FIVE WAYS TO CREATE A STATE OF FLOW IN THE CLASSROOM

26 04 2015

by John Spencer

 from   http://www.spencerideas.org/2015/04/five-ways-to-create-state-of-flow-in.html

We’ve all seen it before. A student suddenly gets “in the zone” in the midst of a project. (It’s even better when it happens with an entire class.) Time seems to simultaneously slow down and yet speed up all at once. There’s a sense of challenge and urgency but also a sense of relaxation. You can feel it intuitively. Something is different.

This state of optimal concentration is often described as “flow.”

I experience this place most often in creative work. I get lost in what I’m doing. I seem to be “zoned in” to the code or the design or the plot structure. There’s a sense that everything just fits right. Unfortunately, I see this happen more outside of the classroom than inside of it. I see kids hitting a state of flow on the basketball court or in theater or at a skate park.

I like the way Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi,  author of the book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, describes what “flow” looks and feels like:

The flow experience is when a person is completely involved in what he or she is doing, when the concentration is very high, when the person knows moment by moment what the next steps should be, like if you are playing tennis, you know where you want the ball to go, if you are playing a musical instrument you know what notes you want to play, every millisecond, almost. And you get feedback to what you’re doing. That is, if you’re playing music, you can hear whether what you are trying to do is coming out right or in tennis you see where the ball goes and so on. So there’s concentration, clear goals, feedback, there is the feeling that what you can do is more or less in balance with what needs to be done, that is, challenges and skills are pretty much in balance.

So, I’ve been reading up on the theory of flow and consciously trying to create an environment where this happens in my classroom. I’m still learning. I’m still trying to figure this out. However, I’ve grown passionate about this topic over the last two years. With that in mind, I’ve found a few things that seem to work in my classroom:

1. Slow down. Provide longer learning opportunities with fewer interruptions.

In my first few years of teaching, I thought student engagement required an action-packed classroom. I didn’t realize that my frantic pace was actually getting in the way. Students never had the chance to focus in a leisurely, relaxed way. Since then, I’ve realized it’s less about action and more about suspense. If there’s a true challenge that feels meaningful to students, they are more likely to stay focussed and get lost in what they are doing.

2. Provide the right scaffolding as you match the challenge to the skill level.

One of the key ideas in flow theory is that the challenge has to match a student’s perceived ability level. Too often, kids give up because what they are doing is way too difficult and there is a sense that they will never learn it. Other times, students are bored and the excessive scaffolding becomes a hurdle they have to climb over. This is why I try and differentiate the scaffolding I offer by keeping it optional and treating it like something students can use rather than something they are required to use.

3. Provide boat loads of choices.

It’s not surprising that students hit a state of flow when they are out on the ball field or in a theater or while playing an instrument. Not only do they feel competent (because of the right amount of scaffolding) but they also love what they are doing. I can get lost in writing a novel. I will never get lost in the moment of fixing a sprinkler system. This is where student choice becomes so valuable. Students get to decide topics and tasks that fit their own interests.

4. Restrict the choices.

This is the opposite approach to the last one. It’s the idea that certain restrictions can lead to creative breakthroughs. I’ve seen students get into a place of flow because they are focussed on solving a problem using limited resources. Here, they discover that freedom and choice are not synonymous and that sometimes limitations lead to opportunities.

5. Integrate mindfulness and metacognition into the projects.

I want students to know what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how they are doing. This begins with students internalizing a rationale for the project. It has to feel meaningful to them. However, it also requires a state of mindfulness in the moment. I want students to be able to figure out the progress they are making in the moment and adjust when needed.

Looking for More?

Advertisements




The Genius Of Raising Brilliant Kids: A Conversation With Jack Andraka’s Parents

19 03 2015

Jack Andraka at The White House

He’s just an everyday kid, 16 year-old Jack Andraka

He’s the son of an engineer and anesthetist who has vaulted his way onto the main stage of science and innovation. Jack’s work on developing a rapid, highly sensitive and inexpensive test for cancer has made headlines around the world. I interviewed Jack in Feburary and Forbes editor Bruce Upbin profiled his innovations in June 2012. Over the past few months Jack has traveled the world, rubbing shoulders with political and scientific dignitaries at such distinguished places such as TED Conferences, The Royal Society of Medicine in London and even The White House.

But with all the news and excitement about Jack’s scientific achievement, I was interested in learning what really drove him and more about two of the proudest people on the planet–his parents, Steve and Jane Andraka. As it turns out, this story isn’t only about Jack (and his parents). But about the entire family and how Steve and Jane raised two remarkable boys. While Jack has taken the spotlight recently, his older brother Luke has made quite a name for himself. Luke, 18 years old, was the 4th place national winner of the SSP middle school science competition, MIT Think Award winner, 2 time Intel science fair finalist and winner of the $96,000 Sierra Nevada Scholarship at the Intel science fair for his method of treating acid mine drainage.

The Andraka children seemed to be on to something. And that something apparently hinged, in part, upon one key insight from Steve Andraka, ”Teach your kids that most problems in this world are really opportunities in disguise, and innovation comes from discontent.”
Another Andraka family adventure

I had the chance to speak with Mr. and Mrs. Andraka and found the entire conversation fascinating and enlightening. They broke down their success into two sections–logical and practical. So, moms and dads, here you go…

The ‘theory’ of raising brilliant kids

Independent learning. I almost always have them learn by doing and by making controlled mistakes. And in the process, they think through the problem. When they are stuck on a problem I come over and make them show me what they have done and most of the time they find their problem by just explaining to me what they have done. By explaining things, it makes them think deeper about it and this works with almost all of their problems.

A single-minded focus. Focusing on a particular project is very important in achieving higher goals. When you focus just on a specific goal or problem and ‘wrap your head around the goal’ it opens up all kinds of creativity and problem solving. It’s amazing when a child goes from a feeling of powerlessness to one of mastery.

Engage in your child’s project–even if it’s over your head. Both our children have eclipsed us in knowledge on specific topics and also with their mathematical skills. However growing up they have always known Dad to be the one who can help them with their Math. So, I follow along, ask questions and let the textbook guide some of our discussions. Essentially, I give support, show interest and direct them to use other resources. However, I always try to follow up with them and have them explain their progress. I found that showing an interest by listening, asking questions, encouraging research and reporting back teaches them to solve their questions, encourages them and teaches me something too. When the roles are reversed–I become the student and my child becomes the teacher–I know it’s a success.

Limit rules, encourage independence. We have ‘minimal rules’, but nothing that stifles creativity. Basically, you can sum it up simply: treat people with respect, do your homework be honest and try to be safe. Having too many rules burdens down the entire family and limits thinking.

The ‘practice’ of raising brilliant kids

Theory is fine for the text books. But Steve and Jane offered up some ‘rules to live by’ to help guide every mom and dad that wants to have their child to end up speaking or living in The White House.

Have your child do the thinking, limit how much you do for them in solving a problem. If you are the person wrapping your head around the problem and solving it, your child isn’t.

Ask as many questions as they ask you. With the wealth of knowledge on the internet have them start looking up answers and doing research.

Get them involved with the right peer activities. If they have a competitive side, encourage them to compete on math team or debate team or art competitions. Winning in these type things boosts self esteem. Also, see what other higher level competitions exist. Often, the school may not even know about these other competition. Remember, you are you child’s best advocate and resource. Don’t wait for the school to present your child with opportunities

Model the result you want.

Build things and be creative! It’s not all crunching numbers.
Be involved and stay connected. Every day we ask our children what they did in school.

We also use the parent connect tool to always know how they are doing and to say on top of issues and challenges.
Set early expectations. Our kids know that they are going to college. They have known this since they were in elementary school. We have bookcases of college guides, books on best colleges, how to get in certain schools and other information. It’s a process that starts early.
Success needs to be a shared goal–shared by the family and celebrated by the family. If your child is finding success in an area that you may not be familiar with, you still must encourage and support them. Success brings confidence and your support means everything.
Live outside the box. Petty rules stifle creativity. You can tell you child to think outside of the box, but if you have boxed them in their entire life, they have no creative reference point to begin with.
Teach your kids that most problems in this world are really opportunities in disguise. Innovation comes from discontent. Start when your child is young and keep a list of problems to be pondered or solved. Then, when it is time to do a science fair or other project, you’re ready to go! That’s been very successful for both our children.

Unlocking the genius within?

It seems obvious to me that empowerment is central to this family. Throughout their lives, Jack and Luke’s parents provided the tools needed to unleash their creative potential. This was done, step by step, methodically – yet never in a stifling way. They provided the resources and their children stepped up to the challenge and discovered a worthy purpose. We are now all the beneficiaries of the Andrakas’ excellence in parenting – and for their impact on the world of science and medicine.

To date, Jack and Luke show no sign of slowing down! Jack is a sophomore at North county High school, however he has been spending a lot of time out of school with speaking engagements and working on his next project. Jack is very self disciplined and has been able to self study most of the material that he would be doing in the class room and keep up with the homework. He then takes the tests when he is in school. Jack is reviewing his options for finishing his high school and is being courted by colleges. Luke is a senior at North County High School, and will be graduated this June. He has been accepted by Virginia Tech in their engineering program where he plans to pursue a degree in materials engineering.





Who Wants to Know? Use Student Questions to Drive Learning

13 01 2015

by SUZIE BOSS

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: JANUARY 13, 2015 | UPDATED: JANUARY 13, 2015

Martin Luther King, Jr. considered this to be life’s most persistent and urgent question: “What are you doing for others?” As we approach the holiday that honors his legacy, here’s another question worth pondering: How many of your students know how to ask persistent and urgent questions of their own?

Knowing how to formulate a good question — and having the courage to ask it — is a skill with profound social justice implications. Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana, founders of the Right Question Institute, first became interested in questioning techniques when they were working with parents in a low-income community. Parents told them they didn’t participate in their children’s education because they didn’t know what to ask.

That was more than 20 years ago. By now, Rothstein and Santana have taught question-formulation techniques everywhere from homeless shelters to adult literacy classes to community health centers. Patients take a more active role in their own care, it turns out, when they know how to ask doctors better questions. And people who have felt disenfranchised because of language barriers or low literacy levels can reengage as citizens by learning how to ask questions that matter to them.

In their important and accessible book, Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions, the co-authors outline a simple but powerful approach to put classroom questions where they belong: with students. Instead of organizing learning around teachers’ questions, they suggest letting students’ questions drive the learning experience. For many students, this means reconnecting with their innate sense of curiosity and wonder about the world.

The co-authors’ Question Formulation Technique is appropriate for any classroom. It unfolds in four steps, typically carried out in small groups of students and in response to a specific focus that the teacher has introduced:

  1. Ask as many questions as you can.
  2. Do not stop to judge, discuss, edit, or answer any question.
  3. Write down every question exactly as it was asked.
  4. Change any statements into questions.

In a recent article for Education Leadership, “The Right Answers,” Rothstein and Santana describe teachers using their technique to rekindle curiosity in classrooms ranging from elementary to high school, and in subjects as diverse as math, science, and social studies.

I’d argue that their approach belongs in the toolkit of any teacher implementing project-based learning. Inquiry is supposed to provide the oxygen for PBL. By starting with questions that students want to answer, PBL creates a need to know. When projects work well, that authentic inquiry is what delivers higher levels of engagement and puts students on the path to deeper learning.

But what if students don’t exhibit a strong “need to know” in response to an entry event or driving question? What if they don’t launch into a project with a host of questions that they are burning to answer? What if that supposedly captivating driving question is met with….silence?

The problem might be that the project focus doesn’t connect with students’ interests. Or, it might have to do with students forgetting what it means to be an active learner. If their prior experience in school has been passive, if their previous experience with questions has been limited to responding to what teachers ask, they may need a refresher course in curiosity.

Along with the excellent resources from Rothstein and Santana, you can learn more about questioning strategies in A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas. Author Warren Berger shows how artful questioning leads to better thinking in a range of endeavors, from business to social activism. On an accompanying blog, Berger posts“beautiful questions” posed by readers.

Recent examples that might get your students talking (and questioning): What if pizza was good for you? Why can’t the classroom be a coffee shop? What would happen if teenagers believed they deeply mattered to the world around them? As a quick write or warm-up for a PBL experience, you might have students submit their own beautiful questions to the author.

As students get more confident asking questions in class, they’ll be better prepared to take their questioning attitude into the world. PBL often creates opportunities for students to engage with community members and experts. Make sure students know how to frame those conversations with the questions that they care about answering.

How do you encourage students to ask questions that matter to them? Please share your strategies in the comments section below.





5 Powerful Questions Teachers Can Ask Students

11 01 2015

My first year teaching a literacy coach came to observe my classroom. After the students left, she commented on how I asked the whole class a question, would wait just a few seconds, and then answer it myself. “It’s cute,” she added. Um, I don’t think she thought it was so cute. I think she was treading lightly on the ever-so shaky ego of a brand-new teacher while still giving me some very necessary feedback.

So that day, I learned about wait/think time. And also, over the years, I learned to ask better and better questions.

Many would agree that for inquiry to be alive and well in a classroom that, amongst other things, the teacher needs to be expert at asking strategic questions, and not only asking well-designed ones, but ones that will also lead students to questions of their own.

Keeping It Simple

I also learned over the years that asking straightforward, simply-worded questions can be just as effective as those intricate ones. With that in mind, if you are a new teacher or perhaps not so new but know that question-asking is an area where you’d like to grow, start tomorrow with these five:

#1. What do you think?

This question interrupts us from telling too much. There is a place for direct instruction where we give students information yet we need to always strive to balance this with plenty of opportunities for students to make sense of and apply that new information using their schemata and understanding.

#2. Why do you think that?

After students share what they think, this follow-up question pushes them to provide reasoning for their thinking.

#3. How do you know this?

When this question is asked, students can make connections to their ideas and thoughts with things they’ve experienced, read, and have seen.

#4. Can you tell me more?

This question can inspire students to extend their thinking and share further evidence for their ideas.

#5. What questions do you still have?

This allows students to offer up questions they have about the information, ideas or the evidence.

In addition to routinely and relentlessly asking your students questions, be sure to provide time for them to think. What’s best here, three seconds, five, or seven? Depending on their age, the depth of the material, and their comfort level, this think time will vary. Just push yourself to stay silent and wait for those hands to go up.

Also be sure to vary your tone so it genuinely sounds like a question and not a statement. When we say something in a declarative way, it is often with one tone and flat sounding. On the other hand, there is a lilt in our voice when we are inquiring and questioning.

To help student feel more comfortable and confident with answering questions and asking ones of their own, you can use this scaffold: Ask a question, pause, and then invite students to “turn and talk” with a neighbor first before sharing out with the whole group. This allows all to have their voices heard and also gives them a chance to practice their responses before sharing in front of the whole class.

How do you ask questions in your classroom? What works well with your students? Please share with us in the comment section below.





8 Pathways to Every Student’s Success

11 01 2015

 

 8 Pathways to Every Student’s Success by Marilyn Price-Mitchell PhD

Teachers who transform lives understand not only how to teach curriculum, but also how children develop into capable, caring, and engaged adults. They see beyond quantitative measurements of success to the core abilities that help students live healthy, productive lives.

Famous educator Maria Montessori wisely remarked, “The greatest sign of success for a teacher. . . is to be able to say, ‘The children are now working as if I did not exist.'”

The world has changed dramatically since the early 1900s when Montessori made her mark in education. Yet the same goal remains: scaffolding children toward self-sufficiency. How does this occur today, particularly when test results often seem more important than the development of a child ready to tackle career-life challenges?

In a nutshell, it happens when we understand how children and teens successfully mature to adulthood and how we impact their growth in key developmental areas. Based on decades of research in child and adolescent development, neuroscience, education, and psychology, we know that relationships with teachers, parents, and other supportive adults determine how school-age children acquire their personal guidance systems, full of interconnected abilities and pathways to success. When we envision those abilities as an internal compass, it’s easy to see how education and development go hand in hand — how children navigate successfully through school and life.

I created The Compass Advantage™ model as a visual, research-based, engaging way for families, schools, and communities to apply the principles of positive youth development. A framework for understanding why kids need these interconnected abilities and how they’re nurtured in different contexts, it’s also a call to act on behalf of children who deserve to live full, meaningful lives beyond external measures of success.

This is the first in a series of nine posts on how teachers develop these internal abilities in the classroom. Each month, we’ll take a deeper dive into one of these eight compass attributes:

Curiosity

Curiosity is the ability to seek and acquire new knowledge, skills, and ways of understanding the world. It is at the heart of what motivates kids to learn and what keeps them learning throughout their lives. Curiosity facilitates engagement, critical thinking, and reasoning.

We nurture children’s curiosity and other life-long learning skills when we encourage them to identify and seek answers to questions that pique their interests. When we help them recognize failure as an opportunity for exploration, we encourage experimentation and discovery. We help them understand the tenets of engaged learning when we recognize the different ways they explore — touching, tasting, climbing, smelling, etc. — and praise them for their perseverance in finding answers. When we show them how parts connect and influence the whole of society, they discover that curiosity improves relationships, fuels innovation, and drives social change.

Sociability

Sociability is the joyful, cooperative ability to engage with others. It derives from a collection of social-emotional skills that help children understand and express feelings and behaviors in ways that facilitate positive relationships, including active listening, self-regulation, and effective communication.

We impact children’s sociability when we help them understand that the words they choose make a difference to the relationships they create. When we teach them that every social interaction is tied to an emotional reaction, we help them avoid impulsive behavior and think through difficult situations before acting. We also build their capacity for collaborative teamwork.

Resilience

Resilience is the ability to meet and overcome challenges in ways that maintain or promote well-being. It incorporates attributes like grit, persistence, initiative, and determination.

We build resilience when we push students gently to the edges of their intellectual, emotional, social, and physical comfort zones. Our support and encouragement as they take risks, overcome challenges, and grow from failure helps them learn to bounce back from life’s ups and downs.

Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is the ability to examine and understand who we are relative to the world around us. It’s developed through skills like self-reflection, meaning making, and honing core values and beliefs. It’s situated at “true south” on the compass to symbolize that introspection is about looking into ourselves. Self-awareness impacts children’s capacity to see themselves as uniquely different from other people.

We stimulate students’ self-awareness when we engage them in reflective conversations about values, beliefs, attitudes, and moral dilemmas. By encouraging them to understand and attend to their intellectual, emotional, social, and physical selves, we let them know that we value their full human potential.

Integrity

Integrity is the ability to act consistently with the values, beliefs, and principles that we claim to hold. It’s about courage, honesty, and respect in one’s daily interactions — and doing the right thing even when no one is watching.

We shape children’s integrity by treating them with respect and dignity, and listening to their feelings and concerns without judgment. When we praise students for demonstrating their values, beliefs, and principles through actions, we remind them of their value as ethical human beings, beyond a grade or test score.

Resourcefulness

Resourcefulness is the ability to find and use available resources to achieve goals, problem solve, and shape the future. It draws on skills like planning, goal setting, strategic thinking, and organizing.

We encourage students to be resourceful when we set high expectations and support them to accomplish their goals. When we teach them to be strategic thinkers and adaptable problem solvers, they learn to live without rigid rules or preconceived ideas.

Creativity

Creativity is the ability to generate and communicate original ideas and appreciate the nature of beauty. It fosters imagination, innovation, and a sense of aesthetics.

We inspire creativity when we encourage young people to express themselves through writing, poetry, acting, photography, art, digital media, unstructured play, etc. When we notice and praise them for thinking outside the box and taking risks, their imaginations blossom.

Empathy

Empathy is the ability to recognize, feel, and respond to the needs and suffering of others. It facilitates the expression of caring, compassion, and kindness. It’s situated at “true north” on the compass to symbolize the outward impact of educating young citizens committed to creating a just, sustainable world.

We influence children’s abilities to care for others beyond themselves by creating meaningful relationships with them, ensuring that they are seen, felt, and understood regardless of how they learn. When we expose them to different worldviews, engage them with community projects, and bring service learning into the classroom, we develop greater empathy and compassion.

The Compass Advantage views education and child development as integrated processes nurtured through the collaborative efforts of parents, teachers, and out-of-school programs. When we attend to the development of these eight abilities, the results are transformative. Not only do children become lifelong learners, they become what Maria Montessori envisioned — self-sufficient navigators of their own lives.





Can Schools Cultivate a Student’s Ability to Think Differently?

11 01 2015

by Luba Vangelova

Flickr/Marko

Entrepreneurship is often associated with people who assume the risk of starting a business venture for financial gain. However, entrepreneurs exist in many forms: They may be writers, carpenters, computer programmers, school principals or fundraisers, to name just a few examples.

What they have in common is an “entrepreneurial mindset” that enables them to see opportunities for improvement, take initiative and collaborate with others to turn their ideas into action. Everyone is born with some propensity for entrepreneurship, which at its core is about solving problems creatively, according to Yong Zhao, a professor at the University of Oregon’s College of Education. He is the author of several books, including, most recently, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World.”

Unfortunately, the current education system doesn’t support the development of an entrepreneurial mindset, Zhao says, because of its reliance on standards, tests and a prescribed curriculum, which are all fundamentally incompatible with entrepreneurial thinking. Studies have shown an inverse relationship between countries’ academic test scores and entrepreneurship levels, and between years of schooling and entrepreneurship levels.

“Students are treated like employees of a big company, who don’t bear the risk if the company fails,” he says. “They are paid with grades and are not treated as being responsible for their learning.”

Instead of building on existing education reform plans, such as Common Core, Zhao supports an altogether different education paradigm to prepare children to thrive in our rapidly changing world, which will put a premium on entrepreneurship in all fields of endeavor.

A mashup of democratic and project-based learning would enhance the characteristics that lie at the heart of the entrepreneurial mindset. Zhao envisions schools that combine three essential elements: a freedom-based, non-coercive environment (as can be found at England’s democratic Summerhill School); enhanced project-based learning opportunities (such as those offered at New Technology High in Napa, California); and interaction with the larger world (as practiced by a program that allows students at the Cherwell School in Oxford, England, to collaborate with students at the Gcato School in Eastern Cape, South Africa).

A democratic school such as Summerhill shifts the responsibility to the learner and honors the natural variety that exists among individuals. As long as the students follow the general rules of behavior (which they themselves have developed on an equal footing with the staff), they are free to spend their time as they choose, taking only the classes that interest them. Nurturing what interests and excites each child benefits both society and the individual, Zhao says — the world needs all kinds of talents and skills, and this method effectively harnesses each child’s intrinsic motivation to learn what makes sense for him or her.This extends to whatever is needed to achieve their goals: “When a child has a reason to learn, the basics will be sought after, rather than imposed,” Zhao wrote in his previous book, “World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students.” “If they are true basics, they are hard to avoid.”

This also allows children to build on their strengths, which is what successful entrepreneurs do, he says, instead of wasting their efforts to try and become like everyone else. “We should give all children confidence, and an alternative space to find something to be good at,” he says. “We overemphasize the deficits of children, and that’s not a good starting point. … If we let people flourish in their own ways, hopefully everyone will find something they want to do.”

But freedom in learning is not sufficient, Zhao says. The underlying environment must be characterized by flexibility, diversity (with access to a variety of adults and learning opportunities both inside and outside the school), and agency (so that students are “citizens of a democratic society who help to shape the society,” Zhao writes, instead of “subjects of a kingdom built by adults”). And then on top of that, “for learning how to be a disciplined, creative entrepreneur, you need a product, and you need practice,” he says.

So to the foundation of a democratic school, he would add the offerings of a New Technology High School, which takes project-based learning to another level. Most project-based learning environments use projects to teach prescribed content and skills, and the teacher retains most (if not all) of the control. Much more valuable is what Zhao calls the “entrepreneurial model” of project-based learning, which places the emphasis on the product rather than the project— students create products or services that meet authentic needs, and build knowledge and skills in the process. The teachers facilitate the process, but the students decide what products to make.

The third and final layer involves establishing a global consciousness, which can be done in numerous ways. It can include learning foreign languages, collaborating with students on the other side of the world (for example, the Cherwell School and Gcato School students jointly established a chicken business), or teaching foreign students about things in your area and vice versa.

The Path From Here to There

These changes will require giving up entrenched beliefs and the sense of comfort offered by a system that emphasizes order, control and immediate tangible results in the form of test scores, Zhao says. But the high unemployment rate among recent college graduates is causing people to rethink their assumptions and question whether the current model of education is serving children’s best interests.

Zhao has observed some elements of the changes for which he’s advocating appearing in more innovative public schools, primarily in suburban areas with smaller school districts and more local control. And in many ways, he says, he’s advocating for the United States to return to its roots.

“America thrived on democracy and trying to celebrate diversity, and allowing individuals to flourish. … It can look very messy,” he says, but the payoff is worth it.





 Questions Before Answers: What Drives a Great Lesson?

8 01 2015

 

DECEMBER 18, 2014

Recently, I was looking through my bookshelves and discovered an entire shelf of instruction books that came with software I had previously purchased. Yes, there was a time when software was bought in stores, not downloaded. Upon closer examination of these instruction books, I noticed that many of them were for computers and software that I no longer use or even own. More importantly, most were still in shrink-wrap, never opened. I recalled that when I bought software, I just put the disk into the computer and never looked at the book.

I realized that I did the same when I bought a new car — with one exception. I never read the instruction book in the glove compartment. I just turned on the engine and drove off. I already knew how to drive, so I didn’t need a book. The exception occurred when I tried to set the clock. I couldn’t figure it out, so I finally opened the glove compartment and checked the book.

This pattern was and is true for every device I buy. I never read the book that comes with a toaster, an iPod, or a juicer unless I have a question. There are some people who do read instruction books before using a device, but with no disrespect intended, those people are a small minority. Our minds are set up to not care about answers unless we have a question. The greater the question, the more compelling it is, the more we want the answer. We learn best when questions come before answers.

The Need to Know

Too many classrooms ignore this basic learning model. They spend most of class time providing information and then ask questions in the form of a quiz, test, or discussion. This is backward. Too many students never learn this way. It is simply too hard to understand, organize, interpret, or make sense out of information — or even to care about it — unless it answers a question that students care about.

Lessons, units, and topics are more motivating when they begin with a question whose answer students want to know. Not only do great questions generate interest, they also answer the question that so many students wonder about: “Why do I have to learn this?” Finally, great questions increase cognitive organization of the content by framing it into a meaningful answer to the opening question.

There is a catch, though, in using questions to begin your lesson. The question must be connected to the content, so that the following learning activities actually answer the question. The question must fit your students’ age, ability, and experiences. In addition, the question needs to provoke both thought and curiosity. In fact, it must be compelling enough to generate so much motivation so that students can’t help but want to know the answer.

Have you ever forgotten the name of a song and spent hours trying to remember it? It gets under your skin until you no longer want the answer — you need it. That’s what a great opening question does for students. Compulsion more than simple curiosity drives them to learn the information that follows. It’s what I felt when I finally wanted to read my car manual so that I could set the clock.

10 Questions That Motivate Learning

Questions this powerful are hard to find. I suggest collecting as many as you can (5-10 per year, for example), and after weeding out the ones that didn’t work, eventually you’ll be able to fill a notebook or computer file with them. I have been collecting these kinds of questions from teachers for years. Here’s a sample of some great ones that worked with students in creating enough motivation to drive an entire lesson.

  • Middle school math: What does Martin Luther King have in common with algebra? (Answer: Both are concerned with equality.)
  • First grade science class studying particles: What is the smallest thing you’ve ever held in your hand? (Warning: Do not use this question in high school.)
  • Upper-level history class studying the Pilgrims: Is there anything your parents could ever do to you that would make you run away from home?
  • Elementary art: If humans could be a color other than any of the colors that they already are, what color would they be? Why do you think this? Draw some people of this color.
  • High school English: If Hamlet were a television sitcom, what would be a better name for it?
  • Elementary English: What is the best name for a book about your life?
  • Geography: Why does Israel have more fertile soil than other Middle East countries that share the same desert? (Answer: It has more trees to hold in moisture.)
  • Second grade reading: We are going to redesign the alphabet. What three letters can be eliminated? (Answer: C, Q, X)
  • Eighth grade physical education: Why is a soccer ball harder to control inside the gym than on the field? (Answer: Friction)
  • Middle school English: Why don’t good and food rhyme? Given the definition of best, can you have more than one best friend?

Each of these questions was used by teachers to begin lessons that really motivated their students. Can you add any more to the list?