What’s the difference between honors and regular math classes?

When you were in high school, did you take honors or regular math classes? Or a mixture of the two, depending on the year? In any case, what motivated your decision? What’s the difference between the two levels — or, if your school had four levels, or five, what were the differences there? In my 21 years at Weston, we discussed this question many times, often casually but occasionally in considerable depth. Robert Kaplinsky attempts the latter in a recent post.

Kaplinsky “asked many teachers about what makes an Honors class different from a regular class” and gathered the answers.  He learned that honors classes…

  • … cover the material at a faster pace so they can include content standards from the beginning of the next course.
  • … are given less time to complete a test.… use a different book than regular classes.
  • … cover some of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) plus standards (defined in the last paragraph of pg 147)
  • … require students to do more homework/classwork/projects/quizzes.
  • … do additional higher Depth of Knowledge (DOK) problems and problem-based lessons.
  • … cover almost the same content as regular classes but just have the “better” students.

He then observes that “Your feelings on these answers may vary from shock to agreement to being appalled.” I am in the last of these categories. Every one of these answers (with the possible exception of the fifth one) is appalling and misses the point. Yes, it’s true that honors classes move faster, have less time for tests, cover more standards, require more homework, and so forth. But those are means to achieve an end, not an end in themselves. In addition to that list, I’ve often heard Weston students and parents say that honors classes contain students who are more serious, less distracted, and less distracting, thus providing a better atmosphere for learning. All that of course is usually true as well, but it’s a side effect, not by design. To me the #1 difference is that honors classes require less hand-holding: students are expected to do a lot more self-directed learning and thinking than in regular math classes. As I have discussed before, that does not mean that students are expected to teach themselves — just to think for themselves, to investigate, to explore. The same is expected in a regular math class, but not nearly as much.

Kaplinsky is primarily concerned about equity:

This also makes you think about how a child even becomes an Honors student.  We’ve all taught students in a regular course that would have been successful in an Honors course.  The reverse is also true as I’ve taught Honors courses and wondered how some students ended up in that class.  How can we talk about valuing equity yet allow this to happen?

Fair enough, but it treats math class as if it were in a vacuum. Students have a lot more going on in their lives. Taking Honors Geometry, Honors Physics, and Honors World History all at the same time may not make sense. That depends on the student, of course. I still remember the junior from a decade ago who asked me whether I thought she should take BC Calculus, AP English, AP Physics, AP Chemistry, and AP Bio as a senior — all of those! When I told her that she wouldn’t have a life, she replied “What’s that?”

She took all five, and survived. In fact, she ended up at one of the top colleges in the country. But very few people are like her.

Kaplinsky’s proposed solution is one adopted by many schools, often by individual departments within a given school: put everyone together in the same class, and give more/different work to those students who want honors credit. I used to like that idea, but no longer. The basic idea is right: promote equity by grouping a wide range of students together. That’s why Weston moved to two levels rather than four 20 years ago. In particular, it was clear that the large majority of very weak students benefited from having stronger role models in the class rather than being surrounded by other weak students. But having everyone together in a single level dilutes the class conversation to the point that those who can handle honors challenges aren’t confronted with honors-level demands. How do you discuss a difficult proof when half the class is still struggling with the most basic ideas of what a simple proof is? Students can be engaged without actually talking, but they can’t be engaged unless their mind participates in the conversation.

Categories: Teaching & Learning