Providing Autonomy in the “4 Ts”

Greetings! I’m writing after the second day of a new approach to structuring our mornings in the classroom to be more autonomous and am feeling that mixed bag of emotions that comes along with trying out something new — excitement, uncertainty, confusion, frustration. I’ll share more about the specific changes that I’m making in a future post, once I’ve had more time to observe my Curious Questioners and to reflect on what’s working and what isn’t.

In my last post, I wrote about the research that supports shifting classroom practices to provide students with as much autonomy as possible in the classroom. Specifically, I cited Daniel Pink’s theory about the four components of what he called “Motivation 2.0” — providing autonomy over time, task, technique, and team (Drive, 2009). Today, I’m going to offer some suggestions for small, medium, and large steps that educators may be able to make to provide students with enhanced opportunities for classroom autonomy.

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Giving students autonomy over time involves allowing them to have more say over what they do when and how much time they spend on particular tasks.

Small Step: Let students have some input in the schedule of your day. Have a discussion with your students about your daily classroom schedule and find out from them what they think is working and what they might like to try altering. One year, my students told me that they’d like to do math first thing in the morning. After making the change, I got far greater engagement during our math activities.

Medium Step: Engage students with tasks designed to last multiple work periods, with parts that can be completed flexibly. Giving students a multi-part assignment with components that can be completed in any order allows students to create a plan for completing the task and the freedom to organize their learning and work in a way that makes the most sense to them.

Large Step: Create a flexible work period, where students are given multiple assignments and a larger chunk of work time in which to complete them. These type of work periods are common in the Montessori approach to education and provide authentic opportunities for students to make decisions and to hone their time management skills. (This is the large change that I’m actively working on making in my own classroom.)

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Giving students task autonomy involves allowing them to make choices about the learning activities in which they’ll be engaging.

Small Step: Give students a 15-minute free period each day to spend on anything that they can relate to learning. Observe students during this time to see what tasks they gravitate towards. I call this time “independent learning time” in my classroom. You can read more about ILT here.

Medium Step: Create two (or more!) different tasks that cover the same learning topic or goal and give students a choice about which one to complete.

Large Step: Have a conversation with your students about a specific learning goal. Explain what learners would need to do to demonstrate their understanding of the concept or skill and offer some suggestions about activities students might do to “show what they know.” Allow students to choose one of your suggestions or to create their own idea for a product or task they can complete to share their learning with you.

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Providing students with autonomy in terms of technique involves defining a clear objective, but leaving room for students to develop their own way of getting there.

Small Step: Give students the freedom to choose their own art supplies and materials to complete tasks and assignments. I’ve long been a proponent of allowing students to write with whatever tool they’d like — if I’ve got them happily working on a learning task, I don’t need to control what they write with! (I do work with them on recognizing how to make smart decisions about what to use for specific learning tasks.)

Medium Step: Offer students an open-ended task that allows students to show their thinking in more than one way. A simple example: Draw or write about what you think what happen next in the story. A more complicated example: Using a single piece of paper, share with me what you know about nonfiction books. Math problems can also be a great opportunity to open up the possibility of using multiple techniques — manipulatives, drawing a picture, abstract representation, etc.

Large Step: Begin highlighting student work that is “outside the box.” Discuss how using different techniques makes learning more interesting and allows us to learn more from each other. Celebrate creativity and make sharing different techniques and strategies a part of your classroom culture. This will expand your students’ toolkits and ideas about the many possibilities for approaching a learning task.

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Offering team autonomy involves letting students make choices about how they work — individually, with a partner, or in a small team. It can also mean letting students create self-chosen groups.

Small Step: Open up the possibility of students working together on a task. A lot of research indicates that when students work with others, everyone’s performance is ultimately enhanced. Even if students weaker in a particular area rely heavily on their partners in the beginning, having a peer explain concepts can be more effective than listening to the teacher explain something again.

Medium Step: Create “working together” spaces in your classroom. Set up an area where students can voluntarily go if they are seeking an opportunity to collaborate with a peer. Discuss this space with the students and have them provide input about how this space should function.

Large Step: Allow students to design a team project to address a learning goal. Have students come up with a proposal, a plan, and roles. They should also be able to articulate how they’ll demonstrate what they know as individuals and as a team.

*For more about creating effective groups in the classroom, I highly recommend the book Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogenous Classroom by Cohen & Lohan. Available here.


Beginning to make small changes in your classroom practice in even one of these areas will create a path towards greater autonomy for your students. Let me know if you try out any of these changes or if you have other suggestions for increasing autonomy in the classroom.

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Making Space for Autonomy

peanuts_essay.jpgOne of my goals for this year is to broaden my focus beyond my single classroom to the bigger, broader picture of education. I’m contemplating what future moves I’d like to make within the education field and am recognizing that I will probably never be content with just focusing the whole of my attention on the group of students assigned to me during a particular year. Taking a course on education last fall and getting to grapple with ideas and research has reinvigorated my desire to enter the classroom each day as a scientist, an experimenter who explores and advocates for ways to transform our traditional model of education.

In my course last fall, we read excerpts from Daniel Pink’s Drive — having read the book before, this offered an opportunity to revisit the text with an education-specific lens. What has stuck with me and perplexed me for months is the emphasis that the text places on autonomy as a critical component of motivation. (Mastery and purpose are the other two legs to the stool of motivation that Pink describes.) I was particularly struck by a passage comparing the difference between “autonomous motivation” and “controlled motivation,” which I’ll share here:

“Autonomous motivation involves behaving with a full sense of volition and choice […] whereas controlled motivation involves behaving with the experience of pressure and demand toward specific outcomes that come from forces perceived to be external to the self” (Deci & Ryan, cited by Pink, p. 90).

When I read this, it seems clear to me that most of what we offer to students of all ages in education is the latter concept, “controlled motivation.” We tell students what to do, when to do it, and typically outline or at least imply what the consequences (punishments) will be for failing to complete the task in a certain way and within a certain time frame. Often, we do these things while claiming to be “student-centered,” arguing that we are responding to our students’ interests and needs while still dictating nearly every moment of their time in the classroom. Or, we give students a non-choice, “Well, you can choose not to do this now, but then x, y, or z.”

While there are probably few circumstances in education where we could offer students complete “autonomous motivation,” I certainly think that there are changes that we can make to at least restore some autonomy back to students. Even in thinking about the non-academic parts of the day in my school, I am staggered by the control the adults in the building exercise in the name of order and convenience. For example, during breakfast in the cafeteria each morning, students must sit by class, their only options for activities are eating or talking to one another, and you have to keep your dirty and empty food containers in front of you until you are given permission to throw your garbage away. Surely this amount of control is unnecessary — I can’t imagine adults agreeing to eat a meal under such arbitrary conditions. And this is just one small part of a school day, a day that I would argue is governed from start to end by similar unnecessary usurpations of  student autonomy.

Significantly, research suggests that making autonomy-enhancing changes in school would be worthwhile, as numerous studies demonstrate that the more autonomy we can give to students, the better the outcomes. In a synthesis of the research, Pink concludes that increased autonomy “promotes greater conceptual understanding, better grades, [and] enhanced persistence at school” (p. 90 – 91). There is also a citizenship argument here as well, articulated well by my favorite educational contrarian, Alfie Kohn, in an article called “Choices for Children” (1993):

“One is repeatedly struck by the absurd spectacle of adults insisting that children need to become self-disciplined, or lamenting that ‘kids just don’t take responsibility for their own behavior’ — while spending their days ordering children around. The truth is that, if we want children to take responsibility for their own behavior, we must first give them responsibility, and plenty of it.”

It seems clear that preserving students’ autonomy at all levels of schooling is a noble goal — one that is worthy of deeper exploration. This month, I’m making restoring as much autonomy as possible to my students my main focus for experimentation. In Drive, Pink argues that there are four components to creating an environment where autonomous motivation can flourish — providing autonomy over “what people do (task), when people do it (time), how they do it (technique), and whom they do it with (team)” (p. 94-95). In a post later this week, I’ll be exploring some changes that could be made to restore autonomy to students in each of these areas. I hope you’ll join me in thinking critically about ways to promote autonomous motivation in our schools.

Work Cited:
Kohn, A. (1993). Choices for children: Why and how to let students decide. Phi Delta Kappan: September 1993.

Pink, D. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York: Riverhead Books.

Serendipitous Mayhem

Untitled 2.pngThe part of my revised curriculum that I’d most been looking forward to was Nature Study. Our first few lessons went swimmingly — students wrote and drew pictures in their notebooks of their observations, they were noticing unusual plants, and there was a keen interest amongst the class in getting to explore lots of different outdoor spaces around our school.

On Thursday afternoon, we went out on a cleared trail for Nature Study. Students were working on a 5 senses observation. We’d been out for almost all of the 20 minutes I’d allotted when, suddenly, this scene emerged: clipboards being thrown in the air, bloodcurdling screams breaking the serenity of the woods, and my 16 second graders scrambling back towards the school.

Yep, probably the worst case scenario — one of my Curious Questioners stepped on a yellow jacket nest, sending a swarm of angry wasps after us. Half of my students got stung at least once and one student began to have a reaction to the stings. (Fortunately, I somehow avoided being stung — that would made things far worse, as I have severe reactions to stings of any kind.) In short, utter mayhem reigned as I tried to ensure that students who had been stung got taken care of and had their parents notified against a backdrop of extremely over-excited and frightened 7-and 8-year olds.

Everyone was okay and things had leveled off by the time Friday arrived. In fact, by the end of the day, many students were citing “the wasp incident” as their favorite part of the week. Additionally, many of our questions of the week were inspired by wasps — a popular one was, “Why do they sting so hard?”

After the students left on Friday, I let out such a sigh of relief. The stress of the past couple of days finally washed away and now we could move on. But then, an idea nagged at the back of my mind — what could be a more clear example of a “teachable moment” than this episode? An opportunity to engage my students in meaningful inquiry about a topic in which they had a vested interest had come right up and “stung” me.

So, scrap the lesson plans! I spent the majority of yesterday designing an inquiry unit around the question, “What stung us?” I’d used the word “wasp” to describe the incident when talking about it with my students, but this word doesn’t pinpoint the species of stinging insect that attacked us (yellow jackets). So, I haven’t answered the question for them, leaving it wide open for exploration.

Tomorrow, when my students arrive at school, they’ll be assigned to a group that will be researching one of four possible stinging candidates — honeybees, hornets, yellow jackets, and paper wasps. I’ve created readings and some other bee-related centers that students will rotate through, learning about their assigned insect, but — most importantly — looking for evidence that might help determine whether or not their species is the culprit.

After groups complete their readings in a small group, they’ll work together to create a collaborative poster highlights facts about their insect’s appearance, nesting habits, and behaviors. Each group will share their findings with the class (and with families during our community meeting this Friday) and students will have to synthesize the information to create a scientific case for which insect they believe attacked our class.

I can’t wait to see them working like real scientists on this inquiry task! While I do wish that we hadn’t disturbed those yellow jackets, I am excited that something meaningful and likely memorable can come out of the chaos.

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Independent Learning Time

I can’t believe that April is half over! It seems like I forgot how quickly the time goes once spring arrives. We are down to under 40 days left in this school year — where did the time go?

Anyway, today I’m going to discuss another initiative that I’ve been piloting this spring with my students: independent learning time.

Immediately following our classroom walks, which have continued to be a pleasant aspect of our afternoons, my students have been engaging each day in “independent learning time.” During this time students can, so long as they’ve met expectations for work throughout the morning, work on any activity of their choice, as long as it is somehow related to learning.

Philosophically, independent learning time makes so much sense to me. How can we expect to develop students who are creative, critical thinkers when we are always telling them what to do during every minute of their school experience? By removing the directives about what students will be doing, I have found that my students are creating surprisingly rich learning experiences that are catered to their interests — all by themselves!

After an initially rough couple of days during the beginning of the implementation of independent learning time — my students were flabbergasted when they were given the authority to direct learning according to their interests — things have settled nicely over the past few weeks. ILT has become such an exciting time in our classroom! I’ve learned so much about what makes my students tick since implementing ILT, which has also helped with keeping our classroom flowing smoothly all day long. The kids look forward to ILT and don’t want to miss a second of it, so they have been increasingly motivated and focused during the other parts of the day.

So, you might be wondering what my students have been up during ILT. Here’s a short selection of some of their self-chosen and self-directed activities.

  • Learning how to write in cursive
  • Learning multiplication
  • Exploring how different types of paper and folding lead to different results in paper airplanes
  • Creating a book about recycling
  • Using pattern blocks to create mandalas and to try to build multi-story structures
  • Using Toontastic (an app) to create their own animated stories
  • Exploring natural objects collected during our afternoon walks
  • Working on reading books of their choice
  • Asking to spend more time working on projects from other parts of our day(!)

As you can see, my kids aren’t just “playing” and pretending that it’s learning; they are stretching their minds in significant ways, all on their own.

My hope is that the sense of wonder surrounding ILT will translate to their time at home. If students learn the skills of managing their own learning at school, they will be much better equipped to create their own learning experiences at home. My vision as a teacher has always been to cultivate students who are curious, self-directed learners; ILT time is one of the most significant (and initially scary!) steps that I’ve taken toward making that vision a reality.

Working on Our Play

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We are entering the third week of work on our Dr. Seuss play. I find myself marveling at how slowly the process is going, but also satisfied that we are taking the time to lay a solid foundation of organization and expectations that will hopefully lead to success further down the line.

As you can see from the first picture, the initial step in our play process was making a list of all of the things that we would need to do to successfully put on a play. It was very interesting to observe the steps that my students believed would be necessary; they offered many very detailed ideas that had to do with parts of their costumes, but struggled with conceptualizing the bigger categories of tasks that we would need to accomplish. (No big surprises there, I suppose, as looking at the big picture is often challenging for second graders!)

In addition to making our to-do list, our first week of work also consisted of reading The Lorax many times to familiarize ourselves with the story, discussing how the book is very different from the animated version that came out a few years ago, and generating a list of characters that would need to appear in our play.

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During week two, we looked through various scripts that I found for The Lorax online (I was lucky enough to not have to start from scratch), considered how to adapt the script for our purposes, and applied for roles in the play. The students also started working the music teacher on two musical numbers that we will incorporate into our play, which I am very excited about!

This week, we started by making a set of expectations for play practice and I told the story of how my performances last year were undermined by some goofy behavior from students not involved in the group that was currently on the stage. We also have highlighted our individual speaking parts and stage directions in the scripts. On Thursday, we are going to open discussions about costumes and sets and have our first read-through of the script.

Already, I can see that this experience is going to be very challenging for many of my students. The amount of patience involved in waiting your turn, the degree of teamwork required, and the sheer amount of time it takes to stage a production are not easy things for second graders to handle. I am really looking forward to observing how my students respond to these challenges and (hopefully) watching them grow some essential life skills in the process of putting on our play.

A New Classroom Addition: The Peace Corner

In my classroom this year, I have several students who struggle with regulating strong emotional feelings. (Don’t we all, from time to time?) Last week, after attending a training on restorative practices (a Restorative Justice-esque framework), I resolved to try to continue to avoid using traditional discipline methods. This approach aligns with my personal beliefs about how to best develop character and positive habits in young people, but, too often, I find myself slipping into more traditional approaches when a youngster gets the whole class whipped up into a flurry that seems to call for a quick solution that recognizes that wrong has been done. The amount of patience and composure required to uphold the pathway that I’m trying to choose in m classroom is often daunting, especially when I’m tired or frustrated, but, on the days when I can pull it off, things feel so much healthier and so much happier.

One tool that I have implemented in my classroom this week to aid me on my quest to stick to this path of alternative “discipline” is a “Peace Corner.” One thing that I want to move away from is sending students out of my classroom when they are being “disciplined,” and the Peace Corner is a way to recognize the validity of student feelings and the right to have some time to process feelings independently, without having to send a message that there isn’t a place for that in the classroom. The Peace Corner is a small area in our classroom that I have set up with a soft pillow, a desk with a fabric covering that can offer privacy or a place to write or draw. There are also a variety of items in the Peace Corner that can help students to feel calmer — shells, little games that require lots of focus and concentration, a glitter jar that they can shake and observe, and lots of coloring and writing materials.

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photo 1At this point, I’m experimenting with implementation of the Peace Corner. My students were instantly curious about it and have been, for the most part, very respectful of the fact that it is a special place in our classroom for thinking and processing, and not a place to go and play or avoid work.

Students can either elect to go the Peace Corner by coming and speaking to me about how they are feeling and what has triggered it, or they can be encouraged to go there to gather their composure when a flare-up or incident seems imminent or has already occurred. In the latter case, the visit to the Peace Corner is followed with a conversation with me where I ask them to respond to several questions, which were presented to us at the training last week. I have these questions as posters in the Peace Corner, so that students will be able to read and consider their answers to them while they are processing their feelings and emotions.

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I really like the questions bring the behavior, rather than the person to the forefront; rather than saying, “You are a bully” or “You are a cheater,” the conversation focuses on how they are a “person who has been unkind to others” or you are a “person who has made a poor decision which impacts your learning.” Additionally, there is also a turn towards thinking about how the behavior impacts others, with a special emphasis on how to make things right.

I’m really excited to see how this change works out over the next few weeks — hopefully it will send the powerful message that I want to convey that we all make mistakes and feel intense feelings, but that we do have a responsibility to be able to work on taking responsibility for what we do with those feelings and/or how we repair the potential damage we may have done when we do let our feelings get the best of us.

 

Student-Led Conferences: Signs of Student Ownership

This past week was a long one — I think that I spent more hours at school than at home. I am feeling fortunate that the Thanksgiving holiday break is upon us (just two more school days to go!) because I am definitely in need of an opportunity to recharge my batteries.

But, the extra time that I put in this week was so rewarding. This week, my school held our parent-teacher conferences. These conferences, however, as I described last year (https://cultivatingquestioners.com/2013/11/17/parent-teacher-conferences-and-parental-expectations-for-children/) are not of the typical variety, where the parents and the teacher sit down together to discuss the child. Instead, these conferences involve the parents and the student and, in my version at least, the student takes the reins for directing the whole conference.

I was a bit nervous about this year’s conferences. They really snuck up on me and I didn’t have much time at all to discuss them or what the expectations would be for them with my students. In retrospect, I am actually glad that I didn’t have time to prep them on what to do — watching their conferences unfold without my explicit instruction about what to do was far more insightful and interesting from my perspective.

For the most part, I was really floored by the students during their conferences. I had given them a list of things they might consider sharing and talking about and gathered up a lot of their materials from the classroom so that they would have it at their fingertips. What amazed me most was how accurately they described what we are doing in our classroom — rarely did I have to interject to clarify something. Additionally, the enthusiasm that my students showed when talking about their work (especially some of the students who display negative attitudes toward classroom tasks of any stripe) truly surprised me. In fact, one of the students who I have been struggling to figure out actually stayed for more than an hour, showing his parents literally everything he has done since September. It was so validating to hear my students speak so proudly about what they’ve accomplished since the beginning of school.

Perhaps even more valuable than watching my students share their work was observing the interactions between my students and their parents and their parents’ reactions to what was being shared. Unlike last year at this time, I hadn’t officially met all of my students’ parents, so being able to do so really helped me to gain a better understanding of where my students are coming from. I give many of my parents so much credit for making the time to come in for these conferences — they are balancing so many things at one time, from school to financial struggles to multiple children — that it’s pretty astounding that they made the time to come in for their second grader to tell them about their work. I think that, as educators, it is often easy to want to blame the parents for student issues (and in some cases, there may be specific things that do clearly stem from parents), but, the more time that I spend with families in my community, the harder I find it to think that the challenges that lower-class children exhibit fall squarely on the shoulders of their parents. That’s one reason why I think it is so important to hold conferences and why I love that the students attend ours — parents love their kids and it is no more clear than when they sit through their child reading and sharing every paper they’ve done all year.

Overall, despite the late nights, conferences were a wonderful success this year. What do conferences look like at your school or in your community?