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!

Just Listen: Kids Talk About Their Struggles

Sometimes, Elijah told me, “people just don’t wanna come to school.”

Boredom, distraction, feeling invisible, staying on top of the work—students told me that these are among the struggles they face daily, even when they value their education.

Recognizing and respecting the challenge is half the battle. I hope you’ll want to share these clips with others!

Take 10 minutes to watch the full series “When Kids Struggle”

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What makes the pages turn?

To anyone who’s ever escaped into a book, it shouldn’t be surprising. Give kids the choice, and they’ll escape, too–into whatever worlds hold most appeal.

And if that means vampires or romance, sports or spies, there’s a book to satisfy that hunger piled in some brightly colored bin here in this NYC school where virtually every student is now an avid, and critical, reader.

The four in this video didn’t come into middle school as good readers. That’s pretty typical of the 550 very diverse students in grades 6 through 12 at East Side Community School, a completely unscreened public school in lower Manhattan.

But just listen to what these kids say about how their school changed all that. Mark Federman, its principal, decided early on that this school would be all about reading. And starting with the Principal’s Book Club (it’s packed with kids), every single adult in the school has found ways to make that happen.

Now students here are reading all the time–it’s just not cool if you don’t. And as they grow into young adults, they are poring over authors from Art Spiegelman and Louise Erdrich to James Baldwin and August Wilson.

It’s really too bad you can only hear a few minutes of what they say here, because they would talk about books into the night with you. But leave a comment after you listen . . . I promise, they’ll read what you say!

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.

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.

To motivate kids: Get their jobs done!


“If the kids want to learn, we couldn’t stop ’em. If they don’t, we can’t make ’em.”

That’s the heart of his argument Clayton Christensen makes in his latest addition to the book Disrupting Class, a new chapter about students’ motivation to learn in school. (He’s quoting the late Ohio State educator Jack Frymier, by the way.)

Christensen teaches at the Harvard Business School, and he brings that mindset to his thoughtful analyses of education and innovation.

Kids are “customers” with a “job to be done,” the way he puts it. They have a couple of fundamental problems they want to resolve, and school may or may not be the place for them to take care of that.

The first is their desire to be with their friends. (Anyone who’s been a kid knows that’s a big draw for school. I’ve heard it from hundreds of youth in our work on Fires in the Mind and my other book collaborations with students.)

The second is their very human desire to feel successful at something. That sometimes gets fulfilled in the classroom, but more often it does not. (The data on student achievement show that, and kids say the same thing to me. They call school “boring” largely because sitting in class so often dulls their sense that they are getting anywhere.)

Of course, many kids get that satisfying feeling of success from the “extras” at school — sports teams, musical groups, plays, clubs. When you add in the pleasure of doing those things with peers, you get a powerful mix that keeps them coming in.

In Christensen’s view, school’s “educational” function – that is, classes as usual – has to compete against those more powerful satisfactions, wherever they arise. For some kids, academic coursework competes with sports. For others, it competes with gang activities, or video games. For others, it competes with paying jobs.

His bottom line: A smart organization figures out what job its customers want done – in this case, the company of friends and the satisfaction of success – and integrates it into the “product.”

If learning important concepts and skills is the product, therefore . . .

We should be knitting that learning into experiences that 1) involve the company of friends, and 2) help students feel the satisfaction of real progress every day.

What would that look like?

• Project-based learning where students work in teams on things that matter to them and their communities

• Frequent opportunities for kids to test themselves against a task that’s neither too easy nor too hard, with immediate feedback and coaching.

• No more handing out grades that stratify some kids as successes and others as failures. Instead, every learner strives, every day, for the “just-right” next step that yields success. (For Christensen, this means using technology for differentiating tasks to suit the learner’s level. For example, I’m using Rosetta Stone to learn Spanish, and it sets every session’s tasks to stretch me just beyond where I am.)

I could do without many of the business analogies in Disrupting Class, but that’s unimportant next to the fundamental clarity of Christensen’s message:

It’s not enough for schools to “offer” a classroom-based education and expect kids to want it because it’s on the shelf. Instead, we must shape the learning experience to match just what kids are shopping for. And along the way, we bring a world of learning to life!

I can think of plenty of examples of this kind of learning that is taking place right now in schools around the country. If you’ll share yours, I’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind. Let’s get this job done!

Bringing practice back to class


What if kids listened to lectures on their own time, and spent class time in guided practice instead? (Dan Pink’s blog this week calls it “flipping homework.”)

That’s the technique used by many pioneering teachers, including Karl Fisch, a Colorado high school math teacher and blogger. He makes YouTube videos to explain key concepts and procedures to his algebra students—who view them after hours.

During class, students actively work on solving problems, collaborating in various ways as they try out the concepts for themselves.

Meanwhile, the teacher has the time to watch, assess, and coach kids as they puzzle through the problems in the moment. He can offer just the help that each needs in the moment, stretching their learning to the next step.

That approach makes sense for any subject (math, science, foreign languages, etc.) where a teacher wants to introduce background knowledge via direct instruction or sustained silent reading. Delivered during traditional “homework time,” that information has a chance to come alive the next day — and “stick” as kids make it their own in the messy, generative ways that deliberate practice demands.

Just today, Fisch’s students conducted a Skype interview with a geothermal engineer from the National Renewable Energy Lab — but as homework beforehand, they prepped for their interview by reading a package of background information. (Find out more here.)

Have you tried a strategy like this in your classroom? Do you have other ways you’re accomplishing the same goal? I’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if yours is among the best examples I receive.

Two smart guys telling it how it is

Mike Rose in his new blog-post talking about where people like us stand in “the technocratic and structural approach to education” that “has become the coin of the realm”:

Without a deep and specific understanding of the way children learn and the skill and art of teaching and how that skill and art develop, all the structural/technical reform in the world won’t be effective. It’s like trying to cure cancer without knowledge of cell biology.

And Hayes Mizell in Ed Week pushing for professional development that helps teachers gain that understanding:

Meaningful change means professional development driven by teachers’ understanding of their students’ learning challenges. Once this understanding is gained, teachers must commit to learning whatever is necessary to address these challenges and to continually refine their skills to increase their students’ performance.

Where and how are you moving toward these outcomes in your teaching practice? Please share your experience with us. I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the best responses that come in.

What we can learn from that ollie

Most days in my New York City neighborhood, as I walk down the sidewalk under the ramparts of the George Washington Bridge, I stop for a while to watch the skateboarders practice their ollies. A group of kids from about 11 to 15, they hang out on a little-used strip of asphalt across from the bus station, working on their moves in a way that seems at once fluid, social, and intensely focused.

Even when they seem to be taking a break, not doing anything much, they’re actually watching each other closely. Sometimes they exchange a few words of critique or advice. Then they’ll go back and try something new, again and again.

Like Dan Coyle in The Talent Code and many others, for the last couple of years we at What Kids Can Do have been digging into the cognitive research on what’s really going on beneath that bridge—and in other places where kids are getting really good at what they do.

The kind of practice that really moves us ahead – “deliberate practice” – requires explicit elements, I’ve learned — and those elements look a lot like what those young skateboarders are doing as they work at their ollies under the bridge:

• They see something excellent that they want to know and be able to do.

• They go after that thing at a challenge level that’s just right for them.

• They break the challenge into parts and rehearse each move in a focused, attentive way, at intervals, until it comes easily each time.

• Someone notices their mistakes and helps them adjust what they’re doing.

• They savor the small successes that come along — and then they look for the next challenge.

It’s what every good teacher wishes were happening in the classroom. But it takes time and persistence — the famous 10,000 hours we’ve read about in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and other books drawing on that same research about achieving high performance.

And as our WKCD team documents the lives and learning of adolescents, it fascinates me how many of those 10,000 hours for kids happen “outside the lines.”

Kids spend about 5,000 hours in high school alone: six to seven hours a day, 185 days a year, for four years. Homework adds to that time, at least in theory. But when I ask kids where they experience “deliberate practice”—using the criteria we’ve spelled out above—they’re more often talking about skateboarding than about science class.

We’re going to use this space to explore with all of you who care about kids — teachers, parents, coaches, caregivers — what can bring that kind of practice into all the places where we interact with youth.

The kids under that bridge are showing us that it’s a way of being, not a curriculum. It’s at once playful and purposeful, and its result is high performance.

In this space, we’ll focus our discussions by watching and listening to kids themselves. We hope you’ll tell us what you’re seeing and hearing as you work with youth—and also share what you’re wondering and trying.

I’ll mail a free copy of Fires in the Mind to the best post I receive on this in the next week. So let’s go—it’s time to practice!

For reference and discussion, download What_Is_Deliberate_Practice? (PDF)