What About the Side Effects?

I feel so good when I find someone expressing an idea that I can totally relate to. It’s like I’ve found a friend across Twitter and clicking that little heart is like shouting, “YES!” Yong Zhao of the University of Kansas earned a huge like from me for his July 16, 2018 blog post, “What Works Can Hurt: The Side Effects Education Can Have on Students”. His blog strikes a chord with those of us who care about teaching the whole child.

Zhao points out, every medication on the market comes with a list of cures along with possible side effects from taking the medicine. This allows doctors and users to be in informed. I can deal with a little dry mouth or constipation, but what about suicidal thoughts, abnormal heart rhythms, or in rare instances, death? For most of us, the rule is the cure can’t be worse than the disease.

But what about education practices? Is there a warning label for those? Zhao shares some side effects we will never hear about. “This product helps improve your students’ reading scores, but it may make them hate reading forever,” or “This program can help your child become a better student, but it may make her less creative”. There is no requirement for producers of instructional products to report anything about adverse side effects of their materials. All that matters is that test scores go up. After all, that is what sells their program.

Side effects are not just limited to products but are equally present in the very systems in which we work as well as in our own pedagogy. Let’s take an assignment my son’s AP English teacher gave for this summer as an example. I’d like to point out that I am not intending to be critical of my son’s teacher or her choices for assignments. She is following the rules of the system. It is the system that I am questioning.

Back in May, my son tells me he has to read The Scarlet Letter this summer for homework and I say, “Good. I like that book.” (If I like it, a 16 year old boy should like it, right?) He has to annotate as he goes along so the teacher knows he actually read it and did some thinking. I gladly go buy him a cheap copy he can write in. I think he got 3 chapters read before he gave up and returned to re-reading Harry Potter.

A few weeks before school starts, he pulls out the assignment page to see what else he needs to do. Page one has 32 literary terms to define. We have fabulous words like “polysyndeton”, “synecdoche”, and “epistrophe”. (Spell check doesn’t even recognize two of these by the way.) All sources used to define the terms must be cited using MLA style. Next he has to find ten examples of these literary elements in the story. He has ten journal entries questions to answer, 100 -200 words each (MLA formatted using 11 point Tahoma or New Times Roman). All of this is to be turned in with a cover sheet on the first day of school. There will be a test on the book that day. Wow! Welcome back to school.

Now, I won’t get into the fact that I don’t really like summer homework. I will skip my thoughts about the choice of reading material. I agree that, from this assignment, my son may know a few more literary terms and could summarize The Scarlet Letter. What gets me is that my son thoroughly hates this book and he is only ¼ of the way through. The system requires that AP classes be more rigorous and prepare students for the AP exam. They need to learn to read critically and use the text to support their thinking. They need to learn to cite work in the correct style. I’m sure this assignment was designed to do these things. But, are there side effects to this assignment? Yes. My son wants to get out of the class already.

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has as two of its core propositions: “Teachers are committed to students and their learning” and “Teachers know the subjects they teach and how to teach those subjects to students”. Because we know our subject and our students, we must be extremely careful in how we choose to teach them, especially when we are working within a system that may go against our natural teaching style.

As the teacher who is the expert in my own classroom, I should not only have the right, but should be expected to evaluate the instructional materials and methods I am using and look for possible side effects, both positive and negative. A method may raise a test score but at what cost? Do the ends justify the means?

Let’s take this summer homework assignment and change it up. What if I assign a book teens could be excited to read. Let’s say I teach just 5 literary terms that are found repeatedly in the book and really define the author’s style. What if I used an online platform for kids to post their thoughts and reply to each other? What if, instead of journal entries throughout the book, I ask one meaningful question that gets the kids thinking beyond the book? Heck, what if I just have them read it for fun and we start the year talking about what a great book it is? Am I still working within a system that requires summer homework that is meaningful and rigorous? I believe I am. I also believe I am reducing the unwanted side effects and maybe creating a few positive ones. After all, if I have a positive experience reading, I actually might do more of it. And in the end, isn’t that what good teachers do? They get students wanting to learn more.

What are your thoughts? Do you see side effects in a program you are required to use? What is the power of intentionally seeking for more positive side effects?


Yong Zhao Jul 16, 2018, What Works Can Hurt – Part One: The side effects education can have on students. Retrieved from https://npjscilearncommunity.nature.com/users/112607-yong-zhao


2 thoughts on “What About the Side Effects?

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  1. At the Thirteenth Annual Teacher Leadership Institute: Cultivating Professional Excellence By Creating Equitable Conditions For Sustainable Change, we learned the importance for teachers to be in charge when it comes to matters of discipline, matters of finding alternative ways to reach the whole child and so much more. Lauren Cluff’s responds to Zhao’s “What works can hurt” is not only thought-provoking, it is alarming. Decision-makers need to give the reigns back to teachers and support teachers where ever and when ever possible so teachers can teach and nurture the whole child.


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