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.

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