Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Can We Be Independent Together?

As he finishes Part One of his book Drive, Daniel Pink offers us to different kinds of behaviors in people: Type X and Type I.  Type X behavior is perfect for a world that is fueled by extrinsic motivation (hence, Type X), a world focused on "the extrinsic rewards to which that activity leads."  Employers looked for this type of behavior in a world where workers performed routine tasks, tasks that were perfect for the "carrot and stick" world of the past.

However, very few of those routine jobs remain in the United States for a variety of reasons which we will not go into here.  People who are Type I perform because of "the freedom, challenge, and purpose of the undertaking itself; any other gains are welcome, but mainly as a bonus."  This is not to say that Type I resist any sort of outside "goodies" or are willing to work for peanuts.  He then presents us with a list of relatively well-known people and asks us to decide whether or not they are Type I or Type X.  He argues that Type I people "almost always outperform Type X's in the long run."  Take a look at the list and decide for yourself:

          Type I                                                Type X
          Warren Buffett                                Jeff Skilling (Enron)
          Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart           Antonio Salieri
          Oprah Winfrey                                Donald Trump
          Bruce Springsteen                          Simon Cowell

You could certainly think about people in your own lives and probably fairly quickly figure out which column they would fit into.  Understand that not all of us fall into one category or the other all the time, but for the most part, it is fairly easy to see the differences between the two groups.

All of the brings us to today's post, focusing on the first element that would encourage Type I people, autonomy.  Pink is careful to point out that autonomy is not the same as independence.  Autonomy offers people a choice, while independence suggests a "go-it-alone, rely-on-nobody individualism."  It is this autonomy that provides people the freedom to do the work that they need to do and thrives in a creative environment that is coming to dominate the United States workplace.

I would like to think that I am creating some type of autonomy in my classes.  The layered curriculum that I have engaged my students with for the past couple of years gives each of them options as to how they learn best.  What I need to do a better job is working to oversee (not manage) the work that students are doing with it.  I hope that giving my students two days at the beginning of each unit to work solely on their layered curriculum will help them understand the autonomy that they have, help them to learn the background material that is so important to their learning, and give them the opportunity to move on to the more creative work that is ahead of them.  It will be an interesting experiment and one that I am looking forward to on a number of levels.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Relentless Teaching Strikes Again

In May, 2011, Michael Hartoonian, Scholar in Residence at Hamline University (based on their site, a school "affiliated with the United Methodist Church), wrote what I felt was a brilliant piece on the purpose of the public, or as he called it "common", school in the United States.  I believe that it truly helped to explain why public schools are so important to the future of the country.  In order to make sure that my students understood why they were participating in a United States history course in a public school, I had them read the blog post and comment on it as their first on-line discussion topic for the year.  One of my students commented that the piece "really makes you think that these things are not helping us come together as a community. Public schools can act like a building piece to unifying a community. Even American public schools don't even [sic] realize their importance and don't notice their extreme purpose."  Another, "Public school does not only unify us as a community but also help us learn life lessons that we might not be able to figure out on our own."  This blog piece was the perfect to start the school year, and I will certainly use it again.

However, this post from Professor Hartoonian certainly gives it a run for its money.  I tweeted a link to it out twice today in the hope that more people give it a read.  The purpose of the post focus on the lack of civic virtue that exists in the United States today and that part of the reason for that is the changing environment in the public school.  His opening, "What have we learned by enacting laws against bullying or noncompliance with racial integration; or laws addressing curriculum standards or student assessment, school funding, and the testing of teachers?  Primarily, we have learned the recurring lesson that command and control processes are costly, inefficient, and, for the most part, don’t work," sends us off down a road where governments pass laws to protect us from ourselves, because we do not seem to be able to understand our "common ethical duties."  He goes on to list a number of recent situations in which people from both sides of the aisle were subject to ethical "lapses."

He takes us back to Aristotle, with the idea that "Democracies fail because the people become corrupt once they believe that they can have whatever they want, and at little personal cost."  As "President Andrew Sheppard" in the 1995 movie The American President states, "America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say "You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours."  

Why have we forgotten what means to be an American?  Why have we failed to continue educating our young people about the importance of ethics and civic virtue?  This cannot be only a school issue.  I believe that Professor Hartoonian would agree that this is not only a school issue.  This is a community issue and until we ALL realize the sacrifices that we all must make in order to be part of that community, then we will continue to have ethical problems amaze and astound us, until we regulate and legislate even those things out of us.

Monday, July 9, 2012

"So I Took Out My Adjectives"

If you are "of an age" (and by that I mean mine), you remember when Saturday morning had cartoons and not news all the time.  You also remember ABC on Saturday mornings interrupting those cartoons at some point along the way to show a 3 minute video about something of educational value.  Of course, we didn't necessarily realize at the time what was happening, but many of us can still probably sing along to our favorites.  Mine was not available at the ABC School House Rock YouTube channel, so I will offer this one to you instead.

In Chapter 3 of Why Don't Students Like School?, author Daniel Willingham discusses the role of memory in learning.  As he states, "memory is the residue of thought."  In essence, we remember what we think about because our brain realizes that if something is important enough for us to think about, then we must want to remember it.  But, there are a number of roadblocks to making this happen and a number of reasons why we don't remember things.  He seems to advocate quite strongly for the use of mnemonics to help students memorize things that there just seems to be no reason or way to remember it otherwise.  One of the more powerful mnemonics is music, which is probably one of the reasons why I can still remember many (not all, as @suedensmore would remind me) so many of the School House Rock videos left such an impression on my brain.

In building on the idea that "factual knowledge must precede skill" from Chapter 2, our challenge then is to come up with ways for students to remember what it is they need to know in order to use that information in the deeper-thinking activities that we want them to later on.  One of the ways he suggests to do that is to tell a story.  I came across this quote from Jerome Bruner in Larry Ferlazzo's wonderful and insightful blog earlier this summer and thought it fortuitous as I read this chapter: Stories are about 22 times more memorable than facts alone.  Teaching history certainly gives me a wonderful advantage in an effort to create stories, but based on the quote and the information in Chapter 3, it would seem that I need to make more of an effort to create stories along the way.  I may not always be able to do this, but if I can do it more often than not, perhaps my students won't mind coming to my class.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Should My Classroom Become "Jeopardy"?

In 1984, "Weird Al" Yankovic was at or near the top of his popularity.  Spoofs, such as "I Lost on Jeopardy," made him a part of American culture.  No one was safe from his "sarcastic wit."

But now, with various any number of tests being used to quantify my effectiveness as a teacher, I wonder if I am destined to become "Weird Al," because my students could lose on Jeopardy.

In Chapter 2 of Daniel Willingham's Why Don't Students Like School?, we are asked to focus on the statement "Factual knowledge must precede skill."  His premise is an interesting one, given that a simple search for "text of the Declaration of Independence" returned 17,400,000 suggestions in 0.26 seconds.  Willingham's thought is that without background knowledge of a topic gives of all of us a better understanding of what is being discussed and, thus, we can better manipulate that information because we understand it better.

My struggle is that, while I am well aware that there is factual information that I am supposed to teach (state and national standards dictate that I do), much of this information is readily available, in many cases on the phones that they carry with them.  Is it possible for me to include "fact finding" in with "skill development"?

The chapter has led me to shift my thinking slightly for my college prep (CP) students next year.  I have in the past, and will continue, to use a layered curriculum structure with my students.  But, instead of spacing out what I call "points only days," I will now start each unit with two days dedicated to helping students through the basic level of understanding, i.e. the "facts."  Maybe this "factual knowledge" will help the critical thinking activities that we do later on in each unit and will make those lessons more successful.  It will be an interesting experiment, one that I will certainly monitor closely.

Friday, July 6, 2012

You Say "Carrots and Sticks," I Say "A or B"

The remainder of Part One of Drive by Daniel Pink focuses on the effectiveness of "carrots and sticks" with regard to accomplishment.  (For my thoughts on the opening of Part One, click here)  He focuses primarily on the business world, but there are obvious implications for those of us in education, as we are, perhaps, the ultimate home of "carrot and stick" thinking.

This past spring, I was part of my school's New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) re-accreditation team at a planning conference.  At one point, the discussion shifted to how precise a student's GPA really is, even out to three decimal places, meaning given the various teachers and the combinations therein that two students could have had, are we really sure that one student is potentially .001 of a point different than another?  And what have those students learned?  Can we truly quantify knowledge?  As someone on Twitter suggested this week (sorry, I can't remember who said it), it is impossible to figure out what a person "knows."

Given that, shouldn't we try to inspire students simply to love learning?  Should we wonder if the students who finish at "top" of their class are just really good at playing school, but haven't really learned anything?  Should we be concerned that students are far more concerned about the grades they have "earned" than whether or not they have actually learned anything?  Evidence would suggest that the "carrot" of earning an A and graduating from high school just isn't enough for students who drop out or never graduate.  The "stick" of not earning that high school diploma  does not seem to deter thousands of teenagers from walking away from high school every year.  

Shouldn't we be shifting the discussion away from "carrots and sticks" and towards a demonstration of actual learning?  Watching one of my students from two school years ago now bounce into my room because the video that she CREATED about Dred Scott had received almost 2,700 views was worth all of the fits and starts of bringing technology into my room.  She said two things to me that day that will drive me forward and continue to have students create things: first, that she "may have taught someone about Dred Scott," and second, that maybe she would make documentaries.  Whether that second part ever happens, I may never know, but the sheer excitement on her face was worth whatever people might say about what happens in a high school classroom.

Shouldn't the joy of figuring something out after starting with nothing should be the reward in itself?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Timing is Everything

After way too many months away from the blogosphere, there seems to have been a confluence of reading and watching that has prompted me to get back into this.

The first piece of this puzzle started last weekend when I watched the movie Dolphin Tale.  While the story of the dolphin who survives long enough to be fitted with a prosthetic tale is certainly a movie worth watching (I was actually surprised by how much I enjoyed it), it is the story of the apparently middle-school aged boy that was the most touching for me.  While I won't go into much detail about how he got there, "Sawyer" is in summer school.  After helping to rescue the dolphin, he is sneaked in to the rescue hospital by the daughter of the chief doctor on the case.  "Sawyer" and the dolphin have an obvious connection and he begins to skip his summer school classes in an effort to help the dolphin recover.  Eventually his mother finds out about his skipping class and demands an explanation.  "Sawyer" brings his mom to the rescue hospital where she witnesses the genuine learning that is going on.  She confronts his summer school teacher who makes it very clear that if "Sawyer" does not attend his class, there is no way he can be passed.  The mother attempts to convince the teacher that "Sawyer" will write a paper, make a presentation, whatever he has to in order to pass if he is simply allowed to continue going to the rescue hospital.  She has seen a passion in him that has not existed in some time and wants to do her best to nurture that passion.  The teacher remains steadfast in his demands, the old fallback "he has to be in the class to get credit for the class," which he finishes by saying "I'm sorry."  The mother fires back with a "You should be" as she turns and walks out of the classroom.

There was a time, not that long ago, when I probably would have agreed with the summer school teacher.  But over the past few years, I have begun to realize that passion in students is not something to be ignored.  That when students find a passion for something, it should be my job to nurture that passion rather than come up with something pithy like "I am glad that you like to do that, but it really doesn't fit with what we are trying to do."  That doesn't mean that I am going to throw out the standards that I work with or that I won't expect my students to do the work that I expect of them.  What it does mean, is that I am going to challenge them with many different types of assignments in an attempt to find something that does fuel passion in them.

The continuation of this are the two of the books on my summer reading list.  One Why Don't Students Like School? by Daniel T. Willingham (a cognitive scientist), the book that a group of people are reading as part of #sschatbook.  He suggests that we, as teachers, can improve our practice by working to understand how we and our students think and learn.  On Sunday, a discussion began about the first chapter of the book (there are nine and we will look at one a week through the summer), which began the discussion with "Why Don't Students Like School."  In that chapter, Willingham suggests that our brains don't like to think and that we don't do it particularly well.  Our brains are wired, to a certain extent, to prevent us from having to think, focusing its energy on far more important tasks, such as sight.

However, Willingham does say that our brain enjoys solving a puzzle, provided that the puzzle is neither too easy nor too difficult.  This would seem to go hand-in-hand with the beginning of another book on my list Drive by Daniel Pink.  I have been meaning to read this for some time, especially after showing this trailer for the book and shown it to my students on the last day of school for the past two years.  Pink's suggestion is that for the past 50,000  years or so our motivation to do work has undergone an evolution of its own, which he breaks down into 3 different versions.  "Motivation 1.0" is the idea that our ancestors only looked our for their base needs.  For a while this helped us to survive, but as we evolved and our societies became more complex, so did our motivation.  "Motivation 2.0 " states that with the arrival of the industrial age, we became motivated by "carrots and sticks."  In an industrial world, where many of our actions were the subject of routine, the reward or punishment theory carried us through.

But, our societies and jobs are continuing to evolve and become more complex and our motivation to do those jobs are evolving as well.  A new motivation, "motivation 3.0," has arisen in which we now seek something beyond our base needs and "carrots and sticks" to keep us going and interested in our work.  I am interested to keep going and see how I can encourage "motivation 3.0" in my students and to see if the aligning of these two books continues.