Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Confidence to Set Sail

I have always taken great former-English-major satisfaction in the fact that the final moment of our students' academic careers--at both the high school and post-secondary levels--is called "Commencement."  As most people know, "Commencement" means "Beginning." Though many students, and their parents, no doubt see graduation as an ending, paradoxically it is a time of starting, of launching, of embarking. The ceremony is meant to raise the sails, not drop anchor. No doubt many Commencement speeches make this point.

QISA's 8th Condition is Confidence to Take Action. It is associated with the Guiding Principle of Purpose. Our Framework connects the notion of a young person's belief that they can be successful with the level of intention, commitment, and concern for others that marks a life lived with Purpose. But QISA's survey results have consistently revealed a troubling gap: While 93% of students believe they can be successful, just 71% of students believe they can make a difference in this world. This means there are a significant number of students who see no connection between their own success and a positive impact for others. So what is this confidence a confidence in or for? If students feel confident in their sailing forth, where do they think they are headed if not to the world's betterment?

There may be a clue in another Confidence to Take Action indicator: On average 7 out of 10 (69%) 6th-12th graders agree with the statement "School is preparing me well for my future", but only 56% of high school seniors agree. Apparently the longer students are in school, the less they feel they are being prepared for their future--school being a merely academic set of exercises that students hope end upon graduation. Consider: Service Learning notwithstanding, how does a more or less traditional education (learning in disciplined silos, desks in rows, etc.) prepare a student not just to be confident, but to act. Not just to sit down and pay attention, but to get up and do something. In fact to get up and change something for the better. Perhaps some students see no connection between their success and the world being improved because making a difference in the world requires action, not just confidence. And while school has given them confidence, it has definitely not given them permission to be disruptive.

Dreaming is great, it provides students with a destination. And confidence can be a self-generated wind, propelling students toward their goals. But a destination and a strong wind are useless, unless one undertakes the hard work of raising the sails. Action is required to commence with the world's improvement. If we have not taught that this year, how will we start doing it next year?

Thursday, April 9, 2015

I Get No Respect

Those of us of a certain generation remember the signature line of the stand-up comedian Rodney Dangerfield: "I tell ya, I get no respect." He would tell story after story of how he got no respect from anyone. My favorite was when he explained that his parents tied a pork chop around his neck so the dog would play with him. No respect.

The other day in a focus group, I could swear I saw a teacher tug at a red tie when he said, "I get no respect." He was talking about how students in his building did not respect him or other adults. He went on to complain about his students' families and to wax on about the golden days when his father would deal with disrespect with a firm hand. He concluded with, "I tell ya, I don't give a kid respect until I get respect. My respect needs to be earned." (Ok...maybe he didn't say "I tell ya" but the rest is accurate.

I have written about this previously, but it is worth repeating because it keeps repeating itself.

In the absolutely reciprocal relationship that is respect between a teacher and a student - I respect you, if you respect me - the adult has to go first. When adults tell me that they will show a student respect when a student shows them respect, I always think they will be waiting a long time. Maybe it's my age, but at 50+ I am not waiting around for some 13 year-old (I have neckties that are older) to respect me before I show them the respect I believe is due to all human beings. I refuse to let anyone's incomplete upbringing negate the wonderful job I believe my parents did with mine. Even students in focus groups, when this topic comes up, get it that the adult has to start.

The fact of the matter is, there is no way to disrespectfully teach someone who is disrespectful to respect you. The only way to teach respect, to get another person who is being disrespectful to respect you, is to respect them in spite of their disrespect. It turns out that when someone treats you respectfully, even if you disrespect them, they come to learn what real respect is and to then treat you with respect. Teacher respect for students must be a constant even in the face of variable respect from students.

If you are a teacher trying the Wait-to-Get-Respect-Before-Giving-It strategy with students, you might want to consider stand-up comedy instead.

Thursday, November 13, 2014


Whenever something like this happens, I am mindful of educators I have met who do not think Fun & Excitement has a role to play in academic pursuits. That somehow intellectual seriousness and emotional engagement are incompatible. That you can either be learning or having fun, but not both.

I am not talking about a "straw man"--some hypothetical extreme I am setting up to make a point. I have met educators who insist that the two need to be separate if students are to learn. A principal once told me she thought we did students a disservice if we did not occasionally bore them. "Life is not all fun and games, you know?"

I submit that the successful landing of Rosetta--and the countless other times we have seen a group of serious-minded people throw their hands up ecstatically at achieving a goal--indicates exactly the opposite. What drives people in a years-long and intellectually challenging serious pursuit is not mere science or history or language or mathematics; it is passion. Dare I say, love.

Here's to the men and women who dreamed of landing a space probe on a planet and made it happen. Here's to dreaming and doing.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Real Common Core?

Michelle Harvin at EdTechTimes recently wrote about a Harvard Study by Dr. Hunter Gehlback  (whom I have had the pleasure of meeting) which found that when teachers and students discover interests they have in common, they do better academically. The article, Study Finds Social Connectedness in Classrooms Improves Grades, notes that, after a get-to-know-you survey, "the research team gathered the grades at the end of the first quarter and found that when teachers received feedback about being similar to their students, the students earned higher grades." The effect was most pronounced for Black and Latino students.

QISA research thoroughly supports this finding. QISA studies show that when students experience the support of teachers, they are 8 times more likely to be academically motivated than those who do not feel similarly supported.  That academic motivation can inevitably translate into better academic performance. Actually for us, academic motivation, is a better metric. Lots can happen to produce improved academic performance. Cramming, improving test taking skills, having a teacher teach to the test, even cheating, are all ways to improve academic achievement. For my own children, I would want their improved academic performance to emerge from academic motivation and mastery.

The key to creating life-long learners is in learners wanting to learn. And absolutely wanting to learn develops when your teachers want to learn something about you. We hear all the time in focus groups that students work harder, study more for, pay attention to teachers who they believe care about them as a person and not just as a student. The real "common core" turns out to be, not the object matter we want students to learn (i.e., the academic disciplines), but our common bond as persons and as learners. That's at the core!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Election Day

One of my favorite outcomes of Aspirations work is the following. The staff in this middle school had worked on student voice for a few years and wanted to put something systemic/structural in place. Moreover, they knew they needed to address "Old Guard" concerns about giving students too much say. In essence, they needed checks and balances in their system. Where better to look for a model than the U.S. Constitution.

They were able to create a “balance of power” in school leadership based on the idea of different branches of government. The administration was appropriately considered the “Executive Branch” and was responsible for enforcing all school rules, among other things. The “Legislative Branch,” responsible for overseeing and creating policies and procedures, was made up of a Faculty Senate and a Student House of Representatives. Faculty elected senators to a two-year term from among a list of student-nominated teachers and students elected representatives to a one-year term from a list of faculty-nominated students. The “Judicial Branch” was a group of five staff members and four students selected by the administration and approved by the legislative branch. Note that this gave the staff a majority bloc for handling discipline disputes, if it came to that, but students seemed to understand and accept this fact. All students learned about this system of government in their social studies classes. Students at this school believed that students had a genuine voice in decision making.

Monday, November 3, 2014


Last week I was interviewing students in focus groups. The first group were 3rd graders, then 4th, then 5th, ending with 6th. Maybe it was because they came at me in such neat developmental order, but I noticed something interesting I hadn't noticed before.

When I asked the third graders what made them work their hardest in school, almost all of them mentioned getting prizes of some kind or another: from small toys, to extra time to play, to parties. When I asked the 4th and 5th graders, most of them answered with the importance of their efforts to getting into college and/or getting a good job. When I asked the 6th graders, most of them answered that they liked learning new things or were motivated to try harder when they got something wrong.

Do you see it? There is a move from extrinsic rewards (prizes that have little natural connection to the effort to earn those prizes) to external, but internally desired rewards (benefits that have a natural connection to the effort to earn them) to intrinsic rewards (benefits that are directly related to the effort itself). The 3rd graders were all about the bling, the 4th and 5th graders were all about the future payoff, the 6th graders were all about the learning for learning's sake.

There has been a lot written about extrinsic vs. intrinsic rewards in education. Some say motivating students with stickers and various kinds of prizes is a necessary transition to the more mature intrinsic motivation that comes later. Other say that extrinsic rewards do students no favors, teaching them only that learning has some other goal whether it be grades or, later in life, money.

For now let's agree that those 6th graders are on their way to becoming lifelong learners.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Important Tests: Part of Quest or Cause to Obsess?

If I asked you which of two students, a college senior or a third grader, was more obsessed about an important test that loomed on their educational horizon, what would you guess?

I listened in on two conversations recently: One was eavesdropping and the other was watching a colleague work with some third graders. On my flight into Pittsburgh, I overheard a college senior tell his seat mate that he was flying home to take the MCAT exam. He thought it would be a good idea to get a solid night's sleep in his own bed, be around the support of his family, and have a home cooked meal. The test was obviously important to him. He did not seem overly stressed, just wanting to do his best for this important step on his quest to go to medical school. His attitude seemed entirely appropriate and right-sized.

The next day a colleague was talking with a group of third graders about their experiences of school in a district in Ohio. She was asking general questions about why it was important to do well in school, why paying attention was important, and why they thought teachers wanted them to be successful. These third graders kept coming back with the same answer no matter what the question: "To do well on the OAA."  "To pass the OAA." "The OAA." "OAA." In a word they were obsessed. Third graders. Our own Q-Team in the building had made a dozen "We Will Rock the OAA" type posters and were planning and OAA pep-rally. Does this seem appropriate or right-sized to you?

I wanted to hear that it's important to do well in school so that you can become a doctor or a lawyer or a baker or a candlestick maker or whatever you want to be. That paying attention was important because you can't learn if you don't pay attention. I wanted to hear that their teachers want them to be successful because they know their teachers care about them. After 30 years in education am I that naive?

How did we get to a place where a roomful of 8 year olds think the entire purpose of school is to do well on a state standardized test? How did we make that the goal of education? Aren't tests, as the student on the plane seemed to know, a means to the end of a young person's aspiration? Isn't there a way to have students take the test seriously without obsessing? What have we done to make elementary students think the test itself is the end, the purpose, the telos of the third grade?

Sadly, I am not naive and I know the answer to this. We have made students think the test is the goal of education because we have made teachers think it is the goal of education; and we have done that by making schools think it is the goal of education; and we have done that by making districts think it is the goal of education; and we have done that by making the stakes-based-on-test-scores so high for schools and districts. At the highest levels of our state and federal education accountability systems those tests, given on one day, the primary measure of how a school will be judged as successful or not.  Even though those tests do almost nothing to measure curiosity, creativity, collaboration, technical proficiency, or interpersonal skills--some of the very qualities it actually takes to be a successful person in the modern world. Nor do they measure the Self-Worth, Engagement, or Purpose than we know leads appropriately to the the academic motivation that sees tests as a means to an end.  Prior to the test, teachers spend a lot of time and energy talking about the importance of the test. After the test, schools play games and go on field trips and watch movies.

We have done this.  And we can change it.