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?

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!

A launch worth watching

Homemade Spacecraft from Luke Geissbuhler on Vimeo.

Shared curiosity, persistence, and the joy of learning shine out like a spotlight from “Homemade Spacecraft,” a 7-minute video by Luke Geissbuhler about his eight-month scientific adventure with his elementary-school-age son.

The film shows the climactic day of their mission: “to attach a HD video camera to a weather balloon and send it into the upper stratosphere to film the blackness beyond our Earth.”

We see the boy and his dad test out their return parachute, and tuck their iPhone and the boy’s “reward if returned” note into a jerry-rigged lightweight orange insulated “space capsule” (smaller than a shoebox). Then they launch their helium-filled balloon, with camera, on its merry way. Their text explains what the journey entails:

Eventually, the balloon will grow from lack of atmospheric pressure, burst, and begin to fall. It would have to survive 100 mph winds, temperatures of 60 degrees below zero, speeds of over 150 mph, and the high risk of a water landing. To retrieve the craft, it would need to deploy a parachute, descend through the clouds, and transmit a GPS signal to a cell phone tower [from an included on the launch]. Then we have to find it.

“Needless to say, there are a lot of variables to overcome,” this dad notes about their project. “Be responsible is the biggest.” They built their craft to meet FAA regulations for weather balloon payload, and launched it far from city air space. Their R&D stage took seven months, for both scientific and safety reasons:

The lighter it is, the faster it will rise and the less helium you have to put into it and so the more it can expand into the oversized balloon, hence the higher it will go. It also has to be able to shred in a jet engine, which isn’t easy. There are density requirements and you can’t use any cable or tie that won’t break with 50lbs of weight among other things.

At the climax of all that work, we see the magic of this balloon ascend into space, hear the whoosh of wind currents, gaze at the awe-inspiring curve of Earth through its camera’s lens.

I can’t help but think of all the kids who would be itching to do science, if science learning could only look like this. An interested adult, a compelling idea to explore, and then hours of meticulous effort together . . . that’s what lights fires in the mind, and keeps them burning years later.

Do you have stories like this to share, from the wide world of learning outside school walls? I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if yours is among the best examples I receive.

TIP! Encourage publicly and privately

Students want their efforts to be acknowledged, but (especially in early adolescence) they often have ambivalent feelings about being praised in front of peers. Brandie liked that her middle school English teacher posted encouraging notes about student work on a bulletin board at every week’s end. “She’d fold the notes up with your name on them, so nobody else could read them,” Brandie said. What are some creative ways you have found to give positive and personal feedback to students?

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.

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!

TIP: Treat mistakes as opportunities

“When people are only faced with their failures, they tend to want to give up,” said Iona, a student in East Harlem, NY. “We need help to see our own progress, so that we don’t only see how bad we are doing.”

The most effective teachers regard mistakes and even failures as interesting steps along the way to understanding. What creative and effective ways have you found for giving positive feedback to learners who don’t “get it right”?

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

The ticket-roll as math practice

Once again today Dan Meyer’s terrific blog lends common sense and clarity to what it means to practice math at the high school level. “Mathematical notation isn’t a prerequisite for mathematical exploration,” he writes. “Mathematical notation can even deter mathematical exploration.” To illustrate, he uses a problem that starts by asking questions about a big roll of tickets:

When the textbook asks a student to “find the area of the annulus” in part (a) of the problem, there are at least two possible points of failure. One, the student doesn’t know what an “annulus” is. (Hand goes in the air.) Two, the student knows the term “annulus” but can’t connect it to its area formula. (Hand goes in the air.)

That’s the outcome of teaching the formula, notation, and vocabulary first: the sense that math is something to be remembered or forgotten but not created.

Meanwhile, let’s not kid ourselves. The area of an annulus isn’t difficult to derive. Let the student subtract the small circle from the big circle. Then mention, “by the way, this shape which you now feel like you own, mathematists call it an ‘annulus.’ Tuck that away.”

Similarly, if I give you this pattern, I know you can draw the next three pictures in the sequence. That’ll get old so I’ll ask you to describe the pattern in words. You’ll write out, “you add two tiles to the last picture every time to get the next picture.” I’ll show you how much easier it is to write out the recursive formula An+1 = An + 2. ¶ I’ll ask you to tell me how many tiles I’ll find on the 100th picture. You’ll get tired of adding two every time, and we’ll develop the explicit formula A = 2n + 3, which makes that task so much easier.

Terms like “explicit” and “recursive” and “annulus” can do one of two things to the exact same student: make the kid feel like a moron or make the kid feel like the master of the universe.

Fun as serious business

The elementary school teacher who calls for more fun in the classroom in a post on today’s Gotham Schools community blog is talking about serious business–math, reading, science, and history. When children are totally absorbed in their time outside schools–straining to reach the next rung on the jungle gym, or caught up in imaginative play–they may not have happy smiles on their faces, C. W. Arp notices, but they certainly report that they’ve been having fun. More fun than in the classroom, he says:

So here is my radical new way of thinking: The children in my elementary school need to be taught how to have fun. They have not had enough experience with fun. They are too often discouraged from having fun, or even chastised for having fun. I once said to a particularly active student, in my first year, “Do you just come to school to have fun? School is not a playground!” Frequent admonishments at my school: “You play too much,” or “All he/she does is play around.” But the students’ lack of focus is precisely because they are not having fun. Fun is engagement. Fun is interested activity. Fun is very serious business.

I’ll be watching for the suggestions Arp promises to make in future posts about how to help younger students find that sense of absorbed satisfaction as they master classroom learning. Send in yours, too!

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.

Fire-Starter: Chances of getting it right

What are your chances of passing a 10-item True-False test if you randomly guess the answers? What are the odds you’d get all the questions right? John Bohannon sent in his quick and catchy way to get kids thinking about statistics and probability, across the curriculum. (He uses it when they’re working on an opinion survey in social studies.)

Check out our Resources page for a growing library of Fire-Starters — the kind of “grabber” that helps draw kids into challenging material. Send in yours, and I’ll mail you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind!

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.

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 sticks with you from school?

As the school year ends in this “accountability” era, we’re pressed even more to test and summarize and analyze what students know and can do. But it’s also the season of high school reunions—and I’m always struck by what people remember most, 5 and 10 and 20 years out, about their learning in those adolescent years.

A friend passed along this email from her brother (class of 1992), who went with a few of his high school drama club friends to take a last look at their old auditorium, slated for demolition in a major renovation. “The evening proved to be much more emotional than I had expected,” he writes:

It didn’t hit me in the lobby, or even when I walked into the auditorium with the orange seats. But it started to hit me when I walked up the stairs on far stage right, the same stairs that G. walked up after he fell off the stage at the end of “You Can’t Take It With You.” It hit me when I walked backstage and saw that it looked almost identical … the toolroom in which something may or may not have happened between M. and A., the chaotic placement of wood in those shelves, the makeup room. … It hit me as I sat on the edge of the stage, with my feet dangling over, looking out to the orange seats and thinking about the crew meetings in which the honchos would be sitting on the stage and the crew would be sitting in the first couple rows of seats.

Later, I would walk around the mostly-unchanged high school, struck by how emotionless it was for me. (The only thing that moved me was how the student artwork in that first floor hallway was unchanged from when we were there.) But of course most of the high school was just a place where we took classes. That theatre was . . . not to be too cheesy, but that theatre was where I became the man I am today. That was where we channeled our passion, our energy and learned how to cope, how to negotiate, how to motivate, how to make something happen. That theatre was home, in some ways as much as [our family home] was for me.

Reading this, I thought about what kids like this are actually rehearsing in all those hours of absorbing “non-academic” activities—whether in the arts, sports, or other areas. What they learned, Ted Sizer used to say, constituted the “residue” of a high school education: what remains long after we have forgotten everything we studied for the tests.

How much higher could the stakes rise, than to show that kids know “how to cope, how to negotiate, how to motivate, how to make something happen”?

What did you learn in your high school years that made you who you are today? Please share your answer in the comment box below! I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the best comment we receive.

The rhythm of joint action

Sports teams that warm up together before a game usually do it to heighten camaraderie and spirit. But synchronous exercise of that kind also seems to increase not just their motivation but their ability to pursue joint goals successfully, says a new study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

This might mean, for example, that kids who practice Double-Dutch jump-rope, or ballroom dance, or playing in a band—anything that involves moving together in time—are actually getting sharper at accomplishing anything they try that involves cooperation, perception and reaction to a partner’s actions.

A little “action research” by teachers and students is worth a try! Science class after gym class, anyone?

Bait the hook for math thinking

In his wonderful TEDx talk, Dan Meyer, a high school math teacher in Santa Cruz, CA, explains how he gets students who are “mathematically and conversationally intimidated” to formulate math problems themselves — based on their genuine curiosity about the world.

Meyer presents kids with everyday phenomena (like a hose slowly filling a big container in the school courtyard) and asks them simple questions (“How long will it take to fill up?”). Instead of memorizing formulas (or copying them from already-solved examples), his students practice “patient problem-solving.” Slowly, steadily, in small groups, they check out their intuitions and formulate their own reasoning.

Meyer recommends five rules of thumb for math teachers, including “Ask the shortest question you can” and “Let students build the problem.” He asserts: “The math serves the conversation, the conversation doesn’t serve the math!”

It’s another way of saying that Motivation + Deliberate Practice = Mastery.

Constructing wings to fly with


“I can figure that out!” That’s the message that comes across in the how-to videos in the current online issue of Edutopia — showing how a challenging hands-on project can create a culture of steadily increasing motivation and mastery. My favorite shows ninth graders from Seattle whose science teacher drew them into a long term project to engineer from papier-mache a light-weight wing construction that works. I had to agree: “It’s hard–but once you’re on the inside, it’s fun!”

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!

Fire-Starter: Cool intro to a Cold War

A veteran history teacher sent in this great skit that gets students interested in the Cold War arms race. I call those “fire-starters” because they light fires in kids’ minds—motivating them to wonder, to explore, and to want to take the next steps toward real mastery. On our Resources page, I’m collecting a library of those fire-starters for teachers. If you take a moment to send me your way of drawing students into a learning challenge in your subject area, I’ll mail you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind. Thanks so much for lighting up the conversation!

When kids jump in to a challenge

What makes kids want to work at something hard? I was thinking about that the other day, as I watched an episode of the TV show “Parenthood” on Hulu. Max, who’s about 8, is seriously avoiding getting out there with his dad to work on his baseball skills. It’s easy to see that his over-anxious dad is pushing too hard—but when Max’s 14-year-old cousin takes the lead in tossing the ball around, Max brightens right up, and somehow learns to catch.

The scene rings true to what kids tell us in Fires in the Mind. When other kids they admire beckon them into a challenge, they’re much more likely to put in the effort.

Kellie, for example, first learned to jump rope with her playmates on the sidewalks of New York. Right away, the complicated maneuvers of Double-Dutch had her mesmerized. “The first thing I had to know was when to jump in, to get inside of the rope,” she said. “My sister helped me, by counting from one to three or five. I would jump in from the right side, between the rhythm of the ropes or the count in my head, and the rope closest to me had to be in the air. It would usually take me so long that the turners would stop turning and look at me!”

Kellie has so much to teach us here, about motivation and also about mastery. She saw something that looked amazing to her, and she wanted to do it — but it took her older sister’s encouragement for her to get up the nerve to try it. That first hurdle crossed, Katie immediately started breaking down the steps to getting it right, again and again. She was on her way to getting good!

Whether it’s a baseball game or a homework assignment, when have you noticed your kids getting past their reluctance to work at something hard? What drew them in? What happened next? I’ll send a free copy of Fires in the Mind to whoever leaves the most interesting answer in the Comment box below.

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)