Monday, December 27, 2010

Thoughts on environment and context

            One of the many things I love about vacation is the fact that I get to spend time reading and relaxing. For a very long time, I have been meaning to read one of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, but for some reason it just never happened.  I finally knocked one out this winter break and I was not disappointed. His work is much- hyped and I can see why. He challenges conventional wisdom through enjoyable prose and though-provoking analysis. His book, The Tipping Point, seeks to break down social epidemics; be it fads, disease, or behavior. I wanted to mention one idea he mentions as I think it is extremely relevant to education and educators.

              In the middle of the book Gladwell mentions the Fundamental Attribution Error. He explains the concept much better than myself, so I will quote his writing on the topic:

“… the Fundamental Attribution Error, which is a
fancy way of saying that when it comes to interpreting
other people’s behavior, human beings invariably
make the mistake of overestimating the importance
of fundamental character traits and underestimating
the importance of situation and context “ (160)

He goes on to give the example of people shooting basketballs.  One person was shooting in a well-lighted gym, while another was shooting in a badly lighted gym. Without fail the person shooting in the well-lighted gym was considered superior by observers (160). While it is no doubt possible that the person could have been better, the observers ignored the context of the shots. Lighting has a big effect on one’s ability to make baskets.

            I am sure you don’t need me to illustrate how this relates to the classroom, but I will share some of my thoughts. This really makes one look at the classroom culture and environment a teacher sets up. For example, we are quick to point out that he/she is an unmotivated person. But are they really an unmotivated person or are they unmotivated within the context of your class? We bemoan that fact that our students are disorganized and incapable of directing their own learning but what are we doing to set up a context in which they will be successful. When a student is a behavior problem do we automatically think he/she is a bad kid? Really what this shows is that students are capable of anything (negative and positive) and teachers should look to peers and environment for information for transforming learning and behavior. 

Thoughts on environment and context

            One of the many things I love about vacation is the fact that I get to spend time reading and relaxing. For a very long time, I have been meaning to read one of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, but for some reason it just never happened.  I finally knocked one out this winter break and I was not disappointed. His work is much- hyped and I can see why. He challenges conventional wisdom through enjoyable prose and though-provoking analysis. His book, The Tipping Point, seeks to break down social epidemics; be it fads, disease, or behavior. I wanted to mention one idea he mentions as I think it is extremely relevant to education and educators.

              In the middle of the book Gladwell mentions the Fundamental Attribution Error. He explains the concept much better than myself, so I will quote his writing on the topic:

“… the Fundamental Attribution Error, which is a
fancy way of saying that when it comes to interpreting
other people’s behavior, human beings invariably
make the mistake of overestimating the importance
of fundamental character traits and underestimating
the importance of situation and context “ (160)

He goes on to give the example of people shooting basketballs.  One person was shooting in a well-lighted gym, while another was shooting in a badly lighted gym. Without fail the person shooting in the well-lighted gym was considered superior by observers (160). While it is no doubt possible that the person could have been better, the observers ignored the context of the shots. Lighting has a big effect on one’s ability to make baskets.

            I am sure you don’t need me to illustrate how this relates to the classroom, but I will share some of my thoughts. This really makes one look at the classroom culture and environment a teacher sets up. For example, we are quick to point out that he/she is an unmotivated person. But are they really an unmotivated person or are they unmotivated within the context of your class? We bemoan that fact that our students are disorganized and incapable of directing their own learning but what are we doing to set up a context in which they will be successful. When a student is a behavior problem do we automatically think he/she is a bad kid? Really what this shows is that students are capable of anything (negative and positive) and teachers should look to peers and environment for information for transforming learning and behavior. 

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Philosophy and Happiness



One of my absolute favorite things to do is listen to the weekly radio show Philosophy Talk on the local public radio station in the Bay Area.  They also have a massive back list of shows you can download and I listen to them on long car rides and runs. It is the perfect show for the armchair philosopher who enjoys the topic but lacks the time to study it on a serious level. Today's topic was "Philosophy for Children" and I pulled out two interesting points for discussion.

First, the show was taped in front of a live audience of fourth graders in Seattle, Washington. These students have regular classes on philosophy and are encouraged to think and play with topics and questions. One of the questions the students debated was "Mind and the Brain". It was truly remarkable to hear the pointed and brilliant observations of the young. I think it just goes to show that young people have creative minds that are just bursting with ideas. Unfortunately, there are very few opportunities for students to think for themselves and wrestle with material. In fact, the structure of education today squashes such creativity. When they are engaged and given the chance to really ponder material without fear of "losing points" magical things can happen. What I heard was young fourth graders enthusiastically learning and discussing complicated matters. It was awesome.

Secondly, I wondered if I allow my students to really think like this? I like to think of myself as a teacher who pushes real learning but all to often I bend to things like grades and standards. What can I do to foster meaningful discussion and authentic, unique thought? Are students comfortable to voice their true opinion? Do they even think of their own opinions? Or have they been conditioned to give me stock answers? One of the questions asked during the show was, "What is happiness?" Is it a feeling or a quantifiable condition? What are the connection between morality and happiness? Do we ever stop and ask our students what makes them happy? Do we reflect on it ourselves? I invite all teachers to forget about "standards" for at least 30 minutes after winter vacation and have that conversation with your students. If you have fostered a community where thinking and learning is the norm you may be as awestruck as I was listening to the show today. And for those of us that use blogs, wikis, twitter why not have students post their philosophical musing without the threat of a grade.

Philosophy and Happiness



One of my absolute favorite things to do is listen to the weekly radio show Philosophy Talk on the local public radio station in the Bay Area.  They also have a massive back list of shows you can download and I listen to them on long car rides and runs. It is the perfect show for the armchair philosopher who enjoys the topic but lacks the time to study it on a serious level. Today's topic was "Philosophy for Children" and I pulled out two interesting points for discussion.

First, the show was taped in front of a live audience of fourth graders in Seattle, Washington. These students have regular classes on philosophy and are encouraged to think and play with topics and questions. One of the questions the students debated was "Mind and the Brain". It was truly remarkable to hear the pointed and brilliant observations of the young. I think it just goes to show that young people have creative minds that are just bursting with ideas. Unfortunately, there are very few opportunities for students to think for themselves and wrestle with material. In fact, the structure of education today squashes such creativity. When they are engaged and given the chance to really ponder material without fear of "losing points" magical things can happen. What I heard was young fourth graders enthusiastically learning and discussing complicated matters. It was awesome.

Secondly, I wondered if I allow my students to really think like this? I like to think of myself as a teacher who pushes real learning but all to often I bend to things like grades and standards. What can I do to foster meaningful discussion and authentic, unique thought? Are students comfortable to voice their true opinion? Do they even think of their own opinions? Or have they been conditioned to give me stock answers? One of the questions asked during the show was, "What is happiness?" Is it a feeling or a quantifiable condition? What are the connection between morality and happiness? Do we ever stop and ask our students what makes them happy? Do we reflect on it ourselves? I invite all teachers to forget about "standards" for at least 30 minutes after winter vacation and have that conversation with your students. If you have fostered a community where thinking and learning is the norm you may be as awestruck as I was listening to the show today. And for those of us that use blogs, wikis, twitter why not have students post their philosophical musing without the threat of a grade.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

What football teams can teach us about student motivation?

There are two blanket statements I cannot stand to hear teachers say. One goes something like, “I just have the dumbest group of students, why don't they understand what I am teaching?" While it would be preposterous for me to deny that some people are blessed with higher intelligences than others, I doubt there are large segments of our population that are incapable of learning. Instead, I would say you probably need to reflect on how you are "teaching" them. 

The other is usually some take on, “they just don't care, they are the most unmotivated students.” The job of an educator is to make learning worthwhile and find ways to motivate students. It sure is a tough task and often times the results are not immediate, but teachers must take some responsibility for student motivation. 

I teach middle school social studies and help coach baseball at a local high school. A couple weeks ago I was walking around the high school campus with the varsity baseball coach and we peaked our heads into a film study session for the football team. All 30 players were glued to the screen as the coach was basically giving a lecture pointing out the different sets and tendencies of the opposing squad. As any football fan knows, football schemes are wildly complex and great football players must use information to make decision on the fly during the game. As I sat there mesmerized at the coaches "classroom management", I realized that these highly motivated and attentive athletes are usually the prime candidates for statements like the ones I previously mentioned. Why is this and what lessons can be learned?



When I was thinking about this question, I ran into this wonderful thesis by James Michael Rifenburg at Auburn University. He set out to investigate how college football players struggle with literary composition while being able to master the complex composition and diagrams of football plays. He basically goes on to argue that the football field is a bastion for intent participation. Basically, it is a mode of learning where social instruction and modeling is key to learning new ideas within specific communities. It breeds motivation and metacognition within learning communities. Therefore, the football field is a perfect learning environment. Based on his thesis and my own informal observations these are things we can learn from football teams to motivate and educate students. 

1. Collaboration is key to a winning football team. You work together with one goal in mind and realize that through learning from one another the whole will be better. Great teams realize there is no competition (grades) for individual players. The grade is how well the team performs together. If you lead a team of isolated and individualistic players you will loose.

2. Modeling is a very key process for both coaches and players. Older players usually teach younger players how to run plays and perform routes or blocks. 

3. Most learning occurs through hands-on instruction and participation. Students are allowed to use concepts and ideas in a tangible way, practical way almost immediately. They do this under the aid of the coaches, not by themselves after the team has concluded (homework). Also, on great teams they talk to the coaches during practice to tweak plays and their input is valued and necessary. 

4. Reflection is fostered for both the players and the coach. I would also assert assessment to be mainly formative. This takes place in the case of film study. While is may seem that winning one game is everything, often they are just steps to a larger goal. Even if you lose the game you learn from your mistakes and work on them so that you are better for the next. The season doesn't end with one test (I mean game). 

5. Instruction and learning are meaningful and relevant. The team works together to win games and championships. But really the team is just working to be the best they can be-- to perform at top ability. The players see the purpose and it is worth being motivated for.


What football teams can teach us about student motivation?

There are two blanket statements I cannot stand to hear teachers say. One goes something like, “I just have the dumbest group of students, why don't they understand what I am teaching?" While it would be preposterous for me to deny that some people are blessed with higher intelligences than others, I doubt there are large segments of our population that are incapable of learning. Instead, I would say you probably need to reflect on how you are "teaching" them. 

The other is usually some take on, “they just don't care, they are the most unmotivated students.” The job of an educator is to make learning worthwhile and find ways to motivate students. It sure is a tough task and often times the results are not immediate, but teachers must take some responsibility for student motivation. 

I teach middle school social studies and help coach baseball at a local high school. A couple weeks ago I was walking around the high school campus with the varsity baseball coach and we peaked our heads into a film study session for the football team. All 30 players were glued to the screen as the coach was basically giving a lecture pointing out the different sets and tendencies of the opposing squad. As any football fan knows, football schemes are wildly complex and great football players must use information to make decision on the fly during the game. As I sat there mesmerized at the coaches "classroom management", I realized that these highly motivated and attentive athletes are usually the prime candidates for statements like the ones I previously mentioned. Why is this and what lessons can be learned?



When I was thinking about this question, I ran into this wonderful thesis by James Michael Rifenburg at Auburn University. He set out to investigate how college football players struggle with literary composition while being able to master the complex composition and diagrams of football plays. He basically goes on to argue that the football field is a bastion for intent participation. Basically, it is a mode of learning where social instruction and modeling is key to learning new ideas within specific communities. It breeds motivation and metacognition within learning communities. Therefore, the football field is a perfect learning environment. Based on his thesis and my own informal observations these are things we can learn from football teams to motivate and educate students. 

1. Collaboration is key to a winning football team. You work together with one goal in mind and realize that through learning from one another the whole will be better. Great teams realize there is no competition (grades) for individual players. The grade is how well the team performs together. If you lead a team of isolated and individualistic players you will loose.

2. Modeling is a very key process for both coaches and players. Older players usually teach younger players how to run plays and perform routes or blocks. 

3. Most learning occurs through hands-on instruction and participation. Students are allowed to use concepts and ideas in a tangible way, practical way almost immediately. They do this under the aid of the coaches, not by themselves after the team has concluded (homework). Also, on great teams they talk to the coaches during practice to tweak plays and their input is valued and necessary. 

4. Reflection is fostered for both the players and the coach. I would also assert assessment to be mainly formative. This takes place in the case of film study. While is may seem that winning one game is everything, often they are just steps to a larger goal. Even if you lose the game you learn from your mistakes and work on them so that you are better for the next. The season doesn't end with one test (I mean game). 

5. Instruction and learning are meaningful and relevant. The team works together to win games and championships. But really the team is just working to be the best they can be-- to perform at top ability. The players see the purpose and it is worth being motivated for.