Defining "mastery"

These days, educators are pelted with requirements for “proficiency,” “competency,” and “mastery” — yet few of us share a common definition of those terms. Do we reserve the term “mastery” for those at the very pinnacle of their crafts, for example? Or may I use it when I finally properly use my remote control?

At a workshop last week, I asked a group of teachers what they mean when they use the term “mastery.”

“Think of someone you know who does something really well,” I said. The achievement could be in any field, in school or out, and the person could be anyone, and any age. Then I posed these questions:

  • How long has the person been practicing that?
  • What does “mastery” look like at this person’s level?
  • Where would you put this person on the journey to being an “expert”?
  • What did this person’s skill level look like a few years ago?
  • What might this person be able to do a few years from now?

One man chose his own young son, who for the past two years has spent hours absorbed in fitting together wooden train tracks on the living room floor. The father noted that at four years old, the boy can make “complex, inter-connected branching lines” with “creative use of different track elements to solve construction problems.” Since the holidays, when the child received a few challenging new wooden pieces for his collection, he “suddenly has taken a big leap in complexity and problem-solving” and his dad now estimates his expertise level is “intermediate?”

At two, the boy “could only assemble simple tracks, required lots of adult assistance, and was easily frustrated.” But looking ahead a few years, his father imagines him building “multi-level (vertical) lines” that “incorporate logical, real-world considerations in track layout.”

The Chinese term kung fu, someone told me, means “excellence of effort given over considerable time.” That’s the way I like to think of “mastery,” and

I see this little boy as a small case study of what it requires of educators:

  • Plenty of time to play around and try things out,
  • Encouragement and support when frustration builds up, and
  • Slowly increasing opportunities for complexity, autonomy, and challenge.

I’m posting the exercise, “Defining Mastery,” under this blog’s Resources tab. Give it a try with some teaching colleagues or students, and please let me know what ideas it gives you!

Defining “mastery”

These days, educators are pelted with requirements for “proficiency,” “competency,” and “mastery” — yet few of us share a common definition of those terms. Do we reserve the term “mastery” for those at the very pinnacle of their crafts, for example? Or may I use it when I finally properly use my remote control?

At a workshop last week, I asked a group of teachers what they mean when they use the term “mastery.”

“Think of someone you know who does something really well,” I said. The achievement could be in any field, in school or out, and the person could be anyone, and any age. Then I posed these questions:

  • How long has the person been practicing that?
  • What does “mastery” look like at this person’s level?
  • Where would you put this person on the journey to being an “expert”?
  • What did this person’s skill level look like a few years ago?
  • What might this person be able to do a few years from now?

One man chose his own young son, who for the past two years has spent hours absorbed in fitting together wooden train tracks on the living room floor. The father noted that at four years old, the boy can make “complex, inter-connected branching lines” with “creative use of different track elements to solve construction problems.” Since the holidays, when the child received a few challenging new wooden pieces for his collection, he “suddenly has taken a big leap in complexity and problem-solving” and his dad now estimates his expertise level is “intermediate?”

At two, the boy “could only assemble simple tracks, required lots of adult assistance, and was easily frustrated.” But looking ahead a few years, his father imagines him building “multi-level (vertical) lines” that “incorporate logical, real-world considerations in track layout.”

The Chinese term kung fu, someone told me, means “excellence of effort given over considerable time.” That’s the way I like to think of “mastery,” and

I see this little boy as a small case study of what it requires of educators:

  • Plenty of time to play around and try things out,
  • Encouragement and support when frustration builds up, and
  • Slowly increasing opportunities for complexity, autonomy, and challenge.

I’m posting the exercise, “Defining Mastery,” under this blog’s Resources tab. Give it a try with some teaching colleagues or students, and please let me know what ideas it gives you!

Just Listen: Kids Talk About Collaboration

Working as a group has advantages, Garlyn told me: “You can bring all those ideas together and come up with something bigger than what you would do on your own.” Yet, like most kids, she sees disadvantages, too. What if the other kids don’t all do their parts? Listen as she weighs the pros and cons:

But just as the social elements of learning can jump-start interest in a topic, so collaboration often clarifies and spurs students’ thinking. Kenneth noted that peers are often better than the teacher in explaining things so kids “get” them.

For Michecarly, whose geometry class was assigned to create a scale model, working in a small group made all the difference. “We helped each other with little details,” he said, “’cause we were each good at a certain part.”

Like every skill, teamwork takes coaching. When kids reflect on their most successful collaborations, I notice, their teachers had always provided deliberate practice in negotiating the dynamics of a working group. These students learned how to assign individual parts to play and how to trade off tasks. They had protocols by which to fill in the gaps of each other’s knowledge and to adapt as the work developed and changed. They had respectful ways to assess each other’s participation.

Take 10 minutes to watch the full series of 11 short clips in which kids give their views on collaborating at school.

Then ask yourself how you coach collaboration in your classroom. I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to whomever shares the best reply in the Comments field below.

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How kids’ voices can spark teacher learning

Why should educators listen closely to what students say? For the last few months, I’ve been posting here a collection of student voices from WKCD’s “Just Listen” series, organizing them into topics about which teachers care. It never fails to amaze me how right-on students are when they bring their real-life experiences to bear on those issues of teaching and learning.

So WKCD has started bringing these voices into workshops with teachers–and you can, too. Here are a few examples, in hopes that a faculty meeting might find them helpful as conversation-starters. Some examples:

Relationships that foster learning. We asked students, “When your teachers look at you, what do you think they see? When you look at your teachers, what do you see?” Kids tended to answer this question in terms of teacher-student relationships. Why not look together at this series of clips — and then ask a group of teaching colleagues, “What do you do to build relationships with students in the service of learning?”

Stretch, discovery, affirmation. When WKCD asked students, “Can you remember a time when something you experienced at school really made a difference to you or changed you in some way?” they often spoke of what we think of as “stretch” experiences. Take a look at this collection of student voices — then ask a group of teachers, “Have you seen students stretch, affirm, or discover themselves? What gave rise to that?”

“When’s the work good enough?” “Learning that lasts.” “Learning outside school.” Poring over 200 clips of student voices, we keep coming up with different themes as discussion prompts to spark thoughtful collegial conversations of the type we’ve see in our workshops.

So if you’re looking to focus a faculty meeting on a particular theme, drop me a line in the Reply box below. If we don’t already have a group of student voices on that topic, chances are that we can put one together and send you the link. Our goal is to get these voices heard, and get the dialogue started.

Of course, you can do the same thing just by bringing live students in to talk with faculty! But sometimes it’s easier to practice close listening with students you don’t see in class every day. “Just Listen” gives you a text to study closely, without preconceptions. (We’ll even provide a transcript if you like.)

Let me know how it goes!

How kids' voices can spark teacher learning

Why should educators listen closely to what students say? For the last few months, I’ve been posting here a collection of student voices from WKCD’s “Just Listen” series, organizing them into topics about which teachers care. It never fails to amaze me how right-on students are when they bring their real-life experiences to bear on those issues of teaching and learning.

So WKCD has started bringing these voices into workshops with teachers–and you can, too. Here are a few examples, in hopes that a faculty meeting might find them helpful as conversation-starters. Some examples:

Relationships that foster learning. We asked students, “When your teachers look at you, what do you think they see? When you look at your teachers, what do you see?” Kids tended to answer this question in terms of teacher-student relationships. Why not look together at this series of clips — and then ask a group of teaching colleagues, “What do you do to build relationships with students in the service of learning?”

Stretch, discovery, affirmation. When WKCD asked students, “Can you remember a time when something you experienced at school really made a difference to you or changed you in some way?” they often spoke of what we think of as “stretch” experiences. Take a look at this collection of student voices — then ask a group of teachers, “Have you seen students stretch, affirm, or discover themselves? What gave rise to that?”

“When’s the work good enough?” “Learning that lasts.” “Learning outside school.” Poring over 200 clips of student voices, we keep coming up with different themes as discussion prompts to spark thoughtful collegial conversations of the type we’ve see in our workshops.

So if you’re looking to focus a faculty meeting on a particular theme, drop me a line in the Reply box below. If we don’t already have a group of student voices on that topic, chances are that we can put one together and send you the link. Our goal is to get these voices heard, and get the dialogue started.

Of course, you can do the same thing just by bringing live students in to talk with faculty! But sometimes it’s easier to practice close listening with students you don’t see in class every day. “Just Listen” gives you a text to study closely, without preconceptions. (We’ll even provide a transcript if you like.)

Let me know how it goes!

Lighting up ‘the dismal science’

economics illustrated coverA wonderful example of “deeper learning” by high school students is “Economics Illustrated,” a book self-published by 45 tenth grade students at High Tech High in San Diego. It consists of their short explanations of terms of art in the field of economics, accompanied by engaging articles that show how they relate to current events. Striking linoleum-block prints illustrate each entry, making the concepts even more memorable.

To make sure that every student understood all the economics terms and concepts involved, humanities teacher Dan Wise required each student to teach a lesson on the particular term he or she researched, with the associated writing and artwork as a handout. The student’s final grade on the project would partly depend on how well peers performed when quizzed on that material.

The accompanying artwork is extraordinary, developed with the coaching of Jeff Robin, High Tech High’s interdisciplinary artist and febrile teacher. Looking for a quick mental picture of how “adverse selection” works? Check out Maya Adkins’s affecting block print of a sick child home from school. A woman applying for a job, she wrote in her article, might not be planning to have a child, but “she is still punished because of asymmetric information” relating to the employer’s costs from maternity absences.

“Economics is called the Dismal Science,” commented one of the students, Kai Wells:

But with Economics Illustrated it was anything but. In this project we balanced writing, social science and art. Beforehand we may have had a basic understanding of economics, but nothing really beyond the clichés of the stock market. We learned about dozens of economic principles, ranging from everyday inflation to more cutting-edge regression analyses. We tried to get each article just perfect; my article on the Theory of Comparative Advantage is probably my most heavily edited piece to date. Some people had difficulties with the linoleum block carving, both in what to carve and how to carve it. In the end, though, we managed to create a stunning book that we can be proud of.

This book is a model in every possible way: for teachers, for students, and for anyone who’s looking to change the way schools organize themselves for learning. Check it out and make good use of it!

Lighting up 'the dismal science'

economics illustrated coverA wonderful example of “deeper learning” by high school students is “Economics Illustrated,” a book self-published by 45 tenth grade students at High Tech High in San Diego. It consists of their short explanations of terms of art in the field of economics, accompanied by engaging articles that show how they relate to current events. Striking linoleum-block prints illustrate each entry, making the concepts even more memorable.

To make sure that every student understood all the economics terms and concepts involved, humanities teacher Dan Wise required each student to teach a lesson on the particular term he or she researched, with the associated writing and artwork as a handout. The student’s final grade on the project would partly depend on how well peers performed when quizzed on that material.

The accompanying artwork is extraordinary, developed with the coaching of Jeff Robin, High Tech High’s interdisciplinary artist and febrile teacher. Looking for a quick mental picture of how “adverse selection” works? Check out Maya Adkins’s affecting block print of a sick child home from school. A woman applying for a job, she wrote in her article, might not be planning to have a child, but “she is still punished because of asymmetric information” relating to the employer’s costs from maternity absences.

“Economics is called the Dismal Science,” commented one of the students, Kai Wells:

But with Economics Illustrated it was anything but. In this project we balanced writing, social science and art. Beforehand we may have had a basic understanding of economics, but nothing really beyond the clichés of the stock market. We learned about dozens of economic principles, ranging from everyday inflation to more cutting-edge regression analyses. We tried to get each article just perfect; my article on the Theory of Comparative Advantage is probably my most heavily edited piece to date. Some people had difficulties with the linoleum block carving, both in what to carve and how to carve it. In the end, though, we managed to create a stunning book that we can be proud of.

This book is a model in every possible way: for teachers, for students, and for anyone who’s looking to change the way schools organize themselves for learning. Check it out and make good use of it!

Teachers as experts in . . . inquiry?

A study just published in Science magazine sure makes one think twice about how we deliver “content knowledge” the classroom. The method by which a course is taught, it indicates, may be even more important than the instructor’s background.

In a college physics class, listening to a lecture by a highly experienced and respected professor yielded far less learning than an inquiry-focused class conducted by less “qualified” instructors, the study found. Students gave positive reviews to the lecturer, but when they took weekly tests on the material, they faltered. The reseachers themselves were surprised at how little the students had learned, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

In contrast, a control group performed more than twice as well when their teachers—a research associate and a graduate student—used discussions, active learning, and assignments in which students had to grapple with both new and old information.

The secret? These students had time to synthesize and incorporate new ideas from the lecture into their prior knowledge and experiences.

The teachers less credentialed in physics had been coached in a teaching method based on “deliberate practice,” which combined in-class practice and frequent formative assessments (such as pretests) with an emphasis on real-world applications. (For more on deliberate practice, check out our Resources section.)

It made me think of my visit last week to the NYC iSchool, an extraordinary public high school in New York City that regards its teachers as generalists, not content specialists. The school has taken its technology-rich environment as an opportunity to deepen the deliberate practice of inquiry across the content areas.

Students get through the required state Regents exams as quickly as possible—often in ninth and tenth grades—largely by taking online courses in core curriculum areas. The rest of the curriculum consists of inquiry-based projects, often extending across the years.

One science class I visited, for example, was designing a “green roof” for the school. The teacher was no landscape architect, but she sure knew how to get students asking questions. Every stage of the project had kids figuring out how to find out information, whether that meant parsing city safety regulations or observing the angle of the noonday sun on the roof. Students’ design sketches covered the classroom walls; an architect would soon visit the class to lend advice.

Learning to teach like this requires a lot of coaching, and iSchool teachers get it via regular collegial observations and debriefings of their practice. The focus is on facilitating active learning among these very diverse students and on closely following their individual progress.

Nobody was pontificating from the front of the room in the science class I watched. Everybody had to think very hard together about the things they needed to learn more about. The teacher offered a prime model for asking good questions.

Who wants to do the study on how these kids will do in college and later life?

Student teachers try the Practice Project

A remarkable experiment took place at the University of Michigan this past fall, when a group of student teachers in a class taught by Dr. Shari Saunders tried out the Practice Project in their classroom placements.

Many of this blog’s readers will remember the posts and comments of these preservice teachers here, as they puzzled through the questions of how to discover and build on their students’ strengths, create lessons that would connect with what students valued, and give them the deliberate practice they needed on the path the mastery. Many of you offered your own good counsel, as veteran teachers.

Shari Saunders described her curriculum when we presented together at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education’s annual Alumni of Color Conference in March. Now she has made available to others (in our Resources section under “Presentations and Handouts”) the assignments and rubrics she created for her classes.

Writing to me this week, Dr. Saunders said that her preservice teachers told her and others that the ideas they tried out here were among those they most remembered from their student-teaching semester. In this era especially, when teacher education is undergoing such scrutiny, this teacher educator and her students deserve our thanks for taking seriously the experiences, perspectives, strengths, and needs of students themselves—and for sharing that with us.

Falling asleep over homework

I’ve been working a lot with teachers recently, holding up their homework assignments to the criteria for “deliberate practice.” (Since that’s the only kind of practice that actually helps us get better at things, it’s a good guide to whether homework is worth doing.)

But all that thinking about homework has also brought on that irresistible urge to sleep that I used to feel as a teenager. As Vivian, a student contributor to Fires in the Mind, said:

I’m like, “Okay, what’s more important, math or history?” My eyes are closing, but I just push myself to stay up late. Sometimes I drink coffee, so it’s unhealthy, too! . . . And it shows: I’m always tired in class, because I spent all my night doing my homework!

Vivian has a point. Across the board, researchers report the same thing as did this study done in 1998 by Amy Wolfson, M.D.: “Altogether, most of the adolescents surveyed do not get enough sleep, and their sleep loss interferes with daytime functioning.”

Specifically, there is mounting evidence that “sleep deprivation has its greatest negative effects on the control of behavior, emotion, and attention, a regulatory interface that is critical in the development of social and academic competence.”

Dr. Wolfson’s studies reveal disturbing results in adolescents who get insufficient sleep. One study concluded:

Students who described themselves as struggling or failing school (C’s, D’s/F’s) reported that on school nights they obtain about 25 minutes less sleep and go to bed an average of 40 minutes later than A and B students.

Maggie Jones’s fascinating article in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine discusses the effects of too little sleep on our cognitive performance—and the many ways in which we fool ourselves about it. For example, after just a few days of getting four or six hours of sleep, one group of lab subjects reported:

Yes, they were slightly sleepy. But they insisted they had adjusted to their new state. Even 14 days into the study, they said sleepiness was not affecting them. In fact, their performance had tanked. In other words, the sleep-deprived among us are lousy judges of our own sleep needs. We are not nearly as sharp as we think we are.

Might teachers actually be hurting their students’ performance, not helping it, with the homework they assign? What might such studies mean for how, and when, to give homework? What solutions can you propose?

I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the best answers I receive.

‘Where Baghdad At?’

Why is it so hard to retain a mental picture of where countries fall on the map?! Although geography has been considered a core subject for generations, still the scandalous fact remains that at the height of our war in Iraq, only 37 percent of Americans ages 18 to 24 could locate that country on a map.

The only kids I ever met who were outstanding at recalling their geography had learned it by playing with big wooden jigsaw puzzles, on the floor of a first-grade class in a public Montessori school in St. Louis, Missouri. (Hmmm, now just where is Missouri?) When I was introduced as a visiting journalist from Massachusetts, kids shot up hand from all over the room to name my neighboring states and their relative positions. One can speculate, as journalist Joshua Foer did recently in the New York Times magazine, that we’re wired to remember such information because our ancestral hunters and gatherers needed to find their way home.

Foer’s article goes on to describe in hilariously lewd detail a tried and true set of memory-skills techniques that the Romans used, and which may date back to 500 BC. His takeaway:

When we see in everyday life things that are petty, ordinary and banal, we generally fail to remember them. . . . But if we see or hear something exceptionally base, dishonorable, extraordinary, great, unbelievable or laughable, that we are likely to remember for a long time.

One U.S. high school decided to try that out in this video posted the other day on SchoolTube, “Where Baghdad At?” It’s SchoolTube, so it’s not exceptionally base, dishonorable, or even unbelievable. But it did make me laugh–and it stuck in my mind.

What’s your best success with a “sticky memory” exercise? I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the one that works best for me!

'Where Baghdad At?'

Why is it so hard to retain a mental picture of where countries fall on the map?! Although geography has been considered a core subject for generations, still the scandalous fact remains that at the height of our war in Iraq, only 37 percent of Americans ages 18 to 24 could locate that country on a map.

The only kids I ever met who were outstanding at recalling their geography had learned it by playing with big wooden jigsaw puzzles, on the floor of a first-grade class in a public Montessori school in St. Louis, Missouri. (Hmmm, now just where is Missouri?) When I was introduced as a visiting journalist from Massachusetts, kids shot up hand from all over the room to name my neighboring states and their relative positions. One can speculate, as journalist Joshua Foer did recently in the New York Times magazine, that we’re wired to remember such information because our ancestral hunters and gatherers needed to find their way home.

Foer’s article goes on to describe in hilariously lewd detail a tried and true set of memory-skills techniques that the Romans used, and which may date back to 500 BC. His takeaway:

When we see in everyday life things that are petty, ordinary and banal, we generally fail to remember them. . . . But if we see or hear something exceptionally base, dishonorable, extraordinary, great, unbelievable or laughable, that we are likely to remember for a long time.

One U.S. high school decided to try that out in this video posted the other day on SchoolTube, “Where Baghdad At?” It’s SchoolTube, so it’s not exceptionally base, dishonorable, or even unbelievable. But it did make me laugh–and it stuck in my mind.

What’s your best success with a “sticky memory” exercise? I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the one that works best for me!

When inquiry is the homework

When I ask teachers what they ask their students to practice, most of them talk about homework. But when is homework just busywork—and when is it the kind of “deliberate practice” that really makes the learning stick?

In a three-hour workshop I facilitated last week, 30 teachers combed through their homework assignments to compare them to the criteria for deliberate practice. They asked themselves:

  • Does this homework ask each student to practice something that the student hasn’t yet mastered? Does the student clearly see its purpose?
  • When students are asked to repeat or rehearse something, does it require them to focus? Or can they do it without really paying attention?

One fourth-grade math teacher said that his biggest goal was to get his students to rip through routine calculations (like the multiplication table) in the shortest possible time. He wanted them to have the numbers down cold, so they wouldn’t have to think twice when they needed them.

But even though a lot of his students could do that, he noticed something troubling. When confronted with mathematical questions deriving from the world around them—like how long it would take to fill a five-gallon jug with water—they couldn’t tell the difference between a wild guess and a reasonable estimate.

Even before they needed to know their times-tables, his kids needed practice in mathematical reasoning. On multiple-choice standardized tests, they were spending too much time laboriously considering answers that couldn’t possibly be true.

Together these teachers brainstormed homework activities that might give students practice in this crucial thinking skill. For example, what about introducing a real-world dilemma, then asking kids to estimate a reasonable range in which the answer might fall? They could share their thinking in small groups the next day, with the teacher coaching them through the calculations that would show who came closest.

This kind of homework gives students practice in the thinking habits experts use when they approach problems. And it can be done in every subject area, from science to literature to history.

When kids learn to ask good questions, they care more about finding out answers that make sense. That generates a need for collaboration, for considering the perspectives of those who may disagree, and for analyzing different routes to a solution.

How do you give homework in “asking good questions”? Send in the details, and we’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind!

A piece of your mind

Researchers at George Mason University (one a former K12 special-education teacher) have asked your help as they seek to learn more about how teachers apply, or might apply, brain-based research. They write: “We’d like to understand more about what teachers think, and what questions they’d like asked by the researchers (as one issue is that neuroscientists don’t pose the most useful research questions for teaching pedagogy).” You can contribute to this useful work by taking this fascinating 10-minute survey.

It’s the third time this week that I’ve heard this kind of sentiment from educational neuroscientists (who in my opinion are second only to teachers in the intellectual fascination of their field). From the Royal Academy on Neuroscience and Education in the UK, a newly published report in its series “Brain Waves” makes a plea for a “common language” that would bridge the gulf between educators, psychologists, and neuroscientists. (May we suggest starting with, “What does it take to get really good at something?”) The report also recommends a greater role for neuroscience in educational policy (yes!) and more training of teachers in its concepts, and it discusses the challenges of applying neuroscience principles to the classroom. Definitely worth a look!

Along precisely those lines, the Practice Project has just entered into a fascinating dialogue with a group of master teachers who serve as an advisory panel to a National Science Foundation Science of Learning center at the University of California, San Diego. We spent part of our Saturday yesterday mulling over the essential questions that teachers might ask scientists (and vice versa), if they hope to connect the everyday challenges of the classroom with cutting-edge work in the field. “How does a teacher light a fire in the student’s mind?” one teacher mused. “And what’s the science behind that?”

We’d love to hear your own questions about that! I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the best comments we receive.

A road trip to motivation and mastery

“I’d feel so much better about the world we live in if being ‘passionate’ or ‘inspired’ was a national standard instead of so much of the academic trivia that is mandated,” a high school teacher in Oakland, California recently wrote me.

Working with 11th graders in his capacity as college advisor and internship coordinator, he was helping them explore how their own interests or passions could lead to further study and possible career choices. In the process, he introduced some video excerpts from the public television series “Roadtrip Nation,” whose motto is “Define your own road in life.”

Roadtrip Nation began in 2001 when four friends just out of college set out across the country in a green RV to interview people who loved what they did. Ten years later, it’s a movement—including a nonprofit arm that creates curriculum to help middle and high school students expand their vision and explore their futures.

The basic idea: Young people find what they love, contact people that live a life that inspires them, gather a team to interview those people in order to learn from their stories, and share these experiences with others.

They start by browsing through a vast video archive of interviews other youth have conducted with people that inspire them. They build the skills of interviewing and producing digital media. And they carry out their own local Roadtrips, planning and conducting interviews with leaders in their communities.

At-risk students who completed the curriculum at a youth opportunities center in Long Beach, California spoke about it with enthusiasm in this interview by local TV. And an independent evaluation of the curriculum highlighted positive changes in students’ attitudes toward learning after they completed the “Roadtrip Nation Experience”:

  • 15 percent more students reported feeling interested in their class work most of the time
  • 20 percent more students felt very certain that the things that they are learning in school will be relevant for their futures
  • 18 percent more students reported that they had very often talked with someone outside of school about their futures

To lift our country out of the mess we’re in, the rising generation is going to need all the inspiration and support it can find. For anyone who believes that motivation and mastery are closely linked, Roadtrip Nation is a great place to start the sparks flying and the minds meeting.

Coaching mastery in a new media world

How might the era of digital games and media change the way we coach young people in the habits of mind and work that we value? I’ve spent my reading time this week exploring this question in the the separate (but equally intriguing) work of two pioneers in that area: Robert Torres and Nichole Pinkard.

First, I pored through the book Quest to Learn: Developing the School for Digital Kids, which sets out in great detail the design principles of the new school Katie Salen and Robert Torres helped found in 2009 as part of New York City’s “Innovation Zone.” Quest to Learn (Q2L) is now in its second year with grades 6 and 7, and will eventually serve grades 6 to 12.

Then I explored the extensive website links of the Digital Youth Network Continue reading

Learning by heart

What can you still recite that you learned by heart (yesterday or years ago)? Justin Snider in the HechingerEd blog makes the case for memorization that reflects my views in many ways. He writes:

Among the countless catchphrases that educators generally despise are “drill-’n-kill” and “rote memorization.” In keeping with their meanings, both sound terrifically unpleasant. To learn something “by rote,” according to the Random House dictionary, is to learn it “from memory, without thought of the meaning; in a mechanical way.” But is it possible that memorizing things is actually underrated in modern American society? Could one make a convincing case that it’s not just useful but vital for people of all ages to memorize things?

Snider’s answer, along with that of cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, is yes. And I agree:

Because “rote” learning and “memorization” have negative connotations for most people, it might be better to speak of learning things by heart. And, as Willingham points out in our discussion, learning things by heart is something children automatically do. That is, it comes naturally to them — whether it’s being able to recall all the words to a nursery rhyme or knowing the plot of a story (if not the story itself, word for word) before one is actually able to read. Willingham says that the key is engagement: “If you’re really engaged, memory comes pretty automatically.”

Like Snider, I’m a particularly big fan of memorizing poems by heart, whether it’s the Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English or the Billy Collins “Litany” recited by a three-year-old boy in this video. But I would never call the child’s feat “rote memorization”—because (as Willingham implies) “rote” implies the lack of engagement, attention, focus. Snider is right when he observes:

Notice what the young child’s intonation on certain lines reveals: he hasn’t learned this poem “without thought of the meaning; in a mechanical way” — Random House’s definition of “rote” learning. He’s wiser and more aware of what he’s saying than many of us might initially think.

In my view, memorizing poems deepens one’s sense of language so effectively that I see it as central to the work of becoming a good writer. It lodges beauty in the brain and at once in the heart, if you’ll allow me that romantic view. Do mathematicians make the same case for memorizing the first 100 digits of π? Is it, for them, a kind of play, which could even come in handy sometime (as with Tom Lehrer’s “The Elements” song listing the periodic table)? Do only some things qualify as worth the trouble and other not? Is it actually about winning at Jeopardy?

Snider sets out his case for memorization. It’s a challenge that’s satisfying to meet. (He credits Broadway actors with that satisfaction, but not their Hollywood counterparts.) It’s good exercise for your brain, like crosswords, and comes in handy when you lose your smartphone. But here’s the one I agree with most:

Most importantly, new insights are gained in the process of memorization. You see things to which you were previously blind; you uncover a play on words, assonance, alliteration, analogies. It is for this reason, I believe, that the great Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov declared that there’s actually no such thing as reading — there’s only re-reading. (“Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader,” Nabokov wrote in his Lectures on Literature.)

The same holds for TV shows and movies: you see so much more on a second, third and fourth viewing. You don’t truly see anything the first time you watch it. And, in my experience, this applies no less to music: hearing something for the first time is more akin to hearing it not at all than to truly hearing it. The work is too new, too unknown, to us; we can’t make heads or tails of it because we suffer from sensory overload. Quite simply, there’s too much going on for us to get anything but a glimpse of the work’s essence.

It’s only with multiple readings, viewings and hearings, then, that we actually begin to understand, see and hear. We’re deaf and blind in our first encounters with things.

And this is why practice matters so much as well. It’s our chief hope for transcending mediocrity.

So I’m all for memorizing, whether in service of deep understanding or fun. (Want me to rattle off the seven capital sins and their contrary virtues, learned at six before my first communion?) But can’t people choose the things they want to memorize, as long as it’s something? Can’t we please honor the learning that engages us that way, by calling it “learning by heart”? And couldn’t we throw that regurgitative “rote” word out to rot, along with the tests that rely on it?

Please, wiser minds out there, educate me on this.

The hole in the wall

I’ve heard of Sugata Mitra’s Hole in the Wall series of real-life experiments from New Delhi to South Africa to Italy, in which he gave kids self-supervised access to the web and saw results that could revolutionize how we think about teaching. But the images in his TED talk really underline for me how much curiosity and the shared interest of a peer group drive our motivation to learn.

Mitra concludes with, “education is a self-organizing system where learning is an emergent phenomenon.” What does that mean for how we should be setting up our formal learning environments? Shouldn’t we be setting up a “granny cloud” of mentors such as Mitra describes? Shouldn’t classrooms be much messier, livelier places, driven by mystery and inquiry?

If so, we’ll have to learn in another culture altogether—one that tolerates and even promotes the chaos of youthful energies when they are going where they want to go. What conditions make that possible? I am waiting to hear your ideas!

P.S. I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the best responses that come in this week.

Licking the Envelope

My favorite teacher-blogger, Dina Strasser, reminds us in a wonderful post on The Line this week of the power of making her seventh and eighth graders send out their written work to an audience other than their teacher.

Getting to more authentic writing takes a single step, she has found: Make sure someone other than you sees it.

Here’s the rest of her post, reprinted with her permission. (My response follows in a twin post.)

Kids are now reflecting on altruistic experiences in their lives, choosing one, and articulating its deeper meaning for themselves (the “SO WHAT?” in Nancie Atwell language). They then write a friendly letter to the person involved in the memory– and, in all cases where it applies, addressing an envelope, putting the letter in, licking it closed, and SENDING IT.

“We’re SENDING IT?” they howl.

“We’re sending it,” I repeat, smiling. (Because I actually enjoy seeing them react like this; like watching a canary in coal mine, chances are that if I’m making them visibly uncomfortable, we’re hitting Vygotsky’s sweet spot.)

As they get over their shock (quickly– they’re resilient folks), a two-part realization hits me. One: that kids don’t do nearly enough of this kind of thing. My announcement should be boring them to tears.

Two: that kids, without malice or deviousness, come to count on the fact that you are their only audience.

Far from raising stakes or expectations, the knowledge that their writing products live, move, and have their being merely within the artificial bubble of school decreases those products’ value to kids—no matter how clever or challenging the work.

It also encourages the path of least resistance that we all tend towards.  Why bother to capitalize, think a sentence through, or search for just the right word, when the only person who cares about it is Ms. S? Doesn’t she live with the other teachers in the janitor’s closet anyway?

In contrast, the make sure someone other than you sees it approach has already garnered some of the neatest handwriting, the most complete grammar, and– most importantly– the most genuine thinking I have seen all semester.

And as I mention above, it doesn’t have to be complicated, technical, or even require a reworking of assignments you already have.

  • Photocopy final products and have the kids mail them home with a post-it.
  • Throw another set into a manila envelope and have the kids watch you mail them to the superintendent.
  • Circulate word-processed assignments to your colleagues via email.
  • Email some more to friends or family of the kids’  choice.
  • Put together an anthology for every homeroom.
  • Create a quarterly literary magazine (read: stapled double-sided copies).
  • Distribute homemade poems at lunchtime.
  • Or if you fancy it, use one of the multiple powerful technologies available to classroom communities: blogs, wikis, webpages.

Who the audience is or should be, of course, is a question deserving of its own post: pros and cons to all, from peers to parents to the Internet. For now, though, if there’s any dark side to this approach, the word of caution I would give is not to use authentic audience as a punishment or a threat. Speaking simply in terms of keeping the assignments real is going to go a lot further with middle schoolers than “You had better spell this right, or your mother will be ashamed of you.”

The second half of the year is looming, and as implied at the beginning of the post, I continue to wrestle with the balance between totally kid-generated writing, teacher-guided writing, and writing that is teacher-directed from A to Z.  Regardless of the writing’s generation, however, I am making a personal commitment to have every single product my kids create this year go out into the world in one way or another—and that the kids are active participants in that process.

It’s not a magic bullet. But it comes close.

—DS, in The Line

On children being gifted

As we busy ourselves in this season of gift-giving, I find myself reflecting on the children on whom we shower our love and presents. What gifts do they carry within them, from the moment that they arrive in our lives? What gifts from us will matter most in their lives?

The first question requires us to look closely, to listen well, to spend long hours just observing the young ones for whom we care, at work or at home. What lights up their eyes and draws them close in curiosity? What do they reveal of their thoughts, when they feel most at ease with us? What can we understand about them from watching their actions with others?

These, it seems to me, are the gifts that all children bring to us who watch over them and guide them. Like many other precious things, these gifts are fragile, all too easily crushed if we forget to pay attention to them. Every day, we must receive these gifts with wonder and gratitude, keep them safe and whole, burnish them into the glow of maturity that will someday shine from them.

The second question asks what gifts from us will matter most to children. Our very presence, I can’t help thinking, tops any “presents list.” Whatever their age, young people want us in their lives in just the ways they need right then. It’s often hard to tell what those ways are, of course—and so to give that gift requires us to listen well and watch, without pressure on them to perform for us but rather encouragement to be true to their best selves.

And yet I see one other gift being given to children by the adults whom I watch and admire most, whether they are teachers or parents. Piece by piece, you are building careful structures that help young people manage the work of living in this world.

I see the father who—instead of yelling at his kids in the morning chaos before the schoolbus arrives—has posted a simple checklist at eye-level in several key locations so that they can regulate their own preparations, starting the night before.

I see the teacher who sets aside twenty minutes at the end of class for students to begin their homework, so she can observe what baffles them and help them gain the traction to finish on their own.

I see the mother working two jobs who takes the time to read to her children every night. I see the coach who shows up every day after school, to teach kids how to play the game with both focus and good will.

Watching, listening, creating structures that nurture and sustain. Such simple gifts, yet so complex in the ways they all interact to shape a child’s life—and to bring light and hope and joy to our own.

May this season remind us again of the gifted children all around us, of what we owe to them, and of how our keeping watch can change the world. All my warmest wishes to you and the children for the year of growth ahead!

On children being gifted

As we busy ourselves in this season of gift-giving, I find myself reflecting on the children on whom we shower our love and presents. What gifts do they carry within them, from the moment that they arrive in our lives? What gifts from us will matter most in their lives?

The first question requires us to look closely, to listen well, to spend long hours just observing the young ones for whom we care, at work or at home. What lights up their eyes and draws them close in curiosity? What do they reveal of their thoughts, when they feel most at ease with us? What can we understand about them from watching their actions with others?

These, it seems to me, are the gifts that all children bring to us who watch over them and guide them. Like many other precious things, these gifts are fragile, all too easily crushed if we forget to pay attention to them. Every day, we must receive these gifts with wonder and gratitude, keep them safe and whole, burnish them into the glow of maturity that will someday shine from them.

The second question asks what gifts from us will matter most to children. Our very presence, I can’t help thinking, tops any “presents list.” Whatever their age, young people want us in their lives in just the ways they need right then. It’s often hard to tell what those ways are, of course—and so to give that gift requires us to listen well and watch, without pressure on them to perform for us but rather encouragement to be true to their best selves.

And yet I see one other gift being given to children by the adults whom I watch and admire most, whether they are teachers or parents. Piece by piece, you are building careful structures that help young people manage the work of living in this world.

I see the father who—instead of yelling at his kids in the morning chaos before the schoolbus arrives—has posted a simple checklist at eye-level in several key locations so that they can regulate their own preparations, starting the night before.

I see the teacher who sets aside twenty minutes at the end of class for students to begin their homework, so she can observe what baffles them and help them gain the traction to finish on their own.

I see the mother working two jobs who takes the time to read to her children every night. I see the coach who shows up every day after school, to teach kids how to play the game with both focus and good will.

Watching, listening, creating structures that nurture and sustain. Such simple gifts, yet so complex in the ways they all interact to shape a child’s life—and to bring light and hope and joy to our own.

May this season remind us again of the gifted children all around us, of what we owe to them, and of how our keeping watch can change the world. All my warmest wishes to you and the children for the year of growth ahead!

Students on “college access” – Part 2

In the last post, we heard big news from the “value added” data-crunchers: students themselves can actually tell us quite accurately which teachers best help them learn.

And this week, our Center for Youth Voice in Policy and Practice supplied a follow-up punch. We’ve just released “Hear Us Out,” an important new report on the other huge policy issue of our era: college access.

Its authors? Two dozen high school students whose findings ought to carry extraordinary weight in high places.

These young researchers obtained high-quality survey data from 5,000 peers in nine comprehensive high schools: five in Seattle and four in Chattanooga and Hamilton County, Tennessee. Another 225 students participated in videotaped student-led focus groups and individual interviews.

That alone makes “Hear Us Out” a sizeable contribution to both quantitative and qualitative research on college access. But what its respondents said matters even more. This study shows that they do not get the college-going help they need from schools until far too late in the game, if at all.

Three-quarters of the respondents named their families as the chief source of college motivation and support, even when their parents and guardians had not attended college themselves.

In contrast, almost a third said they had never spoken with a school counselor about college. Although that percentage dropped to 12 percent by twelfth grade, 28 percent of seniors said they had completed their college application mostly on their own.

Information like this supplies a grim counterpoint to the incessant shouting at the top about how all kids should get themselves to college, pronto. And there’s more important data in “Hear Us Out,” which you can download here (for the Executive Summary) and here (for the 37-page report).

Above all, don’t miss the videos in which students talk about their path to college. Who helps them get there—and who doesn’t—comes through loud and clear.

Students on “value added” – Part 1

Way back in 1994, we learned from Gloria Ladson-Billings that the best way to identify great teachers is to ask the people closest to them: students, fellow teachers, and parents.

So in this era when the data-gatherers are pushing questionable test scores as measures of “value added” by teachers, it’s somewhat heartening to see students systematically questioned about their classroom experiences, and taken seriously.

It’s only one part of a $335 million Gates Foundation effort to overhaul the personnel systems in seven large school districts: Charlotte, N.C.; Dallas; Denver; Hillsborough County, Fla., which includes Tampa; Memphis; New York; and Pittsburgh. And, being Gates, those test scores are still paramount—the kids were asked just out of curiosity whether their responses would corroborate them.

The early results show that they do. “Kids know effective teaching when they experience it,” Harvard researcher Ronald Ferguson, who designed the student questionnaires, told the New York Times.

When most of a teacher’s students agreed with statements like “Our class stays busy and doesn’t waste time,” “In this class, we learn to correct our mistakes,” or “My teacher has several good ways to explain each topic that we cover in this class,” guess what? Those students also showed increases in test scores. (Dare I say “duh”?)

Even more important, the Gates findings show that teachers who prioritize test-prep drilling actually end up with lower value-added learning gains than those who systematically focus on key concepts in literacy and mathematics.

“Teaching to the test makes your students do worse on the tests,” Gates education director Vicki Phillips told the Times. “It turns out all that ‘drill and kill’ isn’t helpful.”

Billions of our education dollars are pouring into a testing industry with an iron grip on the everyday lives of students and teachers in our public school systems.

Why can’t we put those dollars directly into supporting teaching and learning those crucial concepts?

Why can’t that money also support a thoughtful large-scale system (like Finland’s) in which we assess student learning growth by watching and listening to students themselves?

And why can’t we trust students—along with teaching colleagues and families—to let us know which teachers help them most?

Stay tuned. In part 2 of this post, high-school-student researchers have some startling findings on what helps them get to college.

Why ‘do it again’ isn’t enough

We really love that Lewis Black is thinking about how you get really good at something. (In his case, being hilarious.) And his cranky-funny take on that has a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot of broken-record truth to it.

But it’s not quite fair to us learners that Black omits certain key steps, which turn that endless do-it-again practice into something really good. Something deliberate.

Critique, for example, is more than “You get smacked.” It’s a certain kind of smack: in the right direction, toward just the right thing to try, the next time you get up and do it again. Critique works best when it comes from someone who both builds on what you’re doing right and puts a finger on just where you need work. A good critique gives you the courage it takes to get up and try it again.

“Don’t whine to me ‘it’s hard,'” Black growls. But a good critique erases whining from the picture. It creates a crucial expectation inside us that we can succeed at the hard thing, if we try again, a little differently this time. And our sense that the coach cares lends a high value to that seemingly endless next try.

Great teachers are doing that kind of coaching . . . again and again and again and again and again. They do it because they’re watching their students so closely. And the teaching and learning is going in both directions.

Why 'do it again' isn't enough

We really love that Lewis Black is thinking about how you get really good at something. (In his case, being hilarious.) And his cranky-funny take on that has a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot of broken-record truth to it.

But it’s not quite fair to us learners that Black omits certain key steps, which turn that endless do-it-again practice into something really good. Something deliberate.

Critique, for example, is more than “You get smacked.” It’s a certain kind of smack: in the right direction, toward just the right thing to try, the next time you get up and do it again. Critique works best when it comes from someone who both builds on what you’re doing right and puts a finger on just where you need work. A good critique gives you the courage it takes to get up and try it again.

“Don’t whine to me ‘it’s hard,'” Black growls. But a good critique erases whining from the picture. It creates a crucial expectation inside us that we can succeed at the hard thing, if we try again, a little differently this time. And our sense that the coach cares lends a high value to that seemingly endless next try.

Great teachers are doing that kind of coaching . . . again and again and again and again and again. They do it because they’re watching their students so closely. And the teaching and learning is going in both directions.