Category: Teachers Reflect on their Practice

Compliance ≠ Motivation.

One of my favorite students of all time was a boy named Thomas*.  

What I dug the most about him was his curiosity.  It didn’t matter what topics we were talking about in class, Thomas was always wondering and always asking questions and always doing independent investigation on related ideas that left him intrigued.  He was one of the most passionate learners and thinkers that I’ve ever had the chance to work with — and I’m certain that he is going to be more than a little successful in life.

But Thomas was rarely “successful” in school.

He wasn’t an “Honor Roll” student, pasting fancy certificates on his wall and bumper stickers on his parents’ cars quarter after quarter and year after year.  Instead, he was constantly racking up Cs and Ds in his classes.  Missing tasks were the norm rather than the exception to the rule — and the work that he DID turn in was never an accurate reflection of what he was capable of.  His apathy towards assignments was a source of constant frustration for his parents and his teachers, who tried every trick in the book — groundings, loss of privileges, after school detentions, low marks, even LOWER marks — to “motivate” him to give his best effort on every assignment.

If you went back and looked at Thomas’s academic record, you’d probably make a ton of assumptions about him.

The fact of the matter is that there is nothing inspiring about the grades that he’s earned during his school career — and outsiders who have to make decisions based on little more than transcripts would probably turn away from Thomas in a minute.  He’d be filtered out before anyone would give him an interview simply because Cs and Ds are quick indicators of struggles that most employers don’t want to bother with.

And all of those assumptions would be wrong.

Here’s why: Thomas’s academic record is nothing more than a reflection of what he was WILLING to do — not what he was ABLE to do.  He’d made a decision early on that he wasn’t going to play the “compliance game,” dutifully completing every task and meeting every deadline without question.  Instead, he judged each assignment individually — and if he found it challenging or interesting or relevant, he’d invest in it completely.  If he found it pointless or repetitive or disconnected from important questions worth considering, he’d skip it no matter what punishments you promised.

So what lesson can we learn from kids like Thomas?

Perhaps most importantly, we need to recognize that sometimes the lack of motivation that we see in our students is a function of the work that we are asking them to do.  Thomas didn’t skip assignments or turn in tasks that were partially complete because he COULDN’T do the work.  He skipped assignments and turned in partially completed tasks because he’d decided that he WOULDN’T do work just to please a teacher or to avoid a punishment.  If he couldn’t see value in a task, he wasn’t going to value it.

Stew in that for a minute, would you.  In its simplest form, Thomas’s refusal to invest in work that he didn’t believe in was a form of protest — his way of saying to his teachers, “If you want my best effort, I expect more effort out of you, too.”  Sure — it would have been easier to just do the work he was being asked to do.  And yes — there are plenty of kids who will follow directions and meet deadlines because they fear the consequences that both parents and teachers stand ready to dish out.

But please don’t mistake that compliance for motivation — and please don’t suggest that kids like Thomas who refuse to comply are automatically lazy or disobedient.

In fact, if you regularly have to use consequences — think zeros or low grades or signatures on work tracking tools or phone calls home to parents — as threats to encourage kids to complete your assignments, it might be time to look carefully at your instructional choices.

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*Name changed to protect the identity of this student!

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Related Radical Reads:

Grades AREN’T Motivating

Learning > Schooling

Are Grades Destroying My Six Year Old Kid?

 

 

Digital Portfolio Challenge Posts

As regular Radical readers know, I’ve started a Digital Portfolio Pilot Project on my learning team (see here and here).  My goal is to encourage my students to become more reflective about their own learning.  After all, feedback GATHERED BY learners is ALWAYS more valuable than feedback GIVEN TO learners.

One of the things that I’ve noticed, though, is that my students really struggle with the language of reflection.  

The vast majority of the early posts that they are adding to their digital portfolios have been simple summaries of classroom activities.  They’ve written about books that they are reading or questions that they are wondering about or movies that they’ve watched.  They’ve written about concepts that they’ve studied and formulas they’ve learned and cultures they’ve explored.

But they haven’t told me much about their strengths or their weaknesses or the progress that they are making as learners.  They haven’t shared much evidence of their learning or set new goals for themselves or celebrated successes that they’ve had.

I think that’s because we rarely ask students to think reflectively about their own learning.

Stew in that for a minute.  How often do you set time aside for students to think about what they know and what they don’t know?  Do the kids in your classroom have a chance to think about who they are as learners on a regular basis?  More importantly, are you regularly asking them to draw conclusions and set direction based on their OWN analysis of what they know and can do?  Stated more simply, do the kids in your room act like passive students or active learners?

To facilitate active reflection in my students, I’ve created a series of Digital Portfolio Challenge Tasks.

You can find them posted here in my Teachers Pay Teachers shop.

Each challenge task asks students to reflect in a different way.  Some ask students to rank order the study strategies that work the best for them.  Others ask students to compare learning experiences IN school to learning experiences BEYOND school.  Some involve creating written reflections about academic successes and others involve creating video tutorials and/or How To guides to demonstrate mastery of a particular skill or concept.

Here are a few examples of those challenge tasks:

Share a YouTube video that OTHER people can learn from.  

Whether you realize it or not, you are an expert on a ton of topics.  Choose one of those areas of expertise.  Then, find and share a YouTube video that novices can learn from.  Write about the reasons that you think the video makes for a good tutorial for rookies.  What should they expect to learn by watching the video?  What should they do AFTER watching the video?

Share a learning tip for a younger student.  

What one bit of advice would you make to a younger student about succeeding as a learner?  Why does that tip matter so much?  How do you know that tip will work?  Has that tip helped you as a learner?  How?

Share an example of work that you improved through revision.

The best learners are always revising their work.  Share an example of something that YOU have improved through revision.  Show us your first draft or explain to us your original thoughts.  Then, show us your final draft or explain to us your final thoughts.  Point out specific places where you made your work better.  Tell us HOW those changes made your work better.  Tell us what you would do if you were to revise this work again.  

My plan is to assign a new challenge task to students each week.

Not only will that give students a chance to experiment with reflecting in a TON of different ways, it will also generate a TON of different examples of just what reflection looks and sounds like in action as kids read the content being created by their peers.  Over time, my hope is that students won’t need challenge posts in order to create new content for their portfolio — but at least for the time being, their lack of experience with in-depth reflection is holding them back.

So whaddya’ think of all of this?  Do your students struggle with the language of reflection, too?  

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Related Radical Reads:

My Digital Portfolio Project Planning

More on My Digital Portfolio Project

 

 

Grades AREN’T Motivating.

Check out this tweet that landed in my Twitterstream, y’all:

Brett’s right, isn’t he?  

We SHOULD barf every time someone makes the argument that without grades, students can’t be motivated to tackle meaningful tasks.

More importantly, we should stop using grades to sucker kids into completing assignments in our classrooms:

 

Slide - If It's Not Graded

(click here to view original image on Flickr)

So how SHOULD we motivate learners?  

Easy:  By rethinking the kinds of work that we are asking them to do.  Any task that is worth doing should be relevant and interesting.  Learners should be hooked by our assignments and should be convinced that every task will strengthen their knowledge and skills in important areas.

Any task that is worth doing should also be challenging.  Create assignments that are too easy — or that seem completely impossible — and learners tune out.  But create assignments that require kids to stretch just outside of their comfort zones, and they will invest completely in the work.

Finally, any task that is worth doing should help students to drive meaningful change beyond the walls of their classrooms.  The simple truth is that today’s students want to be influential.  They aren’t satisfied with work that has no clear purpose beyond filling their report cards.  But if you can show your kids that the questions they are asking and lessons that they are learning can improve their families, communities or countries, and they’ll tackle anything.

Now don’t get me wrong:  You CAN use grades to try to influence the kids in your classroom — and most will probably respond.

The vast majority of our students still want to earn passing marks.  And they still feel pressure from their parents and their teachers to score highly on classroom assignments.  After all, they’ve been buried in messages like “you’ll never get into college with those grades” and “for every A that you make, I’ll give you $20 bucks” and “make anything less than a C and you will lose your phone for a whole quarter” for most of their lives.

But don’t mistake those reactions with motivation.  

If anything, what you are seeing when students put effort into assignments simply because they are being graded is compliance.  Motivation begins when our classrooms become places where interesting, relevant, challenging, and powerful tasks become the norm rather than the exception to the rule.

#trudatchat


Related Radical Reads:

Celebrate Your TEACHING Geeks, not your TECH Geeks

Are Kids REALLY Motivated by Technology?

Are YOUR Students Doing Work that Matters?

When Did Teaching Science Become Political a Blood Sport?

Did you see what Scott Pruitt, the Chief Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency said today?

Despite almost a century’s worth of scientific evidence, the consensus of the vast majority of the scientific community, and the scientific opinion of national groups like NOAA and NASA, he made the argument that carbon dioxide ISN’T a primary contributor to global warming.

Pruitt’s argument aligns nicely with the argument of the fossil fuel industry — who he has a long history of supporting at all costs.  “I think that measuring with precision human activity on climate is something very challenging to do,” he said.  “And there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of the impact, so no, I would not agree that it is a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.”

Now, Pruitt is definitely in the minority here:  There’s NOT “tremendous disagreement” about the impact that carbon dioxide is having on our climate.

Need proof?  Then check out the Climate Change Consensus page on NASA’s website.  You’ll find that:

  • 97 percent of actively publishing climate scientists believe that human activities are having a negative impact on our climate.
  • 18 scientific associations — people like the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Geological Society of America — believe that human activities are having a negative impact on our climate.
  • 11 international science academies believe that human activities are having a negative impact on our climate.
  • US Governmental Agencies — INCLUDING Pruitt’s EPA — and other international governmental bodies believe that human activities are having a negative impact on our climate.

So you can either believe the guy who has taken thousands upon thousands of dollars in donations from energy companies and their Political Action Committees OR you can believe thousands upon thousands of scientists who have spent their entire careers researching this issue.

This should make for a PERFECT lesson in my sixth grade science classroom, y’all.  

My standards require that I teach the carbon cycle — which includes the impact that excess combustion (think burning coal to create electricity and oil and gas to power vehicles) has had on the balance of carbon in our atmosphere AND that I teach students how to “distinguish among facts, reasoned judgment based on research findings, and speculation in a text.”

Think about that for a minute.  Climate change is very public example of how an imbalance in the carbon cycle is having an impact on our day-to-day lives.  More importantly, Pruitt’s statements are a very public example of a place where students can distinguish between facts, reasoned judgment based on research and speculation.  I’d LOVE to let them decide whether or not Pruitt’s argument is believable.

Isn’t that EXACTLY the kind of lesson that today’s students need to learn if they are ever going to be scientifically literate?

After all, we live in a world where politicians let donations govern their decisions — and those decisions end up governing our lives.  We also live in a world where the value of scientific research is regularly denigrated if it stands in opposition to positions that are going to cost businesses money or politicians donations.  Lobbyists whisper in the ear of guys like Pruitt, making promises in order to gain influence.  If kids aren’t prepared to recognize those conflicts of interest and aren’t able to interpret the meaning of scientific findings when making personal decisions about who to support, our planet is screwed.

But here’s the thing:  I won’t mention Pruitt’s comments to my class at all.  

Why?  Because over the past decade — ever since Al Gore started talking about our world’s Inconvenient Truth — I’ve been buried time and again by complaints from angry parents who ALSO believe that there is “tremendous disagreement” over the role that carbon dioxide plays in our changing climate.

It’s the exact same criticism that I get when I talk about natural selection or evolution — topics that are ALSO in my required curriculum AND scientifically settled, but widely panned by a small handful of people in America.

Most of the complaints that I get parrot talking points that you hear on radio programs hosted by guys like Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin.  People suggest that “I’m teaching climate science as if it is fact instead of opinion.”  They argue that, like most public school teachers, I am a part of a “left-wing conspiracy to brainwash children.”  And they ask if I’m going to bother teaching both sides of the story, even when there really AREN’T two sides to any of these stories.

Think about how frightening this all is.  

Essentially, I’m admitting to you that I shy away from introducing my students to scientific fact simply because I know that there’s a good chance that I’ll be attacked when I do.  Maybe I should be ashamed of that.  Maybe I should teach controversial topics no matter how much flak I’m likely to take.  Maybe I’m failing my kids and my community by keeping silent even in a situation where silence isn’t warranted.

But it’s just not that easy.  

Somehow, teaching science became political blood sport — and sometimes, I just don’t have the energy to fight.   

 

 

 

 

 

More on My Digital Portfolio Project.

As regular Radical readers know, I started a Digital Portfolio Pilot Project in my room last week.

I have 25 students using Blogger to record evidence of their learning over time.  I am trying to encourage them to write four different kinds of posts in the main stream of their blog — which we are calling their “Learning Portfolios.”  I am also trying to get them to think deeply about the essential questions in our required curriculum on static pages in the main navbar of their blogs that we are calling their “Showcase Portfolios.”

While we are only a week into our project, I’ve learned a few lessons worth sharing:

Blogger is better than I thought.

When I started this project, I was worried about using Blogger.  I’ve always seen it as a wonky tool.  That wonkiness was confirmed as I tried to create a template for my kids to use as a starting point for their portfolios — which isn’t impossible, but which also isn’t as easy as it should be (see my previous post).

But for every example of wonkiness that I find in Blogger, I discover a feature that I really like.  One specific example is Blogger has a feed reader built right into the blogging platform.  It’s called the “Reading List.”  What that allows users to do is consume and create content in the exact same place.

(click images to enlarge)

As soon as I found the reading list, I had my students add the blogs of their classmates — and then I started encouraging them to read and comment on new entries during silent reading time.

That does three things:  (1). It provides extra motivation for writers — if you know your friends are reading, you are more likely to create something new on a regular basis, (2). It provides readers with a constantly updated stream of new ideas for posts that they can create in their own digital portfolios and (3). It encourages students to comment on the content of others, which is exactly the type of first-draft thinking that I want to encourage in our digital portfolio project.

The reading list has also made MY life easier.  I’ve added the blogs of all of the participants in my portfolio project to the reading list in my Blogger platform.  Now, new content posted by my kids is one click away — making it easier to monitor their work and provide the kind of feedback and encouragement that they need in order to become better at systematic reflection.

A clear naming structure for student blogs is super helpful.

I think the best decision that I’ve made so far is requiring all of my kids to use the same naming structure when creating their blog in Blogger.  That has made it easier for me — and for the students involved in my project — to track down content being created by kids on our team.  Our blog addresses are predictable — and that predictability makes it possible to quickly guess the blog address of peers that you are interested in following.

I won’t tell you what our naming structure is yet — I don’t want anyone stealing it on me until I get all of my students signed up first! — but here’s a sample of what I mean:

Blog Naming Formula:  [student first name]isalearner.blogspot.com

Samples:  joeisalearner.blogspot.com, samiyaisalearner.blogspot.com, dewanisalearner.blogspot.com, laurenisalearner.blogspot.com

If I hadn’t required a common naming structure, my guess is that my students would have chosen blog names that would have been as unique and diverse as they are — and while I love that uniqueness and diversity, having a standardized way to find one another without much challenge facilitates connections between the kids in my classroom.  Those connections matter most to me right now.

A common naming structure also made it possible for us to get started quickly.  Instead of spending thirty minutes trying to come up with an interesting address for their blog, my kids spent two minutes replicating the naming structure that I created for them.  Getting started quickly matters, too.  It builds momentum in the hearts and minds of the kids who are participating and it reduces the likelihood of teachers saying, “I love the idea of digital portfolios, but I don’t have the time for them!”

My kids needed no technical help, but they DID need a ton of nudging around content and formatting.

Getting started on our digital portfolios was a complete breeze.  It took less than 30 minutes to get our blogs up and running and then another 30 minutes to show kids how to create posts, monitor comments, and personalize their templates.  The simple truth is that because twelve year olds like to tinker with tech, they didn’t need much coaching at all on how to accomplish basic tasks in Blogger.  In fact, the first portfolio entry written and posted by a student went live in the middle of my first 30 minute training session.

But they DID need a ton of nudging around content and formatting.

For example, every one of my students wanted to personalize the colors and text styles on their blogs — and at least half of them chose color schemes and font families that made their blogs more difficult to read.  Instead of thinking about their audiences, they were thinking about themselves — and the result was content that few people could consume without serious challenge.  That’s been a neat conversation and learning opportunity — but it is one I didn’t totally expect going into this project.

Another example:  My kids haven’t always done the best job REFLECTING in their initial posts.  Instead, they are REPORTING on what they are learning in their classes.  I blame that on the traditional structure of schools, y’all.  We don’t ask kids to do a ton of reflecting, so it’s not something that they are naturally drawn to.  Until we start to teach the difference between reflecting and reporting — a conversation we are going to have together in class next week — I shouldn’t be surprised to see that the content my kids are creating isn’t all that reflective yet.

I’d love feedback from all y’all on this stuff.  Does it make sense to you?  Do you have any suggestions for how I can make this better?

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Related Radical Reads:

My Digital Portfolio Project Planning