuff and am becoming a connoisseur of orange vs. pink vs. yellow. Beware the less-soft generic brands that threaten your dental work!)
This all started back when my older daughter had her very first week of kindergarten 13 years ago. I can hardly believe that as I type this: 13 years ago!
That was before I turned to modern Stoic thinking, which I’ve now been practicing for the last 6+ years. Stoicism has definitely helped, but not completely solved these nervous feelings, which is why I’m still writing about them today.
She was a young student for kindergarten, only 4 years old. But she was bright and imaginative and bored with her part-time preschool. Plus, she made the public school kindergarten age cutoff back then (now, she wouldn’t), so we figured she would benefit from starting “real” school.
But that first morning, when I heard my daughter’s kindergarten teacher’s voice booming at the small children and watched the door closed behind her, as unsmiling parents standing around turned away from me, uninterested in any kind of mutual support—I felt a distinct churning inside.
Our local public school, it turned out, was mostly stick and just a little carrot for the students. Treatment of kids could be harsh or humiliating. Parents were viewed by administrators as unreliable or even problematic. Communication with families was an afterthought, and conditions weren’t always supportive or even safe. At the back to school night, where “childcare would be provided” so parents could sit through a lecture about the school’s rules and regulations, care consisted of stuffing dozens of kids under the age of 6 into a single sweltering room with one person to watch them, a TV set showing a cartoon drowned out by raucous voices.
I know that the early school experience was tough on my daughters. As young kids, elementary students can't always explain what's going on. They can't always tell us their teachers are not supportive or caring, or that they feel singled out. I wish I could protect my children from everything tough, but I haven't been able to do that with their school experiences. It's hard to hear about their ups and downs (especially hearing about it much later, when there's nothing at all that can be done). But when I take a step back, I hope these tough times have been character building and strengthening for them in some ways.
But why do I feel it so much physically? As my older child starts her senior year of high school and my younger daughter begins high school this month, why do I wake up with twisting intestines? Are other parents experiencing this?
Just the other night, my younger daughter came to my room at nearly midnight. She is generally an early to bed, early to rise person, so I was surprised. She was having trouble sleeping the night before her freshman orientation at high school. Guess what? So was I!
We chatted for a while. Nothing I said helped. But at least we could visit for a few minutes to distract our worrying minds and tense bodies. She borrowed my weighted blanket and went back to her room. In the morning, dressed in her new jeans and ready to go, she said the blanket helped her sleep. And that she felt fine. More than I can say for myself as I went back to sit down and doubled over again.
Sending our kids to school is very stressful. It starts with the page after page after page of paperwork required of families just to start the school year, along with activities and sports, in our district—which I’ve been making my way through.
When classes actually begin, students encounter a lot of challenging stuff. It’s outside our control, setting up a classic case-in-point of how a Stoic should respond: By not wasting time and energy worrying about it. By not overidentifying. By not focusing on all the things outside our control, and staying on top of our character and that of our children. As Epictetus put it in his spitting-truth way, “When I see an anxious person, I ask myself, what do they want? For if a person wasn’t wanting something outside of their own control, why would they be stricken by anxiety?” (Discourses, 2.13.1)
This is the crux of Stoic parenting—trying to prepare our kids to be the best versions of themselves when coping with unpredictable and chaotic situations, and steeling ourselves to handle whatever the universe throws at us. What we want is learning, growth, enrichment, and positive social connections for our kids at school, but we have to accept that so much else may come instead—or along with it.
So it’s not easy. Most of what I think about is how will they adjust. Will it be something they can effectively handle or something that actually harms them? Also, is it safe? Not just safe from disease (including Covid, which I’m concerned could spike with all the kids in classrooms together) but also from violence? That is not a given at American schools, especially if you watch the news these days. In our system, an added layer of concern is that I am not sure what kinds of support students get at school if things do go wrong.
I recently noticed a book title at my local store called something like “I Don’t Want to Be an Empath Anymore.” It made me chuckle and shake my head. There are days it’s just too much. Often I think I feel more stressed out for them than they feel for themselves!
On some level, maybe I am having subtle flashbacks of my own awkward and anxious back to school days… (Maybe this is why I’ve always disliked fall, and loved spring. Subconscious brain at work?)
When I line up all the unknowables and sources of uncertainty or danger, my Stoic-aspiring brain reels. It makes me consider my options. Would my kids be better off homeschooled? It’s possible, but I got a taste of that during the pandemic lockdowns, and the answer for my family was no. Both my children seem to get their energy from interacting with other humans, not just their parents. They hated being at home in the pandemic. Plus I know I don’t have the ability (or time) to teach Calculus BC (though my husband helps!).
So to school it is.
And now, on top of that, my older daughter has spent some of her summer preparing to apply to colleges. Some of the schools she is aiming for are very far away. She is excited and nervous and scared and stressed. Can you guess how I feel? Another ambivalent mess. I want her to pursue her goals, but also know I’ll have some worries. I will remind myself that we are all just moving through this universe of impermanence, in the best way we can, and that we’ve prepared our kids to the best of our abilities. I turn back to Marcus Aurelius and other ancient writers for wisdom.
Do you have kids in your life going back to school? Please share your thoughts on back to school jitters for you or your kid(s) or the challenges of starting new schools!
“Are we going to be OK?” I could see the look in my daughter’s eyes turn fearful as she lay on her bed holding her pillow to her chest, a distinct note of anxiety in her voice. So many things to worry about... so many concerns for a teen girl becoming a young woman to face. I felt sadness welling within me. I didn’t know how to answer, but I said, “Yes, we’ll be OK.” I needed to reassure her, though in truth I could use the reassurance myself. I, too, was struggling with how to move forward in a positive way.
It has been a tough few months—years, honestly—in the US. Whether I’m talking to my teen daughters as they look with concern to the future, reading the newspaper with its page after page of stories of violence (here and abroad), or having coffee with friends who are despairing about the direction of our country, it has been challenging.
In the wake of so much turmoil, I often wonder about this question: What can I do? How can my family and I make a difference when there are so many powerful forces at play and so many reasons to worry?
We all know that the dichotomy of control is fundamental to the Stoic world view. There are certain things that are in our power, and many, many others that are not. When it comes to political power structures in Washington, for one, individuals have frustratingly little influence. We should vote, of course, and we should encourage others to vote. We should support causes we care about, and try our best to protect our rights and our safety by raising our voices to our leaders.
In reality, we can only create change in the small ways that are available to us. So let’s talk about that. In some ways, I’m writing this post to help myself and my family find a path forward with meaning and virtue. I hope you’ll read it as an effort to make even the smallest of differences.
Here’s what I think we can do:
I turn back to my Stoic ideas to remind myself not to get swept along by fears and sorrows about current events. While I can’t dismiss all my feelings as mere impressions—I’m not a sage yet—I can take a deep breath and ground myself in the real here and now with my daughters and husband, with my community, and with those whose work I read and take inspiration from (both ancient and very modern).
Stoicism is an evergreen philosophy that takes us out of judgment and hatred and violence, and into virtue and action and practical wisdom. Let’s make it our guide as we fortify our minds and energies, and seek to make a world that welcomes and supports human flourishing for all.
The virus is on the upswing again. On Thanksgiving we got the alert that the new omicron variant was spreading. It kept on expanding its reach as we packed up for traveling to see relatives in the East Coast, something my family had not done for two years.
Thoughts crossed our minds about cancellation. Maybe the risks would be too great. But we also realized that there’s huge value in seeing loved ones, in person, while we can. Who knows what next year will bring for any of us?
The lessons of Stoic thinking have taught me that the present is all we have. The lessons of loss are distributed unevenly and often. All is constantly in flux, as Marcus Aurelius reminded himself often.
We all have the opportunity to cultivate an open heart to the unending changes of our world, including those of illness and death—which we essentially all live with all the time but choose to turn away from. The pandemic was a wake-up call for many about this fact, which had been smoothed over by Madison Avenue, Hollywood, and the medical establishment for much of our lives. Today, many of us know the pain of loss first-hand and do not need a reminder.
Another piece of news that came across my feed this winter break was the death of writer Joan Didion. Because of my interest in innovative nonfiction writers, I had recently started to delve into her work. I spent part of my time off reading The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion’s memoir about the sudden death of her husband. It’s a devastating book, both because of her raw exploration of grief for her spouse and also her descriptions of the simultaneous severe illness of her only daughter, who, at age 39, was hospitalized with pneumonia and then developed a severe brain injury. Didion shares the perspective of a wife and mother (albeit a non-conventional one) facing the loss of her two closest loved ones. This is not unfamiliar to families who have experienced death, especially in the pandemic, but even long before.
So: This moment is all we have. Live it well. And make the next one count too. We won’t wait long for sorrow to meet us.
Why say this now, in this season? As we spend time with loved ones over the holidays, it’s easy to get caught up in petty frustrations, fears, annoyances. Even tiny ones. I got really angry with one of my kids for leaving her food trash lying out, rather than putting it in the trashcan. Is this rational? Possibly. She is definitely capable of cleaning up. Trash is yucky, and why should someone else have to deal with it? On the other hand—it’s just a stack of trash, and easily handled. Why should I let garbage dominate my mind? I could see that I was not abiding by my Stoic approach in becoming angry. I hated realizing just that idea: “You’re not living up to your principles.” More anger, more digging in of heels, more ego-protecting defensiveness.
So even if you’re struggling with these kinds of reactions too, I won’t tell you to remember your principles: I know how annoying that feels. I will instead lead both of us back to the big picture, and perspective of the now, and the realization of how fleeting it really is. To the value we place on family and friends and the dear ones in our lives today. To the time we have lost due to separations during the pandemic... and even to the people we have lost.
Today, hanging on the family tree, I see little photo ornaments I made of my girls’ faces when they were small. I can still think of them as babies, who needed our protection and guidance every minute. Those days are gone, and soon, these days of having teens living at home with me will be gone too. Let’s make the most of this winter, Covid or no, and soak in those moments with the ones we love as fully and deeply as we can.
“What is the fruit of these teachings? Only the most beautiful and proper harvest of the truly educated–tranquility, fearlessness, and freedom. We should not trust the masses who say only the free can be educated, but rather the lovers of wisdom [or philosophers] who say that only the educated are free” ~ Epictetus, Discourses, 2.1.21-23a
Most of us remember panicking before taking a test in school. The stress made these kinds of questions pop into our minds: Did I study enough? Did I study the right things? What if I forget what I learned? What if I get confused and make mistakes? What if I get a headache and can’t focus? What if my brain is too tired to do this?
My kids experience this kind of stress daily, especially my high schooler. And some tests are bigger than others. My 11th grader is getting ready to take the SAT, and even though some schools aren’t requiring it anymore, it’s been an anxiety-producing right of passage for college applicants for decades.
But what if you didn’t have to “do” school and testing this way? What if the high-stakes testing approach taken by most high schools isn’t working for the bulk of the students… and what if there were a better way?
I’m no expert on education, but I’ve spent a while observing my children’s public school experiences, and I’ve reflected on my own schools. I’ve also worked in the past with education professors, to learn about how they teach teachers and what kinds of teaching methods they promote.
What I’m coming to see is that so much of the current system is just not functioning for so many students. During the pandemic, a lot of failures in the way students are taught and assessed came to light, especially for those in underserved or underfunded districts and those dealing with challenges at home. Students got report cards filled with Ds and Fs, and were forced into summer school. They hadn’t learned the material, but then again, the teaching approach hadn’t given them much of a chance once they fell behind or missed tests due to tough online learning conditions.
That’s why teachers and school districts are starting to downplay testing and even grading via rigid points systems. In a recent Los Angeles Times article, teachers and administrators described the changes they were making as the pandemic and school closures severely affected student performance—and as they began to see academic differences among groups. The story describes
… a growing trend in which educators are moving away from traditional point-driven grading systems, aiming to close large academic gaps among racial, ethnic and economic groups. The trend was accelerated by the pandemic and school closures that caused troubling increases in Ds and Fs across the country and by calls to examine the role of institutionalized racism in schools in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by a police officer.
Los Angeles and San Diego Unified—the state’s two largest school districts, with some 660,000 students combined—have recently directed teachers to base academic grades on whether students have learned what was expected of them during a course — and not penalize them for behavior, work habits and missed deadlines. The policies encourage teachers to give students opportunities to revise essays or retake tests to show that they have met learning goals, rather than enforcing hard deadlines.
My kids got a taste of this kind of approach in their middle school, when their math teacher offered them a chance to retake tests to improve their scores. It greatly lessened their stress about individual tests without dimming their desire to learn the material. In fact, they learned more overall by retaking tests that at first seemed daunting, and by studying the material for longer, in greater depth.
Unfortunately, in the local high school, courses don’t work this way. Students are thrown into midterms and finals and high points value final projects where they don’t even know how they’re being assessed until their semester grades are entered into the official grade book—too late to change anything or learn anything new for that particular unit.
It’s painful. It’s arbitrary. And it doesn’t give students a chance to actually improve if something goes wrong.
My high school daughter explains that many of her teachers are “teaching to the test.” She says they want students can do well enough to pass final exams—but that they are not teaching in a way that prepares her and her classmates for the next class in the series. That’s been particularly tough with the unevenness of teaching and class environments during the pandemic.
On top of the mercurial and stressful nature of testing and grading this way, there’s the added element of the many inequities in education that are now being put under the microscope. For both reasons, a new approach is needed. It’s something that I think Epictetus would agree with: He was clear that all people deserved to be educated to become free in their minds—not just the few. All people should have a chance at liberating themselves through learning… no matter the circumstances.
Standardized tests have also been a thorn in the side of teachers for decades, as teacher performance as graded based on testing. To quote Daniel Koretz of Harvard Graduate School of Education,
To undo the problems created by test-based accountability, teachers must refocus instruction on teaching the underlying knowledge and skills that any good test should reflect, rather than spending time preparing kids for the specific test used for accountability.
Again, the argument comes down to helping students master a body of knowledge and skills, rather than assessing a single snapshop of what students memorized and could spit back out onto the page on a specific day.
Side note: This is not to say that student behavior such as tardiness or attendance issues, missing assignments, etc., shouldn’t have any impact or any measurement. In fact, some schools working on mastery approaches are adopting a “citizenship” grading system to capture some of these elements, separate from the typical transcript. It wouldn’t be part of students’ GPA.
Here in Northern California, a local independent school near my home uses a “mastery-based learning model,” which they explain this way: “Students are expected to demonstrate an understanding of all competencies and skills identified in a course before moving on, thereby reducing the number of ‘gaps’ in their education. Academic progress in a discipline is decoupled from age… While the time it takes a student to finish a course may vary, the depth of mastery remains constant.” When their students apply to colleges, they submit a mastery transcript, rather than one full of As, Bs, Cs, or Ds.
In some California schools, districts expect students to know 80% of the material before they can move on from a unit; they aren’t allowed to pass through without demonstrating competency.
This approach is already well underway far outside of California, too, and larger districts or even states have already adopted it—showing it isn’t only an option for small or private schools.
Mastery-based education, also known as competency-based education, has taken root in the state of Idaho, for example. The Idaho state department of education website says that the Idaho legislature voted to move towards this style of teaching in 2014, and that
Mastery-based education empowers students, personalizes learning, supports the demonstration of competencies (the knowledge, skills, and personal attributes that lead to success), and recognizes mastery by allowing students to advance as they demonstrate their knowledge and skills regardless of time, place or pace.
With Mastery-Based Education, failure is not an option. Mastery systems give students the opportunities they need to demonstrate their competency with appropriate pacing and supports. Assessments are purposeful and demonstrate what students can do, not just what they know. Learning is flexible, self-paced, engaging, and focused on building skills critical to college, career, and life…
The most promising thing I’ve taken away from this approach is the quote above: "Failure is not an option."
This way of thinking, to me, embodies a Stoic message: It’s through adversity that we can learn the most, and that we have the chance to build and deploy our virtues. It’s by learning skills for the sake of understanding and growth that we better ourselves and exercise our human excellence, not simply cramming to prove ourselves to others or compete with them. It’s when we fail that we see we could do better and keep going, acting on what is in power at any given moment. It’s our intention to learn and improve as humans that powers us forward.
This idea of working at it until you master something is difficult for many students, and it may seem easier to assign a grade (even if it's low) and move on... but shouldn't we give students the chance to build real skills?
This is a timely concept. In a period when many, many students received Ds and Fs during online learning in 2020-21, and when many classes and instructors weren’t able to adequately help students understand the subject matter, we have to re-think what it means to “fail” students.
About The Stoic Mom
I'm a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.