Creating the Environment for Learning – Effort and Recognition


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My school recently started the process of implementing a new instructional model. At the heart of this model is Howard Pitler and Bj Stone’s book A Handbook for Classroom Instruction That Works. Developed from the work of McREL and Robert Marzano, the book unpacks the different facets involved in embedding a culture of instruction. This then is the second post looking at effort and recognition. It often matters little what objectives are set or feedback is given if students approach their work with the wrong mindset. Playing an important part in motivating students, effort and recognition represent the how in regards to creating an ideal learning environment.

Effort

Central to the focus on effort is the work of Carol Dweck around mindset. For Dweck there are two mindsets which govern pretty much everything that we do. They are the fixed and growth mindsets. Those with a fixed mindset see things as black or white, either good or bad. They feel the need to always prove themselves and consider setbacks as failure. In opposition, the growth mindset embraces failure as an area for improvement, effort is rewarded and setbacks are seen as an opportunity for future learning.  Importantly, a growth mindset focuses on process, rather than outcome. This means re-imaging success to highlight improvement over time, rather than where they may sit in regards to some preconceived standards.

A part of this change in mindset is a celebration of hard work over time, what Malcolm Gladwell talks about in regards to the 10,ooo hours rule. Also, there is a focus on autonomy and how this sense of care influences engagement and persistence. Central to this is ongoing emphasis on effort when planning and preparing. This might include incorporating relevant stories, videos, articles, and discussions throughout the year. Larry Ferlazzo has a good collection of examples from film and television. In addition to this, it is important to provide models and structures to support the development of growth mindsets, whether this be planning documents, guides to studying, opportunities for reflection and rubrics to support understandings. At the heart of all of this is creating a common use of language which helps link work and success. This though can be easier said than done.

RECOGNITION

Associated with language and effort is an emphasis on recognition and praise. Connected with objectives and feedback, this is how to support students working toward achieving mastery of their goals. A focus on the goals not only helps personalise the learning, but also drives learning.

With such an approach, the challenge is not to recognise the wrong attributes, such as talent and intelligence. Singling these out often leads to people shying away from activities in which they may face failure, such as goal setting. As Pitler and Stone point out,

Praise can provide students with the motivation to continue working and striving to achieve at a high level, or it can create confusion and competition.

It is therefore important to highlight achievement, however great or small. This might be through the use of various concrete, symbolic tokens, such as stickers, coupons, awards, treats, or other types of prizes. However, such rewards are best aligned with routine tasks and rote learning.

In his take on the problem, Alfie Kohn questions the worth of all practices of carrots and sticks to motivate people. He does however provides four practical suggestions to blunt the damage that may be called:

  1. Don’t praise people, only what people do.
  2. Make praise as specific as possible.
  3. Avoid phony praise.
  4. Avoid praise that sets up a competition

In the end, like all initiatives, we are left with the challenge of developing sustained practice. Alex Quigley touches on the complexity of strategy and solution required to change culture, something that goes beyond a motivational assembly and a few inspiring videos. A quick, well targeted and stealthy approach may be more effective, one focused on metacognition and self-regulation.

Although Pitler and Stone argue that effort, and recognition thereof, is the only thing that we can have an influence on, Alfie Kohn points out that this may in fact be an example of fixed mindset. Kohn contends that to merely focus on effort without considering the wider conditions in which they occur does more harm than good.

An awful lot of schooling still consists of making kids cram forgettable facts into short-term memory. And the kids themselves are seldom consulted about what they’re doing, even though genuine excitement about (and proficiency at) learning rises when they’re brought into the process, invited to search for answers to their own questions and to engage in extended projects. Outstanding classrooms and schools — with a rich documentary record of their successes — show that the quality of education itself can be improved. But books, articles, TED talks, and teacher-training sessions devoted to the wonders of adopting a growth mindset rarely bother to ask whether the curriculum is meaningful, whether the pedagogy is thoughtful, or whether the assessment of students’ learning is authentic (as opposed to defining success merely as higher scores on dreadful standardized tests).

Adding to this argument, Peter DeWitt suggests that as teachers we need to learn to stop being so fixed in our own approaches and that this is in fact the real problem. Ironically, Dewitt suggests, teachers are in fact the biggest inhibitors of students developing a growth mindset as they fail to allow any sense of autonomy when it comes to learning. What is needed is an approach that goes beyond mere lip service and changes things from the ground on up.

So what about you? What is the place of effort and recognition in your classroom? How do you create an environment in which students are continually reminded that they are capable of learning the most challenging content and processes? As always, comments welcome.


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Aaron Davis

I am an Australian educator supporting schools with the integration of technology and pedagogical innovation. I have an interest in how together we can work to make a better world.

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2 thoughts on “Creating the Environment for Learning – Effort and Recognition

  1. Hello Aaron,
    Thank you for this interesting piece. Referring to your introductory slide, are there any thoughts of replacing the term “mastery” with something like “proficiency steps”. I may never become a master guitar player, but I would still like to know I am progressing against some standard of proficiency.
    Your support quotes and artifacts are excellent. By providing students voice and choice, educators are increasing the likelihood of greater proficiency through increased motivation (purpose, autonomy).
    You know I’m a passionate believer in self-determined learning. I think the concepts associated with heutagogy go hand-in-hand with your instructional model.
    As always, thank you for providing this learning forum,
    Bob

    1. Thank you Robert for your comments. You make an interesting point. The reality is that Pilter and Stone use the term mastery. However, I think that it could quiet easily be replaced with proficiency, as it is about setting goals that you can then be recognised for. Goals that are about growth and about you.
      I am really intrigued to the place of different learning methods and that is one of my reasons for systematically breaking it all down. Thank you for being a part of the process.

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