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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Just Listen: Kids Talk About Project-Based Learning

Hands-on projects get students interested in a way that regular schoolwork may not. Attacking a real-world problem, exploring an issue of personal interest, or just trying something that involves a little action — all these add value and increase motivation, kids tell me.

“I was like, ‘You know, that’s something I wanna do,’” said Rashaun about a documentary project his class took on. “There’s so much you can do with this. I’ma go all the way.”


Take 5 minutes to watch the full series in which students describe learning through projects.

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Just Listen: Students Tell What Makes Them Care

“It was cooler than a regular document that you’ll see in a textbook,” Amanda told me about a historical document she handled during her museum internship. “This is something I really wanna do and learn more about.”


In fact, kids usually care more about learning when they have some kind of stake in what they’re doing. Where does that stake come from? Just listen to the variety among these students’ answers!

Take 10 minutes to watch the full series.

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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

On seducing student interest

Faced with a classroom full of bored and disengaged students, many teachers try to wake kids up and draw them in with some zingy detail about the topic they are teaching.


“About 150 people are killed by lightning every year in the U.S.,”
a science teacher may start out at the beginning of a unit on electricity. She shows a news clip as an example, and the kids perk up, all right.

But there’s a big danger in that teaching strategy,
the cognitive psychologist Patricia Alexander reminded us in her lecture at Institute 1.

Those “seductive details” stick in the mind . . . but they typically do so at the expense of the core concepts. We’re seducing kids into pondering the wrong things. Later, when we assess what students really understand and remember from the unit, they remember that lightning kills. But they can’t explain the key principles of the science that’s involved.

How can we avoid sidetracking kids with seductive details? Don’t just strip your teaching of intriguing examples . . . but make sure they really illustrate the main points you want to get across.

You can find out if you’re on the right track simply by asking the class for feedback about what they are learning. If kids respond with the details but miss the main point, then you’ve found the wrong details to zing up your lesson.

Instead, you’ll need to explore the key material for better details—ones that illustrate the things you want kids to remember.

The “Fire-Starters” section of this blog collects teachers’ examples of how they whet students’ interest in ways that deepen understanding rather than get in its way. Why not send in yours? If we use it, you’ll receive a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind with our thanks!

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.

What next?! Linking inquiry to amazement

As the days grow shorter and darker, here’s a great game that will light up students in grades 6-12 with learning that’s actually fun. It’s a collaborative competition called InterroBang – a new term for the combined punctuation marks at the end of “Isn’t this amazing?!” – and it looks first-rate to me.

An interdisciplinary challenge that focuses on culture, creativity, exploration, and science, InterroBang runs from now through January—perfect timing for those winter weeks when kids need a really fun project filled with choice, autonomy, problem solving, content knowledge, and creativity.

The rules of InterroBang are simple, but they contain all the elements of great project-based learning. Kids visit the InterroBang website to pick (or create) their own “mission” to carry on their own or with a team. (Strategic alliances are part of the fun.)

Depending on the complexity of the challenge they choose, they’ll get different numbers of points for completing it to the satisfaction of the contest judges (which includes other players and mentors at higher levels of the game, as well as a panel of experts).

The mission can be intellectual, technical, or artistic, but it has to involve physical action, not just thinking and writing. Students devise their plan, and then they go out and do it, documenting their actions with pictures, video, and audio. Once that’s completed, the mission becomes a “deed” – posted on the website for others to view. Then players can go on to choose another challenge, join a new team, win more points, and so forth.

To me, InterroBang’s beauty is the flexibility and creativity it affords participants. For example, here are five sample “missions” that kids might take up or adapt, each with a different focus area:

• ME, UNPLUGGED. (Focus: Culture) Use no electrical or battery-driven devices for 24 hours. Write a detailed diary of the experience (you may use a camera to document the day). (Level 1, 10 points)

• UNDERCOVER. (Focus: Exploration) Visit someplace you have been before, but dressed as someone who does not belong. Document how people talk to you, how they treat you, and have your collaborator take pictures. Write up your reflections on the experience. (Level 2, 20 points)

• TRESPASSING THE PAST (Focus: Exploration) Find a highly frequented building or place (a shopping center, a racetrack, etc.) and find out what used to be there. Indicate what the land was used for and why it was developed. Provide pictures of the before and after. (Level 2, 20 points)

• TINKER. (Focus: Creativity) Take a common household item apart and find out how it works. Putting it back together is encouraged. Making it into something new gets you extra points. (Level 2, 20 points)

• PAPYRUS PILOT. (Focus: Science) Either try to break an official paper plane record (duration, distance or wingspan) or do something truly amazing with paper planes. Either way, document plane fabrication and flights. (Level 3, 30 points)

This is InterroBang’s second year, jointly sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, Microsoft’s U.S. Partners in Learning, and Nuvana, a groundbreaking games company that wants to change the way kids learn in and out of school. (Motto: “Playing for real.”)

I’m so curious to hear what you and your students think of InterroBang that I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to anyone who writes in to describe your experience.

How’s that for amazing?!

Cultivating, and expanding, student ‘interests’

I received a reflective note about “student interests” from a student teacher named Douglas Hampton, who left an industry job in mid-career, to get a masters degree in teaching. As he gets to know his students this fall, he notices that many have only a limited idea of what the world of work might hold–and that it comes mostly from their environment or the media. “How do you expose students in a meaningful way to all the possible alternatives?” he asked.

For example, I am teaching math and economics and most of the curriculum feels distant to my students. The breadth of the subject is so extensive that teachers are limited in their ability to develop relevant connections to the real world. In geometry, there are a number of professional careers that extensively use this field of knowledge but my students do not appreciate it. Geometry is used by civil engineers, physicists, architects, surveyors, software engineers and graphic artists, but the students do not see the connections. . . . High school should be the place to investigate areas of interest, explore possibilities and develop good work habits. How do I allow my students to have the freedom to generate that spark that will ignite their interests? Math and economics by themselves do not capture the interest of most students.

I like that Douglas is talking about investigation and exploration in the same breath as he mentions “developing good work habits.” In the Practice Project that led to the book Fires in the Mind, students sometimes invited various highly accomplished adults into the classroom, interviewing them about “what it takes to get really good” in their fields. They might not have all wanted to be a top surgeon or auto mechanic, but the answers gave them material that we could then analyze, to think together about what are the common “habits of experts” and how they come about.

On Dan Meyer’s blog, he has another approach: get kids to speculate about the whys and hows of the world around them, using the language of math. He’s always suggesting ways to get kids themselves to puzzle through questions they generate when you bring in interesting photos, video clips, and the like to the classroom. Taking that tack is another fantastic way to get kids thinking about possible future careers. Whether it’s video game design, an election, or a construction project, once you get interested in the math and economics of how something works, you can start to talk about your own future place in that work, and what you might have to know and be able to do in order to take that place some day.

Finally, schools where students go out to do internships in the community are offering one of the most effective ways to broaden and create new learning from their interests. Watching, asking questions, and playing even a tiny role in the “real world” helps kids see first hand the work that goes on there, and how they might fit in. The best internship programs in schools bring students together once or twice weekly in a seminar where they reflect on what they’re seeing in the workplace, relate it to their academic learning, and think through the habits of mind and work that they require.

Do you have any examples to offer of how you cultivate student interests, or expand upon them? I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the best comments that come in.

Cultivating, and expanding, student 'interests'

I received a reflective note about “student interests” from a student teacher named Douglas Hampton, who left an industry job in mid-career, to get a masters degree in teaching. As he gets to know his students this fall, he notices that many have only a limited idea of what the world of work might hold–and that it comes mostly from their environment or the media. “How do you expose students in a meaningful way to all the possible alternatives?” he asked.

For example, I am teaching math and economics and most of the curriculum feels distant to my students. The breadth of the subject is so extensive that teachers are limited in their ability to develop relevant connections to the real world. In geometry, there are a number of professional careers that extensively use this field of knowledge but my students do not appreciate it. Geometry is used by civil engineers, physicists, architects, surveyors, software engineers and graphic artists, but the students do not see the connections. . . . High school should be the place to investigate areas of interest, explore possibilities and develop good work habits. How do I allow my students to have the freedom to generate that spark that will ignite their interests? Math and economics by themselves do not capture the interest of most students.

I like that Douglas is talking about investigation and exploration in the same breath as he mentions “developing good work habits.” In the Practice Project that led to the book Fires in the Mind, students sometimes invited various highly accomplished adults into the classroom, interviewing them about “what it takes to get really good” in their fields. They might not have all wanted to be a top surgeon or auto mechanic, but the answers gave them material that we could then analyze, to think together about what are the common “habits of experts” and how they come about.

On Dan Meyer’s blog, he has another approach: get kids to speculate about the whys and hows of the world around them, using the language of math. He’s always suggesting ways to get kids themselves to puzzle through questions they generate when you bring in interesting photos, video clips, and the like to the classroom. Taking that tack is another fantastic way to get kids thinking about possible future careers. Whether it’s video game design, an election, or a construction project, once you get interested in the math and economics of how something works, you can start to talk about your own future place in that work, and what you might have to know and be able to do in order to take that place some day.

Finally, schools where students go out to do internships in the community are offering one of the most effective ways to broaden and create new learning from their interests. Watching, asking questions, and playing even a tiny role in the “real world” helps kids see first hand the work that goes on there, and how they might fit in. The best internship programs in schools bring students together once or twice weekly in a seminar where they reflect on what they’re seeing in the workplace, relate it to their academic learning, and think through the habits of mind and work that they require.

Do you have any examples to offer of how you cultivate student interests, or expand upon them? I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the best comments that come in.