Tag Archives: Meaningful Engaged Learning

Are Parents Leaving Their Good Kids at Home? Easy to Teach and Hard to Teach

I’ve worked with teachers, who refer to their students as “quick learners” and “slow learners,” or “bright students” and “dumb students.” Other teachers approach me sounding as if they believe that kids either have motivation or they don’t, and that teachers can’t do anything about that. And some teachers act as if parents are keeping their good kids at home!

But this isn’t the right way to think about our underachieving students. It certainly isn’t borne out by research. In Insult to Intelligence, Frank Smith (1986, p. 18) explains:

We underrate our brains and our intelligence. Formal education has become such a complicated, self-conscious and over-regulated activity that learning is widely regarded as something difficult that the brain would rather not do…. But reluctance to learn cannot be attributed to the brain. Learning is the brain’s primary function, its constant concern, and we become restless and frustrated if there is no learning to be done. We’re all capable of huge and unsuspected learning accomplishments without effort.

And these students are certainly intelligent (in fact, sometimes you wish they weren’t so darned clever!).

It is important to remember that when we say a student won’t learn, what we really mean is that he won’t learn what we want him to!

All students learn well when they are learning what they are interested in or see as valuable – even if that only seems to happen outside of school. The challenge, of course, is motivating students to learn the content that we see as important and valuable to them – or perhaps it is more accurate to say the challenge is to create the conditions so students will be self motivated to learn what we want them to…

So, I’ve moved away from thinking of students as quick or slow, or bright or dumb, but rather as “easy to teach” and “hard to teach.” Not only do I feel that these terms are more accurate, but they aren’t disrespectful to our underachievers, who bristle at being called slow or dumb. Students I’ve spoken with don’t mind the labels easy to teach and hard to teach. They know how they are in the classroom.

But there is no doubt that some students learn almost regardless of what we do (of course! – by definition, they are easy to teach!), and other students challenge us, no matter what we try. But maybe we’ll get current with helping all students achieve if we have more productive terminology for referring to our students.

 

References

Smith, F. (1986). Insult to Intelligence: The Bureaucratic Invasion of Our Classrooms. Heinemann.

Harassment & Engagement – Social Media Study Group

Note: This is one in a series of blog posts to be used by Auburn’s Social Media Design Team to conduct a study group before making recommendations for social media policy. If unfamiliar with this series, you might find reading this post helpful.

Core Issues Study Questions (Bullying & Boredom)

  • What are Auburn schools current doing related to bullying and school climate?
  • What are Auburn schools current doing related to fostering student engagement in academics?
  • What is considered best practice around bullying?
  • What is considered best practice around engaging students?

Although intended as a tool for Auburn’s Social Media Design Team, everyone is invited to use these posts as a resource. And if you are not a member of Auburn’s Social Media Design Team, you are welcome to post comments, too. But please limit/be thoughtful of the sharing of opinion and stay focused on the focus questions – we a trying to use these posts for fact-finding, identifying resources, identifying best practice, etc. Thanks!

 

An Extrinsic Motivator So Good It Should Be Your Secret Weapon

You’ve been reading through a series of my posts highlighting, mostly, counterproductive extrinsic motivators.

You must be wondering, though, are all extrinsic motivators bad? The kind of motivators Alfie Kohn describes (bribery rewards) do have a negative impact on learning, but are there other kinds of extrinsic rewards (besides random rewards) that will positively effect learning?

The answer is, Yes!

It is choice that can help make extrinsic rewards almost as powerful as intrinsic motivation, that force that drives us to do what we’re interested in. Choice makes the difference. The fancy term is “autonomous supportive strategies” and comes from self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Deci, Vallerand, Pelletier, & Ryan, 1991). Proponents of self-determination theory maintain that integrated regulation is as effective for achieving optimum learning as intrinsic motivation.

Student Voice and Choice can be achieved through a variety of strategies. Teachers can allow students to share in the decision-making and authority within the classroom. They may negotiate the curriculum with the teacher, or help the teacher decide how they will learn the curriculum. Teachers might involve students in planning the entire unit or simply give students a choice of doing one of three assignments. Project-based learning, for example, allows students numerous choices around what form their finished product will take, while learning valuable content determined by the teacher, district, or state. The key is to make sure students have choices about their learning.

Keep in mind that giving students choices does not mean “let them do what they want.” We don’t ask toddlers, “What do you want for dinner?” But we might say, “Do you want peas or carrots with dinner?”

The same is true of students. We would never think to ask them “what do you want to learn?” But we might say, “We’re starting a unit on the Great Depression today and we’re all going to read a novel about the depression. But let me tell you about these three outstanding books so you can choose which one you want to read…” We might progressively structure more and more choice for students so that they can take on more and more of their own learning. But that would only come with careful scaffolding, just as we might give our own children more and more choices about what they eat, and as they develop the ability to make healthy choices, eventually get to the point where we do ask our teenager what she would like to eat for dinner.

This is why Student Voice and Choice is one of the Focus Five of Meaningful Engaged Learning and why it is one of the critical components of Customized Learning. It is so powerful that teachers should use it was their secret weapon in working to motivate students and help them be successful.

References:

Deci, E. L., and R. M. Ryan. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum.

Deci, E., Vallerand, R., Pelletier, L., & Ryan, R. (1991). Motivation and education: The self-determination perspective. Educational psychologist, 26(3 & 4), 325-346.

Some Students Need More Than Direct Instruction

Direct instruction

An old friend provided me with a wonderful opportunity. She’s the Middle Level Director for a city in the South. I’ve been doing workshops for her schools and teachers for about 14 years. A couple summers ago, I worked with the teachers at two schools that have high populations of at-risk and hard to teach students. I introduced the teachers to several strategies for reaching these students. The following winter, I returned to the district and got to spend a day at each of the schools. I was able to conduct classroom observations and focus groups at the schools.

Surprisingly (at least it was an “aha” for me!), I didn’t see out of control classrooms or bad teaching. What I did see was order and a lot of competent (and in some cases outstanding) direct instruction.

Even so, I often only saw about half of each class “engaged” (showing signs of being on task) and, in conversations and focus groups, teachers indicated that many students don’t care, won’t do the work or study, and there isn’t much support from home.

One teacher called this “lazy disease.”

But maybe it wasn’t just laziness or home support. Maybe, for some kids, how we teach doesn’t work for them. Any parent with more than one child knows that they learn in different ways. Why do we expect our students to all learn the same way?

This helped me realize that some students need more than direct instruction.

The teachers also unknowingly provided me with the answer to the question, “When do you know that you need to do more than direct instruction?” The answer: “When the students don’t care, won’t do the work or study, and there isn’t much support from home. When they have hard to teach students.” Simple, right?

I think that maybe direct instruction isn’t enough for these students because it focuses more on the content than on how students might learn it. We are often quick to get frustrated with hard to teach students exactly because we covered the material and they didn’t learn it.

And yet shipping companies, such as UPS, would never think to say that they “delivered” a package if a customer did not receive it. It might be accurate to say they left the package on the porch, but it isn’t “delivered” until the resident actually gets the package. Dewey puts it a little differently:

Teaching may be compared to selling commodities. No one can sell unless someone buys. We should ridicule a merchant who said that he had sold a great many goods although no one had bought any. But perhaps there are teachers who think they have done a good day’s teaching irrespective of what people have learned. There is the same exact equation between teaching and learning that there is between selling and buying. (Dewey, 1933, p. 35-36)

Underserved populations, including underachieving students from all learning styles, career aspirations, cultures, and socioeconomic levels deserve a quality education.

It is not surprising that improved instruction, which involves students in meaningful, engaged learning, is viewed as a remedy to the growing concern over the high social and economic cost of large numbers of disengaged and at-risk youth. Identifying practices which help these diverse populations learn well is a step toward creating an educational system intent on serving all students. Finding out what motivates our underachieving and hard to teach students will help inform and equip teachers in the struggle to lead all students to academic achievement.

 

References

Dewey, J. (1933). How we think. Chicago: Henry Regnery.

 

 

Remembering Gordon Vars, One of the Grandfathers of Middle Level Education

I’ve been lucky enough to work with a couple of the people I consider to be the modern founders of middle level education. One of those is Gordon Vars, professor emeritus at Kent State University.

How I knew him was through his decades long work on “Core Curriculum.” This isn’t the way we mean “core curriculum” now. In fact, the irony is that the “new” meaning of core curriculum is the four “core” subjects. But the historic meaning of Core Curriculum is something more akin to curriculum integration, teaching students through activities that blend content from the various subjects. (One of my favorite analogies is when you order a pizza, they don’t put just sauce on 2 slices, just cheese on 2 slices, just pepperoni on 2 slices and just mushrooms on 2 slices. They put it all on every slice.)

Core Curriculum was used quite a bit in the first half of the 20th Century. In fact, Core Curriculum was studied pretty closely in the 30s and early 40s and was found to be significantly more effective than the separate subject approach, including for things that we have always assumed separate subject approach was better at, such as college preparation. These results were published as The Eight Year Study.

I think of Gordon Vars as the shepherd of Core Curriculum. As others reinvented it as Integrative Curriculum (including James Beane and Maine’s own Gert Nesin), Gordon reminded us of the historical foundations on which that work was based. He was a gentle man who was always willing to share his expertise and empower others to succeed.

Gordon Vars died Tuesday night (1/31/12) after being hit by a car while walking home from choir practice. He was 88. I feel honored to have known him and to have had the opportunity to have collaborated with him in a couple small ways. Core Curriculum and Integrative Curriculum have contributed greatly to my interest in motivation and contributed to the kind of educator I try to be today. Gordon will be greatly missed for his contributions to Core Curriculum, and to the Association for Middle Level Education.

(Cross posted at the Bright Futures blog and the Multiple Pathways blog.)


It’s Your Turn:

How will you remember Gordon Vars?

Apple’s “Textbooks” Potential: Product Creation Tools for Students

Recently, I reflected on Apple’s education announcement about textbooks and my opinion of textbooks in general and how they are often used in schools. Although I’m a fan of teachers who use textbooks as one educational resource, my concern is that in far too many places the textbook IS the curriculum, and that textbooks are inadequate at and insufficient for helping students create meaning from knowledge.

Despite my concerns about how textbooks are sometimes (mis)used, I stated that I saw tremendous potential in Apple’s announcement of the iBooks Author Mac app and the iTunes U iPad app.  One of those areas of potential is as a product creation tool for students.

As I have hinted here, I don’t think a person really learns until they get the opportunity to use knowledge (read: “upper level Blooms”).  So, for me, one of the exciting opportunities from yesterday’s announcement was not that there was now a tool so publishers could create interactive textbooks, but rather that there was now a tool that would allow ANYONE to create interactive BOOKS! (Someone has already used iBooks Author to publish their comics.)

Now, students and teachers have one more tool for project-based learning.  Students have another choice at their disposal when they stop to think about what kind of product would they like to create to show others what they have learned and give them a chance to learn it too!


Imagine a class where the teacher breaks down the class into teams, each team taking responsibility for one chapter of their book (animals in an ecosystem; countries in the European Union; time periods in your state’s history, themes in a novel, etc.).  And within those teams, not only would they be responsible for researching the topic of their chapter, but for deciding what was important for others to know about it, and thinking about how they could best help others learn about each aspect (text, videos, interviews, demonstrations, interactive models, illustrations).  Of course, all this under the coaching of their teacher.

Eventually, the students and teacher would compile all the components in an audience-friendly format, publish, and share.  It could even be published to the iBookstore for others to buy.  Students don’t only get a chance to use knowledge, but they would have a real audience for their product.


What might that do to the level of student engagement?

It’s Your Turn:

How might you use iBooks Author with your students?

One Auburn Student & Maine’s New Education Strategic Plan

Commissioner Steve Bowen Announces his strategic Plan

Big news in Maine on January 17th was the Commissioner of Education’s announcement of his new strategic plan.  The plan promise’s to put “learners first” and promote customized, standards-based learning. Access the plan here.

In Auburn, we’re excited about the plan, because it promises support to the kinds of initiatives we (and other Maine Cohort for Customized Learning member districts) are involved in. We recognize that students learn in different ways and in different time frames, and are working hard to create systems that honor these two principles: our long history with MLTI; Advantage 2014, our primary grades literacy and math initiative that includes 1to1 iPads in kindergarten; Expeditionary Learning and projects at the middle grades; and multiple pathways and customized learning at the high school.  Auburn is also a funding partner of Projects4ME, Maine’s virtual project-based program for at-risk and drop-out youth.

Gareth Robinson

But Auburn is also excited about the plan because we were invited to participate in the roll out.  Commissioner Stephen Bowen invited 5 students to speak at the announcement.  Each was asked to talk about how the innovative work at their schools was helping them learn and succeed.  We brought Gareth Robinson, an Auburn Middle School 8th grader, who spoke about the role technology has played in his learning. Gareth has used technology for learning going back to elementary school, both at school and personally for hobbies, like playing guitar. Among other things, he related how, for a recent social studies project, he and his group used iMovie to make a newscast of the battle of Bunker Hill. 

You can read Gareth’s comments and watch a video of his talk here.  Or watch this WCSH Channel 6 news coverage of the Commissioner’s strategic plan, featuring Gareth. Scroll to the bottom of this page to find links to the talks of each of the 5 students who presented, or go here for photos from the event.


It’s Your Turn:

What does the Commissioner’s strategic plan mean to you, your school, or your district?

Apple, Textbooks, and Carbon Fibre Buggy Whips…

The other day, Apple held a big education event in New York, focused on textbooks on the iPad. (Info here or watch the event here). Apple released several products and tools, hoping to further impact the education market.

Apple released iBooks 2.0 (supports multimedia in the books, interactive elements, highlighting, note taking, pinch for TOC etc.) and a new category in the store: textbooks. Pearson, DK, and McGraw Hill already have a couple textbooks available. They’re cheaper than a regular text, too: around $15, but I think the goal is to sell one per student, instead of using one with 5-8 students over a period of 5-8 years. (Cool Cat Teacher blogs here about what it was like to work with/test out an interactive text.)

There is a new Mac app (Lion only) called iBooks Author for making your own “textbooks” (think Pages combined with iWeb combined with Keynote). Completed books can be sold in the iBookstore.

Finally, there is a new iTunes U app for iPad which lets teachers harness “courses” based on content from iTunes U, and the addition of tools so you can add your own syllabi, message with your students, make assignments, etc. Looks kind of like if iTunes U, Noteshare, and Newstand combined. Apple also announced that although iTunes U has traditionally been for University use, K-12 can now sign upfor accounts.

I can’t blame Apple for wanting a piece of the textbook market. According to Wired, in 2010, Pearson had over $8 billion in revenues and McGraw-Hill over $2 billion. (Yes. Billion. With a “B”! As in 9 zeros!) And the traditional print publishing industry is struggling. Newspapers, magazines, trade books are are struggling to redefine themselves in a digital world.

What print textbooks share with those other genre’s is that they are not interactive in an age when our students are accustomed to accessing interactive media (as illustrated by Joe’s frustration at his non-notebook computer). At least Apple’s new textbooks and textbook creation tools address this issue and allow publishers to create textbooks with videos, interactive models and other elements. So, if you’re going to use a textbook, I guess I’d rather you use one with interactive elements than a static one…

But in general, I’m not a huge fan of textbooks. I think for me, the problem is that too many places use textbooks AS the curriculum. I’m perfectly happy with good teachers who see textbooks as one educational resource to use as they design (or as students design) learning experiences. But too often it seems the textbook is the only resource. Textbooks are insufficent for the curriclum because they only provide background knowledge. They don’t provide context, or experiences, or allow students to synthesize or apply information. In other words, by themselves, textbooks essentially only provide facts, they don’t help students create meaning.

Textbooks seem out of place in a day when schools are trying to reinvent themselves from a system that was designed to work for only some students. In this economy, we need systems that work for every student. And those systems need to engage students not just in aquiring knowledge, but in creating meaning from it. Textbooks are so “last century”! Given today’s interactive, digital world, educator and blogger Fraser Speirs refers to the new textbooks as “the equivalent of carbon fibre buggy whips.”

In my opinion (and other’s, and other’s, and other’s, and other’s) often the best learning (and teaching) happens when teachers don’t use textbooks. This is especially true, living in a state where every middle school student, and about half the high school students, have a school provided laptop (and all of my district’s kindergarten students have iPads!). You’d think teachers would work with students not only on how to find information, but then also how to leverage their technology to apply, evaluate, and create with that knowledge.


For example, imagine an introductory lesson focused on building a student’s background knowledge on a topic. Instead of having students read a chapter on the causes of the Civil War and then discussing what they read (which, by the way, every single child not only read the exact same description of the causes, but they all have been exposed to only one take on those causes – the textbook’s), have students open their laptops and ask them, “what were the causes of the Civil War?” Students could search and share what they found out. You could ask, “Did anyone find anything different?” You could even compare sources or discuss approaches to surfing and searching. You could have them find perspectives that would reflect substantially different points of view. You could explore and discuss different kinds of sources and the apparent relative value.


Well, maybe not the first time you do this with students, but certainly the more times you do, the more you model for them, and the more they reflect on the process, the more your “introductory” lessons could look like this. And think about the “learning” skills and digital citizenship skills your students would develop!

That all said, these announcements are ripe with possiblities and potential! There is certainly some incremental improvement having texts with interactive elements (still no real model of an interactive text). But I think the understated power of Apple’s announcement last Thursday are iBooks Author and the iTunes U app. I agree with Fraser Speirs’ assessment:

iTunes U is the game changer. Put iBooks Author and iTunes U into the hands of great teachers, put iPads in their students hands, put them all in a room together then step back and see what happens. That’s the ballgame.

Over the next week or so, I’m going to publish a series of posts that explore some of that potential:

  • Product Creation Tools for Students
  • A Platform for Creating On-Demand PD for Teachers
  • Curriculum Creation Tools for Customized Learning

It’s Your Turn:

What was your reaction to Apple’s textbooks announcement? How do you think it will impact schools, education, and educational reform?

What’s The Right Question About Motivating Students

For a long time, I’ve been working with educators on motivating underachievers.

But recently, I caught a piece of a presentation and the presenter said that “How do I motivate my students (or your team or your staff…)?” is the wrong question. She went on that this implies that you want to manipulate them to do something they don’t want to do.

That struck me, since it isn’t uncommon for an attendee at one of my trainings to act disappointed that I would not be providing directions on how to change the students or that I was suggesting that they (the educator) were the one who needed to do something different.

The presenter the other day went on to say that instead we should ask, “How do I create the conditions so that my students are self motivated?” And I have to admit that I do really like this question.

And even though I’ll continue to refer my my work as motivating underachievers, the Focus Five are exactly that: the conditions necessary for students to be self motivated.