Thursday, February 7, 2013

How do we maximize student effort the first time around?

Being a part of a school district who made the commitment to be fully K-12 standards based five years ago has (to put it mildly) brought many ups and downs.  Implementation of any one radical educational shift and philosophy can bring heartache and struggle, let alone attacking multiple sacred cows at the same time.  Removing zeros from our repertoire, separating academic achievement from behavior, and eliminating extra credit just to name a few.  Although some of those shifts were easier than others, there are a few places where we are still trying to take the ideal (and ultimately best for our learners)  and make it real inside our classrooms.  We know that providing students multiple opportunities to show evidence of their growth or learning is right and best for kids, but what does that look like with jam packed classrooms and jam packed curriculum's?  And what do we do when students who know they will have opportunities to revise or remediate take advantage of that by not doing their best work the first time around? 

We have been very fortunate to have some experts help define our core philosophies and support us in our learning journey over the past few years: notably Rick Wormeli (@rickwormeli) and most recently Dylan Wiliam (@dylanwiliam).  On Tuesday,  Dr. Wiliam answered questions and engaged in conversations with teachers and administrators at all levels  around some of the issues mentioned above, but the conversation weaved its way into many concerns and questions above and beyond assessment practices.  I have done my best to summarize and categorize  Dr. Wiliam's perspectives and the learning that occurred from this unique experience.  (My apologies to Dr. Wiliam if I didn't quite get it all right.) Below are my takeaways. 

1) A student's willingness to complete work to the best of their ability (or at all) is a reflection of the culture a classroom teacher creates for that individual student. As teachers we have a moral obligation to know each of our students as people and more specifically as learners. When students are not learning, we need to question and challenge ourselves to not only diagnose what is getting in the way, but do something about it. Many of us believe that daily conferencing with a child is important (and could help us determine what is getting in the way for that child) but the structure of our classroom may not allow for that to happen. If our structures (re: too much teacher directed lecture) get in the way, we must change them. We need to be open to asking ourselves if we are getting in the way of our students learning and then be courageous enough to get out of the way.
2) A teacher does not have the ability to motivate a child to learn intrinsically. This will be a hard pill to swallow, but ultimately the best we can do is create a climate or culture that supports each students ability to learn. How do we do this? Dr. Wiliam gives us a clue when he tells us that this happens through "engagement and responsiveness". We need to provide actionable feedback that encourages effort and growth. As teachers, we must also question whether our use of extrinsic rewards (ie. grades, bribes, competition) are detrimental to our students ability to tap into their intrinsic desires to learn. 
3) Students will complete tasks on time and to the best of their ability when they have skin in the game. How often do you provide students choices in your classroom? How much of what happens in your classroom is done without asking for student input? Do you allow your students to show what they know and can do in ways that make sense to them? How often do students have input in the creation of an assessment? What about the rubric or evaluative process? Do you encourage students to ask deep meaningful questions surrounding your curriculum and then support them in grappling and ultimately answering them? How much control are you willing to give to students in support of their learning?
4) Creating a culture that encourages and supports risk taking and failure is a place where learning happens. A classroom where students are encouraged to take risks and are supported when they fail (instead of sorted by grades and/or made to feel as if they aren't smart enough) will help students to want to try their best the first time because the goal becomes solving the problem and/or about improvement. As teachers, our job is to help students challenge themselves as well as pushing them to places they themselves did not think was possible. As Dr. Wiliam reminds us, "The difference between a good violinist and a great violinist is that while good violinists practice what they can do, great violinists practice what they can't do." Are we creating meaningful opportunities for our students to try and do what they can't yet do?
5)"We are preparing our students for a future we can't even imagine" (D. Wiliam) The goal of many "traditionalists" is to return us back to a place where memorization and lecture were king and that the only way our students can be prepared for the real world is to force them to learn information by cramming it down their throats, practicing things over and over through drill and kill, thus destroying any chances of a student being prepared for a world in which innovation and creativity are becoming even more essential for success. To those who seek to punish students into understanding the harsh realities of a world where deadlines are real and no one ever gets second chances, here is my challenge to you: Don't just settle at having real world consequences, make your classroom a place that reflects the kind of work done in the real world. Provide opportunities for your students to collaborate and design, create and problem solve, explore and troubleshoot, play and fail, innovate and celebrate. Have them do it for an audience that represents real- world conditions with real-world experts. Have them do it transparently so others can evaluate their work and provide feedback.
Remember: just because we can't quite envision the future for our students doesn't mean we should hold them back from creating and defining it for themselves.

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