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.