Do students care about our subjects or about us?

Not that there has to be a total dichotomy, but overall, do our students care about our subjects or about us? This idea recently had me asking lots of questions, to which I don't have many answers.

 It certainly makes us teachers happy to have devoted, loyal fans as students, and if we can connect to the people in our classes, it seems much more rewarding and meaningful to us. But do we have the interest, ability, or liberty to consider why the students are doing what they're doing?

Traditionally, good teachers say that the way to get kids engaged is to build the relationship between student and teacher. One particularly thorny effect of this, though, is that the student can come to do what the teacher asks because the student cares about impressing the teacher, not letting the teacher down, making the teacher happy, etc. Once students care about us, or feel that we care about them, it's much easier to get them to do what we want them to do. It seems to me that this might be quite unhealthy, manipulative, and even exploitative of a student's natural desire to not upset a person they care about. There be dragons here for sure!

Some progressive educators, while not discounting the need for a strong teacher-student relationship, talk about engaging the student with the content to be learned itself by making it relevant to the student's lives, harnessing the student's intrinsic motivations, such as the three aspects of Daniel Pink's Drive: autonomy, purpose, and mastery. 

The ramifications of the former approach could be staggering: what if the steady growth in the importance of end results (standardized tests, college placement, class rankings, GPAs, etc.) is the product of generations of students growing up having learned to value the system that such an authority-pleasing approach builds as what good education is? 

We talk about students losing their natural love of learning somewhere along the way between elementary and high school, that their main motivation in school sometimes shifts to their only wanting to know what'll be on the test, to be worried about grades and end products, and so on. What if this shift from intrinsic to extrinsic motivation is just the end product itself of a student's long-term focus on authority-pleasing rather than their own curiosity, wonder, and engagement with their world?

How might we help our students focus on their inherent drive to learn about things that interest them, and reduce our association with their end products? How might we enable students to be more concerned with letting themselves down - or, more abstractly, the intellectual endeavor itself down - than letting their teachers (or parents) down? 

As students age into their high school years, their relationship to authority drastically changes as they are driven biologically and culturally to identify and enforce their own identities. This often manifests as a reduction in their interest in the established authorities in their life, sometimes even to fairly direct rejection of those authorities. This is seen as an important and natural part of human development, for the most part. But what happens to a developing student who has no knowledge of or experience with their own curiosities, their own passions, and is only left with the void of authorities they used to want to please? What are they left with that can help them grow and adapt as they navigate the world beyond their schooling?

My accidental PBL

I'm 37 years old, and I have never tried to make a casserole. 

Correction: I'm 37 years old, and before a couple hours ago, I had never tried to make a casserole. I'll let you know by the end of this post how it turns out, and whether or not I can then claim to have made a casserole. In the meantime, I'll share what I'm calling my accidental PBL experience.

My wife and I belong to a CSA (community-supported agriculture) which I refer to as our "farm subscription." Being summer, every other Tuesday we get a box chock full of veggies we then have to figure out how to store, prepare, and eat. It's our way of supporting local food while at the same time getting outside of our culinary comfort zones (and eating a ton of healthy vegetables).

So, dinner time rolls around this Thursday night and while staring at a full fridge (for which I'm thankful), I see a half-used jar of pasta sauce and decide right then and there to make a baked-pasta casserole. It seems like a good way to experiment and make some space in the kitchen.

I quickly look up on Google some directions for what to do with pasta before baking with it, but there are no recipes I can find that use the random ingredients I have, so I just jump in with how I think one would make a baked pasta casserole. Perhaps it's because I listened to the two latest Edu All-Stars podcasts* while working around the house today. Whatever the reason, I think it was an ill-advised course of action. I have a really bad feeling that it's not going to turn out to be something I want to eat, or even something that it's possible to eat...

This looks absolutely amazing, and nothing at all like what I made. Courtesy of Flickr user notahipster 

This looks absolutely amazing, and nothing at all like what I made. Courtesy of Flickr user notahipster 

Anyway, despite the imminent future of cereal for dinner, I'm really excited about this experience! I just realized that I've ventured into project-based learning while merely trying to feed myself tonight. This is the "real-world" learning experience we want for our students! Seriously, I'm stoked - writing-about-it-while-waiting-for-it-to-finish-cooking stoked. I have decided to proceed through tonight's cooking as a form of some meta-science, both experiencing and recording it.

So far, here's some of what I've learned, in no particular order:

  • the baking dish I chose was way too small for the ingredients I prepared
  • I should check to make sure we have good layering pasta before beginning to chop veggies
  • after cooking the pasta, don't let it sit in the colander while chopping the rest of the veggies or else it will be one giant pasta piece by the time you get to the layering stage
  • my combo microwave-convection oven set at 350° really has a hard time getting the internal temperature of casseroles up to the food safety recommendation of 165°
  • setting it to 400° alleviates this problem
  • it's a good idea to pre-cook the harder veggies so that they don't come out basically still raw after 30 mins of cooking
  • 30 minutes of cooking is far too long to bake small chunks of tuna
  • double-check how much sauce you have before you start the hour+ long process of making a casserole
  • casseroles take a long time to prep and bake
    • related: don't decide to make a casserole when it's already 2 hours past your usual dinner time

And not just content-related learning either - check out this self-reflection and metacognition:

  • I'm good at managing multiple tasks so long as they are all on the same level of abstraction - e.g. I can prepare the individual ingredients - chopping, washing, boiling - all at once but I'm liable to lose sight of the overall big picture goal (making sure the dish is big enough, remembering to add seasonings...)
  • I'm stubborn enough to commit to eating something I spent hours of my time on, even if it's most likely going to be fairly unappetizing
  •  Why am I so obsessed with cleaning things immediately after I use them? (sometimes learning takes the form of new questions, right?)

Of course that's not all, but I wanted to highlight the fact that there is oodles of learning in every experience, if our minds are tuned to it. It is not hard for me to imagine what a skilled educator could do in the role of guide to help their students recognize that learning and learn to focus their personal experiences (i.e. "projects") on certain desired learning outcomes and content. Honestly, it could only take a nudge here and there - a purposeful, skilled, and empathetic nudge, but a nudge all the same.

Content goals would not be the only learning going on in such an environment, either! My mind gets overloaded when I think of the sheer amount of serendipitous tangential or collateral learning that would accompany the course objectives and benefit a healthy, well-rounded student. The traditional core curriculum-focused classroom can't even come close.

Though I'm not too pleased about potentially ruining a bunch of food, I'm jazzed about the process of creativity, problem solving, and solution testing that I just went through. This is exactly the self-directed, serendipitous, directly applied learning I want for my students, and I just happened into it. So very cool. 

Upon reflection, I only had this opportunity tonight because I let go of control, and did not follow a recipe or use ingredients I'm familiar with. Getting comfortable with less control than we're used to is a common refrain of proponents of PBL/maker education, and I totally see their point.

...a little while later...

I know you're all dying to know how dinner turned out. The experiment actually wasn't half bad. I wouldn't probably serve it to friends, but I consider it a success. I consider it a casserole.

* If you aren't a listener of this fine podcast from Todd Nesloney (@techninjatodd) and Chris Kesler (@iamkesler), stop what you're doing right now and go give it a listen and/or subscribe. I recommend the last two episodes for those interested specifically in PBL & #makered, but I find every episode terrifically inspiring.

Peak Learning Experiences, Flow, and Drive

In my school's current vision implementation work with Grant Lichtman, we were asked for a moment of reflection on a peak learning experience we could remember. Here's what I wrote (off the cuff, so forgive the tense inconsistencies):

For me, it’s all about “flow.” Getting so lost in a project at hand that I’m unaware of time passing - there are other, more fascinating demands on my attention. I had a goal I personally cared about, and the time / freedom to pursue my learning (though I’m not sure I’d always call it that in the moment) no matter where it led me. In a sense, that means there were no criteria for success, but I think that’s only applicable to a final product. When I reflect back on the process I was embroiled in, it easily hit all the benchmarks of learning.

There have been others, but immediately I think of CMK last summer. But I also think about investigations under water off of Andros Island in the Marine Ecology Immersion. Hours spent practicing my musical instrument of choice. Also, though perhaps less physically active (and more mentally), when I was so wrapped up in a show or podcast that I inadvertently got through hour+ long programs without noticing.

These experiences all include the same elements: self-direction / autonomy, noticeable improvement, and I had bought into the process / philosophy (i.e. purpose). It occurs to me that this is Drive, by Dan Pink, pretty directly.

We were also asked to think about how school could be peak learning all the time.

All of these learning experiences result in the product of an improved me: more efficient at tasks, better informed, more curious, etc. School can easily be this - just put student focus on process and faculty focus on facilitation and guidance. Make rubrics prioritize elements of good process, skill acquisition, and meta-cognition instead of factual recall and standardized reporting. It doesn’t look like traditional schooling, but it’s absolutely possible in a traditional school environment. (And it can completely THRIVE in a purpose-designed learning environment.)

No real reason to share this...Thoughts? :)