Recently, we encountered this three minute video essay by Daniel Pink that you should watch before reading the blog post that follows.
After watching this video essay, we had many thoughts, including, “Wow, this makes writing persuasive essay infinitely more interesting!” We imagined showing students this video and studying how Daniel Pink uses literary devices, such as alliteration, exaggeration, emotional appeal, and research to make his case. We envisioned students working with partners and video cameras on playgrounds, in subways, in school cafeterias. We saw them working to perfect their inflection as they deliver carefully crafted messages about topics that matter to them.
However, in addition to the teaching possibilities we saw in this video, we found ourselves thinking a lot about Daniel Pink’s message, which seemed to be asking us to consider how our best intentions may inadvertently be doing more harm than good. For example, Pink questions the value of parents being on the sidelines and says, “When kids look to us for approval, consolation, or even orange slices, part of them is distracted from what really counts: the mastery of something difficult, the obligation to teammates, the game itself.” While we are very hesitant to suggest (or even practice) skipping children’s sporting events, something in Pink’s message rings true for us.
The video made us think about students we’ve encountered who demonstrated a learned dependency on the teacher. One kindergartner was working hard to read a book that contained the word “seaweed.” When he arrived at this word, he used several strategies to figure out the word and got it right! What made this especially interesting was when he got it right; he looked to his teacher for confirmation. Instead of telling him whether he was right or wrong, she encouraged him to use what he knew about the meaning of the story as well as letters and sounds to confirm for himself if “seaweed” was correct which stopped this kindergartner dead in his tracks. He refused to turn the page until she told him he was right!
On the one hand, this may seem like an extreme example of a lack of student agency, however, on the other hand, it makes us wonder about and take notice of the things we may be doing to cause such interference with student agency. When we stepped back and took a long hard look, we noticed that oftentimes, when kids are working to figure things out, we begin to eagerly nod our heads, communicating that they are on the right track. When students get things right, especially hard things, we have a tendency to clap wildly and tell them how impressed we are with them. While these behaviors are rooted in our intent to be supportive and encouraging, if the “game” of reading involves teaching children how to integrate print and meaning–independently and proficiently–we fear these behaviors may be distracting them from the very thing we aim to teach. For example, when we nod and cue students that they are correct, students have no reason to cross check for print and meaning anomalies themselves. Similarly, our enthusiastic applause reinforces that getting it “right” is what we’re going for which perpetuates fixed mindsets about learning. This leaves us wondering how we communicate support and encouragement without interfering with student agency.
As difficult as it has been, one thing we’ve been working on is toning down our body language. When students look to us as if to ask, “How did I do?” we smile and say, “Wow, you’re working hard.” When they follow up with, “Yeah, but is that right?”, we follow up by asking them what they will do to find out.. The following is a list of prompts that we have found communicate to children that we encourage and support them while at the same time empowering them to figure things out for themselves:
- Does that match? (Be sure to ask this when students make mistakes as well as when they don’t make mistakes!)
- What will you try?
- How do you know?
- How else do you know?
In the same way that Daniel Pink explains why so many parents are compelled to attend their children’s sporting events (because it’s “a leading indicator of parental awesomeness!”), we think some of our cheerleading and affirmative body language were meant to communicate our teacher awesomeness. What we’re realizing now, however, is that the most awesome teachers are the ones that build children’s confidence AND teach in ways that truly release the responsibility of learning which means sometimes we just have to get out the way and let kids think for themselves.
We are exploring these ideas within the context of building a classroom community in a live webinar (presented by Kim) during Chris Lehman’s EdCollaborative Gathering this Saturday at 11:00.
Beginning October 5th, we are also facilitating an online class–Teaching the Growth Mindset— through Brenda Power’s Choice Literacy, which will explore mindset and teacher language in depth.
Finally, this week we will put the finishing touches on our last chapter of our new book, Who’s Doing the Work? (Stenhouse), which will roll out this spring. It looks closely at mindset and the gradual release of responsibility as they relate to the interconnected instructional contexts–read aloud, shared reading, guided reading, and independent reading. We are excited to share it with you, so please look for it in early spring.