Losing weight and learning algebra: Both require effort, not fads

Former middle school teacher Anne Birnkammer addresses what she considers the rush in education to embrace fads. She draws a comparison with weight loss.

By Anne Birnkammer

A teacher colleague once told me a funny story about her mother-in-law’s attempt to lose weight. The mother-in-law announced to the family she was dieting, and had purchased these yummy shakes to help her.

(Rick Steinhauser)

(Rick Steinhauser)

Days later, the family observed her eating a healthy portion of spaghetti and meatballs whilst sipping one of the shakes. Upon inquiry, they discovered mom hadn’t cut back on eating, but had just added the calorie-filled shakes to her diet. Of course, they explained to her, “That’s not the way it works.”

I’ve often dreamed of writing a best-selling diet book and making millions. It would contain two instructions, 1) Eat less, and 2) Exercise more. I could title it “Losing Weight Takes Work.”

The same goes for learning. In 15 years of teaching I witnessed a plethora of ‘fad diets’ forced on teachers. Each one claiming to be the ‘research based’ solution for our sluggard students. Many teachers and administrators jumped on every bandwagon.

Why not, if I can drink some shakes to lose weight, why would I bother dieting and exercising? Likewise, if I can impart knowledge through a computer game, or having them work in groups and learn from each other, why would I sweat over planning, teaching, reflecting, re-teaching, collaborating with other teachers and counselors, one-on-one tutoring, and endless parent meetings?

Year after year I watched as my school system spent millions of dollars on the latest ‘silver bullet.’ Each one disappearing quietly to the dust-covered shelf of passé’ diet books, replaced the following year with a new elixir. Most were simply old remedies repackaged and renamed. And year after year, most of my colleagues, cynical from the barrage of ever-changing jargon, sat quietly through sales pitches and training sessions, only to go back to their classrooms and continue their tried and true hard work of diet and exercise.

You see, the best-selling book for education is a short one, too. Titled “Learning Takes Work,” it has a few simple instructions, 1) Pay attention and take notes 2) Do the assignments 3) Ask for help.

Yep, that’s the secret formula. Now, if a child were capable of consistently doing these three things on his own, we wouldn’t have much need for teachers. We could just hand him a textbook, or sit him in front of computer. That’s the catch.

“Learning Takes Work” is a program, not just for students, but also for parents, teachers, administrators, counselors, elected officials, appointed officials, need I go on? Education is a slow and unpredictable process. Just like losing weight, it requires commitment, persistence, and support.

Accepting this fact seems to be what’s missing from the “conversation” these days. A lot of blame is being tossed around, and the word “accountability” is routinely overused. It is no more public education’s fault that Johnny can’t read than it is the fast-food industry’s fault that Americans are obese.

Teachers get it. Why doesn’t everyone else? In my 15 years of teaching I watched the value of hard work slowly diminish. Students have multiple chances to retake tests, unlimited deadlines on work, and receive passing grades just for handing something in, regardless of the quality of work.

I even had a year when we were not allowed to give zeros. We had to put a 50 in the grade book for any assignment not completed. More than once, I was instructed to change a grade (yes, that is common).

Of course, no child is left behind; we keep picking them up and carrying them to the finish line! Want to lose 20 pounds? Just recalibrate your scale.

The policymakers are under the delusion if you raise the bar, students will rise to the challenge. That’s like asking the dieter to lose 30 pounds in a month instead of 10. Sure, let’s set them up for failure.

Administrators are under a similar delusion that if they tout student data and force teachers into competition, performance will improve. Right. As soon as I am publicly humiliated by my failure to lose 2 pounds, I’m going straight for the candy stash in my top right drawer.

Parents think their kids should go off to school each day and, magically, come back smart. They probably also have a very expensive clothes rack in the bedroom disguised as a treadmill. The weight won’t come off, and the learning won’t happen without the work. Not everyone will reach their goal of fitting into their high school jeans, nor will every child go to college, or graduate from high school for that matter.

But if we could put aside our “conversations,” take a break from the blame game, stop betting on the latest snake oil, roll up our sleeves, and do the hard labor, we may actually see the waistline shrink and the learning grow.

Reader Comments 0

60 comments
BCW1
BCW1

Education is not a fad, but for so long the government wants to put quick fixes of issues. I know of no other profession that is constantly changing for no apparent reason than some EXPERT has come up with a new fad. Again and again, change the culture and education gets changed for the better. Most of educations issues have nothing to do with the curriculum or testing but the attitude toward it.

class80olddog
class80olddog

Fad - social promotion.  Fad - no spanking.  Fad - Common Core.  Fad - no zeroes.  Fad - change failing grades to passing.  Fad - no enforcement of attendance.  Fad - no enforcement of discipline.  Fad - mainstream SPED students into regular classrooms.  Fad - eliminate tracking.  Fad - no teacher accountability for grades. 

Mandella88
Mandella88

Ms. Birnkammer's thesis begins with an inaccurate comparison, and thereby destroys her argument.  Children do not go about trying fad to lose weight.  This is what adults do, so rather than the argument being that learning is like losing weight, it should be that TEACHING is like losing weight.  In other words, educators have to give it everything they've got each day they come to work.  Avoid going off track on the fads and just teach.  They won't reach every child, but they can sleep well at night knowing that they have done all that they can (just like they won't lose a pound everyday, but they are still reaching for their goal weight).


Most teachers I know already do this.  Unfortunately, Ms. Birnkammer appears to come from the "I got mine, now you have to get yours" school of teaching....

class80olddog
class80olddog

@Mandella88 It is the ADULTS in the education system that keep trying fads to "get their kids to lose weight".

straker
straker

another - "now you are going to tell us this is Ben Carson.


No, I'm not. This happened many years ago.

straker
straker

clewis


When I was in college, one day our History professor told us about a young man who barely got accepted. This student studied constantly and only managed to get C's and a few B's. Somehow he graduated and got into medical school. He barely made it thru but got his MD. He went on to become a neurosurgeon. Our professor beamed with pride as he lectured us on how hard work and determination will always cause you to succeed.


It was many years later before I realized that I would NOT want that doctor operating on me. Someone who barely gets into college, barely graduated, barely makes it thru medical school is not going to be a very good doctor.


Its amazing how few of the "anyone can be anything they want to" crowd see the folly in this kind of thinking.

anothercomment
anothercomment

Now you are going to tell us this is Ben Carson ,

clewis564
clewis564

The secret to a great education is the one no one addresses. It seems taboo and its parents. I feel like I learned as much out of the classroom than in it. This is something else controversial but I was taken to Sunday school and read the bible. When it was time to read Shakespeare and other things in school I had no problem. Why? I was already exposed to it. One of my prized possessions was a library card and my parents took me to get books. I read comics books in the 80's and 90's (when they were good).

I was in a farm area so I went fishing and other non educational things. We took at least one family vacation a year to another city cause my mom wanted us to see was a bigger world out there. Dad did the driving for 6. We were lower middle class but moms said it was important enough for them to save to do it.

I am an artist and web designer. I was discouraged through the Ed system from it but I survived. A web designer now. I have never been good at match and 16 years out of college never use it. Does algebra take work? Sure and a different way of thinking. Different people have different skills and talents and some no matter how hardy get try will be made into little mathematicians and doctors. I passed my college math with a D and I worked hard for it. I was there to be an artist/designer what I am good at. Not every kid fits the mold or have parents with many resources but a library card is free! Taking you kids to the library costs time! The Internet at the library is free! Parental effort can go a long way.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@clewis564 

When I was a child, my mother took me to the public library every week to take out any book I wanted.  She only had two rules:  no more than 10 books a week and I had to read them all.  I loved it!

OldPhysicsTeacher
OldPhysicsTeacher

@clewis564 "It seems taboo and its parents."  Well, if the parents were brought up on, "you can be anything you want to be".... you can finish the concept here.  And you're perfectly right.  Not everyone is cut out for math, computer programming, engineer, etc.  The fact that those professions make big money is supply and demand.  If there were plenty of people capable of programming, engineering, software design, etc, the corps would pay minimum wage. You are fortunate as you are an artist and it's a rare skill, so you're paid accordingly.

Of course, all the pols know this.  They're not stupid.  Then why are we in this mess, you ask?  There are very few well paying jobs, and most of them already have people doing them. So, what happened to the jobs.  They're being sent overseas.  Who's responsible?  Well, it's the pols for not evening the playing field in favor of USA workers. But they're not going to say they're doing a bad job!  They needed a scapegoat to blame for this disaster, and the Jews weren't available anymore, so they looked for someone else to blame.  They had to have a job, be paid well, be a "gubment employee," (because everyone hates a government employee)  and have almost no political power.  Teachers were an easy choice. 

class80olddog
class80olddog

Common core emphasizes "college AND career ready" - it should say "college OR career ready".

Astropig
Astropig

Totally ignores the biggest fad of the last half century- The idea that every single student can be made ready for college.This is simply not possible.

Christie_S
Christie_S

@Astropig I agree.  That's why I'd really like to see much more emphasis on the second part of "college and CAREER ready."  We have truly done an astounding disservice to those students who simply aren't interested in academic college degrees, but do have interests that can be expressed in a technical diploma or work-ready skill.  Unfortunately, our current iteration of k12 CTAE is about as worthless as teats on a boar hog in many districts in Georgia.

Astropig
Astropig

@Christie_S @Astropig


AstroWife and I maintain a (modest) home in the Nashville area. Like Atlanta, the HVAC market is dominated by a couple of relatively large firms that have most of the market and a lot of "mom and pop" -type shops that share the rest of the pie. The demand for techs and installers is so great right now that the larger firms are offering up to $3,000 sign on bonuses for warm bodies that can do the work. They literally have to turn away smaller jobs and prioritize who they can service.The pay is good and a college degree is not required. How many kids that get discouraged and drop out of school because they don't test well or because they are studying material that is going to be obsolete or irrelevant to them could become productive members of the middle class by entering a vocational program instead of trying to fit their square peg selves into the round hole of "college for everyone"?


Ditto plumbers

Ditto electricians

Ditto sharp mechanics

class80olddog
class80olddog

Imagine a nutritionist who is trying to get a person to lose weight, but the person eats bad stuff all the time and never exercises. And their family brings them loads of pizza. Them everyone wants to blame the nutritionist.

And then to make matters worse, the owner of the nutrition operation makes the nutritionist fix the scales to read less than true weight.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

I hope I am allowed this one aside:


Jay Bookman's column in today's paper on 9/11, Islam and America needs to be read by everyone.


The tenets that Imam Muhammed al-Ninowy of Lawrenceville and Duluth are the only way to have peace in this world, imo.  They are the same tenets spoken by Jesus Christ 2000 years ago. They are the same tenets spoken by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Ghandi.  When will we learn and why don't we try to understand this?:


Imam Muhammed al-Ninowy: " 'Especially when I talk of love and unconditional compassion,' he says. 'Unconditional.  To me, that is the very first thing in Islam: Unconditional compassion. . . .That's being true to the Scripture itself, why don't you read it?  Instead of hijacking it based on a political principle.' "


++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


From my experiences the practice of unconditional love, toward even our enemies, is harder to achieve than violence (even in words) against our enemies.  Yet, all of the great religious leaders know that this is the only way to peace, including the Buddhas.  We could start, together, in that practice, here in Atlanta and it might spread.  In fact, we could practice it right here on this blog.  I know I need to, and I will try.  Will you join me?

Astropig
Astropig

@MaryElizabethSings


Off topic,Off subject,Off Everything. 


About as convincing as an infomercial for Islam done by Kevin Trudeau.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@MaryElizabethSings 

The Imam says, twice, "unconditional compassion," not "unconditional love." Not the same thing. Compassion is the feeling of sharing the suffering of another, along with the wish to show mercy. Parents may give "unconditional love" to their children, but that is pretty instinctive. Spouses may show "unconditional love" to one another, but theirs is a unique bond. It seems unlikely for more casually related adults, especially bloggers, to show this. Now, kindness, forbearance, and modesty seem within all our reach.

ATLPeach
ATLPeach

Thank you for sharing that teachers are told to change grades I also worked in a school where we were unable to give a student a zero. You had to give a 50. This year we were told that no child can fail. Imagine that! Even if they do fail, we must pass them. I don't know why teachers are even in the classroom. I work in a school where kids expect everything to be given to them. They get free everyting, now even free grades. We are truly failing kids today.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@ATLPeach 

I hope that those students aren't planning to go to college, for if they do they will be in for an enormous shock.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@booful98 @OriginalProf @ATLPeach 

None of the state universities or private colleges that I have  known, 6 total in as many states, Northern as well as Southern! Believe me, professors do not hesitate to give Fs, are not told to change grades by their Deans or chairs, and cheerfully fail students who deserve to fail.

popcornular
popcornular

So what we are saying here, is that math aptitude is inversly proportional to body weight. This country is in deeper trouble than I thought. 

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

"Reaearch based" means "here is sour cream on dog poop."  Eat it up.  You may not like it, but we will make millions!

class80olddog
class80olddog

Like saying "research shows that retaining a child is an indicator of future dropping out"

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@class80olddog Back in the 1970s I went to an inservice in Cherokee County.  The presenter quoted info from the Ga DOE that some high percentage (80?) of kids retained in first grade (we had no prek back then) were the fall birthday kids--the babies (the cutoff was January 1 back then) and that another high percentage (60%+) of kids who dropped out were those same fall birthday babies.  The state changed its cutoff to September 1, and my observation was that the problem was eased a great deal.


Of course, at that time it was basically a teacher's decision for a child to be retained, and teachers were supported in that decision.


More recently comes the idea that no one should be retained.  I would be more supportive of that idea if we correctly placed children as they entered school.  That is, if we provided what children starting on different levels and working at different speeds actually need to progress.  I don't think it would take care of the whole problem (a child who manifests ODD, for example) but it would go a long way toward students finishing if we put aside the grade level (German efficiency?) model and went instead with a mastery orientation.


However, although I think it would help a great deal in the long run, we are too focused on the short term as far as what we are willing to spend.  We pay for it one way or another.

anothercomment
anothercomment

A whole column could be written on how the toxic affects or effects of the drinks and snacks sold in school vending machines are interfering with learning.

I received a voice mail from a teacher that my daughter was eating pop tarts in her class. I went to the teacher meeting to tell the teacher that she must have my child mixed up, I have never purchased a pop tart in my life and at this point my child did not have a car or drivers license. ( I had just weeks before had a teacher call me while sitting with my daughter in an Emory Clinic waiting room call me and tell me that my daughter was right as we speak texting in her class. I said excuse me, my daughter is sick and sitting next to me. My daughter told me she was the only white female in her class. So I asked what color is the child who you have the problem with? Black. My child is white, oh ! Then just a hang up.). The teacher said no it was the blonde, one. Then she took me and showed me that their was a vending machine in the foyer of the building her classroom was in that sold pop tarts. I was shocked. My question was why was this vending machine in a classroom bldg. away from the cafe.

I complained to the administrator aka Principal that this crap should not be sold in the school. I got some crap back about after school activities and this bldg was near the stadium, I responded then make it so the snacks can't be sold during school hours. I also tried to lobby for only Healthy choices aka fruit ( it can be done). I also questioned the Coke machines. Response we have contracts, that can't be changed.

Ever wonder why Johnnie and Suzy can't learn or sit still it is because in addition to the toxic over 50

% free lunch in most public schools we also have all these vending machines that are just full of sugar, and processed foods and chemicals.

No one looses weight and keeps it off until they do the hard work of cleaning out their diet and getting rid of the proceed food. Going back to cooking. Guess what that also requires using Math.

HS_Math_Teacher
HS_Math_Teacher

Ha!  Bravo.  Clarity & truth will eventually surface, and there's no stopping that.

bu2
bu2

Good writeup. 


However, it doesn't address motivation.  Everybody wants to make more money and work less.  The brain tends to be the same way.  It wants stimulation, but wants to minimize the effort. People tend to gravitate to the familiar and easy.


Some of these fads try to be like Tom Sawyer painting the fence, turning work into a game.  But it usually isn't as easy as Tom made it seem..  How do you convince the kids of the value of the hard work to learn?

straker
straker

"it requires commitment, persistence and support"


And, when it comes to Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry and Calculus, it also requires mathematical aptitude. 


Unfortunately, the majority of us don't have this.


So. all the desire and hard work in the world won't help unless you also have the aptitude.    

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@straker 

Oh, how I agree with this (and my high school Trig teacher would agree)...except I am uncertain if "the majority" lacks these mathematical aptitudes, or just some.  But definitely some.

L_D
L_D

@straker I disagree that a mathematical aptitude is a requirement.  I've read a few articles recently which point out one of the differences between Asian and Western education models is that in Asian models, it is expected that students will struggle to learn some concepts and mastery takes commitment, persistence, and support.  Too often in the United States when a student struggles with math or science, there is a complicit acceptance of allowing the student to either drop the subject or not do well because, "That's ok.  This is hard and you're brain isn't wired for this." However, like anything else (sports, cooking, music, etc), time and practice do matter.  


Students shouldn't be written off because they struggle. Most are capable of learning almost any high school level topic (yes, even trig and calculus) given the proper instruction, support, and time.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@L_D @straker 

Time is the most often overlooked variable.  Very important.  Time variance for different students is the factor which is incorporated within continuous progress education which is frequently missing from more orthodox educational models. 

You are on target in naming all three variables. "Proper instruction" and individual "support" are also very important.  However, we must not negate the existence of wide variances in aptitude, considering the masses of students.  Those variances in aptitude must be acknowledged, but individually addressed, especially regarding time.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@L_D @straker 

Oh, I ultimately mastered (or at least passed) high school Trig, mainly because I also took Remedial Trig after class. I knew I had to pass it to get into college. I will always appreciate Miss Rosenbaum's time and long-suffering support.

Milhouse
Milhouse

What Ms. Birnkammer doesn't understand about accountability and competition is that poor teachers who fail to improve ... should be fired. 

Despite what teachers' unions think, a teaching career isn't an entitlement.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@Milhouse And poor students who fail to improve?  What should be done to them?

Wings9
Wings9

Many are missing the point about fads in education.  They have a lot more to do with creating bureaucratic jobs at the state and local level than they do with actual education. 

teachermom4
teachermom4

I concur. We have become very concerned with "engaging" students, which most administrators and parents interpret as "entertaining" students. Hard work is very engaging. It requires students to be involved and on-task. The games and activities that are imagined as engaging often do not. Students come away knowing they had a really good time but completely missing the point of the activity. Kids have come to believe that if something is difficult or requires effort, it is not worthwhile or is even optional. My students who do the things mentioned in this essay do very well. The ones who fail usually lack effort, not ability.

thenoticer
thenoticer

This is why pretty much only students who come from homes who teach the importance of hard work are succeeding. Schools now are doing the exact opposite of teaching hard work and responsibility, and boy is that not working. Anne is right, learning is hard work, and newsflash, it is not always fun. I am so angry that we force this on our children! Now what we have at some schools is a lot of "fun" learning, meaning there is not much learning. There is often no way for a student to work hard and succeed, because that is actually not an option in our cereal box book report world. Getting back to real learning and real work is going to be a long road, because there is no money to be made from snake oil consultants with their easy and fun fixes. First we have to get rid of the administrators that support this nonsense, and they don't appear to be going anywhere. Are they that stupid, or are just okay with harming students in order to make in through the day and get that paycheck?

gactzn2
gactzn2

Yes- she also gets it!  Georgia wants RESULTS without any action on behalf of the central participant- THE STUDENT!!!! So we will bash teachers because Johnny will not do his work. Tell the world how horrible the teacher is because she does not get results because Johnny will not do the work even when the teacher is FORCED (yes forced) to give students 3 to 4 chances to re-submit work and retest over and over again; then turn the school over to a charter management organization because Johnny did not do his work and the school did not get results.  The CMO will increase structure, remove 2nd and 3rd chances for work, give grades that are earned, and counsel students out who don't conform. Gee- I wish public schools could do the same...dagnabbit...