Tag Archives: Helping Students Succeed

We Must Do More Than Fill Students’ Vessels

I was especially dissatisfied with my own teaching when I started.

Early in my teaching career, I was presented with a paradox that continues to shape my interests in education. When I was teaching high school computer application courses, my students would learn to use a word processor (in the day when stuents were likely to only have access to computers at school). I was very thorough and made sure they learned how to use nearly every feature (although word processors then had many fewer features than they do today!). We spent a lot of time on it, and together we worked hard so that nearly everyone would be successful on the challenging word processing test.

What surprised me, however, was that a few weeks later, students would return to me, announce that they had a paper to write, and ask me to show them how to use “that word processor thing” again!

I couldn't understand why these students didn't remember how to use the program. These were bright students who had had no problems during class, and who had done well on the test. Very little time had gone by since we had last used the word processor. There was no reason that they should not know how to use it.

There was obviously something I didn't understand about learning. It was the first time I started to question how learning took place, and prompted my inquiry into how people learn.

I fear that during my first few years of my teaching, all I had really taught most of my students was that I was knowledgeable within my field. I tried to convey my knowledge to my students but I was simply trying to “fill their vessels.”

The way I organized the curriculum wasn't even oriented toward learning; it was organized for teaching. I was mostly concerned with questions like when were the standardized tests and what would be on them, when would other teachers be teaching related ideas, what would kids need to know for the next course? All my content was organized the way an expert might look at it. It was neatly categorized and sequenced like it might be done by someone who was already familiar with the information.

I never asked myself how people might learn the same information. I never asked how experts had acquired their vast knowledge; was it through a logical sequence or some other order?

Some of my kids seemed to do okay, but not enough of my students to make me feel like I had done a satisfactory job. I knew I was teaching the way all my teachers had taught me, so I knew I was teaching correctly. But somehow contradictions, like with the word processor, kept happening, and I started to doubt if it really were the right way to teach…

Those contradictions and doubts led me to question my assumptions about teaching and learning. Eventually, I found tidbits that helped shape my work, such as the quote from the classical Greek philosopher, Plutarch, “A mind is a fire to kindled, not a vessel to be filled.

My job wasn't to give students information but to inspire and nurture them. And like Ian Jukes says, “Teachers don't need to be fire kindlers, they need to become arsonists!”

 

The Importance of Helping Students Save Face

Are your hard to teach and underachieving students friendly and kind? Easy to get along with?

Or are they often the students that drive your blood pressure up and tax your patience?

If your experience is like mine, I'm guessing many are in this second group. Getting frustrated with their behavior and performance is an understandable and logical reaction. And speaking to them sharply is often a very human and logical response to their behavior.

But I had an enlightening experience with Josh, one of my challenging students, that helped me rethink things some…

Josh was the kind of student it seemed I had to talk to every five minutes. One day, when I had finally had enough with Josh, I took him out into the hall to talk to him. When I asked him what was up, he responded, “You don’t like me!”

I was really surprised by his statement and asked him what he meant by that. I said, “I live near you and! when I’m out for my walks, we stop and talk. I tease you, which I only do with students I like. I always ask you how you’re doing and I’m interested in what you do. What do you mean I don’t like you?”

Josh said, “You yelled at me in front of the class.”

Now, Josh's actions had warranted a sharp response, he had been disruptive and out of line. But clearly such a response did not lead to Josh settling down. It had not helped me be more successful with Josh.

And suddenly I realized it wasn't about what Josh deserved for his actions (to be chastised or punished), but rather, about what would get me the results I desired (Josh settling down so I could teach the whole class).

I realized that working with Josh (and probably other hard to teach students) would require more psychology than it would require logic.

I started by reminding Josh, “You know, I need you to behave so I can teach all thirty kids in the class. When I’m talking to you every five minutes, I really can’t teach the other twenty-nine.” He had certainly heard this frequently from his other teachers.

But then I said something that really surprised him, “So, what do you need from me so you can do that?”

It was clear that, although he had had more than his share of dressings down, he wasn't used to being asked about his needs. When his jaw came up from off the ground, he said that all he needs is not to feel that I hate him. So success would depend on my not reacting sharply to Josh, especially in front of his classmates.

Josh had taught me about the effectiveness of allowing students to save face.

I have a friend in Louisiana who likes to remind me that one “aw shucks” wipes out a thousand “atta boys.” It doesn’t matter how many times we handle situations delicately with a student, the one time we are sharp with him in front of everyone else, we negate all of our past (positive) history.

Perhaps more than with any other group of students we work with, having a safe and respectful atmosphere is critical both to helping hard to teach students learn and to helping them behave in class. Whenever we are working to correct student behavior, the importance of relationship and having the right kind of environment become even more important (and we certainly seem to spend a disproportionate amount of time on the behavior of hard to teach students!).

Josh and I made an agreement that when Josh got to be “high energy,” I would come over next to his desk and discretely say, “Josh, do you remember what we talked about?” It was private and personal. No one else knew what we were talking about and, when done in an upbeat tone, didn’t even sound like I was admonishing him.

When we implemented the plan, I would just say it in a positive way, and he would say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” (with a smile) and settle down. I had to do that every once in a while, but he was much better at monitoring his own behavior. It even began to feel like we were working together on it, not against each other. Occasionally we would have to go back out into the hall, but it wasn’t all that often, certainly not daily or every five minutes like it used to be. It made a huge difference in my ability to work with the whole class and with Josh feeling safe and comfortable.

All because I found a way to let him save face. All because he taught me the importance of letting students save face.

 

Kindling Fires of Curiosity

“A mind is a fire to kindled, not a vessel to be filled.” (Plutarch)

I am a Mainer who has lived in several homes heated by wood stoves, and have done living history, and have gone camping, so I am no stranger to trying to build fires.

Therefore, it won’t surprise you that my connection to this metaphor is deep.

Most folks know you can’t start a fire just by simply piling up logs and holding a match to them. What a lot of people don’t know is that that method doesn’t even work all that well when lighter fluid is applied (there is usually a short-lived flame that goes out without creating a sustainable fire – and you never want to use accelerant in an enclosed wood stove!)

Fire starters know that building fires is a two stage process: first you have to get the fire going, then you can feed the fire. Both have their own set of strategies. I think when most folks think of having a fire, they think mostly of the second phase and a lot less of the first. Further, I think most folks can feed a fire; it’s just a matter of not adding too much wood too soon (or things get too hot), not letting the coals burn too low (or there arent enough coals to keep the fire going), and adding wood in a way that allows a little air to circulate (or, again, the fresh logs won’t ignite). Even with these caveats, the strategies are fairly forgiving and it isn’t too hard to keep the fire going.

On the other hand, starting a fire isn’t particularly difficult, but it does take a little more strategy. And if you aren’t experienced with fire, these strategies may not be as obvious as those for keeping the fire going.

A good fire starts with some kindling (a variety of small sticks and pieces of dry wood that catch relatively quickly, but will burn long enough to catch the larger sticks and logs that will be added soon) and some tinder (such as newspaper, shavings, twigs, or dry grass) that will catch easily with a match and burn long enough to ignite the kindling.

Even with these components, you aren’t guaranteed a fire; they need to be used properly. The kindling should be stacked in one of a couple of ways: often with smaller kindling and newspaper organized in the center of larger kindling in a “log cabin” or “teepee” configuration. When you light the newspaper, it catches the small kindling, which in turn helps the larger pieces catch. Then, once those get going, you can (carefully) put on the first logs.

You don’t have to use much more strategy than that if the fire catches quickly and cleanly. But what if it doesn’t? Have you ever been camping and tried to light a campfire with damp wood? Or maybe you got the small kindling going, but the larger sticks weren’t catching well? What do you do? How do you get that fire going?

Do you take another match and hold it under the part of the log that isn’t burning?

Of course not! (And, yet, how often do we try that!?)

Instead, you blow where the wood is already burning. Or you add a little more kindling where it is burning. You can’t get your fire lit by attending to the part that isn’t burning. You get it burning by nurturing the fire that is already started and let it spread to the rest. In fact, paying attention to the part not burning will often let what little fire there is go out, leaving you with no fire at all…

Ok. Ok. I feel some of you getting noodgy, wanting to talk about the “logs.” (and yes, at this point, we’re starting to mix metaphors…) Are the logs seasoned (dry?) or are they still moist with sap or wet from a drenching? Sure, most folks can make a fire with well seasoned logs without really trying, but talking about unseasoned logs sounds a little like an argument about why you shouldn’t have to make a fire because some of the wood isn’t dry. I’ll even concede that there are probably some logs that can’t burn, no matter what. But those are few and far between, and should never be used as an excuse to avoid making a fire with less than perfect logs.

In truth, experienced fire builders can start a fire with the wood they have.

The fire building strategies above work well with both dry and damp logs. Whether you get a good fire raging or not probably has more to do with your kindling and tender, or how you nurture the fire, than it does with the logs themselves.

So perhaps, we just need to understand how fires ignite, catch, and burn :

  • Have we thought about what kindling and tinder we will use?
  • Which technique will we apply to the kindling and tinder?
  • How will we nurture the fire as we add the first logs?
  • How will we attend to damp and unseasoned wood to get it burning well?
  • How will we blow on the flames that are already burning, rather than hold a match under the unlit portion?
  • How will we monitor the fire and know just the right time to add to it so it doesn’t burn too hot or burn down and go out?

If teachers are fire builders, perhaps their primary job isn’t to give students information, but rather to inspire and nurture them as they work on their own learning. Sometimes when we are teaching hard to teach students we forget about their interests (don’t blow on the flames) or about making it interesting (adding a little more kindling to the flames) and instead keep plowing along through the curriculum (holding a match to an unlit log). Perhaps, we need to focus on how to use kindling and care to make them burn brightly.

In fact, Ian Jukes says, “Teachers don’t need to be fire kindlers, they need to become arsonists!”

Personal aside: This saying has spoken to me since early in my teaching career, and has certainly shaped my growth as an educator and my work with schools to reach all children. It probably even played some direct role in focusing my dissertation research on motivating underachieving students and in starting the Maine Center for Meaningful Engaged Learning.

At the very least, it has said something to me about changing my assumptions about what it was to teach. And when I think about schools serving all the children of all the people, and about easy-to-teach students and hard-to-teach students, and about students at various levels of engagement, I think we probably need to challenge our assumptions.

How might the fire building metaphor help you think about reaching your students or having conversations with your colleagues about reaching students?

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?