Tag Archives: Helping Students Succeed

Student Motivation: What Level of Engagement Are Your Students At?

I’ve worked a lot with schools wanting to motivate students, and we have largely focused on the “how.” In this work, I have named the conditions necessary for students to be motivated (as have others, such as here). My list includes student voice and choice, higher order thinking, inviting schools, learning by doing, and real world connections.

But wouldn’t it also be helpful to think in some productive way about how motivated students are?

Thinking of kids as simply being motivated or not is not all that helpful. In my work, I’ve often asked that students be thought of as “easy to teach” or “hard to teach,” and although this framework is helpful for certain conversations with educators, this isn’t really the same construct as how motivated or engaged students are.

My friends at the Great Schools Partnership have defined engagement in their iWalkThrough tool as the percent of students that are on task during the classroom observation. Again, although perhaps a useful operationalization of “engagement” for a walk through protocol, I’m not sure this is really the same construct as student motivation and engagement…

But I think I have finally found that useful, practical way of thinking about how motivated students are. I recently learned of Phil Schlechty’s five patterns of engagement, described here:

Authentic Engagement. The student associates the task with a result or product that has meaning and value for the student, such as reading a book on a topic of personal interest or to get information needed to solve a problem the student is actively trying to solve.

Ritual Engagement. The task has little inherent or direct value to the student, but the student associates it with outcomes or results that do have value, as when a student reads a book in order to pass a test.

Passive Compliance. The task is done to avoid negative consequences, although the student sees little meaning or value in the tasks themselves.

Retreatism. The student is disengaged from the tasks and does not attempt to comply with the demands of the task, but does not try to disrupt the work or substitute other activities for it.

Rebellion. The student refuses to do the task, tries to disrupt the work, or attempts to substitute other tasks to which he or she is committed in lieu of those assigned by the teacher.

These certainly aren’t the kinds of classifications that a visitor could observe on a walk through, but I believe any teacher could place each of their own students into these categories.

Here are a couple of things I really like about having this framework:

  • It differentiates students’ levels of motivation well beyond “he’s motivated or he’s not.”
  • It provides a framework for educators discussing how motivated their students are.
  • These might even be interpreted as levels and a thoughtful educator mighty work to move students from one level to the next.
  • It helps teachers differentiate their strategies for motivating students (moving them to a “higher” level) based on what category the student falls in.
  • It helps answer the question of why we (educators) might still have work to do, even when students do well on tests or are getting good grades (they could still be in the Ritual Engagement or Passive Compliant categories).

How might this framework enhance and extend your conversations with educators about student motivation?

What’s to Blame for Kids Not Learning?

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know I believe all students can learn. You know I think there are “easy to teach” students and “hard to teach” students, but I think they all can learn. So what is it that gets in the way of students learning?

When I ask teachers that question, they often generate a list like this one:

    • Attitude
    • Lack of home support
    • Learning disability
    • Learning styles
    • Substance abuse
    • Apathy
    • Defiance
    • Low aspirations
    • Lack of sleep
    • Lazy
    • Peer pressure
    • How the teacher teaches
    • Lack of preparation
    • Normal distractions

There is no doubt that home and social factors have an enormous impact on achievement. Many students come to school facing problems that cannot be fixed by anything that teachers might do. We could point to a long list of factors such as psychological problems, emotional problems, poor study habits, low self-esteem, withdrawal, aggression, social isolation, conflicts at home, over-expectations of parents, under-expectations of parents, physical or medical causes, social/class differences and expectations, conflicts with teachers, lack of academic readiness and preparation, learning disabilities, poor home life, unsupportive parents, previous traumatic experience, poverty, and low self-confidence.

When you look at lists like these, it is easy to understand why educators might fall into the trap of blaming others for why some students aren’t learning.

But we need to be careful of blame as this poem (author unknown) points out:

Different Levels of Blaming Each Other for What has Happened…

The college professor who said such wrong in the student is a shame,
Lack of preparation in high school is to blame.
Said the high school teacher good heavens that boy is a fool,
The fault of course is with the middle school.
The middle school teachers said from such stupidity may I be spared,
They sent him up to me so unprepared.
The primary teacher said the kindergarten blockheads all,
They call it preparation, why it’s worse than none at all.
The kindergarten teacher said, such lack of training never did I see,
What kind of mother must that woman be.
The mother said poor helpless child–he’s not to blame,
His father’s folks are all the same.
Said the father at the end of the line,
I doubt the rascal is even mine!

Blaming, however, does not help us address the issue of helping every child learn. I am reminded of the old saying, “Do you want to fix blame, or do you want to fix problems?” Perhaps another familiar saying is appropriate here:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.
The strength to change the things I can, and
The wisdom to know the difference.

While it is easy to identify all those factors that contribute to a child not succeeding in school, it is much more important that we identify the ones we do and do not have significant control over. For example, we can’t control if students are sleepy unless we let them sleep in class, and we can’t control anything that happens away of school unless we adopt them (and supervise them closely!). And there is no way to control what has happened to them in the past.

So what can we control? What factors can we change? Where is the opportunity for us to impact learning, especially with students facing lots of challenges?

And the only answer is: What we do in the classroom. Instruction.

Classroom practice, how we teach and how we interact with students, is one of the few factors impacting achievement over which teachers have direct control. A few premises of this blog are that school practice does play a role in both underachievement and achievement, and that changing instruction to better meet the needs of hard to teach students can both help reverse negative achievement patterns and counter-act the negative conditions over which we have no control.

And maybe that’s the best reason for a teacher to focus on engaging students in meaningful learning: to gain a little more control…


What Makes for Good Learning Experiences?

The more we try to to help build the talents of every student and help every learner succeed in school, the more we have to be deliberate about creating good learning experiences in our classrooms. I have certainly added to the conversation about what I believe gives students good learning experiences.

The roots of those ideas are not just my own experiences as a learner and a teacher, and not just conducting research and reviewing research, but from actually asking people about their own good learning experiences. The Good Learning Experiences Activity is one of the ways I have explored different people’s perspectives on how they think they learn well.

“Think of a good learning experience,” the script for the activity begins. “It can be in school, or out of school. It can be when your grandfather taught you how to cast a fly rod, or when your teacher worked with you to write that really good essay. But think of a time when you had an ‘aha!’ or something finally made sense, or you could finally do something. Think of a good learning experience.”

I give small groups of participants a few minutes to share their stories. Next, I ask them to jot down on scratch paper what it was that made it a good learning experience. What were the characteristics of the experience? After a few more minutes to share their lists with their neighbors, we compile a class list on chart paper, an overhead, or on a projected computer.


Before reading on, just take a second to think about a good learning experience of your own, and what it was that made that a good learning experience.


I have conducted the activity with people of nearly every age group: upper elementary students, middle school students, high school students, college students, teachers, and parents. Only a few learners state that they can’t think of any good learning experience. Many of the learners state that their best learning experiences have taken place outside of school. No one has ever said that their best learning experience came from a terrific lecture, or an interesting textbook, or an engaging worksheet (although I believe each of these can be a useful teaching tool when applied wisely).

Having conducted this activity with so many groups, I am intrigued by the results. I was surprised to find that, regardless of the group involved, there were common elements with other groups’ lists. Since 1992, I informally tracked the results and found that certain characteristics of good learning experiences come up in nearly every list:

  • The work was well connected to other ideas and to the real world
  • The content of the learning experience was personally relevant, interesting, useful, or meaningful to the learner
  • The learner had choices, shared authority, control, and responsibility
  • The learning was hands-on and experiential
  • The learner learned from and taught others
  • The learner had the support of a patient, supportive, and nurturing mentor
  • The learning was individualized and although there were standards for the work, the learner could meet them in his or her own way
  • There was a positive aesthetic component to the experience: it was fun or left the learner feeling good
  • The experience helped the learner understand him or herself
  • The learner had success and accomplishment with challenging work

Now, these are my words synthesizing the lists I have collected over the two decades I’ve been doing this activity. Certainly elementary students aren’t going to use these word exactly. But doesn’t this list reflect what made your own good learning experience good?

Much can be learned by investigating how students believe they learn well. What better source for finding out what motivates students to learn than themselves?

But with knowledge comes responsibility. If you know what makes for good learning experiences, don’t you now have an obligation to insure that you model these in our own teaching? – Or at least start learning how to do these in the classroom?


(Note: I have been with educators who have used the prompt “think of a good experience” or “think of a good school experience”, and it never gets to the right information about when people learn well. If you are considering doing this activity with your own students or teachers or parents, I highly recommend that you stick with the prompt “think of a good learning experience.”)


Thinking of Instruction as Two Types

When our pilot teachers were visiting a school that is a little further along than we are at implementing Customized Learning, a colleague and I got talking about how we (us and our colleagues) had a lot of work to do on instruction if we were going to be successful with our implementation.

Then it hit us that a lot of teachers would say they already do a pretty good job with instruction and would object to being told that we had a lot of work to do on it.

And then I realized that both perspectives were right. We just weren’t talking about the same kind of instruction in each instance.

There are two kinds of instruction.

There is Instruction for Lower Order Thinking and Instruction for Higher Order Thinking.

So, it doesn’t matter if you use Bloom’s Taxonomy, New Bloom’s, Marzano’s Taxonomy, or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, Instruction for Lower Level Thinking is focused on recall and simple application, and Instruction for Higher Order Thinking is focused on nontrivial application, complex reasoning, and creating.

Our teachers are really pretty good at Instruction for Lower Order Thinking. But we have a lot of work to do on Instruction for Higher Order Thinking.

The distinction, thinking of instruction as two types, doesn’t just help clarify our thinking.

This distinction would actually help us in a couple different ways.

We now could say, “You guys are really good at Instruction for Lower Level Thinking. But now, to do Customized Learning well, we need to help you get better at Instruction for Higher Level Thinking.” The message about getting better at instruction would have always been about support, but could have been taken as criticism of their abilities. Now, we can differentiate between validating their abilities, and identifying a need, and offering support to address that need.

And it helps us think about when should teachers apply each type of instruction.

And it will help teachers think about how the two kinds of instruction are different and which strategies support which type.

And it helps us think about leveraging what kinds of interventions to support teachers.

What would thinking of instruction as two types mean to you and the work you are doing in your school?

Mexican Food Schools

I remember being in high school, and frustrated with school, and thinking, “I can do this better than it’s being done to me!”

I think that thought alone is the main reason I became a teacher.

But it is also the reason I worked on what I called “the Making Algebra Meaningful Project” (Surprisingly not an oxymoron! But it took me a long time to come to that conclusion…). And it was why I started looking at teaching and learning with technology, became a technology integrator, and later a partner in the first statewide learning with laptop initiative. And it was why I did my graduate research on motivating underachievers.

Keep in mind that when I started teaching, I didn’t really know how to teach any way other than “how it was done to me,” but it was my motivation to explore how to reach more learners.

An innovative educational program

For about five years, I had the opportunity to work with a great group that focused on creating schools designed to motivate students (well, still focuses, I just work in Auburn now). Among other projects, we helped the School District of Philadelphia write and support a Magnet School grant, and we created a successful nontraditional school that combines online curriculum with project-based learning and graduated students at a high rate. And they helped me create Projects4ME, the statewide virtual project-based program for at-risk and dropout youth in Maine, that got me connected to Auburn in the first place.

We were/are big believers in multiple pathways to graduation, and that educators will only be successful raising graduation rates and decreasing dropout rates when districts offer students several different approaches to learning, so they can choose the one that works for them.

When we would talk to a superintendent about creating a school for them, we liked to say, “No one really cares if you like Chinese food and I like Mexican food and we go to different restaurants. But we tend to only have Chinese food schools and say there is something wrong with me for being a Mexican food learner.”

We were trying to make those Mexican food schools.

Now I’m in Auburn, where we’re working hard not just to make Mexican food schools for students, but Mexican food programs inside of schools, and lots of other “flavors,” as well.

What are you doing to make sure your students’ diverse tastes in how they learn well are being addressed?


Not All At Once: The Phases of Implementing Customized Learning

Some folks have started hearing grumblings from educators and community members about their school’s work on implementing Customized Learning. And these grumblings make us worry (rightly) if working toward Customized Learning is really the right move.

Here are some of the actual grumblings I’m hearing from within my own district and from other Maine districts working toward customized learning:

  • Parents in District A have made their concerns well known (and well publicized) that they do not like, nor do they want, the changes to grading and report cards that the district has implemented.
  • Principal B wants to know how we can possibly do this work without first changing how we schedule and group students, as well as change our grading system.
  • Teachers in School C wonder what they’ll do with students who finish a course-worth of work by mid-March.
  • Teacher D says he has posted the poster-like tool that is supposed to solicit students’ questions, ideas, and feedback, but students won’t use it.
  • Colleagues and students of Teacher E don’t think the way he is implementing customized learning is working and are saying, “If the way he is doing customized learning is what customized learning is all about, we don’t want to do it.”

Hearing these kinds of concerns, it’s not hard to understand why some people might think there are (serious) problems with Customized Learning, and maybe schools shouldnt do it.

And yet, I know that schools have implemented it successfully.

I’ve enjoyed having the chance to talk with some of the educators from some of those schools about their lessons learned. And from this initiative and others, I’ve learned that by looking at the contrasts between where an initiative works and where it doesn’t, you can learn something about what the successful schools have done and what the less successful schools might not have done.

I’ve grown to believe the root of the problems I’ve shared above is not with Customized Learning itself, but with thinking of Customized Learning as some gigantic, monolithic monstrosity that must be dropped on a school all at once. There is no doubt that there are a lot of moving parts, and that those parts are interrelated, and that it is hard to imagine implementing one component completely without implementing another component completely.

And yet, all of the lessons I learned from conversations with educators in schools where it is working have focused on the opposite of doing it all at once:

  • Schools should think of implementing Customized Learning as something that will take about 5 years.
  • Although flexible, there is one general sequence (phases) of change that seems to work better than others.
  • The sequence is a little counter-intuitive, but, again, works better than others, so should be stuck to, even if it is counter-intuitive.
  • Trying to skip phases, or jump ahead phases, or doing phases out of sequence doesn’t work and derails and delays the change process.
  • Although it is always ok to experiment with and try out strategies and techniques from up-coming phases, each phase has strategies and techniques that teachers and leaders should be working to perfect prior to moving on to the next phase.
  • It is ok to have educators in the same school/district in different phases at the same time, but it is also ok to refer to the phase where the school or district is in general, as a whole.
  • It seems to help to have some early adopters in each school, who are a phase or two ahead of the rest of the staff.
  • Save the school structure changes (grading, scheduling, etc.) for last; although you can readily identify that you need new structures now, you won’t know what structures you need until you have been doing the work for a while.
Phases of Implementing Customized Learning

For Auburn, Shelly Mogul, our Curriculum Director, and I created (with some help and input from colleagues) a chart highlighting 5 phases of implementing Customized Learning (download it here). Within each phase, the chart clarifies what we have learned about what staff should be getting good at and the kinds of things they should start dabbling in. We see the following five phases:

  • Awareness Phase
  • Classroom Culture Phase (Voice & Choice)
  • Instructional Design Phase
  • Instructional Implementation Phase
  • School Structures Phase

And notice how understanding the phases of implementing Customized Learning actually helps us understand the problems described in the beginning of this post. It’s important to recognize that when we implement pieces too soon, they can cause problems or might end up being the wrong pieces. That the purpose of being in a particular phase is to get good at the strategies and techniques of that phase, both by seeking out support and resources, and by school leaders bringing support and resources to the staff in that phase. And that it is ok to say, “Yes that is a concern, but we’re only in Phase X and we should wait to deal with that when we reach Phase Y.” And it helps to be able to say, when things are running roughly for a teacher with the courage to try things out, but others bring up concerns, “Well, remember that Teacher E is in Phase X and trying out ideas two phases ahead of that, without training, and has in fact recognized himself that it isn’t going well and has asked for suggestions and support.”

I don’t believe that all the challenges of Customized Learning will be solved just by thinking about phases of implementation. Clearly some come from thinking about leadership for school change, or about the role of technology, or about student motivation. But I do think that many of the ground floor challenges that come during early implementation are related to trying to do everything at once (or out of order).

How could reflecting on and having conversations about the Phases of Implementing Customized Learning help your school or district?


10 Key Components of Customized Learning

The talk in Maine schools right now, perhaps even more than Common Core, is Customized Learning. The recently established Maine Cohort for Customized Learning is made up of 27 full and associate member districts collaborating on implementing Customized Learning. And Maine’s Education Commissioner’s strategic plan, Education Evolving, is looking to clear a path through state law and policy to help any districts implement Customized Learning.

Students working on a project

But what is Customized Learning?

It really just boils down to two principles: everyone learns in different timeframes and in different ways. Customized Learning is educators being deliberate about how they organize instruction and school structures to support (and take advantage of) these two principles.

Deep down, parents and teachers know these principles well. We recognized them in our own children and in our students. And yet most schools are still organized in such a way as to try to have students learn in the same way at the same time (the power of the familiar!). You can’t help but wonder how much of our challenges with student achievement, special education and support services, student behavior, and student motivation aren’t directly linked to the number of students who have been forced to attempt to learn using someone else’s pace and style!

Customized Learning goes by a lot of different names around the country: standards-based instruction; performance-based instruction; individualized instruction. And there are good models of Customized Learning, for example: RISC (Reinventing Schools Coalition), student designed projects (such as the Minnesota New Country School and Projects4ME), the Foxfire Approach, and Integrative Curriculum.

In fact, Maine’s schools have decided to use the more generic term “Customized Learning” to indicate that we are not aligning ourselves with any one model or approach, but rather are working to identify the components of Customized Learning and explore which models and approaches have strong programs and techniques for each particular component. No one model does all the components well, and Maine can learn from all the good models.

I have grown to think that there are 10 key components to Customized Learning:

1) Shared Vision
It has been said that you can have the best sailboat, the best crew, the best navigational equipment, and the best weather, but if you aren’t in agreement about where you’re sailing, you’re going to have a horrible trip (and probably not arrive anywhere you wanted to be!). Schools that work collaboratively with their staff, students, parents, and community members to come to agreement on their vision for the school/district, are able to more productively make the changes and implement the initiatives they think will improve their schools.

2) Burning Platform
Why should the school and community change? What’s your most compelling reason? Is it some local community need? Is it that, looking at test scores, your schools are working for too few students? Is it the changing economy? This is your burning platform; that driving reason for change that educators and community can rally around.

3) Climate of Student Voice and Choice
Having students learn at their own pace, and in their preferred way has never been about simply letting students do what ever they want. Good Customized Learning takes skilled guidance, direction, and coaching from thoughtful teachers. But that coaching and guidance does require a climate where students are used to sharing their ideas, thoughts, and questions, and where they are getting better at making some of their own decisions. Customized learning doesn’t work well with passive students who just wait to be told what to do next. In fact, moving a school toward customized learning also requires that the staff start to feel that they, too, work and live in a climate where they have voice and choice.

4) Instruction for Low Order Thinking
Regardless of which taxonomy you use (Bloom’s, New Bloom’s, Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, Marzano’s New Taxonomy), low order thinking center’s on a student’s ability to recall or remember. This is the kind of teaching most of our teachers are pretty proficient at. What are the best techniques to not just help students acquire new knowledge but also to insure that it can be remembered/recalled later?

5) Instruction for Higher Order Thinking
Higher Order Thinking focuses on a student’s ability to use knowledge and think critically. Historically, we haven’t seen much of this in our classrooms. And when we have, often we have asked students to apply these skills without doing much teaching or scaffolding on how to do these skills well. What are the best techniques both for helping students develop these higher order thinking skills and learning to apply them to content knowledge?

6) Curriculum Content and Organization
If students are to learn more closely to their own pace, and have choices about how they learn material, there needs to be great clarity about what the curriculum is. Within each discipline, standards and measurement topics must be identified. These standards need to be the concepts and skills that we will guarantee that every student learns (Our lists of curriculum will become shorter. We will give up some favorite units and lessons, but we are simply identifying that which everyone will learn. Many will learn much more.) Measurement topics need to be scaffolded and a progression identified. And all this must be organized, documented, and published in a practical way so that both educators and students can access, understand, and make use of the curriculum.

7) Formative Feedback
One of the most powerful forms of instruction a teacher can leverage is providing students feedback on their work as they are working. This formative feedback is critical to Customized Learning. What are effective strategies for providing formative feedback?

8) Learning Progress Management
With students working at different paces and awarding students “credit” based on what they can demonstrate they know and can do (rather than by seat time or courses they have completed), educators need a good way to monitor and record student progress. Further, there is a coaching element to Learning Progress Management. What is the role of individualized learning plans? How do you help use progress data to keep students moving through the measurement topics? How do you encourage and support (as well as cajole and lovingly nag) students to keep workng? Technology has made this aspect of Customized Learning much more practical and doable.

9) Multiple Pathways
Do students have access to different ways to learn material? Can some take traditional classes, while others do online courses, or design a project, or do an internship? This is multiple pathways. Many schools have a few pathways already in place, but they tend to be “all or nothing” pathways, defining the entire program for a student (the regular high school, the vocational technical center programs, an alternative school). In the context of Customized Learning, students have access to multiple pathways for each course/topic/subject area.

10) School Structures
Once a school starts implementing Customized Learning, they realize that they need to think about updating some of their long-standing structures and infrastructure. How will you group (and re-group) students? What about schedules and assigning students to class? How long will courses (or maybe seminars) last and how will they be organized? What about grades and reporting to parents? Customized learning will (eventually) drive you to change your structures.


Of course, Customized Learning probably can’t be achieved in a school or district without also exploring leadership for school change, the role technology might play, or how to create the conditions that students find motivating

Learn more about Customized Learning at the McMEL Customized Learning Page.


It’s a Matter of Using the Right Prompt: The Words of Gary Stager

This week, both Gary Stager and I were featured speakers at the Association for Independent Maryland and DC Schools’ (AIMS) technology conference.

Gary is an old friend and colleague, who has a long history of working with 1to1 learning with laptop schools (including the very first, in Australia) and with other schools interested in leveraging technology for learning and in constructivist learning. He clearly loves children and everything he advocates for schools is based on creating better experiences (especially learning experiences) for children. He is provocative and takes on a lot of populist education ideas with a very common sense approach. He always leaves his audience thinking.

What follows are some of the ideas and quotes Gary shared in his sessions at the AIMS conference.

  • The secret to engaging students is using the right prompts. A good prompt is worth a 1000 words – a good prompt, challenge, problem, or motivation; appropriate materials; sufficient time; supportive culture (including expertise) – kids can do works that is beyond them. Good prompts require a really different educational environment, one that values the kinds of things that Reggio Amelia values.
  • Gary has several articles on effective PBL on his “virtual handout.” (among other great resources)
  • We have to think less about teaching how to do computers, or about working at someone else’s pace. We need to stop teaching secretarial skills. We need good prompts. We need to teach students to use the computer to create what they want to create.
  • Alan Kay – the computer is simply an instrument whose music is ideas.
  • Gary’s only rule when he is working with students – you have to be doing something.
  • Teacher as “Ringmaster”
  • “Students will do it for themselves, when it matters to them, but not when it is arbitrary or coercive” – Gary Stager
  • Less us, more them
  • Gary likes it when schools/classrooms focus their work with children by asking the question, “What are the 5 big ideas of your grade level or course?”
  • Some of Gary’s recipe for being successful with students: Being sensitive to the passions, talents, and styles of kids. Being receptive to the learning differences of kids. If you are doing active learning activities, then you can get to know kids.
  • The best decisions about education are made closest to the child.
  • What if we simply reduced it all to waking up every morning and asking, “How do we make this the best 7 hours possible for these children?”
  • The biggest problem we have in school is we don’t get to know the kids and everything is taught disconnected from everything else. That’s followed by not trying to make things interesting for students, not finding out what is of interest or a passion to the students, not having resources, not letting students do things.
  • Gary on why teachers need lots of PD that puts them in different learning environments as learners: People can’t choose from what they haven’t experienced

Correct Answers vs. Building Understanding: What Do Learners Need?

My step-son, Sam, is one of those otherwise bright students who struggles with math. Back when he was in high school, his mom asked me to help him. He had gotten a question wrong on a Geometry quiz and didn’t understand the correct answer. My wife hoped that since I was a former high school math teacher that I could help him out.

The question was, “What is the intersection of two planes?”

He told me that he had answered that the intersection was a point, since only lines intersect. Sam went on, “I went in to ask my teacher about the question, but she just kept giving me the right answer. I really don’t understand it at all.”

“So, you’ve only talked about lines intersecting?”

Sam nodded.

“And you haven’t really talked at all about planes and how they intersect?”

Sam shook his head.

“Then I could see why you thought it was a point,” I told him. “But look at this.” His notebook was on the kitchen counter where we were talking and I said, “Let’s say this is one of the planes,” while tapping his notebook. I grabbed a magazine, saying it was the other plane. I held the spine of the magazine at an angle against the face of Sam’s notebook.

“How do these two planes come together? What kind of geometric shape?” I asked.

Sam got one of those “Oh, my gosh! Is it that simple?!” looks on his face and said it was a line.

Now, there was nothing wrong with the teacher asking the plane intersection question without first modeling it for students. It is a great way to have students apply the concept of intersection of geometric shapes and see if they really understand it. And the teacher was a kind and knowledgeable math teacher.

But students who struggle with a subject need more than just someone who is sensitive and kind and knowledgeable. Sam needed more than the correct answer. I think teachers who are intuitive mathematicians (or social scientists, or literacy specialists, or scientists) know their subjects in an intuitive way that makes it hard for them to explain ideas to students who do not understand their subject intuitively.

When students get an incorrect answer, it is too easy for teachers who understands their content intuitively to assume that the student simply made a mistake (perhaps in calculating), or didn’t study hard enough, or is simply a slow student in their subject.

What they don’t understand is that more often than not, a student’s wrong answer is actually a correct answer within the student’s current (but incorrect) schema for the topic – the student’s internal model that tells him how things work.

If the teacher’s goal is to have the student understand the material correctly, then simply offering the correct answer is less productive than trying to understand the student’s misconception and then think of an example or a way to model the material that will create a bridge between the student’s misunderstanding and the correct understanding.

Sam’s schema said only lines intersect and he knew that lines intersect in a point. We could either stop with proving that Sam was wrong by giving him the correct answer, or we could work to understand his thinking so we could lead him in the right direction.

I don’t blame the teacher. She simply did what I did when I was a math teacher. It wasn’t until long after I stopped teaching math and became of student of learning that I grew to understand this principle.

How much more effective would our teaching be if we approached our students’ incorrect answers as misconceptions rather than missing information?


Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing in Middle Level

I recently posted “Let’s Put the “Middle” Back in Middle Level” over on the Bright Futures Blog.

In it, I argued that we middle level educators are being pulled away from our core values by a lot of competing priorities and goals. I wrote:

Middle level shouldn’t be about test taking, or getting kids to put aside their cell phones or Facebook pages, or high school readiness, or work readiness. It’s not even about “hormones with feet…” First and foremost, middle level needs to be about young adolescents: what are their characteristics and what practices are harmonious with those characteristics.

And later:

And the more we get away from that being our center (no pun intended), the harder it is to teach middle level students. That includes (and is perhaps especially true for) that list of important (but supporting) goals for middle level education…

I also shared some really great resources! available for free on the AMLE website, that we can use with our teachers, school boards, and parents and communities to remind everyone about the main thing in middle level education.


It’s Your Turn:

How are you keeping the main thing the main thing in middle level education?