An Apple a Day

The teaching of children should not be sacrificed in favor of paperwork - ever!

Friday, December 12, 2014

The ABC's of Grades: Reflecting on the End of the Term

It's the end of the term and I am inevitably dealing with students who after spending little to no time on their assignments during the semester are asking on the last day "What can I do to get at least a B?"

They are in constant contact with me during the past 48 hours questioning every point, every missing grade, and every evaluative decision I've made of their work thus far.

I wish they had been that engaged DURING the semester. And I've even told them so.

But when this happens, I always take a closer look at how I orchestrated this course and whether or not I had structured it in a way to encourage students to become deeper learners and not just strategic learners or surface learners. Here's the difference.

  • Deeper Learners: respond well to the challenge of mastering a difficult and complex subject. These are intrinsically motivated students who are often a joy to teach!
  • Strategic Learners: are motivated primarily by rewards. They react well to competition and the opportunity to best others. They often make good grades but won’t engage deeply with a subject unless there is a clear reward for doing so. They are sometimes called “bulimic learners,” learning as much as they need to do well on a test or exam and then promptly forgetting the material once the assessment is over.
    • How to handle them: Handle strategic learners by avoiding appeals to competition. Appeal to their intrinsic interest in the subject at hand. Design your assignments (tests, papers, projects, etc.) so that deep engagement with the subject is necessary for success on the assignments. Do so by requiring students to apply, synthesize, or evaluate material instead of merely comprehending or memorizing material.
  • Surface Learners: are often motivated by a desire to avoid failure. They typically avoid deep learning because it they see it as inherently risky behavior. They will often do what it takes to pass an exam or course, but they won’t choose to go beyond the minimum required for fear of failure.
    • How to handle them: Handle surface learners by helping them gain confidence in their abilities to learn and perform. “Scaffold” course material and assignments by designing a series of activities or assignments that build on each other over time in complexity and challenge. Encourage these learners often and help them reflect on what they've learned and what they've accomplished.
Source: Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do, Harvard University Press, 2004, pages 40-41.

The students that often come out of the woodwork  to somehow "pull it out" in the end or who show up in tears with every excuse under the sun as to why they weren't able to do the work are most often surface learners.

Of the 75 students I taught this term, eight (8) of them fell into this category. As I look at how I structured my courses I see that there are a couple of areas where I can do a better job scaffolding the assignments. As I look toward the next semester, I am engaged in deep learning to examine motivation theory and its impact on my learners.

I can control both the text and the context in which my students learn, but I can't control the "self" of each of them and how they choose to engage in the material. So my advice to all educators is to control that which you can control, and know you gave them your very best.

The rest, is up to them.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

The Chick that Fell Out of the Nest

"I don't want to do this," she said between sobs. "I just don't want to be here."

I handled her registration form like a baby bird that had fallen out of its nest. We'd picked out her classes for next semester and even though Kallie (not her real name) wanted to go back to her high school and drop out of our early college program, it was my job to register her for the next semester.

"I've talked to them both over and over again," she said. "They don't understand. I'm just not ready to be here. It's too much. It's all too much!"

"This looks like a much better schedule this time," I said pointing to the computer print out. "I think you'll enjoy if you give it a chance."

She ignored my encouragement.

"What can I do to get thrown out of this program?" She said with a sly smile, knowing she'd get a rise out of me. Yet, she was that desperate.

"Don't jeopardize your future by doing something stupid," I said. I was wearing my "mom" hat now. The thing was - I agreed. I knew that Kallie was not ready for this transition to early college. After all, it's not for everyone.

As parents we believe we know what's best for our children and hate it if someone tells us differently - even when it's our own children. It's hard to let them make their own decisions about what's best for them when we're used to making those decisions for them.

How do you know when it's time?

Consider first, how high are the stakes? Then, how much prior experience have you given them to make decisions on their own? Finally, will this decision help or hinder their march towards maturity?

Kallie had mapped out all the reasons she wasn't quite ready for the responsibility thrust upon her. Her parents didn't listen.

How do you know when to shove the baby bird out of the nest and when to hold them back away from the edge? It may be too comfortable for them in that nest. Without a good shove, they'll never learn how to fly for themselves.

Right now Kallie's view of her nest is from the ground. She may need to be hand fed and protected a little more than the rest if she doesn't get back into the nest. Or she may discover that she is indeed strong enough and able to fly - she just won't know until she tries.

Her parents know her better than I do, but for me all I can do is show her the way and keep the predators away. The rest, is up to her.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

When You Step Off the Well Worn Path

"The road less traveled" (Robert Frost)
"All roads lead to Rome" (Omnes viae Romam ducunt)

Off the beaten path. . . especially if the path has beaten you down!

I am truly amazed at how many educational choices and pathways exist in this moment in history. And for that I am grateful. Although some may argue that we've become too individualistic as a society and that our consumerism has even taken over the educational realm, I am still grateful.

No two children are alike in their educational needs, gifts, talents, and futures. For more decades than I'd like to count, we've made difference out to be "bad," intolerable, and separate. Trying to fit a square peg in a round hole is not only difficult (if not impossible), but painful as you must break the square peg, or at least shave off its interesting corners to make it fit. There have been too many broken children for the sake of staying on the traditional path.

I see education now as a puzzle. Differently shaped pieces fit together to create a beautiful scene. It doesn't matter if it is a 20 piece puzzle or a 2000 piece puzzle - the scene it creates is the same.

The "powers that be" and those who want to maintain the status quo get nervous when you step off the well worn path. Our job as parents and educators is not to keep people in line (much as we want to, especially in crowded school hallways), but to help each child find the right path for them to get what they need.

My own children experienced traditional public school, homeschooling, dual enrollment, early college, and virtual school during their journey toward preparing for college and career. Their paths zigzagged across systems and states. And they are both the better for taking the roads less traveled.

Sometimes when enough people step off the well worn path, they create new and more direct routes to a destination. Sometimes its better not even to pour the cement for the sidewalk until you see the paths people tend to take on their journeys. When I took a dozen high school students to Notre Dame for their ND Vision retreat, we saw how many sidewalks crisscrossed that campus. The pattern was established after the university saw how students chose to walk. More often than not, they chose the most direct route for themselves.

So if your child needs to take a different path than the one already paved, walk with them and seek out alternative routes. One is not better than another. Different is just that, different. The idea is to get where you are going.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. (Robert Frost)