Thoughts from the “Five or Fewer” Teachers

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Grades, candy, calls home, high fives, stickers.  Do these truly motivate our students, or are we using incentives research reveals have little impact on behavior?

Before meeting with teachers of five or fewer years of experience, we watched Daniel Pink’s TedTalk on the Surprising Science of Motivation, where he revealed many businesses have created incentive structures that either don’t work or actually do harm. Sure, incentives can work for a simple set of tasks that lead to a clearly defined outcome, Pink argues, but how many 21st century American jobs will require that kind of thought?  If outsourcing and automating continues, not many.

He contends (and social scientists reportedly agree) that to motivate workers in today and tomorrow’s innovative careers, you need to design work environments that foster autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

The Five or Fewer group discussed how to structure classroom environments where students experience rich, deep learning as a result of these intrinsic motivators, not the more traditional sticks or carrots.  Wading through mentor’s tried and true lessons, unfamiliar texts, and various instructional strategies, our newer teachers find their footing by placing students in the center of their own learning.

They give their students the freedom to learn from failure and the support to advance toward mastery. They have conversations with their students about their lives and dreams, guiding them toward finding purpose.  They understand that learning is not always comfortable, as they, too, are learning while doing.

What have you learned from a new teacher lately?


The Mess of Learning

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My son Tag is a Lego-maniac.  His pudgy fingers built tall columns of soft, red and blue Legos when he was 2.  At the age of four, his nimble hands foraged through his 5-pound tub of space Legos to recreate the spaceships he had seen in his dreams.  Now, at eight, he faithfully requests Star Wars Lego kits for his birthdays and Christmas, only to build the AT-AT kit from a manual one day, destroy it the next, and from its pieces create a rebel ship that has yet to appear in any Star Wars film.  After stepping on and over numerous creations in various stages of construction and demise, I now keep the door to Tag’s walk-in closet closed. To keep the sharp pieces from getting underfoot.  To contain the mess.

I wonder how many times I attempted to contain the mess of my students’ learning as well.  When they struggled with writing, did I swiftly replace their awkward prose with my own, or did I ask them to scribble more, to make meaning, to trust their own voices?  As they read a difficult text, did I give them a step-by-step manual for reading my way, or did I help them ask questions of the text, create hypotheses and find their flaws, and notice how the beauty of language moves us all?  I hope on most days I guided them through the latter.

Real learning requires students to think, and thinking is a messy business.

In a recent Tedx-Talk, Dr. Derek Cabrera uses Legos as a metaphor for what is happening in education.  He contends that Lego kits inhibit creativity and thought by only asking one person to think creatively: the designer of the kit, not the child putting it together. Cabrera believes we can help our students get more comfortable in the mess of learning by practicing 4 thinking skills throughout their education: Distinctions, Systems, Relationships, and Perspectives (DSRP).  By teaching these skills, educators will put thinking back on the desks of students and stop packaging the right answers for them in neat little kits.

Those kits don’t last very long, anyway.  Just ask Tag.

What does messy learning look like in your classroom?



10-15 Year Teacher Meeting

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How do we get kids to think for themselves?

 I keep returning to this question after yesterday’s meeting of teachers who have been in the profession for 10-15 years.  We met to discuss how education has changed during the course of our profession and to think about where we need to go from here.

How do we get kids to think for themselves?  The question sounds simple, right?  Of course we want our students to be independent thinkers.

But do we, really?

How do we set up our classrooms?  Who delivers the content?  Who deems what is important or valuable?  Who is the terminal audience for what our students create?  How do we balance our passion for our content with what is valuable to students in the real world? What are the big ideas about our content (and about life) we want students to understand when they leave our classroom or school? How do we handle the mess that often accompanies real learning?

Our students are not that different than those in this youtube video: A Vision of Students Today.  So, how are we engaging them and helping them figure out the ways they learn best?

How do you encourage your students to think for themselves?