Thursday, March 29, 2012

3 Tips For Helping Students Set Goals


A recent post, 3 Reasons Why Students Have Trouble Setting Goals, has quickly become one of my top five most visited posts and has become my top "+1'd" article.  To recap, those three items are:

1.  They do not get specific enough.
2.  They confuse "get better" goals with "be good" goals.
3.  They have trouble navigating the "why" and the "what"

As a follow up, here are three suggestions for how to help students set goals.

1.  "Let go of the reins."

Goals that we set for ourselves have a better chance of being followed through on than those given to us by others.  This is true for your students as well.  When you start the goal setting process, give students a chance to set any goals they want.  Avoid trying to "help them" set the best goals at first.  This allows students to gain ownership of the process and also provides a place for you to coach them as they move forward.  If you try to get too involved at the onset, they will turn to you to direct the whole thing, and that will not produce goals to which  they are truly committed.

2.  Provide feedback, guidance, and suggestions one-on-one.

As the student's coach, mentor, teacher, etc. supporting the student's effort to set good goals includes providing feedback, guidance, and suggestions.  This is especially true while students who are new to the goal setting process work through some normal difficulties.  Goals, particularly those self-selected, are usually not items that students will feel comfortable discussing in a group.  When goals have been met, then it may be a good exercise to ask students to share their goals and how they were achieved.  However, in the early stages of development, your feedback on the self-selected goals should probably be given in private one-on-one sessions.  More likely than not, the initial set of goals that you see will include the problems I listed above and wrote about in 3 Reasons Why Students Have Trouble Setting Goals.  The feedback you provide should allow the student to refine their goals, not change them to be the goals you would have chosen.  When this phase ends, the student should still recognize the goals as her own, but in a format that is easier to understand and clearly speaks to exactly where the student wishes to go.

3.  Include check points.

When I was a child, I remember playing with toy cars on a track.  The cars would be propelled around the track as they reached one spot where a device with spinning wheels caught the car between the wheels and provide a push designed to get the car around the track once again.  When helping students with their goals, I find it important to remember that without a method to periodically provide renewed focus and energy, many goals will be lost.  Therefore, with any plan to attain goals, a specific schedule that allows you to review and celebrate progress is essential for students.  We see examples of this in many areas.  Video games have "chapters" and check points where the game can be saved, credits earned, etc.  On television, weight loss shows have weigh-ins, social support groups have meetings, etc.  In almost every important endeavor, there is some method for frequently sharing feedback and reviewing progress.  If the goals your student has set are important, then it seems obvious that such feedback come frequently and on a previously agreed upon schedule.

Of all the information students can provide, knowing where they want to go and what they want to accomplish should be among the top five.  Students often have goals in their head, but rarely do they go through the exercise of truly working on them in a deliberate and meaningful way.  Even if the goal is to simply pass a difficult course (a "be good" goal that will need to address "what" questions), being able to provide guidance and support can have a positive impact on the student's chances of achieving that goal.  Even if you are not a goal setting expert, using these three techniques can at least provide enough support to keep the student moving forward until you can help identify a partner to help you maintain the student's momentum.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Possibly THE Most Important Quality of Effective School Leaders

Do a search for "qualities of effective leaders" and you will find no shortage of opinions.  As a practicing educational leader and as a researcher of educational leadership, I am always interested in those opinions and look forward each day to learning a little more about the theory and practice of effective leadership - especially educational leadership.  However, sometimes lost in the conversation is a quality of an effective leader that many time is taken for granted, and may possibly be THE most important for effective leadership.

You have to WANT to be a leader.

I know, this sounds obvious, maybe even a little anti-climactic, but bear with me as I explain.

I have a friend who was a school administrator that had come up through the ranks at his school.  Before he became an administrator, he was considered one of the school's best classroom teachers.  Soon after taking on his administrative role, he began to realize that he really didn't want to be an administrator.  As a result, he was increasingly frustrated and unhappy with his work.  His passion for education had become nothing more than a job, and he was miserable.  After a few years to trying to work through his feelings, he finally reflected on his performance and decided that:

  • it was not up to his own standards of effectiveness
  • he didn't see how he was making much of a contribution to the success of the school
  • he found himself regretting his decision to leave the classroom almost daily
  • he realized that the only reason he continued to do his administrative work was out of contractual obligation, not passion.
  • he didn't really WANT to lead (in the sense of being an administrator - teachers ARE leaders)
He decided to talk to his supervisor and put together a plan for him to leave his administrative position to find a role doing what he really wanted to do - teach in the classroom again.  During that meeting, his supervisor agreed that he didn't seem happy in the role and that his work was not as effective as the supervisor had hoped it would be.  Amazingly, the supervisor offered him a chance to stay at the school in his previous role.  This was totally unexpected, and my friend eagerly agreed to the offer.

There are probably many examples such as this, but the point is that before anyone can bring passion, inspiration, vision, etc. into a role, they have to WANT to be the person who does those things.  If a leader is not inspired by his own vision and the daily challenge of working with others to share that vision and bring it to life, then the WANT is not there - and it cannot be manufactured with more money, greater responsibility, or a nice office.

WANTING to lead is not being 'ok' with more responsibility or being put "in charge."  Those are mostly external realities of taking on a formal leadership role.

WANTING to lead is internal.  It is the motivation you get from knowing those external forces are waiting for you to guide them through towards a better version of what your school already is.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Implications of Asking For Input


There are times when asking for input and opinions helps a teacher or administrator gather a necessary perspective on a pending matter.  There is a difference between asking for input and being aware of how others feel.

Knowing how others feel or may react depends on how much time and energy you have invested in getting to know and understand those whose reactions with which you need to be concerned.  Taking this into consideration does not require the other person to be actively involved.

Asking for input potentially provides the same information, but carries with it a much different set of implications.  When you ask for input...
  • there is an expectation from the people providing it that the decisions made as a result will clearly demonstrate that the input mattered.
  • that there will be a follow up made directly to those who gave input about the results of gathering the information.
  • that you will give credit to those for whom credit is due.
  • that the decisions made based on the input will have a direct impact on the work of those being asked to provide the input.
When you ask a student or teacher for input, you may not know it, but you are inviting them to be an active part of the decision process.

If you are not willing to change your class after asking for student input about how well it is going, then don't ask them.

If you have already made up your mind and are not interested in following up on the suggestions made by the faculty, don't ask them what they want.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

3 Reasons Students Have Trouble Setting Goals


If I have learned nothing else as an educator, I have learned to NOT underestimate what a motivated student, who sets appropriate goals and follows through on a relevant plan of action, can accomplish.  That is why coaching students about how to set goals and create action plans is such a powerful tool for student achievement.  Unfortunately, this is another area that most teacher preparation courses do not address.  Since anything you accomplish can basically be attributed to attaining a goal, helping students set and attain goal

Here are 3 reasons students have trouble setting (and attaining) appropriate goals.

1.  They do not get specific enough

Often students need prompting to get specific about what they want to accomplish and how they plan to do so. Without clear and thoughtful ideas, most goals will not be met.  A few classic unspecific student goals and plans are "to get a higher grade", "to do better", and "to work harder."  If you hear your students telling you one of these (or a version of one of these), ask the student what she means by X.  Make the student be as specific as they can.  Be prepared for the student to possibly get frustrated with this exercise because it may be a totally new way of articulating goals, which can be difficult for some students to grasp at first.

2.  They confuse "get better" goals and "be good" goals

This topic alone could fill a book.  Basically, students sometimes need help figuring out how to set goals from a growth mindset (get better) and from a fixed mindset (be good).  If students are trying to accomplish a "get better" goal by using "be good" strategies, they can get frustrated by the process - which may lead to them giving up too soon.  If students are trying to "get better", their focus, goals, and plans should center around their effort and progress.  If a "be good" goal is being pursued, focusing on what needs to happen in order to achieve a certain outcome is appropriate.

3.  They have trouble navigating the "why" and the "what"

The two questions most students want to answer are "why" and "what".   Those are both perfectly reasonable questions and are both good starting points for setting goals.  The challenge comes when students are asking the wrong question, thereby setting goals that do not seem to ever move the student closer to where he wants to go.  Navigating "why" and "what" is not terribly difficult but it does require close attention to the student.  In most cases, a student who is having trouble understanding a new or particularly difficult concept may ask, "Why do I need to know this?" but the better question is, "What do I need to do to better understand this concept?"  Likewise,  a student who has mastered a concept may ask, "What else do I need to know?" but may get much more satisfaction by asking, "Why does this concept have relevance to my future?"  Picking the right question will help put the student on the most effective and productive path, thus leading to a more appropriate goal.

Related reading:
If you are looking for a good reference to use in helping students set and attain goals, I highly recommend Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals by Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson.

You may also like a few other posts I have written on the topic of goal setting and student success:

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Luck and Education: A St. Patrick's Day Reflection

good luck or bad luck 

The Roman philosopher Seneca is credited with saying, "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity."

Of course today being St. Patrick's Day, most are thinking more Irish thoughts than Roman.  So, maybe a better way for us to bring more luck into the educational process is to travel to the Emerald Isle and kiss the Blarney Stone.

Being of Irish descent, it is hard for me to admit it, but I think I need to side with the Roman on the idea of luck.     In matters of luck, I'll take preparation and opportunity over folklore any day - except maybe St. Patrick's Day.

As educators, preparation is essential.  Not only lesson preparation, but also expanding our body of knowledge.  Continuing to improve our understanding of how to better serve our students' needs is as important as lesson planning.  You will never know when an opportunity will present itself for you to use that additional knowledge.

When and if that happens, who is the lucky one?  You or your students?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

3 Ways To Get Students To Ask More Questions


Back in April of 2011, I wrote a piece titled "Smart" People Ask Good Questions.  I ended that post with the following:
All questions have their place in schools.  From the ordinary and expected to the truly enlightening and exploratory, questions are essential to the educational process.  As educational leaders, we should pay attention to the questions we hear and ask.  The amount of time spent answering and asking “smarter” questions may provide an interesting insight into how engaged your teachers, parents, and students are in the learning process.  Paying attention to the frequency and quality of questions asked in schools can help educational leaders be more effective in supporting the needs of the school community.
 I was reminded of that post today when I read an article on Big Think by Kirsten Winkler titled, Search Engines replace Teachers and Parents.  The article includes some interesting information, including:

survey for Birmingham Science City amongst 500 15 year-olds across the UK came up with some pretty telling numbers about how technology changes society at its roots. 
When asked whom they ask when a particular question occurs 54% of students answered Google or other search engines. Only 26% would ask their parents and only 3% their teacher. One in ten surveyed students even answered they would never go to their teacher with a question.
The article is short, but it suggests that in order to get kids to ask parents and teachers more questions, parents and teachers need to "get ahead of the curve and defend their place in society as the ones who simply know more or better."

While I agree that students are more likely to ask questions when they know the teacher has the answer they need is important, I would like to think there are a number of other ways to increase the frequency of student questions than projecting a persona of the "more experienced, smarter person in the room" approach.  Therefore, here are three ways to help get students to ask more questions.

1.  Work with individuals - Some students want to ask, but are hesitant to do so in front of the group.  Therefore, moving around the room and engaging the students one on one may help.  If you get a particularly good question from working one on one with a student, ask the student's permission to share it with the class.   

2.  Coach them on asking the right question - Students often stop asking questions because at some point, they may have asked the wrong one and didn't get the response they were hoping for.  Therefore, coaching students to identify their goal and which question best suits that goal is important.  If the student is having trouble understanding a new and/or difficult concept, they should ask more "What" questions.  If a student has mastered a concept and is looking to go deeper into the topic, "Why" questions are usually best. 

3.  Reward good questions - This idea helps those who may need to see some extrinsic value to asking questions.  You can keep a good question "scorecard" and give small prizes for those who contribute the most.  Another way I have used rewards is to tell students that I will pick a number of their questions to use on the test.  That way they get to be a part of creating their own evaluations.

A final note:  Asking good questions is a sign that students are engaged in the learning process and motivated to do well.  If you find that your class is light on student questions, it may be a sign that you need to try a new approach designed to increase engagement.  Once you establish an atmosphere of engagement, the dialogue between teacher and students will naturally produce more questions.   

Monday, March 12, 2012

Making It Impossible To Steal Dreams

I just finished my first reading of Seth Godin's new free eBook, Stop Stealing Dreams.  After my first reading, I decided to read it again, take more notes, and highlight more passages.

Here are a few of my thoughts after my initial reading.

  • Students are probably NOT dreaming about how school helps them prepare for the future when they are not in school.  These dreams are more likely to occur in classes that either put students to sleep or are so unclear about their relevance that students begin daydreaming.
  • Dreams become reality when we take action to make them come true.  This is applicable to teachers, schools, students, and parents.  Anyone can act on their dreams (it isn't dependent on someone else).
  • Many teachers want to provide what students need, but when teacher education hasn't caught up to those needs, teaches are left to make their best guess which, if not effective, can give the appearance of helplessness.
  • Some schools do content, facts, and tests well.  Some schools do problem based, experiential learning well.  Most rare are the schools that do both well.
  • The answer may not be to change the system completely.  It may be to add an additional system that balances and compliments the other for schools that cannot do both well enough. Maybe a Bicameral System of Education - one "house" based on content, facts, and testing, the other "house" set up for problem based, experiential, social learning (I am currently working on a post with more details about this idea).
  • If the current system was set up to feed the economy and produce obedient factory workers for the industrial age, is it hypocritical to suggest we change the system to feed the "new" post-industrial age economy?  I guess I'm asking if it is any better to want schools to develop students with the necessary skills to fuel the current economy than it is to criticize them for doing basically the same thing for the "older" economy?  I'm just asking...
I have been a big follower of Seth's work for some time.  I applaud his new work as a bold statement about the state of the education system in the US.  As with everything from Seth that I have read, Stop Stealing Dreams, at a few points, made me a little uncomfortable.  That is one of the most important reasons why I read Seth's work and recommend this, and all his books, to others.

Remember, stealing dreams is impossible when students can't dream in your class because they are too busy doing relevant and meaningful work that prepares them for THEIR future (not our past).

Everything else induces sleep, which is when the dreaming begins - not a good strategy for effective teaching, unless your goal is to steal dreams.  

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Faster Than the Speed of Teacher Training

I recently participated in one of my favorite weekly Twitter discussions, #isedchat, during which the topic of "student helplessness" came up.  As I read the various comments, questions, and answers being shared, I wrote  a simple thought that a few people said was interesting and asked for me to explain.  Here is what I wrote.
isedchat I think the "help" students need is changing faster than the "help" teachers are trained to provide.
Here is the explanation behind my idea.

I am not convinced that "helplessness" is the right term for students.  Many need motivation.  Many need inspiration.  Many could use more grit and determination.  However, I see helpless as the the inability to act without help, and I think teachers confuse helpless with a possible disconnect between traditional teacher training and the less pedagogical/curricular needs that many students have.  Teachers are then left to try to figure out what is needed and when the guess doesn't match the problem, a mirage of helplessness may appear.

I do not like the term helpless, but I concede that ALL students need the help of a caring and professional teacher.  The problem may be that though teacher training involves how to plan lessons, address curriculum objectives, understand best practices and pedagogy, and sprinkles in some psychology, the needs of students today are changing with the demands of the connected world.  I have found that, in many cases, the help students need is not based on pedagogy, psychology, or best practices (though all of those are necessary for good teaching).

What I see today (more than at any point in my career) are students who need teachers to help them find motivation, build self-confidence, seek challenges, set appropriate goals, and how to develop and follow through on action plans to help them attain those goals.  Teachers today are seeing these needs in class, and are trying to help, but because traditional teacher training doesn't quite address these types of needs, teachers try what they know, and are left frustrated when the results are not as they would expect - thus, students appear "helpless."

Remember the reason for this post was to try to explain the thought behind my suggestion that students' needs are changing faster than teachers are trained to provide.  What I didn't suggest is that students' needs are different or new - just changing.  Student's have always needed motivation, inspiration, grit, determination, and the ability to set, act upon, and attain goals.  The issue here is the nature of how those aspects of student success is changing.

When the world needed more disciplined, obedient factory workers, those needs were less important and easily suppressed by building those skills in school.  In order to teach those skills, teachers were trained to teach in that mode.

Now, the world needs more independent thinkers who are capable of synthesizing information and solving problems.  We also know much more about how to help students build those skills.  There just hasn't been the same push for teacher training to follow those needs.  

If you are looking to supplement your traditional training in an effort to help students whose needs may be changing faster than the traditional training models are prepared to address, here are a few areas on which you may want to focus.

  1. Growth mindsets
  2. Setting and attaining goals
  3. Project based learning
  4. Social and emotional learning
  5. Building self-control, grit, and determination
  6. Right brain functions
  7. Motivation
If you want to add to this list of valuable topics for effective teachers to understand, please do so by leaving a comment.

If you want to read a stimulating and thought provoking manifesto on the needs of today's students, check out Seth Godin's Stop Stealing Dreams - free to download and read.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Collaborative Consumption of Ideas

Sharing Ideas  Orion Jones recently wrote a piece for Big Think titled Collaborative Consumption: The Rise of the Sharing Economy that got me thinking about the concept of sharing.  The piece, inspired by an article from the Washington Post, includes this explanation of collaborative consumption:
the new sharing economy modifies the idea of ownership over private property, one of the pillars of the American ideology. The change is part of a gradual cultural shift that takes stock of the economic recession and the rise of social media. In the midst of a lingering economic slump, many are rethinking the imperative to buy a new gizmo when the impulse strikes.
 I have written about sharing before, but this post reminded me that often we think about sharing in terms of tangible items - ties, toys, etc.  The issue with many people is probably that once you give away an item, you no longer have it yourself.  Sure, you may replace it with a different item, but the one you once had is gone.

This is the hard part of sharing things.


When you share an idea, YOU STILL GET TO KEEP THE IDEA.  It doesn't go away.

Wait, it gets better.

Not only do you keep your ideas after sharing, but you get the satisfaction of knowing you may have helped someone who needed your idea to move their own thoughts forward.

If that isn't enough, there's still more that supports sharing ideas.

Sharing ideas invites others to try them out and give your feedback that may actually help you improve upon your original ideas.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Pandora's Box and Publishing Value-Added Ratings

According to Greek mythology, once Pandora opened the box that Zeus had ordered her not to open, hate, disease, and evil escaped into the world.  Pandora, rightfully, was afraid of how Zeus would react to her disobeying his wishes, but Zeus knew that she would open the box and, therefore, did not punish Pandora. . . . 

Recently, teachers in New York were subjected to the same challenge that teachers in Los Angeles were - their names and value added ratings were published.  Naturally, this has inspired many responses, including a very well written one by Diane Ravitch for Education Week titled, How to Demoralize Teachers.

While I largely agree with those who are criticizing the decision, the purpose of this post is not to add to the growing number of articles either attacking or supporting that decision.  For one, I am not a public school teacher and will not attempt to fully understand how such a decision makes those serving in public schools feel.  Second, I will follow my own advice - when in doubt, go with your strengths.  Therefore, since I feel compelled out of a feeling of connection or brotherhood among educators, I offer these thoughts.

The names are out...and they are not going back in.  Arguing over whether it helps or hurts, whether it was right or wrong, or the real reasons for publishing them (I wonder if they sold more papers or online subscriptions that day) is, in many ways, a waste of time and energy.  The court decided it was legal.  It was done.

Now what?

Assuming you don't quit, the only option that has any chance of changing how the public feels (including your students, parents, the media, etc.) is for you to take an approach to your work that clearly demonstrates the following:
  • your class is not just your responsibility, it is your cause
  • you are committed to helping the student in front of you before being a steward of policy
  • you are passionate about helping students
  • you have a deep understanding of your subject matter
  • you are willing to learn from your mistakes
  • you are willing to allow your students to dare to do great work
  • you have high expectations not because it is dictated by policy, but because you respect the ability of each student to grow and achieve more than they thought  possible
Respect will not be won in the court room.  You will earn it through your daily interactions with your students, families, and colleagues - in the classroom.

I suspect that a large part of these events that is difficult for teachers is that many educators are probably like the ones I know, they are uncomfortable being the center of attention.  Not because they are trying to hide.  Rather, it is because they are very humble and would rather put the students at the center of attention.  Their work was never really about them.  It is about their students.

Even when circumstances make the work seem impossible, there is a driving force that motivates them to continue their cause and to strive to get better.  All teachers (public, private, independent, charter, etc.) feed on this force at some point.  In many ways it serves to bring us all together as educators.  Like a watering hole in the Serengeti, this force is often the one that sustains us all during the most difficult times.

. . . . Pandora, however, had not released every item from the box.  What remained was HOPE.  When she checked to see if the box was indeed empty, she released it to the world.
One hope may be that the publishing of the ratings will be looked back upon less as a "witch hunt" for bad teachers and more as a call for more educators to become "instructional linchpins."
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