Tag Archives: Costa

It’s Not The Kids’ Fault!

I had a conversation yesterday that disturbed me. “The problem with teaching is a lack of respect,” I was told. I assumed this person meant a lack of respect for the profession of teaching. But I was wrong. He was suggesting that the poor behavior of kids today was because the kids lack respect for their teachers. He described how, when he was a boy, students would stand up straight, next to their desks when the teacher entered the room, greet the teacher in unison and then wait until they were told to sit down. I remember that too – but not fondly. That wasn’t respect. It was obedience, often without thought and regardless of how the students felt about the teacher. An iron rule will achieve that kind of obedience for even a loathed teacher. It has little to do with respect.

Within the same school, with kids allocated basically at random to different teachers, I have seen some teachers able to have students eating out of their hands, while another has them cursing and throwing objects around the room. What’s the difference? The students are pretty much the same in both classrooms. The difference is the teacher. I recall walking into a grade three classroom where every child was head down, working quietly on some project or other. I looked for the teacher – she wasn’t there. Down the hallway I had had to put a teacher’s assistant in a classroom in order to help the classroom teacher maintain a semblance of order so the kids could learn.

I’m tired of hearing that the kids are the problem. We have always had difficult kids. In the past, order was maintained with the strap and with fear. Kids feared teachers, the principal, and their parents if word got home of misbehavior. Much of that fear has gone and some teachers struggle with finding something to replace it.

What is it that some teachers do in challenging classrooms filled with kids from difficult backgrounds? It really comes down to a small number of powerful, practical strategies. These teachers have clearly established routines. They are consistent and they do what they say will do. Their kids know explicitly what is expected of them and they know what success will look like. Above all this, these teachers know how to engage their kids in activities that grab their intellects, their senses and their emotions.

They also know that if they can effectively teach their students how to think skillfully, they will be able to approach everything that goes on in the classroom from an intelligent, thoughtful point of view. By teaching the behaviors that characterize thoughtful, successful people their students will know how to listen with empathy, to manage their impulsivity, to think and work interdependently.

Where do our teachers learn all this? In my experience teacher education programs today offer very little explicit teaching about the HOW of teaching. They focus on the WHAT. Some of our teachers, those who have completed the short course teacher preparation programs, have only demonstrated that they were good learners. They are then sent into schools where, with the support of teacher mentors, they are expected to learn all these things by watching them in action. That assumes two things – that they will see the best examples of how teaching can be done, and that the teacher mentors have the time to spend with them, to educate them in their profession. Those who complete longer professional preparation programs are still often short changed in the pedagogical education they need to be effective teachers with their first class.

How effective was your preparation to be a teacher? Did it teach you how to teach or were you expected to learn most of it ‘on the job’? How would you feel if your surgeon, your accountant or your motor mechanic learned the techniques of his trade ‘on the job’, just by watching someone else do it? Would you be happy to be one of his first patients or clients?

As we tinker away with curriculum and assessment and as we advocate for better facilities and more technology, let’s not forget that the greatest influence on student achievement is none of these.

The most important factor is the teacher. Improving teacher education may be a long term solution, but it’s the only one that will make a difference.

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Show Me How To Make Up My Mind. Please!

I really want my kids to be able to make up their own minds about things. I want them to check out the evidence, verify it, set it against what they already believe to be true, listen to what other people have to say, add a bit of direction thanks to their moral compass and then make decisions. How do we teach them to do this?

When I taught grade one and two I had a vigorous discussion with a parent because I was not ‘leveling’ the books that his son was bringing home to read each night. The practice was then, and still is in many schools, to classify books according to a set of rules about difficulty – sentence complexity, vocabulary, conceptual levels, they were all taken into account. Children were then tested to determine an appropriate level and they were required to select their reading from that level. I didn’t like this process one little bit.

Research has shown that children may initially select books that are too hard or too easy for them, but in a fairly short time they will develop the ability to self-select the books that interest them and are within their ability.

I wanted my kids to understand their own reading ability, to be metacognitive learners who could regulate and adjust their learning. This begins by knowing which books are too hard. I wanted them to take charge of their own learning by giving them the freedom to select a book with lots of really hard words and long sentences but about something that fascinated them. I wanted them to choose for themselves to struggle with something simply because it was worth the effort.

I had fallen in love with some books in my childhood because of the illustrations, the feel of the paper, the smell of the cover, and I wanted my kids to experience that kind of love affair too. My passion for some of these books had nothing to do with the length of the sentences or the vocabulary, nothing to do with the subject, but something about the heft of the book in my hand, the feel of the cover when I ran my fingers across it. These books would have been way outside my ‘level’.

I wanted to give my kids the experience of making choices so that they could get better at it.

When I became a principal I was able to have some influence over curriculum planning. In one school my staff created unit planners that were wonders to behold. They were created on huge sheets of paper and offered these primary level kids choices about the areas of the topic they would focus on, the primary learning styles they would use, the levels they were working in in Bloom’s taxonomy, the ways in which they would record and then share their learning. With oversight from the teacher, the kids would track their own choices to make sure they were stretching themselves and not stuck, for example, in only visual learning, written presentations, recall and description and working solo. They were being helped to be metacognitive learners who understood and regulated their own learning.

When teaching at tertiary level I have given students the opportunity to write their own exam questions. The only advice they were given was to write questions that would demonstrate how much they knew, and the more they knew (obviously) the higher the grade they could earn. Assessment was something they were doing for themselves rather than something that was being done to them.

How do you organize your teaching so that children are taught how to be metacognitive learners who understand their own learning and can make their own informed choices?

Why would we expect young people to make good choices if we haven’t taught them how?

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Filed under Behavior management, Language and literacy, Thinking

“How’s the boy?” “Oh, he’s dead.”

Let me tell you a story. It’s all about assumptions and communicating with clarity and precision. Maybe it has a little to do with listening with empathy too.

I had a friend.  She had a dog, and a small boy. She didn’t like the dog much. It had been left behind by a previous boyfriend, was bumptious and far too big for her small inner city home. Every day she took the dog for a walk in the park. Of course, her son came too. Anyone who has been a regular dog walker knows that relationships are built with the other pooch people in the park.

A couple of years after the dog’s death I was shopping with my friend when a shop assistant recognized her and exclaimed “Hello! So good to see you. How’s the boy?”

Remembering her from the park, my friend announced, “Oh, he’s dead.”

I watched the interaction unfold. The woman’s face fell and she stumbled over her words as she tried to express her sympathy for what seemed such a tragic event conveyed so bluntly. “That’s terrible” she said. “What happened?”

“It was some sort of leukemia, I think” replied my friend. “We were a bit upset at the time, but really, we decided it was probably all for the best in the end. The house just wasn’t big enough for us all and he was eating so much – a fortune to keep.”

The shop assistant was lost for words as my friend turned away with “Well, we must continue on. Things to be done” and swept off towards the china department.

As I followed, I explained that the woman had been asking about her son, not the dog. “Stupid woman”, said my friend, “Why didn’t she say so?”.

I have often wondered what that poor woman told her husband when she got home that night. I know I have dined out on the story for years. Amusing? Yes, but also sad because it demonstrates so clearly the misunderstandings that can occur when we fail to place ourselves in the other person’s shoes, when we blithely launch forth without attempting to examine our own or other people’s assumptions.

Our continued growth and learning as human beings depends on our ability to question assumptions, to listen with empathy and understanding and to communicate with clarity and precision. Failure to do so can create some amusing situations,

but it can also lead to unproductive and sometimes dangerous misunderstandings.

I would love to hear some of your examples, both amusing and serious, when the failure to exercise these Habits of Mind led to miscommunications and unexpected consequences.

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Wow! Congratulations for Being Human

I have written about this before. It’s time to go a bit deeper. We have become hooked on a weird interpretation of praise. Afraid that our children might grow up with a less than optimal sense of self-esteem, we lavish them with praise for the oddest things. Little Mary comes home with 10/10 for spelling – yet again – and we tell her what a clever girl she is. Johnny wins the grade three running race and we frame his medal. But what has Mary really got to be proud of if she just happened to be born with the kind of memory that easily remembers and recalls visual spelling patterns? Why should Johnny feel a sense of achievement because he was born with longer legs and the kind of musculature that makes it easy for him to run fast? They really didn’t have to do much more than turn up in order to do well.

If we want our children to become people who strive to improve, who are prepared to put in the hard work it will take to solve the serious problems we face as a society, let’s start praising our children for something more than simply existing. Let’s praise them for the efforts they make.

We have far too many bright children in chains because we told them how clever they were for nothing more than being who they were. They are the ‘gifted under achievers’ whose sense of worth got all confused and mixed up with the innate gifts they were told they had, rather than the use they made of those gifts. These kids face the risk of losing who they think they are every time they face a challenge they may not be able to lick easily. Who wouldn’t back away when the odds are so high?

So what do they do instead? They deliberately fail by not turning up at tests, by failing to hand in work, they feel sick when there is an exam or they decide that they have a lousy teacher, a disruptive work group or too many personal problems. Their school reports are filled with comments about how they have “not reached their potential”. If my sense of self is tied to someone’s idea about my potential, it becomes a very risky business to try and reach it. What if it isn’t actually as high as everyone thought it was? What if I fail along the way? That will mean I am a failure.

Meanwhile the kids who knew that they had to earn praise by actually doing something are working hard to improve, seeing mistakes as pointers to the next things they need to learn. For them failure isn’t any threat to their self-esteem because they understand that their sense of achievement comes from getting better at things that are really hard in the first place. When these kids fail at something, they only become ‘failures’ if they give up. Carol Dweck describes this as having a ‘growth mindset’ rather than a ‘fixed mindset’. Check out her book “Mindsets’, it is well worth the effort.

It’s hard, but not impossible to help these kids remove the chains that hold them back, but it is far better not to forge them in the first place. Part of the secret is to praise effort rather than ability. Ability is more or less what we were born with. Why would we expect praise for something that had nothing to do with us? Being lucky enough to come from a particular gene pool, be born in a particular social stratum in a prosperous country may be cause for gratitude, but not for pride. So keep the praise for what our children DO rather than who they are.

The very act of providing praise can restrict growth and learning. Carol Dweck explains how it is that students who are praised for being clever can actually perform more poorly on tests, including IQ tests, when compared with those who are praised for putting in effort. Dr. Arthur Costa, in his teachings on Habits of Mind advises us to hold back on judgmental responses when a student answers a question in class. Praise for an answer is praise for an end product rather than a process. Keep the praise for evidence of thinking going on, not for answers. I have seen thinking simply shut down in the room when I have responded to a student with something like, “That’s great Mary, good answer.” Everyone thinks “why bother? Mary’s hit the nail on the head. No more work needed”.

We certainly need to acknowledge the responses of students in class, but save the praise until the thinking work has been concluded. And even then, direct it towards effort not just cleverness.

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Pollyanna, Move Over!

It’s all about optimism. Not the ‘walking about with a mindless grin on your face’ sort of optimism. Not the Pollyanna version either. It is the kind of optimism that underlies the belief that I can probably solve this problem, and even if I don’t, I will have learned a lot along the way.

When my daughter was six she went through a tough time at school. It was no different from the kinds of problems most children face as they learn how to get along with people. Every day we would ask her about the problems she was having. And things kept getting worse.

As a circuit breaker we decided that from now on we would not greet her with questions like “Did Christy give you a hard time today?” Instead we would ask her to tell us some of the good things that had happened. Only when we had a couple of those on the table would we give her the opportunity to explore any of the problems. It worked. Gradually she began to enjoy school again and the morning grizzles disappeared.

I started thinking more about this a few years back. I was attending a couple of lectures as a wifely duty.  You know the sort of thing – it’s important to him so I must fly the spousal flag. Sitting in the lecture theatre it occurred to me that I had a choice. I could maintain my ‘bored but supportive’ stance, or I could look for something interesting. I could make a choice, and I did. There was a lot that I didn’t understand, but within that unfamiliar territory I discovered several fascinating way points. And it got me wondering.

Why do we bother? What is it that makes some people bound through life while others lurk in the shadows? Why do some kids stride forward bravely at every challenge and others stand at the back, scuffing their feet and looking at the ground? Maybe it is because they have lost their optimism, the belief that they will succeed and even if they don’t they will have enjoyed trying and will have learned some new things along the way.

As adults we can help our kids preserve their optimism. They certainly come with it into the world. No baby ever doubted he would talk, or walk, or run. Watch the determination of the toddler to climb up on the couch and you see optimism in action. Our five year olds enter school filled with optimism and eagerness to learn. When I taught a combined grade one and two I used to think I could walk into the room with large sheets of newspapers, tell them we were going to spend the next half hour tearing them up into tiny bits and they would all cheer. They were enthusiastic about everything in life, so optimistic. It’s around grade three that we start hearing them say “I can’t do that”. What goes wrong?

I think one of the things that goes wrong is that we start to focus too much on the end products of kids’ efforts, rather than on the processes. We do the same thing with adults. By doing this we create too many failures. Too much failure makes us into pessimists.

I am trying hard to be an artist. Not all my paintings work. Sometimes the best thing I can do with a finished work is to paint over it with white paint and start a new one. What was that painting? A failure? If that’s the case then I ought to put away my brushes because I have a lot of ‘failures’. But I learned so much about composition, about mixing colors and about what not to do next time. So the end product may not have been a success but the process certainly was. I learned stuff and kept my optimism intact.

A class of seven year olds has just had a spelling lesson that focuses on the spelling pattern ‘ph’. They have made lists of ‘ph’ words, and looked for ‘ph’ words in their reading. At the end of the week there is a spelling test and one little girl spells the word like this: ellephant. The teacher marks it incorrect and the tally of failures for the week goes up by one for that child. If mention had been made of the correct initial letter, the correct number of syllables, the correct terminal letter and the correct use of the ‘ph’ she would have had a 4:1 ratio of successes over failures and come out way ahead. Optimism preserved!

If we want our kids to become skilled thinkers, to exercise the Habits of Mind that characterize successful people,  we need to ensure they remain optimistic thinkers who believe that they will gain as much from the acts of thinking and trying as they will from the end product.

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Filed under Behavior management, Language and literacy, Thinking