Just Listen: Kids Talk About Getting “College Ready”

Just listen to what kids have been telling me about what it takes to get them “college ready”:

I’ve been in the field gathering students’ voices for the last few months, on a range of subjects having to do with their learning. Several times a week I’ll be posting a taste of the Just Listen clips that resulted.

Singly or together, these insights from youth give us a powerful look at what goes into motivation and mastery. If any of these ideas speak to you, please share them freely with others!

Take 10 minutes to watch the full series on college readiness

Sign up to receive future posts by email

Just Listen: Kids Talk About Getting "College Ready"

Just listen to what kids have been telling me about what it takes to get them “college ready”:

I’ve been in the field gathering students’ voices for the last few months, on a range of subjects having to do with their learning. Several times a week I’ll be posting a taste of the Just Listen clips that resulted.

Singly or together, these insights from youth give us a powerful look at what goes into motivation and mastery. If any of these ideas speak to you, please share them freely with others!

Take 10 minutes to watch the full series on college readiness

Sign up to receive future posts by email

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!

Practice, performance, pride

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What a work of art these young performers have created on a street corner in Oakland! I can’t help but think of the hours they must have spent collaborating, breaking moves down, looking for patterns, using familiar moves in new ways, critiquing, revising, persisting, taking up new challenges . . . and a very public performance to take pride in at the end.

In short, they’ve been practicing an “expert process” that will serve them in many other contexts. Whatever it took to get it going, we should be studying it!

Planting the ‘habits of experts’

A teacher from Vermont wrote in about discovering our “Habits of Experts” list last June, and using them to prompt reflective writing exercises that wrapped up his students’ year. That worked so well that now he wants to start the year with such work. Here are John’s thoughts–what would you add to them?

Ever since I encountered a discussion of the importance of metacognition in Arthur Costa’s Teaching for Intelligent Behavior, I have tried to encourage students to think about how they learn and how they can get better at it. Each year I tried different approaches that both encouraged metacognition and introduced the students to new ideas: Plato’s idea of the Form of the student, Pirsig’s idea of quality, Crawford’s idea of practical progress in excellence. These met with mixed results; I would say usually the students were tolerant but not enthusiastic!

This last school year I decided to try something new. I was struck by the list of “habits of experts” presented in Fires in the Mind. Near the end of the year I explained to the students what the book was about and asked them to think about how they had become more expert as learners in this course (a senior-level honors course). I presented them with the following prompt:

Think about your work in this class over this last year. Look at this list of habits of experts. Pick one of the habits and one incident or action by you in this class this year that shows that you have begun to develop the habits of an expert learner. Describe that incident or action. Make the description as detailed as possible so that the reader will fully understand why you chose this episode to illustrate your growing expertise.

The results were exactly what I hoped for: insightful, honest, real, and demonstrative of a mature self-awareness. Sara, for instance, wrote about how she had volunteered to be the mediator when the students had role-played a negotiation between the humans and animals in Animal Farm as part of a unit on negotiations. She had consciously sought out new challenges. Ian discussed how had decided to welcome critiques of his papers, even though up until then he had resisted the process. Nick had considered other perspectives in our studies of various theories of human nature and had found himself much more open to alternative views of political, economic, and other realities.

I think this would be much more effective if I were to give the list of habits of experts to the students at the start of the year, explain to them the sort of topics and activities I envisioned in the course throughout the year, and then ask them to write about their goals for personal growth as learners. With periodic check-ins, this should result in even more development of metacognitive abilities and conscious practice of intellectual skills.

Planting the 'habits of experts'

A teacher from Vermont wrote in about discovering our “Habits of Experts” list last June, and using them to prompt reflective writing exercises that wrapped up his students’ year. That worked so well that now he wants to start the year with such work. Here are John’s thoughts–what would you add to them?

Ever since I encountered a discussion of the importance of metacognition in Arthur Costa’s Teaching for Intelligent Behavior, I have tried to encourage students to think about how they learn and how they can get better at it. Each year I tried different approaches that both encouraged metacognition and introduced the students to new ideas: Plato’s idea of the Form of the student, Pirsig’s idea of quality, Crawford’s idea of practical progress in excellence. These met with mixed results; I would say usually the students were tolerant but not enthusiastic!

This last school year I decided to try something new. I was struck by the list of “habits of experts” presented in Fires in the Mind. Near the end of the year I explained to the students what the book was about and asked them to think about how they had become more expert as learners in this course (a senior-level honors course). I presented them with the following prompt:

Think about your work in this class over this last year. Look at this list of habits of experts. Pick one of the habits and one incident or action by you in this class this year that shows that you have begun to develop the habits of an expert learner. Describe that incident or action. Make the description as detailed as possible so that the reader will fully understand why you chose this episode to illustrate your growing expertise.

The results were exactly what I hoped for: insightful, honest, real, and demonstrative of a mature self-awareness. Sara, for instance, wrote about how she had volunteered to be the mediator when the students had role-played a negotiation between the humans and animals in Animal Farm as part of a unit on negotiations. She had consciously sought out new challenges. Ian discussed how had decided to welcome critiques of his papers, even though up until then he had resisted the process. Nick had considered other perspectives in our studies of various theories of human nature and had found himself much more open to alternative views of political, economic, and other realities.

I think this would be much more effective if I were to give the list of habits of experts to the students at the start of the year, explain to them the sort of topics and activities I envisioned in the course throughout the year, and then ask them to write about their goals for personal growth as learners. With periodic check-ins, this should result in even more development of metacognitive abilities and conscious practice of intellectual skills.

Social genius and ‘disability’

I just caught up with Anderson Williams’s post about his “profound week with a group of students, both with and without intellectual disabilities, who are part of Project UNIFY through the Special Olympics.” Anderson, a youth development activist with an M.F.A., likened what these kids did to Picasso’s particular genius: deconstructing tired norms “to paint like a child.”

Williams saw a “social genius” in the social and educational world these youth built during their time together. Defying social and cultural norms, he says, they set out to develop more genuine friendships and achieve shared learning. He writes:

In this space, “otherness” of all types was set aside for the one-ness of youth. . . . The whole premise of their engagement defied our adult-driven society’s limiting expectations of youth and of disability and created a space for each person to be more fully himself/herself.

His examples reminded me of the advice “Dance like nobody’s watching.” These kids pulled off something that takes “courageous humanity,” he says. But getting good at it also takes practice, by adults as well as youth. Anderson reminds us that we need constantly to work toward

more inclusive systems and structures and broader awareness and understanding of all kinds of “differences” . . . rather than the separate educational and social worlds so many of [these youth] beautifully and painfully described. We must commit to revolutionizing the systems, formal and informal, that categorize, segregate, and separate our young people.

What are your experiences with helping young people “practice outside the lines” of what the larger society considers “excellence”? I’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if yours is among the best comments we receive.

Social genius and 'disability'

I just caught up with Anderson Williams’s post about his “profound week with a group of students, both with and without intellectual disabilities, who are part of Project UNIFY through the Special Olympics.” Anderson, a youth development activist with an M.F.A., likened what these kids did to Picasso’s particular genius: deconstructing tired norms “to paint like a child.”

Williams saw a “social genius” in the social and educational world these youth built during their time together. Defying social and cultural norms, he says, they set out to develop more genuine friendships and achieve shared learning. He writes:

In this space, “otherness” of all types was set aside for the one-ness of youth. . . . The whole premise of their engagement defied our adult-driven society’s limiting expectations of youth and of disability and created a space for each person to be more fully himself/herself.

His examples reminded me of the advice “Dance like nobody’s watching.” These kids pulled off something that takes “courageous humanity,” he says. But getting good at it also takes practice, by adults as well as youth. Anderson reminds us that we need constantly to work toward

more inclusive systems and structures and broader awareness and understanding of all kinds of “differences” . . . rather than the separate educational and social worlds so many of [these youth] beautifully and painfully described. We must commit to revolutionizing the systems, formal and informal, that categorize, segregate, and separate our young people.

What are your experiences with helping young people “practice outside the lines” of what the larger society considers “excellence”? I’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if yours is among the best comments we receive.

Doing the math

Riley Lark is a high school math teacher, five years into the profession. He loves his job: teaching kids to “translate reality into math and back,” with “little tools like factoring, graphing, and logarithms.”

But his kids have even more important things to practice in the long hours they spend in school, Riley believes. It’s also his job to teach them responsibility, respect, curiosity, investigative skills, teamwork skills, and the attitude that their mistakes and lack of knowledge are actually key elements of learning.

Luckily, he says, “it turns out that math is a great medium through which to teach these things.”

So on Riley’s blog, he and a handful of math teachers are sharing their lesson plans, techniques, philosophies, exams, and project ideas with a self-reflective thoughtfulness and humor that makes you feel like you’ve made great new friends. His July “Virtual Conference on Soft Skills” is currently bringing their voices together in a grassroots PD that has the ambiance of a terrific conversation in the shade of a summer lawn.

For example, Dan Goldner tells what he’s learned from the times when, without warning, a class shuts down completely in a “soft mutiny” — silent, disengaged, blank, unwilling to say what’s going on.

“The non-communicative aspect of the soft mutiny makes it hard to know just what’s going on,” Goldner writes, as he describes how he works his way out of the quicksand, trying not to take it personally:

• Ask the students “What would be most helpful for you now?” This gives students input and control without forcing them to voice their own sense of being lost, or, if they’re mad at me or feel I’m doing poorly, without forcing them to say things they think might upset me or hurt me. This question got useful answers that moved the class forward about 50% of the times I asked it.

• If that question gets no response, then make a transition to another mode, activity, or task. Acknowledge that “This isn’t working. Let’s shift to a different approach altogether.” This gives everyone a way to leave behind the “stuck” feeling.

I love seeing these teachers work through the problems of effective teaching together. Completely committed to fostering quantitative reasoning, they dedicate themselves equally to building confidence and leadership in their students. On both sides of that equation, they give kids plenty of respect — and practice.

If you have great examples of that kind of teaching (whatever your subject area), send them in! I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the best replies we receive.

TIP! Play it out

“That’s not fair!” “We were there first!” Creative play gives kids practice in negotiating, pretending and imagining, rethinking and revising, arguing and demonstrating, taking leaps, inventing new realities beyond self-interest and kinship. It’s crucial daily practice in democratic habits, says Deborah Meier in Playing for Keeps, her new book with Brenda Engel and Beth Taylor about a public school playground.

On cluelessness

“Tell me what you’re already really good at!” That’s the first thing I asked of the students in our Practice Project. It wasn’t just to make them feel good about themselves. Instead, it got us started talking about the process that goes into “getting good”—whether at baseball or cell biology.

Still, a lot of people ask me if my teenage collaborators weren’t exaggerating their own competence when they described how good they were. Given their youth, how could they really know where they stack up? They don’t even know what they don’t know!

Maybe so—but hey, aren’t we all that way?

I’ve been thinking about all this, while reading Errol Morris’s fascinating series of essays in the New York Times, on whether our incompetence actually makes it impossible for us to recognize our incompetence. (Speaking of which, the unpronounceable term for this “anasognosia” kept me away from the piece for days!)

Morris takes off from a scholarly paper by Justin Kruger and David Dunning, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties of Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-assessments,” from a 1999 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. He goes back and forth with Dunning, trying to make sense of it from several perspectives, including neurology, psychology, philosophy.

It’s a wonderful conversation from beginning to end (including footnotes and readers’ comments). But I kept wanting bring it down to the level of teacher and student, mentor and apprentice, school and community.

For example, Dunning could have been talking about my students—or about me!—when he told Morris:

People can be clueless in a million different ways, even though they are largely trying to get things right in an honest way. Deficits in knowledge, or in information the world is giving them, just leads people toward false beliefs and holes in their expertise.

College students with bad grammar, Dunning found, actually think their grammar is correct. In the same way,

The average detective does not realize the clues he or she neglects. The mediocre doctor is not aware of the diagnostic possibilities or treatments never considered. The run-of-the-mill lawyer fails to recognize the winning legal argument that is out there. People fail to reach their potential … simply because they are not aware of the possible. This is one of the reasons I often urge my student advisees to find out who the smart professors are, and to get themselves in front of those professors so they can see what smart looks like.

It’s an invitation to look at ourselves as well as at our students. For example, Morris muses:

Of course, I’d like to imagine myself near the top, planted firmly in the upper quartile. But upper quartile of what? I could devise a test that makes me look smart. But what would I have to exclude?

School is over for the summer, and now we have time to dream a little. Why not take a dip into the currents of these questions, and come up with your own?

How will we know what next year’s students really know and can do already? How can we point them to explore the territory they don’t even know exists? And who’s going to do that for us?

I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the most helpful comments that come in on this!

The refrigerator door

Gary Stager has a beautiful article in the current issue of Creative Educator, celebrating the “genius of print” and the “beauty and value of paper.” Especially as the year ends and kids take work home in bulging bagfuls, it gives me hope. The high-tech-heads in education are not forgetting the heirloom quality of student work–the kind children and families can hold in their hands, page through with grandparents or younger siblings, display on the refrigerator door.

Stager writes:

As teachers, we often promote the idea that process is more important than the end product, yet it is often the product itself that provides context and motivates students to learn.

And he emphasizes the quality of the work:

While every project may not generate an objet d’art, we should assume that every project we undertake has the potential to do so.

In a related earlier article, he advocates raising the bar for student projects, to include the highest standard of all: Does the project have a chance of enduring? Like Ron Berger in his classic An Ethic of Excellence, Stager wants a set of goals in which teachers and students embrace “the aesthetic of an artist or critic.”

It’s easy, Stager warns, to get distracted by the technology, forgetting about whether the work lives up to its larger purpose. His goal for a successful project: We just can’t bear to take it off the refrigerator door.

What are you practicing?

Starting this Fires in the Mind blog has made me think again about how hard it is to form new habits. Even though I’ve been writing and publishing for decades, it’s a big stretch for me to take that skill into new digital territory. With every new step I am painfully aware how clumsy and awkward it feels, how much I don’t quite “get” yet.

Tysheena, 13, described this when she told us about learning ballroom dance. But as she kept practicing with her partner, she noticed, the steps gradually came more naturally to her.

The secret, brain research tells us, lies not in big leaps but in tiny, continuous steps. If we practice every day doing something just a little bit differently, new synaptic pathways are actually forming in the brain— bypassing old habits and creating new ones. Taking giant steps, in contrast, creates so much stress that we are likely to stop trying altogether.

Knowing how we learn best can make that process much less painful. For example, I learn most easily as an apprentice, so I went to a young person who grew up with digital networking at his fingertips. One small step at a time, he’s coaching me to shift my writing routines into the unfamiliar patterns of WordPress, Twitter, and Facebook. Now when I have an idea to share, I’m doing something different with it every day.

Teachers and parents, too, often get better at what they do by making a new approach part of their daily routine. What new habit are you practicing right now? How have you managed the awkward, clumsy stage I’m in right now? What strategies do you use in order to keep yourself going?  I’ll send a free copy of Fires in the Mind if yours is among the best replies this week!