Creating the Environment for Learning – Effort and Recognition


flickr photo shared by mrkrndvs under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

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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Creating the Environment for Learning – Objectives and Feedback


flickr photo shared by mrkrndvs under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

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 first of a series of posts covering my own reading, with this one looking at learning objectives and feedback. For before anyone can address the act of instruction, it is essential to set up an environment in which learning can occur.

Learning Objectives

The first chapter addresses the question of why in regards to the environment. The authors make it clear that learning objectives are essential for efficiency and understanding. Specific, but not restrictive, on learning, rather than activities, objectives are the why which drives instruction. They allow for a sense of narrative, connecting with previous and future learning. Made visible to both students and parents, via a workbook, on a whiteboard, as a poster or through a website, objectives provide the means to continually remind and reiterate on the intent.

It needs to be noted that such objectives should not be about simply telling students what they will learn, rather they provide the opportunity for co-creation. As is stated,

Such objectives though do not necessarily have to always be set for students, with the creation of personal objectives providing an opportunity to build intrinsic motivation.

Such personalisation includes using a KWL to identify what students know and want to know or providing a range of choices while staying true to the original objective.

One of the catches with objectives is that they can take on many shapes and sizes. Whether it be the big ideas and enduring understandings offered thought Understanding by Design, through-lines and provocations as provided through the Inquiry Model, the often quoted concept of learning intentions and success criteria or Chris Harte’s focus on skillsets, mindsets and toolsets. In addition to this, there is a difference in the language and complexity of an objective based on the intended audience, whether it be a class of preps or a group of adults.

Feedback

Just as objectives help define the why of learning, feedback helps to maintain this. According to Hattie and Timperley (2007) feedback is one of the most powerful influences on learning and achievement. The problem though is that this influence can be both good and bad.

Only perfect practice makes perfect performance. If students don’t receive specific feedback in a timely manner, then they will keep doing their work incorrectly and reinforce bad habits.

The other challenge beyond being ‘specific and timely’ is not overwhelming learners with too much information. As Pitler and Stone suggest,

Keep the dollops—spoon-size portions—frequent and always targeted on the learning objective.

It needs to be said that just as objectives should not be dictated to students, feedback is not solely the responsibility of the teacher. For just as Steve Wheeler suggests that, “pedagogy is leading people to a place where they can learn for themselves,” feedback should support students with the skills to provide themselves and their peers with appropriate feedback.

The most common form of feedback is through the use of rubrics. These help students identify when they have achieved a particular objective. It needs to be recognised that for some, such as Alfie Kohn, this supposed strength is in fact a rubrics biggest weakness. While Dean Shareski raises concerns about the use of exemplars as being restrictive, especially when it comes to creativity. One comprimise is to give students a voice in the creation of rubrics. The Buck Institute of Education provides a useful ‘Rubric for Rubrics‘ to help with this process. Some other strategies that can be used to support the feedback process include the creation of checklists, gallery walks, providing opportunity for critique and review, as well as using different visible thinking routines.


However you approach learning objectives or the feedback process, Pitler and Stone make clear that what is important is that,

Students know what they are supposed to be learning, have clear direction on how well they are progressing toward that learning objective, understand their role as learners, and have an engaging and interactive place to learn.

So what about you? What has been your experience in regards to setting the why of the learning environment? As always, comments welcome.


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