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.

A Vision for Curriculum

On Tuesday night, while watching a Youtube Live event hosted by one of the great folks at Go2Science (https://www.go2science.com/), I was struck by a comment made regarding the Go2Science materials, which I’ll do my best to replicate here:

“Feel free to take the materials and rearrange them and make them your own. We know we’ve made a good lesson when you can can take it and make it your own.”

This insight struck me because it illuminates a vision of what a curriculum could be. It’s a thought that I needed articulated three months into the implementation of new curriculum materials that have been introduced in my district. These materials do not espouse such an open-source or teacher-empowering stance and it’s caused quite a philosophical struggle for me as an educator.

As a teacher whose favorite part of the job (other than the kids) is curriculum development and creating learning activities, I’ve been fortunate to grow into my practice as an educator in a district where the directives were to use curricular resources as just that, resources. For five years, I’ve been pulling ideas and inspiration from a host of sources and combining them together to create what I believe are rich, meaningful, and integrated learning experiences for my students. The act of creating a mosaic from all of these sources allows me to flex my creativity muscles and is, for me, almost spellbinding. Many of the other aspects of the job often feel like chores, but I’ll happily spend an entire Saturday engaged in designing curriculum.

Most significantly, I’ve relished the opportunity to create materials that respond directly to my students’ interests and current needs. All teachers know that in any given classroom there are a wide range of skills and diverse personalities; for anyone who has spent an extended time in a classroom, the idea of a one-size-fits-all approach seems both irresponsible and irrational. Yet, one-size-fits-all, with subtle changes for “differentiation” continues to be what the big education publishers proffer and is, unfortunately, the turn that we appear to be taking in my district.

Last year, during the curriculum exploration phase, I had several conversations with folks at school about how mass-produced curricula are market-driven, responding to the latest zeitgeists and repackaging the same old stuff in newer, flashier packaging. And, when looking at national publishers, we’ve seen in films like “The Revisionaries” that states and districts with the largest budgets often get their needs and requirements enshrined in the packages offered across the country. It hardly makes sense that my students in rural Maine should have their educational experiences dictated by the pursestrings thousands of people thousands of miles away.

At any rate, I now have in my classroom a 750-page, two-volume phone book of math activities and worksheets for each of my students that is supposed to guarantee “Common Core Success.” And, it’s been a struggle to grapple with balancing directions for implementation with the boxes of resources that I’ve developed and tested. It’s hard to rectify trading conceptual understanding for shallow coverage and to extinguish all the work I’ve done to teach kids that math isn’t just about the right answer with solution-focused worksheets. For now, I’ve struck the balance of using the curriculum to loosely frame what I cover, picking and choosing those activities that make sense as resources, but not being afraid to use a tried-and-true lesson that I know is better.

These small actions are allowing me to teach while retaining my conscience and allowing me to keep focused on my vision for what quality curriculum is and could be.

Carving Out Time for What Matters

I believe that a classroom schedule reveals what is valued in the classroom. What the schedule looks like is, I believe, highly political, particularly in the era of standardization of curricula. I do recognize that many teachers are seeing increased usurpation of their autonomy in developing their own schedules, which makes carving out time for everything we want to do challenging. But, I also believe that the schedule shapes everything and is where we, as professionals, need to take a stand about what we value to create a flow to the day that aligns with our teaching philosophies and that will help to adequately prepare students for the ever-changing world.

Early this week, I participated in an STEM Education research conference — it was thrilling to be in a setting where everyone was talking about science. I have never had a mandatory professional development session in my district that was about science — it’s completely swept under the rug due to the massive weight of math and literacy. (Disclaimer: I have an M.Ed. in literacy, so I value and love literacy, but have experienced tremendous shifts in my thinking about science and social studies as the subjects for leveraging engagement and providing authentic opportunities for applying literacy skills.)

While at the conference, there was much lamentation about how little time there is for science. The results of a survey of Maine teachers about their science practices indicated that science instruction is minimal in many classrooms. I’m attaching the graphics from the grades 3-5 results here — the K-2 looked very similar, but I didn’t get that handout.

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I left the conference feeling determined to go “all in” on STEM education this year. And the first place to legitimize that focus is in my anticipated classroom schedule. I carved out a big block of time this week to start thinking about what I value and what needs to find its way into our precious classroom time. As you’ll see, I have the blessing (though sometimes a curse) of a 7-hour day with my 2nd graders, so my pool of time to work with is a bit larger than in some other settings.

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The biggest change from this year in my hypothetical schedule is devoting the entire afternoon after our Unified Arts classes to STEM. We’ll spend the early months of the school year doing nature study, which will integrate science and writing. This time will evolve into a more general science period during the colder weather, though I’ve been inspired by Laurie Rubin’s bookTo Look Closely to keep taking my students out periodically in the winter.

The second component of our afternoon will be spent on technology and computer science. If I want to help my young students become digitally literate, I’ve got to walk the walk and give them ample time to learn about technology and to develop their computational thinking skills. I’ll be sharing more about my computer science work (a major summer project for me) in a later post.

Another significant change are the lengthy morning work time blocks, in lieu of traditional reading and math instruction. I had the pleasure of visiting a Montessori school this year and these blocks are my attempt to bring a little bit of Montessori to my public school classroom. I’ll be meeting with small groups and individuals to provide instruction during these times, but, when they aren’t meeting with me, my students will be free to choose their own order for going through the required assignments of the week in math, reading, geography, language, writing, and Spanish. I feel optimistic, but a bit anxious, about these blocks and figuring out to set them effectively is a work in progress that I’ll continue to tinker with until we start school.

The only other large change is a slight shift in our morning and afternoon routines. I have always given my students an “Independent Learning Time” at the end of the day, where they are free to tinker and explore and make autonomous choices about what they’d like to do. After reading The Curious Classroom by Harvey Daniels, the idea of “soft starts” nagged at me for weeks. Soft starts can take many forms, but they are intended to be a way for the students to begin the day with autonomy and have a chance to settle in for the day. I plan to have a host of options for students during this time, ranging from visiting our wonder stations, to board games, to art projects. I know that I do a form of “soft starts” for myself each day — I feel like students would benefit from that same opportunity to settle in.

Because I’m shifting the ILT time equivalent to the morning, I’ve decided to eliminate Closing Circles, which are always hurried at the end of the day, to mindfulness time. I envision this time being an opportunity for students to again make choices, but to choose from a variety of activities with a more reflective, peaceful nature. I’ll play a yoga video each afternoon, but also invite students to draw, write, read, look out the window, or anything else that helps them to feel a moment of peace at the end of a busy day.

While I’m sure elements of my schedule may have to move slightly as I find out concrete times for things like guidance and library, I am committed to retaining the integrity of this schedule. For this first time, my schedule on paper honestly reflects my priorities and goals as an educator and I believe that, with careful work, it will be a positive step towards generating a classroom of truly Curious Questioners.

What does your classroom schedule look like? How do you balance fitting in what you have to with fitting in what you want to include?

Education as a Lever for Addressing Inequality

Last week, I had the privilege of seeing Jonathan Kozol speak about “Race, Poverty, and the Corporate Invasion of Our Public Schools.” Kozol has long been one of my personal heroes working in the field of education, so I relished the opportunity to be in the same room with him.

So much of what he said made such obvious sense to me, including his belief that we are shortchanging students before school even begins by failing to offer quality preschool to all children, particularly those children who could most benefit from it and all of the services that ought to accompany a reputable program. And where would the money come from to fund such an initiative? His answer: from the budget we currently pay to standardized testing companies.

He also spoke at length about the continuing — and perhaps worsening — inequities in public education as segregation in schools continues unabated. This issue is of particular interest to me, as I am looking at positions in urban schools and have been floored by the intra-district inequalities in terms of free and/reduced lunch rates. (Of course, free/reduced lunch is a contested indicator of poverty, but I think it works to support the point made here.) I was shocked that it would be permitted to allow one school to have 12% of students receiving free/reduced lunch while another school across the city has upwards of 85%. Perhaps it was naive of me to assume that these types of obvious inconsistencies would be viewed as intolerable and immediately eradicated.

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Prior to attending Kozol’s talk, I read one of his works that I hadn’t read previously — Amazing Grace. I found the book difficult to read, even though his other works have given me some familiarity with the contexts described. It is always painful to read about difficult situations; however, what made this one particularly challenging was the gnawing sense that even though the book was written two decades ago, things don’t seem to have improved a whole lot in that time. It is unfortunate that the political priorities in this country continue to lie elsewhere and that public interest is not constantly directed toward the staggering inequalities that persist in our own country and are, as the title of another Kozol book suggests, “the shame of the nation.”