If you strip back extrinsic motivators (stickers, grades, threats etc) from a learning environment, there is only one way to collectively motivate a class – via a shared sense of purpose.
When students feel meaningfully connected to a common purpose, a pathway to the future is illuminated. And when students can see where you want to take them, and they want to go there too, you don’t need carrots and sticks anymore.
Fewer stickers and more ‘why’ – why does this learning matter?
I am currently visiting a school in Philadelphia and I was reminded of an old quote I first discovered years ago. It was published as part of a collection of quotations and adages in 1938 by Mary Pettibone Poole, in Philadelphia.
“To repeat what others have said, requires education;
to challenge it, requires brains.”
Schools have changed a lot in the 89 years since Poole made her remark but much remains the same. Educators must still teach key, foundational knowledge to students – this is the bedrock of wisdom. But the best educators are even more interested in using knowledge as a catalyst to inspire their students to ask interesting and important questions and to solve interesting, meaningful, challenging problems.
This is where really powerful learning begins.
In New York in September 2015, 193 member countries of the United Nations General Assembly ratified a vision for a brighter future; the Global Goals for Sustainable Development.
In essence, the 17 SDGs constitute humanity’s consensus for how we hope to develop as a species over the next decade.
The SDG’s include the eradication of global poverty and hunger, and reduced inequality.
If this is what we, as collective humans, have determined is our desired future, surely there is no clearer purpose of education than to equip young people with the skills and knowledge to help us move towards these goals.
If we are not educating to shape a better world, what are we doing?
If one person asked you to ‘plan’ a party and another asked you to ‘design’ a party, would you consider these two tasks to be identical?
What about the ‘plan’ of your living room versus its ‘design’?
Planning starts with well-understood components and organises them in an efficient and logical way. (We’ll do the party games first and then have the cake at the end.)
Design is different. Design is linked to desire. Design starts with a well-understood intention and harnesses imagination to create something that works to serve the intention. (We want our living room to make people feel calm and relaxed.)
Trainee teachers are taught very early about the value of lesson planning and curriculum planning. It’s important, of course, for lessons to be well-structured and efficient.
But lessons really come to life when they are well planned and well designed. Design works when it optimises human experience.
Here are some lesson design questions:
- What is the intention of the opening three minutes of the lesson? Is it to energise students, to calm them, to focus them, to nurture a sense of safety? How can I create an experience that achieves this intention?
- What is the desired emotional state for the main lesson activity? Do I want my students to feel stretched, or grateful, or inspired, or…? How can I create an experience that achieves this desire?
- How can I create an environment in this lesson in which students feel competent, connected, and autonomous?
Great teaching isn’t based on planning perfect lessons. Rather, it is based on an iterative design process driven by a clear intention that creates powerful learning experiences.
The best educators are so because they are students of their craft. No one is born a great teacher. Like all complex crafts, it takes thousands of hours of practice and years of experience to hone world-class teaching practice.
Great teachers are constantly seeking to sharpen their skills. They know they can continue to improve and so they work hard to become 5 or 10% better each year.
And when you ask one of these top teachers: “Is it possible for you to, one day, be twice as good as you are now?”, they invariably say ‘Yes’. And even more interestingly, they can describe what this would look like.
They have already envisaged this reality.
This future reality is the source-code of innovation in education.
When a kid ‘gets an A’ on a test, it’s usually because they have complied with expectations. They wrote the answer we wanted them to write. We give them a compliance prize – an ‘A’ – and everyone is happy.
Compliance is easy to measure and easy to produce.
However, what an ‘A’ on a test doesn’t usually indicate is:
- how much a student has actually learned;
- how much they have contributed to the learning of others;
- how able they are to innovate with their new learning; to apply their learning to novel, unexpected situations in adaptive ways.
We still spend a lot of time and energy in schools measuring and rewarding compliance. It seems the ‘real world’ though is increasingly valuing agility of learning, positive impact on others, and disruptive, innovative thinking. These are much harder to measure on a test.
In an education system in which ‘grit’ is revered, and ‘perseverance’ is considered a universal human value, there can be a tendency to encourage students to “just keep trying” or to “try harder”.
Now, that’s fine for a while, or when a student clearly is not quite giving their all.
But “try harder” is, literally, the worst piece of advice you can give a student…
…when they are using the wrong technique or are unable to access the right strategy.
Grit and perseverance can become the enemy of achievement…
…when we are going about something the wrong way.
And this is where discerning teachers are not afraid to encourage their students to ‘quit’; to reevaluate their approach, to pivot, and to try an alternate pathway.
Instead of ‘try harder’, often our students need to hear: ‘try differently’.