Marks and Motivation

I know that Daniel Pink’s book Drive has made the rounds in educational circles, but I was watching a Ted Talk recently, and was really struck by the research that contradicts how we try to motivate students in school.  Somehow we think that students will want to do good work because they can earn good marks. But the research Daniel Pink has studied would suggest otherwise. Apparently, extrinsic rewards, such as money (and marks) can actually hinder performance. It doesn’t all the time, and it depends on the task. If it’s something that’s linear, routine, and structured, in other words tasks that don’t require much thinking and can be done on auto-pilot, then yes, we’re likely to work harder to earn more. But if it’s something that requires lateral thinking, creativity, and is non-routine, then extrinsic incentives get in the way. In fact (get this), the greater the incentive, the worse the performance.

Why does it work this way? I think about when I’m trying to do something that requires me to  solve a tough problem or come up with something new, and if I’m required to compete against other people, or worry about the clock, or the reward, it seems like my adrenal glands take over and shut down my frontal lobe. I’m worried more about losing, or not getting the job done, rather than relaxing, taking my time, and allowing the creative juices to flow. But if I’m working in a risk-free, collaborative environment, I seem to be much more productive. I don’t focus on whether or not I’m going to get rewarded; I just focus on the good work I want to do.

And so it works with students. Students are more able to do good thinking if they’re able to work without having to worry about how they’ll show against other students, or whether or not they’re going to get good marks. The research has shown time and time again that students, particularly students who struggle, will make greater gains when they receive descriptive feedback about their work that shows them how to do better, and does not include a mark. We still have to evaluate, but not in those critical, early, risk-taking stages.

So, what does motivate us? According to Pink: Autonomy (the urge to direct our own lives), Mastery (the desire to do something well) and Purpose (the desire to do something that matters). So, next time a student isn’t cooperating, perhaps we should consider which one of these isn’t being fulfilled. Telling them that they’re not going to have a decent job in a few years probably isn’t going to help. Finding out how to help them do well at something they feel good about doing,  might.


Are You Committed, Enrolled, or Compliant?

I said in one of my previous posts that I was slogging my way through Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline. That was a while ago. And I’m still slogging. I don’t really mean that in the negative sense. It’s a slog, because my little brain can only process so much at once. This is dense stuff. It’s good stuff. But dense. And sometimes I feel really dense when I’m reading it, but it actually helped me with a conversation today.

We were talking about how we might move towards a more criterion-referenced way of assessing student performance, and still be able to generate the the quantitative “mark” that is currently required at the high school level. I was wondering about the right question that needs to be asked so we can back up to what we believe about students, what matters for their learning, and what education should look like. My colleague started to wince a bit as he said, “You’re not talking about visioning are you?” I didn’t know. Was I? But I was intrigued. What was it about visioning that seemed more than just a teensy bit painful? I’ve been through the visioning process, and while it was inspiring and built a sense of community amongst the staff, alas, it was still a piece of paper that very few of us could recall later in our day to day operations. Either the language was too vague, too complex, or too whatever.  And that’s probably what made my colleague wince a bit. Two-day retreats are a lot of time and energy to put into something that is forgettable.

So Senge refers to basically five camps of people with respect to shared visions. Those who are “committed” feel “fully responsible for making the vision happen”. They’re not just playing by the rules, they’re creating the rules and structures. Those who are “enrolled” agree with the vision and act according to the spirit of the law, even participate in leadership roles. Those who are “compliant” may or may not agree with the vision. They may be “good soldiers” or they may be doing just enough to fly under the radar. Then there are those who are flat out “noncompliant”, and there are those who are “apathetic”.

The tricky thing is, you can’t force commitment. Well, you can, but by definition, that’s compliance at best. Instead, we have to inquire into each other’s personal vision. We have to ask questions of each other, and we have to question our own assumptions. We have to wander down each other’s paths, and as we do that, we begin to clarify and, hopefully, harmonize. Good leaders continually put that process visibly out in front of them. Visioning is constant, messy, ongoing work. It never gets put away. It’s not the grand gesture. It’s the daily grind. It’s not airy fairy. It’s gritty and tough. Just how I like it.

Nancy’s Imaginary Line

NYC - Central Park: Children's Zoo - Lehman Gates

Last year, one of my teachers, named Nancy, poked her nose into my office with an impish look on her face. She said, “I know you’re busy, but I just HAVE to tell you about what happened with my class this morning.”

Nancy had taken a group of students, aged 7-9, to do what she thought was an exciting outdoor activity. She was impatient to get through the instructions so they could get to the fun.

Her little group stood restlessly around the closed box which contained the equipment for their activity.  She took out 2 pylons and placed them approximately 3 metres apart and asked students to, “Please stand behind the imaginary line that is between the two pylons.”

The students walked over to the space between the two pylons and all stared down at the ‘imaginary line’.

“How thick is the imaginary line so we don’t step on it?”

“I like pink, is it okay if my line is pink?”

“Oh, my line is a zigzag line, so where do I stand?”

“What does an imaginary line really look like anyways?”

“How will I know if the line moves because it’s ‘imaginationish’?”

“Why do they only make pylons orange?” (He was focused on what was holding this line together.)

“Is the line tied to the pylons?”

“Which side of the line do we stand on?”

“Is the line on the ground or off the ground so we know how high to step?”

“Could we please use an imaginary rope instead?”

“How long does the line really go?”

I should tell you that this group of students was not typical. One of Nancy’s talents is working with students who do not naturally show their learning in ways that have come to be accepted as bread and butter in a regular classroom. She is able to find the way in, help them find the tools they need, and build their confidence in showing what they know and can do.

This beautiful exercise in imagination and creative play would never have been allowed to unfold if Nancy had remained focus on the objective of the lesson. Too often, these opportunities, to listen to students and see their ability to play with ideas, are missed when we are looking for a single, correct response.  Good questions, good activities, and good assessment practices, open us up to the minds of our students. And even though they might be completely off base, or travelling down an unexpected path, they provide information to us about their learning and their mental processes that is so critically important.

Nancy learned a great deal that day about her students. She had a glimpse into a world where these students where brilliant masters of their own design. They weren’t learning disabled. They weren’t behaviour kids. They weren’t being rude or trying to derail the lesson. They just wanted to wonder. And Nancy….she just let them.

How I Read My Summer Vacation

All right, let’s face it – summer vacation is officially over. And sadly, with such a beautifully warm past few weeks, it seems like we had to mourn it twice. Now that I have successfully completed the seven stages of grief, I want to tell you about what I read this summer, since that seems to somehow connect where I finished last year and where I am beginning this year.

Alfie Kohn: Beyond Discipline (From Compliance to Community)

I picked this up because we were talking with staff about the purpose of discipline and school rules. Of course, we want students to be able to come to a place that is safe and caring, but we also want to prepare students for a world that is often otherwise. Good citizens are not those who blindly follow authority. They ask hard questions, agitate for change, and demand to participate in their own community. How we handle students who choose to challenge us speaks volumes about the kind of citizen we want our students to be.

Peter Senge: The Fifth Discipline

Not a light summer read. Hence, I am not done. But I really appreciate what he has to say about leadership. Right now I’m at the place where he is talking about translating personal vision into a shared vision. This doesn’t happen at the yearly retreat, but in the day to day conversations where we keep in front of us why we work in schools and what we want that to look like.

Heather O’Neill: Lullabies For Little Criminals

I finally gave in and read this. Didn’t want to, because I knew it would be sad. What else could a story about a ten-year-old girl being raised by her junkie dad in Montreal be? But, at times, the narrative is so incongruously beautiful, it aches.

Kathryn Stockett: The Help

Read this before you see the movie. Or just read the book. For those who don’t already know, it’s about a white woman in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 60s, who collects the stories of black housemaids and publishes the book. You don’t need to be a historian to understand the enormity of such a taken risk. Aside from the social commentary, the characters are what make this book.

Ron Ritchart, Mark Church & Karin Morrison : Making Thinking Visible

If you are an educator, or work in any sort of learning environment, you must, I repeat, you MUST, read this book. I can barely even think where to begin with my comments on this book there is so much to it. Every time I sit down with this book (when I’m taking a break from Senge), I find myself tweeting out every second sentence. There is much that is applicable here in terms of our work with assessment. We need to hold up the looking glass for our students so they, and we, can understand their mental processes, and then help them become better thinkers. I love the deconstruction of Bloom’s taxonomy (description can be a higher order of thinking if done right) and the notion that understanding is not a type of thinking, but the goal of thinking. Another little tidbit: we teach stuff so students can learn to think and understand their world with that stuff, not just so they can tell the stuff back to us.

So that’s that, folks. It was delicious.

Reflections on a PD Day

I know it might not seem like such a big deal, but I was truly inspired by the conversations that were had last Friday, talking about the Leader in Me, Principle-Centred Decision Making, and the New Report Card. As I started picking away at the Ed Plan this weekend, I went back to the points that were generated from those discussions, and realized what a landmine of ideas there were! People are thinking about how they can make Advisory into a venue for Social Action. One group thought they might involve students in looking at curriculum and planning the activities for the year or for a unit. How exciting to think our students might have the opportunity to figure out what they will need to do in order to achieve their learner outcomes. I loved the idea of having more assemblies throughout the year to recognize students for their emulation of the 7 Habits or for their leadership contributions. I then wondered if we might do the same thing with our Fusion Friday news. Perhaps you could nominate each other for all the great things you do for a little highlight in our weekly missive. I also loved the idea of having a monthly focus on different staff members visible in the hallways so people could get to know each other better. Middle years teachers are talking about implementing House Teams (yes, think Harry Potter, but without the wizardry) to bring students together and give them the chance to plan schoolwide activities.

I thought about Amanda’s request to have a buddy class this year, and wondered if we might pair classes up at the beginning of the year so we can build collaborative time for teachers into the schedule for the year. We could plan activities that go beyond the traditional reading buddies. I know that Ben does Storybird with his students, which is an online program where students can choose some artwork and then build a story around those images. I’m sure Fran has at least 1000 ideas about how technology could be used to support that kind of engagement. I’m also thinking that there are all sorts of math activities that could be done during that time. So much bang for our buck here: build relationships, give teachers a chance to collaborate, focus on numeracy and literacy…

I also really appreciated the honest talk about principle-centered decision making. I think what really came out for me was how important trust is to make something like that work. If we always come back to trying to do what’s best for kids, and trusting that we are all at least on that starting page, I don’t think we can go wrong. We might disagree about the appropriate length of a skirt, or when students should be allowed to use their iPods in class, but I think we can work through those differences and still be supportive of one another.

Anyway, thanks for the day.

The Growth Mindset Report Card

Sometimes things in life seem to collide so magically that we are wont to call them coincidence. In reality, it’s probably more like while we are working hard to understand something in one area of our life, we see the connections in others. Our lens is always coloured by the soundtrack we have playing in the back of our minds.

And so it has been for me with reading Carol Dweck’s Mindset and working on Parkland School Division’s new report card. She says: “The great teachers believe in the growth of the intellect and talent, and they are fascinated with the process of learning.”

When I read this line, I almost caught my breath. This was it. This was the vision that had been driving me as I had collaborated with a passionate and gifted group of people to develop a new report card.

Report card. Typically these two words can elicit responses that range from tears, to shudders, to nausea. And that’s not the students – it’s the teachers. I’m not joking. Not even a little bit. The amount of work that goes into trying to write a comment that translates dense curriculum language and learning outcomes, that are often devoid of meaning, into something that is personal and meaningful to students and parents, is a twisted exercise in self-torture. Someone should do a study on teachers around the time after report cards come out. I’m sure we exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

What I am so excited about with this report card is that we are focused on the things that really matter. We’re directly assessing problem solving, investigation, communication in all its various forms (not just reading and writing), collaboration, making connections, habits of mind, making reasoned judgments…all that juicy, 21st century learning, transformative stuff. We’re going to stop spinning on the particle model, the parts of speech, and the historical dates of the industrial revolution, and start focusing more on why they need to know these things. That’s not to say that kids don’t need to know stuff. There are some things that students need to have at their fingertips to be able to exercise these higher order thinking skills. I would prefer if I ever have the misfortune to be on the operating table, that my neurosurgeon not have to Google what his next steps are going to be so he can problem solve his way out of the situation. Do they even have internet access in the OR? Are you allowed to bring your iPhone in there? This doesn’t mean that he won’t have to get creative sometimes, because that’s not real life, or that he won’t need to consult with his peers around the table, because that’s not real life either. We’re going to assess knowledge content, but keep in mind that knowledge is useless without knowing what to do with it.

Speaking of grades, or “descriptors” if you will – these are not about sliding students into a particular box or standard. We should not, MUST NOT believe that students either got it or they don’t. This is a fixed mindset, and this can negatively impact a child as early as pre-school. If children perceive that learning is about what you can innately do on your own, then we’ve lost them. If they believe it’s about hard work, struggle, and perseverance, and that you usually need to get support in some way, shape or form – anyone can play, it’s just a matter of making the choice. Think of the last time you tackled something really difficult, something that was really important, without the support of another person, or access to resources. We MUST believe that all students can learn, that we meet them where they are at, and we find a way to bring them along. We teach them how to get along. The descriptors differentiate based on the kind of support a student needs to achieve. It’s not a question of whether or not the student has achieved the goal. That is assumed. It’s a question of how we got them there. So that’s the first half of the quote: “great teachers believe in the growth of the intellect and talent.”

Here’s the second part – the part about being fascinated with the process of learning: the thing that I have come to find most uniquely engaging and exciting is listening to kids tell me about what was going on in their heads. I didn’t always know what to do with it, and I was often stymied to understand what they were trying to tell me, but I loved trying to solve the puzzle. By focusing on the processes, we are asking our teachers to do exactly that. Observe with eyes wide open. Don’t listen for specific answers. Hear everything they have to say. Even if it’s completely, 100%, horribly wrong, there is tremendous value in what they are sharing with you. Treat it like gold.

In the spirit of the growth mindset, I know that we have not arrived with this report card. I know that there will be things that will cause us to fall flat on our faces. But I’m not afraid of it. I look forward to it it, in fact. How else can we possibly learn?

Interactive Whiteboards: Medieval Educational Practice?

This evening I was enjoying some down time, using the Flipboard app on my iPad to get caught up on some blogs. This rare and semi-blissful time was rudely interrupted when I stumbled across a post by Gary Stager about the needless investment schools are making into interactive whiteboards. Having recently made such a significant investment at Broxton Park School, I read on with a sick feeling creeping into my stomach. Just to give you a taste for the quality of his rant, I share with you one of his more intense passages: Continue reading