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 Growing Through Mistakes

At first, Allan was too shy to say anything at school, because of his limited English and strong accent. “But with time, that gets boring,” he told me. “So even though it was embarrassing, I would just ask” —and his curiosity led him to learn.

Mistakes are hard on adolescents, who are especially sensitive to the judgments of others. But taking a risk on something turning out wrong can be the smartest thing they ever do.

Through a mistake Garlyn made in her math class, “I got to learn something that we didn’t get to yet,” she said. “Which is pretty cool.”

If anything, Michecarly reflected, the mistakes he made in building a model house for geometry “gave me inspiration to do better.”

And other kids came to similar conclusions about their slip-ups in life as well as school—as long as supportive adults were helping them through.

Take a few minutes to watch all eight Just Listen videos on growing through mistakes. And if any of their ideas speak to you, please do pass them on!

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Just Listen: How We See You, How You See Us

How do kids see their teachers, and how do they imagine their teachers see them? “I think about how they were as a kid,” one student mused. “If they thought the same way that we think, what they would do about certain things . . .”

If you’re a teacher looking for a midterm boost, Just Listen! Who you are and what you do matters to students and their learning. That’s backed up by research, but nothing beats hearing it from the kids.

Take a few minutes to watch the rest of this 8-clip series on how students view teachers and how they think teachers view them. If what the kids say makes you think, send it out to others!

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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

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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 life . . . but solved as word problems

Can life be seen as math, when you’re just going into eighth grade? The middle schoolers in this short video “Case Study in Practice” talk about their new coats, their baseball averages, and even the weather with a curiosity that drives them to figure things out mathematically.

Coached by a college student who is a summer teaching intern at Providence Summerbridge, they are learning to describe their everyday concerns using the language of math.

Nic talks about picking out his school clothes in the morning, and he’s suddenly talking about permutations and combinations: “You can put six to seven different ways into one pants and two shirts . . . you just have to find out the outcome of it.”

Shaniece pleads with teachers to make the math connect to things kids do: “Like, use props. Do something. Do a little skit. Bring food. Let us come up and teach the class. See how we understand it, and see what works.”

We learned a lot by eavesdropping on these middle schoolers, as they

• Look for math in real life
• Frame their experiences as word problems
• Try out ways to solve those problems, and
• Explain and share their thinking.

What does this suggest for what your math students are practicing? We’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if you’ll share your thoughts and experiences with us in a reply.

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?

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.

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.

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!

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.

In middle school, does a ‘hater’ motivate?

“You need a hater and you need a motivator,” a Chicago ninth grader named Lonya declares in chapter 3 of Fires in the Mind. “The person that’s telling you that you can’t do it–that’s your hater and you want to prove them wrong. And your motivator is the person that’s supporting you. You try your best so you can make your motivator proud.”

Erin Walker, a masters student at the University of Michigan who is preparing to teach middle school math, raised this interesting issue in a letter to me this week:

I personally identify with the idea of a hater and a motivator, but I am not confident that I would have been driven to work harder by a “hater” in 7th and 8th grade. I am doing my student teaching in an 8th grade mathematics classroom, and I am beginning to try to understand the psyche and motivational factors of that age group. I think the desire to defy and prove someone wrong maybe comes later, like early high school years. I think it is easy to quash the motivation of early adolescents because, at this point, they still submit to the authority of the teacher and the parent. The age of rebellion comes later.

I think gentle “hating” still has its place, and could be a great motivator in the classroom. Sometimes when I provide a challenge or a bonus question in my algebra class, I could say something to the effect of “I will be really impressed if you can answer this question because we have not mastered the skills to solve these kinds of problems.” I am not pointedly saying, “I don’t think you can do this,” but I am egging them on a little bit.

Erin makes a great point. In fact, not just middle schoolers but all of us have to believe we can succeed at something if we’re going to lift a finger to try. Perhaps Lonya, in ninth grade, believes that herself–so strongly that she can respond to a put-down with fierce determination to “prove them wrong.” And maybe that confidence was nurtured by some middle school teacher as perceptive and supportive as Erin. What are your thoughts on this?

In middle school, does a 'hater' motivate?

“You need a hater and you need a motivator,” a Chicago ninth grader named Lonya declares in chapter 3 of Fires in the Mind. “The person that’s telling you that you can’t do it–that’s your hater and you want to prove them wrong. And your motivator is the person that’s supporting you. You try your best so you can make your motivator proud.”

Erin Walker, a masters student at the University of Michigan who is preparing to teach middle school math, raised this interesting issue in a letter to me this week:

I personally identify with the idea of a hater and a motivator, but I am not confident that I would have been driven to work harder by a “hater” in 7th and 8th grade. I am doing my student teaching in an 8th grade mathematics classroom, and I am beginning to try to understand the psyche and motivational factors of that age group. I think the desire to defy and prove someone wrong maybe comes later, like early high school years. I think it is easy to quash the motivation of early adolescents because, at this point, they still submit to the authority of the teacher and the parent. The age of rebellion comes later.

I think gentle “hating” still has its place, and could be a great motivator in the classroom. Sometimes when I provide a challenge or a bonus question in my algebra class, I could say something to the effect of “I will be really impressed if you can answer this question because we have not mastered the skills to solve these kinds of problems.” I am not pointedly saying, “I don’t think you can do this,” but I am egging them on a little bit.

Erin makes a great point. In fact, not just middle schoolers but all of us have to believe we can succeed at something if we’re going to lift a finger to try. Perhaps Lonya, in ninth grade, believes that herself–so strongly that she can respond to a put-down with fierce determination to “prove them wrong.” And maybe that confidence was nurtured by some middle school teacher as perceptive and supportive as Erin. What are your thoughts on this?

Practice: We’re in it together

Most of what we know, remember, and use, we didn’t learn by teachers and textbooks filling our empty heads, Marion Brady reminds us in an excellent recent blog post confronting current education “reforms.” Instead, we came to learning with our own ideas, opinions, explanations, beliefs and values. And then “we discovered real-world patterns and relationships — new knowledge that caused us to constantly rethink, reorganize, reconstruct, and replace earlier knowledge.”

That’s a very serious intellectual practice, worthy of 10,000 hours. (Translate: eight years of school!) And it takes a coach — someone to watch closely, suggesting just the next stretch a learner needs, at just the right moment. It’s a delicate business, not simple transfer of information– and it has everything to do with the learner’s motivation. As Brady puts it,

As is true of adults, kids’ ideas and beliefs become part of who they are, so attempts to change them may come across as attacks on their identity and be resisted.

That’s why teaching is such a complex, multi-step process, he says in this wonderful summary of what the good teacher practices every day. (Reminder: 10,000 hours is at least five or six years of teaching!)

The teacher has to (a) “get inside” that head to figure out what’s thought to be true, right, or important, (b) understand the kid’s value system well enough to offer ideas sufficiently appealing to warrant taking them seriously and paying attention, (c) choose language or tasks that question old ideas and clarify new ones, (d) get feedback as necessary to decide how to proceed, (e) load the whole process up with enough emotion to carry it past short-term memory, and (f) do this for a roomful of kids, no two of whom are identical.

The faces of students in our Practice Project lit up when they told me of the learning experiences that really stuck with them. Above all, it was hands-on projects, internships, and apprenticeships that led them to ask better questions, explore their subjects more deeply, and rise to the challenge of producing new knowledge.

Along the way, their level of engagement with adults also shifted in crucial ways. Learner and teacher were in it together. And it showed.

Practice: We're in it together

Most of what we know, remember, and use, we didn’t learn by teachers and textbooks filling our empty heads, Marion Brady reminds us in an excellent recent blog post confronting current education “reforms.” Instead, we came to learning with our own ideas, opinions, explanations, beliefs and values. And then “we discovered real-world patterns and relationships — new knowledge that caused us to constantly rethink, reorganize, reconstruct, and replace earlier knowledge.”

That’s a very serious intellectual practice, worthy of 10,000 hours. (Translate: eight years of school!) And it takes a coach — someone to watch closely, suggesting just the next stretch a learner needs, at just the right moment. It’s a delicate business, not simple transfer of information– and it has everything to do with the learner’s motivation. As Brady puts it,

As is true of adults, kids’ ideas and beliefs become part of who they are, so attempts to change them may come across as attacks on their identity and be resisted.

That’s why teaching is such a complex, multi-step process, he says in this wonderful summary of what the good teacher practices every day. (Reminder: 10,000 hours is at least five or six years of teaching!)

The teacher has to (a) “get inside” that head to figure out what’s thought to be true, right, or important, (b) understand the kid’s value system well enough to offer ideas sufficiently appealing to warrant taking them seriously and paying attention, (c) choose language or tasks that question old ideas and clarify new ones, (d) get feedback as necessary to decide how to proceed, (e) load the whole process up with enough emotion to carry it past short-term memory, and (f) do this for a roomful of kids, no two of whom are identical.

The faces of students in our Practice Project lit up when they told me of the learning experiences that really stuck with them. Above all, it was hands-on projects, internships, and apprenticeships that led them to ask better questions, explore their subjects more deeply, and rise to the challenge of producing new knowledge.

Along the way, their level of engagement with adults also shifted in crucial ways. Learner and teacher were in it together. And it showed.

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.

Robots for teachers

Am I the only one who gets a weird, sad feeling when I read quotes like these, in the recent New York Times piece on how well kids learn from robots?

Preliminary results suggest that these students “do about as well as learning from a human teacher,” said Javier Movellan, director of the Machine Perception Laboratory at the University of California, San Diego. “Social interaction is apparently a very important component of learning at this age.”

Ahh! And wouldn’t that make kids want to have more of that social interaction with a human adult who actually cared about them?

If robots are to be truly effective guides, in short, they will have to do what any good teacher does: learn from students when a lesson is taking hold and when it is falling flat.

Scientists could equip a machine to understand the nonverbal cues that signal “I’m confused” or “I have a question” — giving it some ability to monitor how its lesson is being received.

So shouldn’t new teachers also learn that, with those good teachers at their side? Instead, TFA runs a prestige contest to see which top grads can parachute in for two years, after a summer’s training, then leave for their real careers.

If robots can learn to learn, on their own and without instruction, they can in principle make the kind of teachers that are responsive to the needs of a class, even an individual child.

Parents may have more pointed [questions]: Does this robot really “get” my child? Is its teaching style right for my son’s needs, my daughter’s talents?

The right question. A teaching practice is profoundly human, to my mind the most honorable profession of all, with the most enduring effects. It depends on someone being able to “get” each child in his or her living, breathing, maddening, frustrating glory.

I just posted a wonderful example of this on our Resources page—a glimpse of how students are growing into strong and independent learners under the guidance of some wonderful adult humans at Phoenix High School, a small high school in western Washington State. You’ll see the projects these students imagined and executed, which emerged from their own individual affinities and curious minds. You’ll see the discipline their school fostered in them as the kids created every day’s work plan for themselves. And you’ll see the thoughtful back-and-forth they have with teachers like Tracy Money, as human and inspiring and honorable a guide as any of us could ask for.

I’m all for technology in learning, but after reading through that document, the thought of turning learners over to robots chills my blood. What about you? Please, write in and tell us!