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Tag: student motivation and engagement

How Data Notebooks Can Support Goal-Setting and Student Agency in Elementary School

February 25, 2019 by

This is the final article in a nine-part “In Real Life” series based on the complex, fundamental questions that practitioners in competency-based systems grapple with “in real life.” Links to the other posts can be found at the end of this article.

Goal-setting plays a big role in a personalized, competency-based learning environment: cultivating an awareness of why you’re working on what you’re working on, what’s next and instilling a sense of ownership over your learning and in your classroom community.

Even when you’re six.

At Batesburg-Leesville Primary School in Batesburg-Leesville, South Carolina, students in first and second grade keep data notebooks to help them record their behavior, reading goals and progress. They track their growth each day and reference their data notebooks not only when they’re working, but also as a means of reflecting on their week. The data notebooks make students’ learning tangible to them.

Cultivating an awareness of learning is critical for all students – especially those students who struggle. According to Michelle Maroney, a second-grade teacher, “that visible record changes a student’s thinking. Before when we gave assessments, it was just taking a test. Now when they take an assessment they can see what it looks like from the last time to what it looks like today. They have that   visual,” says Maroney. “For kids way behind grade level, they feel defeated a lot. But when they can see their growth, they move at a much higher rate.”

(more…)

Red Flag: When Habits of Work and Learning Become Extrinsic Motivation

August 29, 2017 by

If I had only two choices between a thumbs-up and thumbs-down, I don’t know which I would use to comment on Portland School District’s new policy that will prohibit students from participating in extracurricular activities if they don’t meet the expectations for demonstrating the habits of work and learning. It is a great idea for a school district to embrace the idea of Habits of Work and Learning (I’ll use HOW as an acronym to indicate the behaviors and skills students need to learn only because HOWL raises images of wolves in my mind), since becoming a lifelong learner is essential to preparing students for college, career, citizenship, and their well-being as adults. However, in tying it to access to and the denial of extracurricular activities, the district has bureaucratized and corrupted the power of using HOW to engage and motivate students.

When you see a good idea at a school, it makes sense that district leaders would want to scale it to everyone. Certainly Portland’s Casco Bay High School a leading example of competency-based education highlights how a competency-based structure (referred to as proficiency-based in Maine) can contribute to a school that has a rich pedagogical theory of learning emphasizing inquiry, communities of learning, and horizon-broadening experiences. The problem is that when we do this, we take a practice out of the context of the culture and related practices that make it work. Implementing habits of work and learning as a gate for whether students can play football will simply never work to improve engagement, motivation, and academic learning, or to prepare students as lifelong learners. Here’s why.

#1 Opening the Door to Opportunities for Learning, Not Closing Them

In competency-based (or proficiency-based) schools, the practice is to shift how we communicate student progress. The traditional grading system is based on points (extrinsic motivation that works for the students at the top and does little for everyone else) for: 1) assignments and summative assessments (which may indicate how well a student understands the material but does little or nothing to motivate students who are not understanding, as they never have a chance to go back and learn it) and 2) points for behavior that may be related to learning or not (being helpful or bringing in cans for the food drive). Zeros for not turning in an assignment are nearly impossible to recover from and will actually chip away at a student’s motivation.

Underlying the traditional grading system are two beliefs: 1) extrinsic motivation is the best way to get students to put in the effort and 2) a focus on ranking students that believes some students are smart and others not so much, and there is little a teacher can do to help students learn. The second one is directly related to our ability as a nation to improve equity or continue to reproduce it – if we don’t think students can really learn, we just pass them on with Cs and Ds. If we believe that all students can learn, if we truly believe the evidence underlying Dweck’s theory of a growth mindset, then we should be constantly seeking out opportunities for students to keep learning and for educators to have opportunity to build their skills to better support students. Instead of ranking, we should be monitoring growth and seeking to discover each student’s potential.

In competency-based grading systems, we make two big changes from the traditional grading system. First, grading is no longer used to rank students. It is focused solely on letting students know how they are progressing toward mastering the material. A student who attempts a unit with misconceptions and/or gaps from previous years may stumble at first and take more time to do some more learning. The scoring system lets them know if they are just getting started, are making progress but aren’t quite there yet, or have mastered the material. All students have a chance of succeeding if they keep at it and if they receive effective instructional support. (It’s important to remember: Asking a student who has a misconception to just keep trying is totally unfair. They’ll never know that they have a misconception and will discover no way of uncovering it. It will only reinforce that they are dumb, when the fact is that no adult offered them the help they need.) (more…)

Building Learning Momentum at Springdale’s School of Innovation

April 24, 2017 by

This is the second post on Student-Focused Learning in Springdale, Arkansas. Read the first post here.

I find it exhilarating when what I hear from people in the field brings to life what I have read in research and know from experience to be true. This sense is especially powerful when the insights come from learners.

I recently spent some time with a group of high school students at the Don Tyson School of Innovation (DTSOI) in Springdale, Arkansas, querying them about their experiences and what makes their learning lives at DTSOI stand out. I received an earful and it was great. It was especially powerful since so much of what I heard is highly consistent with what research tells us about motivation, the role of purpose in learning, and the importance of taking ownership for the direction of our lives.

As educators, we can spend a good portion of our time looking for ways and trying out strategies to motivate learners. We know that motivation is the entry point to stimulate and support engagement in learning. Without motivation, not much learning happens. Yet, as I listened to what these learners were describing about their learning and the environment at DTSOI, I kept wondering if we too often approach this challenge from the wrong direction. One of the young men captured this insight succinctly, “I now understand that I cannot wait for someone to motivate me. I need to be responsible for motivating myself.” What a powerful understanding about life and success! This student’s observation begs the question of whether we should be spending less of our time trying to motivate students and more time focusing on developing the ability and inclination of students to be the source of their own motivation. We know that the ability to self-motivate is a key life skill, but how can we build this capacity in learners? More about that later.

While I was absorbing the significance of helping learners build the capacity to motivate themselves, another student followed with an equally powerful observation. She noted, “At DTSOI, almost everything we do has a purpose. Whether it is what we are learning in class, participating in an internship, or listening to people talk about the real world, there is a purpose behind it.” Again, a powerful insight about success in life. The more we see the purpose in what we do, the more likely we are to focus on and persist in achieving what we set out to do. If we can help students to seek and see purpose in their learning, their success is likely to grow. If we can help them to transfer a sense of purpose to their lives, we give them a gift that can last a lifetime. Again, more about this later.

Yet another student observed that what makes learning at DTSOI unique is that students actively participate in planning their own learning paths. He noted that students, with their parents, have planning conferences with school staff. They set goals, decide the direction they want to pursue, and then select and create options and opportunities to form the learning path. Once the path has been created, learners still have regular opportunities to make adjustments and add experiences and elements that combine formal learning in school and community college with less formal, application-based learning in the community. It was clear from the discussion that students found this aspect of their learning very powerful.

So, what do we know from research about learning that parallels and reinforces the experiences these students shared? It turns out there is plenty. (more…)

Advice From Highland Tech Students

November 25, 2014 by

HTCThis is the second post on Highland Tech Charter School. Click here for Part 1.

During my visit to Highland Tech Charter School, which features a personalized, project-based, mastery-based design, I asked students how they might advise other students who were enrolling in HTC or a similar school. Here’s what they had to say:

On Learning, Growth and Progress

  • When you take the placement tests, take them seriously. You don’t have to get stuck doing things you’ve already learned. You may even be able to be placed at a level above your grade.
  • We are not held behind. We are able to get done what we want to do. Sometimes things are really hard so it takes longer. But other things are easier.
  • This type of schools makes you have a better sense of what you are learning. It’s important to know when you are learning the basics and when you are applying your learning.
  • When you get behind, don’t worry. It’s easier to catch up. You just have to demonstrate that you really know something. (more…)

RSU Students Now Proficiency-Based

October 29, 2014 by
School District RSU #14

School District RSU #14 Web

This post was originally published in the RSU14 Maine Fall Newsletter.

The students who are entering kindergarten this year will be working until around the year 2100.

Think about it. Did your head just explode?

In a very real and somewhat scary sense, the future that we’re preparing our kids for hasn’t been invented yet. Employers and colleges throughout Maine and throughout the country say they need graduates who not only know specific things – the content of our classes – they need graduates who know how to learn independently; graduates who are active citizens; graduates who can persevere; graduates who work collaboratively; graduates who can approach problems with both critical and creative thinking; and graduates who can communicate effectively with different audiences.

And it isn’t just some graduates. It’s every graduate.

Every Kid: John Davis, an educator in Maine, puts it very simply, “We are here for every kid.” He says it, rightly, as a moral argument: we have an obligation to every child in our care.

That means something different than it used to. In the past, schools were here to help sort kids and send them off to their particular professions. Some would go to college, some to skilled professions, and many to the mills. That was enough. Schools today have a different mission. Because of conditions in Maine and throughout the world, we need every student succeeding to the highest level possible. RSU 14 is committed to that. It’s necessary for our community, and it’s necessary for our kids. We act on this commitment in a number of ways. (more…)

Spending Time

November 27, 2012 by

Time is one of the most precious commodities in a school, and students should know how to spend their time wisely.  Students frequently expect their teachers to direct all of their time, and they assume that they are free to hang out or socialize if they don’t perceive that they have been specifically directed. This underlying assumption is so pervasive in many school cultures that it isn’t even recognized as a problem. It is, however, a key competency—and independent time management is almost a requirement in a competency-based classrooms.

Teachers universally agree that there is not enough time in the day to do all of the things that are expected. Part of that time crunch stems from the fact that whole class instruction is still a prevalent mode of delivery, and this method inherently wastes a lot of time. Teachers gravitate to whole class instruction because it offers a sense of control and it is easier to manage. Our experience has told us that kids who aren’t being managed are likely to be off task. This doesn’t have to be the case, but it does require some explicit changes in the way that adults talk to students about time.

Teachers have to understand that kids passively wait to be directed because that’s what they have been taught to do. In order to have kids understand that they are responsible for active learning at all times, they have to be taught this expectation and they have to be taught how to manage their time. In my own classroom, I see students in grade 5-8 for a quarter every year. The first time that they come to my room, they sit down and wait for something to happen. That is probably what they do everywhere, but I want them to learn to get their work out as soon as they arrive. That means that I have to devote time to creating an activity that young students, who possess limited executive skills, can initiate independently, and I have to prompt them repeatedly at each arrival. Eventually, they start to get it, and I no longer have to tell them to get started without me. Of course, they are only in my class for a quarter of the year, so they need a little reminder when they come to class the next year, but, in the end, they know that they are expected to get to work as soon as they arrive in my room. Students who are in other classes where this is the expectation find it easier to become self-directed, primarily because the expectation is reinforced by multiple adults in various situations. Those students come to expect that it is their responsibility to get to work. (more…)

Snare Your Students

October 26, 2012 by

Students who are caught up in what they are doing don’t need to be managed, and students who succeed become self-propelling. If you can find a way to make your students’ work personal and meaningful, they will offer extraordinary efforts in the classroom. They willingly pursue challenges that personally matter to them.

I once had a student, Average Joe, who put in no more effort than was necessary for him to ensure that he was eligible to play sports. He was a nice kid, but he didn’t find art exciting. Then I decided to see if I could get my students more engaged by letting them make all of the decisions about their projects. I still identified the concept that they needed to demonstrate, but I let the students design the work that they wanted to do in order to show that they understood the skills and concepts.

The result was that most of the students did better quality work than they had ever done. Average Joe’s engagement was the most startling because he had to publicly defend his change of attitude to his peers. Some of his classmates were perplexed by his sudden dedication to art, but he told them plainly that what he was doing was “his” and because it was his, he wanted it to be “right.” That day, I saw the real power of engagement. I saw Average Joe intrinsically motivated. (more…)

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