Changing the Students We Have: Motivating productivity

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I have not stopped thinking about this quote as I have seen and heard it several times over the past year including here.  As an algebra teacher, I feel compelled to motivate students to reach their potential because understanding math tends to have a lifetime effect in terms of confidence and workplace opportunities.  In more recent years, I have been shifting away from emphasis on test scores (although they have been very good), toward helping students see themselves differently to improve their long-term retention.  My emphasis is shifting more toward being than doing.  If we want our students to be able to accomplish great things, we need teach them to love growing.  Robust growth stems from:

  • Curiosity:  Daniel Willingham’s book, “Why Students Don’t Like School” was transformational to me.  For students to wholeheartedly embrace learning, I need to tap into their (dying?) sense of curiosity.  This is unlikely to come from what I tell them so much as how I inspire them.  Inquiry learning, with strategic guidance, is likely to evoke curiosity, so I’m piloting a textbook that supports inquiry.  It’s amazing to see the difference in students’ attitudes every day.
  • Acting on good passion:  It is important for students to understand that not every passion or feeling is good and/or productive.  If students visualize themselves rolling through life doing whatever they feel like doing, that may not turn out well.  If they visualize themselves victoriously pursuing worthy goals and positive relationships, they are likely to be heading in good directions.  In my observations, when people pursue good things,  good passions evolve within the pursuits. This seems to fit well with what neuroscience is telling us.* Inquiry learning teams support tenacious pursuit as students make sense of concepts through productive struggles that result in celebrations.
  • Self-Regulation:  Along with encouraging students to channel their feelings toward good pursuits, I help them understand the power of restructuring their brains as they exercise self-regulation.  Many students have received inaccurate messages, “I can’t change how I feel” is a common screen line and is lyrically embedded in many popular songs.  In my classroom, I often see students who are distraught because they feel trapped by their own inner turmoil.  Certainly we cannot prevent unwanted thoughts, but how we entertain them makes a huge difference.  Neuroscience has the potential of empowering students to map out positive paths, move toward them, and even rewire their reactions to various stimuli.*  When students feel unsuccessful while learning, their instincts may be to give up.  But those instincts can be tempered and responses rerouted with help from their teammates who are also learning empathy and compassion. In this way, the teams build communication, collaboration and perseverance long before they encounter the ultimate tests awaiting them in the workplace.
  • Appropriate challenge:  While few educators have the time to individualize instruction for 150 students (or 25 students and 8 subjects), low-floor, high-ceiling tasks can efficiently accomplish that.  With such resources, all students have access to broad depths of learning, equitably and without tracking.
  • Retrieval practice over time:  When my students arrive in the fall, they are often accustomed to “completion grading” practices where accuracy is not counted against them.  One of my greatest challenges is to convince students to approach each assignment as a “self assessment,” checking their answers and pursuing revised understanding every day.  Concepts are reviewed and interleaved (spaced over time), so when my students self-assess and improve understanding with each assignment, they grow very strong.  I try to avoid “review packets” simply because many rely on those to cram for tests, quickly forgetting key concepts almost overnight.  To help students make that transition, I share specific information from learning science they tend to find both surprising and motivating.

I am seeing all these growth catalysts in the inquiry-based algebra I am piloting.  The low-floor, high-ceiling tasks empower my students to reach their potential with mathematical content; and the team-based interactions are empowering students with visions of what they can become as they move toward adulthood and into the workplace.  These are very exciting times to be teaching and learning.  As I shift away from emphasis on points toward vision casting, I am seeing students grow to greater depth of content at the same time as they gain emotional stability and life skills.  In my thinking, it just doesn’t get any better than that.

*The Brain That Changes Itself (2007).  Norman Doige, M.D.


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