The Magic That Happens When Students Set Their Own Learning Goals

“We have to do this work with the students, and not for the students.” -Patty McGee

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I’m not proud of it, but I have seen all eight of the Fast and Furious movies. I have no defense except that I have a soft spot for absurdist early 2000s bubble-gum action movies that involve Vin Diesel and/or Dwayne Johnson. One of my favorite parts of nearly every one of these movies is that each one inevitably has a scene where the racers are involved in an intense race and, right as the moment of truth comes, somebody yells, “Use the NOS!” If you haven’t seen the movies, NOS  refers to Nitrogen Oxide, which is a gas that if piped into an engine significantly boosts its performance for a brief burst. The racer then hits the NOS button (always a giant red button), the car takes off like a rocket, and the good guys just barely edge out the bad guys.

One of the things I like about both the movies as a whole and the NOS scenes is the fantasy of how wonderful it would be if reality were that easy — how wonderful it would be if there existed a button that we and our students could hit to suddenly succeed in our toughest ventures.

The closest we have to this is a topic I talked about last post–wise interventions–which are short, timely, and targeted actions that can rapidly make a huge impact on improving student outcomes and/or closing achievement gaps. In preparation for the first day of school next week, I am going to spend this week looking at a few of the most impactful, and I want to start today with one that can have an NOS-like effect on the learning process, if used right: student goal setting. Continue reading “The Magic That Happens When Students Set Their Own Learning Goals”

Wise Interventions: The Most Important Educational Concept You’ve Probably Never Heard Of (And How to Use It to Help Your Most Vulnerable Students)

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Wise Intervention: a brief, timely action that significantly improves student achievement and/or closes performance gaps based on race and gender.

In Helping Children Succeed (the link has an annotated pdf of the whole wonderful book!), Paul Tough tells the story of a group of Stanford researchers–Geoffrey Cohen, Gregory Walton, and David Yeager–who decided to investigate how we can best help the most vulnerable students, namely those who are grappling with trauma, toxic stress, low-self esteem, and/or feeling like outsiders.

And what they stumbled upon is something that should be as ubiquitous in education as concepts like the growth mindsets and grit (both of which grew out of the same research): wise interventions. Continue reading “Wise Interventions: The Most Important Educational Concept You’ve Probably Never Heard Of (And How to Use It to Help Your Most Vulnerable Students)”

What Should We Do With the Five Paragraph Essay?

“What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.” -Samuel Johnson

As a writing teacher, one of the most common questions I’m asked is how do I handle the five-paragraph essay. If I’m being honest, until relatively recently, I tried my best to avoid this question, as discussion of the five-paragraph essay is the writing instruction equivalent of talking about politics at Thanksgiving. It is the third rail of ELA instruction, with an army of passionate and seemingly intractable supporters on both sides. 

Continue reading “What Should We Do With the Five Paragraph Essay?”

That One Big Thing I Got From These Six Things

A month ago I identified six books that I simply have to read this summer. Since that point I’ve read 5 of 6 (Circe; There, There, These Six Things, Grit, andThey Say, I Say, ), and I’m happy to report that all five have absolutely lived up to my expectations. Out of the five though, Dave Stuart Jr.’s These Six Things is the one that has stuck with me the most. Not only is it the most comprehensive, polished, and practical compilation of Stuart’s work (which regular readers of the blog know I love) to date and loaded to the brim with brilliant suggestions about teaching reading, writing, arguing, speaking/listening, and content, but it begins with a section called “Start With the Heart” that absolutely blew me away. Stuart prefaces it as follows:

All of our work in and out of the classroom ought to be informed by a fundamental, internal layer: the layer of key beliefs. The best kinds of classrooms rely on inside-out learning.

What Stuart so succinctly says here is that in the same way that a vegetable garden bears more fruit in carefully prepared soil, our students will learn and grow best when we cultivate in them a handful of key beliefs about learning, the classroom, and themselves. The beliefs that Stuart recommends we focus on building are the following:

1. I believe in my teacher.
2. I belong in this classroom.
3. I can improve through my effort.
4. I can succeed at this.
5. This work has value for me.

Continue reading “That One Big Thing I Got From These Six Things”

Why I Don’t Grade Anything Until October

main-qimg-2c5b31ed3874d9d845eecddfdd9f5905While they feel inextricably linked with school, grades are actually a relatively new invention, with the first known grades appearing at Yale in 1785 and widespread grade usage (and the current A through F system) only beginning a little over 100 years ago.

While it is hard to imagine a time before report cards, that was exactly the case for thousands of years and in millions of schools, ranging from the School of Athens to Harvard’s early days. In the place of grades in most schools was feedback, with the idea being that school was meant for building knowledge, not sorting students into categories. Of course, before waxing too nostalgic for it being a wiser time, it is important to note that most people (women, non-white, non-wealthy) were generally not welcomed into the halls of education during these times and feedback largely came in the unnecessarily harsh form of critiques delivered by stern-faced professors in front of the entire class. But in the ungraded spirit of those early pre-grade days lies an important point that has been consistently backed up by modern research: teaching someone and rating someone are distinctly different practices that weaken each other when put together. Continue reading “Why I Don’t Grade Anything Until October”

A Simple Plan for Significantly Increasing Student Motivation to Write

I have long been interested in motivation. Why is it that one person will spend 20 or 30 hours a week training for a marathon and someone else will stay up late for weeks on end carefully sanding and breathing in lacquer fumes to refinish an antique table? Why do some students throw themselves into school, or theater, or a sport while others who engage in the same things put in almost no effort at all? And why can some push through even the stiffest adversity while others fold at the first flimsy obstacle they see?

I find these motivational questions endlessly fascinating, and luckily for me the last few years have seen a plethora of new developments and discoveries concerning motivation. A few of the most important for educators include:

  • The University of Chicago, among others, makes a compelling argument in this meta-study that external motivators–both positive and negative–generally decrease future student motivation because they replace the internal joy we get from accomplishing something with a need for receiving or avoiding something externally. One notable exception to this is that for repetitive, rote, and required tasks, external motivators are often needed because these things simply do not inspire internal motivation.
  • The recent book The Motivated Brain explains that the release of dopamine comes not when we get something we want, as was long suspected, but instead when we are in the pursuit of something we want. The new theory is that dopamine is part of a “seeking” system in our bodies designed to get us to constantly seek new information and accomplishments, as from an evolutionary perspective, the creatures that always seek are the ones that live longer and do better. This seeking system explains why seeking-style hobbies like marathon running or refinishing a table appeal to so many and why smartphones and social media are so addictive. In all of these, when we seek something new–whether it is running an extra mile or to see who our Twitter notification is from–our brains reward that seeking with a small shot of dopamine, encouraging us to do the same action again in the future.
  • A large study of critical traits for the 21st century commissioned by the Dept. of Education confirmed what a lot of teachers already know: when students feel that their teachers care and are paying attention, those feelings turn into significantly more motivation to engage with the course work and succeed in it.
  • And of course, there are Daniel Pink’s three keys to what inspires internal motivation: having purpose, having autonomy, and having the belief that we can reach mastery.

But amongst all of this research I’ve read on motivation, potentially the most useful piece is this short post from the University of Virginia’s groundbreaking Motivation Lab called “I Could Be Changing the World Right Now, But Instead I’m Solving for X.” In it, Motivation Lab director Chris Hulleman discusses the expectancy-value theory, which for a theory from a bunch of university professors, is remarkably straightforward. It goes… Continue reading “A Simple Plan for Significantly Increasing Student Motivation to Write”