In Pursuit of Understanding: What are the key ingredients?

By Paul Wright

300x225xstock-market-crash-of-1929.jpg.pagespeed.ic.iMOpMleF22A few weeks ago, one of my former 11th grade students — now an editor of our school paper — came to my room looking for me to help her with the proof of an article written by one of our current students. The subject of his article was a hedge fund called Magnetar and the role it played in the financial meltdown of 2008.

My heart sang a little bit, since this was one of the key pieces we used in teaching the meltdown as a bookend to the Crash of 1929. It is the way we have taught both of the “crashes” in Viewpoints on Modern America ever since 2009, when teaching partner Carl Rosin and I decided that if we were teaching in 1932 we’d be trying to teach what had happened in ’29, so why wouldn’t we teach what had happened in the recent financial crisis?

Connor’s article for the school paper had some holes and some <ahem> writing issues that made my heart sing a little less, but in reading it over for Lily, my former student, I was assured that Connor had a clear enough idea about not only what we had taught, but of how it fit into a larger context. Then it occurred to me that Lily had also studied this unit, and so I said to her, “Now, Lily, why am I explaining this to you? You know what’s happening here, right?” I read out a sentence about how Magnetar had been shorting its own holdings, and I turned to her again, “Now how are they shorting a CDO?”

“Oh, wait, I know this … wait …”

I smiled, “I know you know this. How did they short CDOs when they knew they would fail? Say it with me … Credit …”

“… default swaps … right …”

“Yeah, so what Magnetar was doing differently was that they were selecting some crap holdings to be included in the funds that they crafted so that they knew they would tank, and then they bought CDSs on them, and that was how they shorted it. So while Connor has an issue or two here in the article with, <ahem>, his pronouns, you know what he’s saying now?”

“Yes, now I see what he’s saying. Thanks, Mr. Wright.”

Connor didn’t know that I was reading this draft, but in it I could see clearly that he “got” a lot of what we had taught during our unit. The more important feedback to me at that moment was that Lily, last year’s student, still had a clean grasp of some of the most complicated material we teach. Sure, I needed to prompt her a bit on credit default swaps. But if our conversation above is any indication, she still hung onto — and in fact was able to put into practice — some of the most complex material we discuss all year.

We know from the last four years of teaching and reviewing it that kids can handle very complicated material if it is linked to the things they already know, we assure them that they will understand it, and we dole out the materials we use in a proscribed order and timeline.

We start with a simple example of my children trading candy on Halloween night with a friend of theirs who doesn’t like chocolate (“Spencer, I’ll give you 2 Starbursts for a Reese’s”) and end the unit with a series of assessments. The first is a series of group projects analyzing the difference between investment and commercial banks, stocks and bonds, margin and leverage, CDOs and CDSs, buying long and selling short. The second is an essay on the role of control in markets and the larger world, including references to The Great Gatsby or Death of a Salesman.

Because we solicit questions from the kids to make sure that, one, they are doing the work that they have been asked to do, and, two, that they understand some stunningly complex information, we can actually tell how the room is moving toward understanding from the quality of questions.

Early on, they are somewhat rudimentary for any holder of an E-trade account (How does a price get set? How do people know there will be shares available when they want them?). As time moves on, the questions and the judgment implied within them GET more and more complex (“Why was it that people were willing to buy CDOs and yet none of them could see that there were BBB rated bonds within them? How did the ratings agencies play a role?”).

We trust that the kids will move toward a greater level of understanding because:

  • We acknowledge early on how complex the information is giving them permission not to know and understand something, challenging them to keep at it.
  • We encourage them through support and scaffolding.
  • We continue to refer to anecdotal evidence of how previous classes have gotten where this year’s class will go — assurance, use of questioning, references to what they knew and what they know.
  • We provide them with an authentic audience: a guest speaker for whom we will need to research, prepare questions, and conduct ourselves in a professional manner through the interview process.

These are the essential ingredients my teaching partner work to include in every unit of the course, refining and revamping based on who are students are, what is happening in the world, and powerful texts that we have uncovered or are newly created when we see a need.

Click here to see guest speakers that have been interviewed in the Viewpoints Class, including Daniel Pink and Jonah Lehrer.

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