Friday, January 30, 2015

Autonomy, mastery and purpose works

Today I started class by making some points about their Gattaca responses--most of them had some revision to do. I had thought about just giving them credit so they could move on to the next assignment without revision. Decided against it. I want all of their work to be quality work. Nothing just for credit.

Same thing went for their cancer prevention assignments. A few had been turned in, so I had seen that they need to go for more depth on their explanations and use of reliable references. So I touched on that as well in my daily de-briefing.

Then I introduced our new +Starr Sackstein-inspired system for setting goals and self-grading for the next assignment (the discovery of DNA). I told them they would grade themselves afterwards and I would only change it if I felt they had over or underscored themselves.

Then they got to work.

And they worked steadily for the entire first period... and most of the next. The first to drop off and disengage did so a full hour and a half into the two-hour period. That's 75% engagement. And that was the minimum. And that was 1.5 hours of fairly steady, largely self-directed work. Couldn't expect more form a room full of full-fledged adults like myself. No threats. Just autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

I moved from group to group, discussing cancer, their projects, people we knew who were affected, discussing what it means to explain how something prevents cancer, discussing nutrition, a mix of student-initiated and me-initiated conversations.

As he finished his project near the end of class, one student asked, "Do plants get cancer?"

"I don't know," I said, "maybe when they get those growths--burls on them. Maybe that's cancer, but I don't know."

He opened a chromebook to find out.

He reported back later, excited: "Yes, they can get cancer, but it doesn't spread like it does in humans, because their cells don't move."

And that... that is what it's all about. Why am I surprised this works?

Awesome job guys!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Seeing engagement... and success

A student teacher observed my mastery-based class today.

(Most students were working on their Gattaca responses or cancer prevention posters, while a couple were wrapping up previous assignments.)

What most impressed him, he said, was how engaged the students were.

That's funny, because that has been my biggest concern. In the absence of external motivators like hard deadlines and constant threats of point deductions, I worry about how to motivate and engage my students.

But this student teacher's viewpoint is encouraging. It validates the fundamental philosophical foundation of this whole approach: provide autonomy, opportunity for mastery, and purpose, and that will produce engagement.

And it made me realize something: Sometimes all I see is my failures. I envision the "perfect" classroom, and I focus on the shortcomings, problems, issues, and challenges. I hone in on what's wrong, and miss all that's right.

Not good. My students need to know how well they're doing. (And so do I.)

I did the same thing with their Gattaca responses. My first response was to notice what they missed--what they didn't do, instead of noticing the way they all authentically engaged with the content in their own way.

My perfectionism rears it's ugly head more often than I would like. And it is kind of ugly. Though it does have a few redeeming qualities, I'd rather focus on (and enjoy) the good stuff.

And for goodness sake, Bill, this is working. They are working. They're enjoying the class. They're learning. And that's what's important.

It may be a bit messy along the way. Some targets may be missed. A few vocab words may fall by the wayside. A few details forgotten. A few minutes spent playing fantasy football when they should be working. Who cares. More will be spent learning to enjoy learning.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

That elusive motivation

Ever since reading Drive, I've been trying to change my approach to motivating students. I no longer want to motivate them with threats of point deductions and lures of higher grades.

But is it really realistic to expect they will be motivated to do their school work simply because I tap into their desire for autonomy, mastery, and purpose?

I mean, what would they do if there were no grades or accountability at all--if they just came to class and didn't have to do anything?

Ahh, that's the crux of the issue, isn't it. Something's wrong with school because learning is supposed to be inherently interesting and fun. But it's not, and why?

Is it just because we ask them to think too hard, as Hattie and Yates suggest?

Or is it because we really don't supply them with sufficient autonomy, opportunity for real mastery, or purpose?

If that's it, then I guess it is realistic to suppose that autonomy, mastery,. and purpose could be sufficient, if...

If we provide them enough autonomy, enough time to mater things they consider meaningful, things that have real purpose.

Unfortunately, these three things are not easy to provide enough of in the current system (which is why it needs to change).

Until then, my plan is to minimize the credit/grade-based penal system, maximize autonomy, mastery, and purpose, and work towards a more authentic, more human system.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Students determining their own grades

I've been inspired by +Starr Sackstein to work towards a system in which students help determine their own grades. In this video, she describes how she set up a Google form the students could use to self-assess, and in this one, she reflects on their self-assessments.

Hattie's work pointed to "students self-reporting grades" as the greatest of all influences on learning he investigated, so there's little doubt this will be a powerful strategy.

Of course, it's combined with lots of teacher feedback.

Today, as the #blizzardof2015 wound down, I revised the student "Learning Plan" form I've used with my biology and geology classes and combined it with the self-assessment form I've used to make one form students and I can use to track their goals and self-assessments.

I've got it set up so the same form is used for their goal-setting and self-assessment. When they visit the form, they're asked whether they are starting or finishing an assignment. The course is project-based: every assignment is a project designed to allow them to demonstrate mastery of a short list of learning objectives. They always get to choose among options for their projects: posters, essays, animations, labs, etc..

On the new form, they'll record the essential question and standards they are working on, and also what they are shooting for in terms of their rubric score on each standard. After they've finished the project, they return to the same form and use it to assess themselves on the standards. My plan is to make a copy of the form for each student so they can view the summaries of their responses with the Google forms summary feature.

My goal is that they could chart their own progress through time. That will be awesome. And I'd love to allow students to have  a voice in their own quarter grades, like Starr is doing.

I'll let you know how it goes.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Malcolm X and the achievment gap

 “Hence I have no mercy or compassion in me for a society that will crush people, and then penalize them for not being able to stand up under the weight.”
Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X


I'm about half-way through Malcolm X's autobiography, and it's solidifying some developments in my thinking about public education and social justice.

Last year, I read The Children in Rm. E4, and was blown away by damage that has been done (and continues to be done) here in my home state of Connecticut by subtly racist laws, rules, policies, and social norms. It was an impetus in my increasing awareness that often, struggling students are not to blame, at all, for their struggles at school. Even their parents are not primarily to blame.

We are. Our systems are. Our society is.

When we penalize them for their poor performance, we are committing an injustice, crushing them, as Malcolm said, and then punishing them for not standing under the weight.


The complexity and enormity of the interacting factors described in Children were hardly addressed by the outcome of Sheff v. O'Neill, in which the court basically told the state to "just do something about it." It's going to take something more in line with The Harlem Children's Zone combined with a radical regulatory reforms. It's going to take money, but it will be money well spent.

But let's take it one step further, because this principle extends to all of our students. Let's stop blaming them (or their parents) for their poor performance, behavior, and struggles, and start asking questions, identifying causes, finding solutions, providing real, comprehensive help.