Teachers' effots to care for their students cannot overshadow the need for academic growth.
For Administrators

It’s All About the Academics: Keeping Your Class Focused on Growth

By Brian Gatens October 19, 2015

“We mustn’t forget that we are primarily an academic institution.”

Christoph Guttentag, Duke University’s dean of undergraduate admissions, spoke those words in a 2014 interview about Duke and its admissions process. It struck me when he said it, and I remember writing it down.

Teachers' effots to care for their students cannot overshadow the need for academic growth.For all the things that make Duke an elite university — nationally ranked athletic programs, strong alumni base, excellent school culture, and much more — Guttentag gently reminded his interviewer that Duke’s main focus continues to be on academics.

We cannot afford to lose that focus, no matter how hard we try to meet our core responsibility of caring deeply for our students. Of course we have to provide safe, caring schools and address students’ emotional and developmental needs, but our classrooms must primarily be places of academic growth.

To do that, we often have to cut through all other concerns and strive to ensure our students leave stronger when their time with us ends.

How can we promote an academics-first attitude in the classroom? I suggest the following:

Make sure you’re helping students grow

I often hear people say we need to help our students to “build capacity” — that is, improve their ability to learn more and do more.

Academically focused teachers understand this point intuitively. Regardless of student age or subject matter, these teachers have specific curriculum and learning goals that translate into increased knowledge and ability. Their classroom activities support reaching those goals.

Keeping the focus on academics gives students the self-esteem and satisfaction that comes from meeting such challenges. Of course, some students will struggle in an academically focused classroom, so you have to be prepared to offer them extra help and support.

Promote the value of knowledge

It’s good to be smart and knowledgeable. The world needs people who can understand and solve problems. Emphasize those two ideas to your students.

Unfortunately, many students cross a developmental threshold in their teens when learning and knowledge become “uncool,” so you need to push back against that idea. After all, just as the world needs smart people to solve its problems, communities need informed and capable citizens. If this sounds idealistic, so be it. There’s no denying that emphasizing academics serves a greater good for society.

Remember the academically oriented child

There is a child in your class right now who loves school. You may not know who they are and they may be reluctant to admit an affection for your classroom. But they love books, learning and the satisfaction that comes with more knowledge and ability.

You need to think of that child when you design your lessons and teach your class. We’d never prevent a physically gifted child from playing sports, and the same principle applies to academically oriented students. Strive to offer them classes that challenge them and push them to develop their enjoyment of school.

Zero in on problem solving

Knowledge is not just memorizing more facts and information (though that does play a role). Rather, it’s about our ability to use our knowledge to develop deeper understanding and solve problems.

To nurture your classroom’s academic focus, make sure your students are learning about and solving problems. This means your class must go beyond lecturing and tests and address real-world issues that need a reasoned and logical approach.

Openly emphasizing the academic nature of your classroom — both to your students and their families — is essential to elevating the entire experience. Students will leave with an increased appreciation for knowledge, develop their capacity for learning and have the higher self-esteem that comes from being able to understand and solve problems.

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