“Often children –and adults– need external incentives to take the first steps in an activity that requires a difficult restructuring of attention. … But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person’s skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding.” - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow.
And so it exists, that place in between. The fulcrum point of getting learning going and maintaining momentum.
We need to be in pursuit of the perfect balance between externally incentivizing learning at the beginning, without making the external reward the only reason to persist, while creating a system to remove the external incentive when a student’s skills have made learning intrinsically rewarding.
Presumably, every student is different. Every student reaches that place of equilibrium at a different time. The seesaw of their motivation finds that perfect place at a different time depending on parental influence, ideas of achievement, use of punishment, etc.
I’ve been a strong proponent for getting rid of grades in school. I still think this is important. Marks are inauthentic. However, Csikszentmihalyi has got me thinking what external incentives should/could replace grades to get the learning started.
Are there authentic incentives that we can harness in schools? Views on YouTube, likes of Facebook? I don’t know, but maybe we need to spend more time thinking about these things.
A whole host of studies show that kids with engaged parents are more successful in school. They achieve more, are generally more safe, and most importantly, are more confident as they go through the schooling continuum.
I worry sometimes that this is because parents are marks-driven. I worry that the engaged parents are the ones saying, “You need to get 90s.” I worry that these studies reinforce the idea of parents and teachers as enforcers of compliance. But that’s a separate blog post.
Getting parents involved is important. Their involvement must go beyond parent’s night and report cards. And so I try something new.
Every Friday, in one of my classes, I’m having students write an e-mail to a parent. In the scope of a good conference, I’m having them write the e-mail, cc-ing me, that includes three components. 1. Their successes of the week. 2. Things they struggled with this week. 3. Their goals for next week. Every Friday, each student is going to answer the question, “What did you do at school, today?” with something more than, “Nothing.”
The idea of the e-mail is to encourage and enable students to tell the story of their learning. In their words, reflect on what’s working, what’s not and how they plan on going forward. But that’s not all. Every two weeks (I’ve divided the class in half, so 15 one week, 15 the other), I plan on replying to the e-mail, to each student and their parent. My reply will acknowledge, encourage, support and strategize with that student and their parent. It’s my attempt to let learning take precedence. It’s not about communicating a number, but rather it’s about documenting the process.
There are some reservations I can foresee: What if there are no parents? I think send an e-mail to someone you hope to make proud. What if the parent doesn’t have e-mail? We go old school and we write a letter. What if a student doesn’t write it? I still write my e-mail to them and the parent. However, it is based on my observations and conversations. The idea is that someone else is then telling their story.
Like anything, it’s an experiment. It’s an attempt at bringing together three pillars of a child’s education (themselves, school, parents). It’s something active that brings parents into the community of learning. But it might not work. I’m willing to take that gamble.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this plan, possible problems, etc.
Thanks to Mike Pinkney for helping me refine my ideas while shouting over the playing of the house band and thanks to Anne Doelman for lending me the book, Conferencing and Reporting by Kathleen Gregory et al.
Enter, sit down, do the work assigned, here’s your number, NEXT.
A successful industry is all about finding the perfect balance of efficiency. Removing everything you don’t need to make the product. Politics is like that too. Education is in search of more and more efficient ways to process learning. The system is trying to make describing that learning efficient.
Learning isn’t efficient. Reporting about learning isn’t efficient.
Learning, at it’s best, is gracefully inefficient.
In fact, I believe we should relish in the inefficiency of learning. Recognize that efficient learning is not lifelong learning. Inefficiency is what gives us opportunity to build a relationship with a student to better understand his/her learning. Inefficiency encourages making mistakes. Inefficiency encourages risk taking, creativity, innovation. Inefficiency allows us to wonder, meander, sink into the pocket of what we are learning. Inefficiency breeds feedback that is rich and authentic.
It is inefficient to have every parent contact me and talk about their child. It is inefficient to sit down and talk with each student. But I guarantee in return, each student will have a better learning experience, they will get more out of the feedback. I guarantee that every parent will have a better understanding of where their child is and where and how they are going to get where they are headed. I guarantee it is better than a number twice a semester. Even if I break that number down into “consistent” percentages.
At the end of the day, maybe it is time to embrace inefficiency. We should stop running our schools like fast food joints trying to get people in and out as quickly as possible with as little interaction with them as possible. Maybe school doesn’t have to be an ATM, maybe we should encourage parents and students to walk in and talk to a teller. Talk to a teacher.
Too often I hear that what we do must be counted and numbered. Even and void of difference because of parents.
I don’t buy it.
I have never talked to a parent, outlined my ideas, explained my thoughts on a student as a learner, and had them get upset.
In fact, I’ve seen more parents upset because of the randomness of numbers that teachers throw out to try to explain what goes on in the classroom.
Let’s stop using parents as the reason for the need for standardized testing and lock-step building of courses and standards. It is not the parents.
Parents want their kids to learn, become curious, and enjoy the process of going to school. Parents want their child to achieve a mastery at the skills our society has deemed important. However, they are willing to listen.
I got a message from a parent today that wanted to thank me for changing what school was about for their son. She said, “I think it is because you focused less on the number that the number went up. _______ could just do the work and worry about building the skills.” Her words. It blew me away when I got the message.
Now this is a parent that I communicated with regularly, kept her abreast with her son’s progress. I didn’t meet her on Parent’s Night (one of my pet peeves), but instead developed an authentic working relationship. Our work, help her son learn. This is what parents are looking for.
If we stop focusing on the easiest, quickest way of informing parents of their child’s performance, we do away with standard paperwork and report cards and instead foster open, working relationships, we move learning to the centre.
And, who doesn’t want their kid to learn?
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