Tag Archives: effort

The Power to Choose Nothing

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“I have a student who says that he isn’t passionate about anything. I ask him what he’s interested in, and what he does outside of school, but the answer is always the same: nothing. What do I do with a kid like that?”

The above snippet was part of a much larger conversation about Genius Hour that took place during an edcamp event I attended this spring. Genius Hour, Passion Projects, 20% Time, or whatever label it is given, isn’t a new concept, but it has gained momentum as a way to increase student voice and choice in the classroom.  Once teachers begin to believe in the reasons behind Genius Hour, it isn’t uncommon for their good intentions and belief in the basic principles to be tested by a student like the one referred to in the quote above. When a teacher shares their experience with such a student, they are often wrestling with an assumption that lies just beneath the surface of his or her frustration: students in school must do something; nothing is not an option. As I did during the edcamp session, I respectfully disagree. Just as doing something does not guarantee learning; doing nothing does not mean no learning.

After years of experience with an education that relies heavily on compliance and external motivation, is it any wonder that students are wary when a teacher tries to hand over more control (and responsibility)? Student reactions to Genius Hour vary widely, but even the most hopeful, positive student wonders, “What’s the catch?” It is a certainty that some students will not choose a passion because they don’t understand the concept, don’t know how to make the choice, or are nervous about “doing it wrong.” These students can usually be helped with some coaching/teaching aided by resources such as the Genius Hour livebinder. It is the student who seemingly refuses to choose that truly tests the resolve and philosophy of the teacher who advocates for student choice.

I don’t wish to oversimplify, for people and motivations are complex , but in my experience, most students who refuse to choose are influenced by a combination of two factors: disbelief and disavowal. They don’t completely believe that they can choose whatever they want, and they don’t want the responsibility for directing their own learning. The two factors may be mixed in different proportions, but generally they are both present in any student who persistently deflects any attempts to help them. There isn’t a type, but don’t be surprised if the student who rejects Genius Hour and other forms of student-centred learning is a bright underachiever, someone who doesn’t like to play the compliance games in school.

So, it is time to get back to the question of the frustrated teacher, “What do I do with a kid like that?” My answer is, “Honour his choice.” Show him that you really do give him the respect and authority to choose by allowing him to refuse to participate…and then keep trying to encourage him to participate. Make it your Genius Hour project to get to know him without a hint of compliance pressure. I’ll repeat the hard part: without a hint of compliance pressure. Keep the conversation going; keep the invitation open.

As long as we connect the student’s choices to relevant, natural consequences and keep the lines of communication with the student and her home open, then we have created the environment for learning. Perhaps some of the most important learning the student will experience will come from doing nothing. She will learn that you keep your word. She will learn how to build a relationship with an adult. She will learn that you respect her and that she is the one primarily in charge of her education.

If we truly wish to foster independent learners and believe that compliance is not the way to do it, then we must allow students the power to choose nothing.

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Effort in the Classroom

Like many educators, I’m trying to develop a more student-centred classroom that focuses on learning, skills, and mindset more than grades. One of the struggles that I see shared among teachers making such changes is how to handle effort. The quick response to questions of effort in outcome or standard focused classrooms is that the outcome is what matters and that effort will show in the outcome. The Olympic athlete is evaluated based on result (speed, distance, etc.) and in some instances form or technique (gymnastics, diving) but never do the judges tally the hours of practice involved nor do they measure the kilojoules of energy burned during competition and factor such analytics into the medal standings.

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In theory this perspective on effort makes senses, but in practice I’m finding it lacking. Certainly the Olympic judges and officials do not concern themselves with the hours of practice and other forms of effort the athletes invest, but as a teacher I feel the analogy breaks down because I’m uncomfortable being placed in the role of judge. I feel much more connection to the role of coach, and you can bet the Olympic coaches are very much concerned with the effort of the athletes. On the field or in the classroom, effort is an essential component of growth and development.

I’m beginning to think my struggle with effort in the classroom stems from lugging an older definition of effort into the context of a changing classroom environment. This older definition of effort includes items like participation (talks or raises hand often), attentiveness (listens to lecture, eyes on teacher), focus (compliantly completes in class activities) and organization (work is neat and completed on time). When I started teaching I handled effort like my former teachers handled effort: award marks for plenty of talking/hand raising and deduct marks for work that wasn’t neat or handed in on time. There is no room for that type of sub-par motivation or cloudy grading in my class today, but when I jettisoned those practices, I was left with a vacuum which is the source of my struggle with student effort.

As an instructional coach, I know the importance of effort in the classroom, but my old coaching techniques weren’t effectively developing learners. At the same time, I was left with the feeling that I somehow threw out the baby with the bath water. I believe there are many teachers in the SBL and TTOG movement who are feeling the same way. I want to join the larger conversation about reframing effort in the classroom and finding new ways to effectively communicate its importance and effect in school/life to students and parents.

During the beginning of the school year, I plan to post some specific methods I’m trying in order to reorient effort in school, but here is the general game plan. Instead of dismissing effort, I’m searching my curricular outcomes for connections to the skills and behaviours that I formerly lumped into “effort”. For example, listening is one of the language arts, so rather than arbitrarily awarding a mark based on how attentive each student appears to me, how will I teach, assess, and communicate progress when it comes to listening? Informal and impromptu speaking is an essential skill that we each use every day, and it deserves more attention than a simple tally of how many times a student volunteered an answer. Which speaking outcomes and assessments might help all students develop conversational skills that are part of day to day classroom practice?

Shifting to classrooms that help students take greater ownership of their learning is crucial, but as we make the shift, let’s not inadvertently unmoor learning from effort, but rather, more clearly (and fairly!) define and communicate how they are connected. As I plan my next posts, I’d love to hear how you handle effort in your class. How do you define effort? Are there manageable ways to teach, evaluate, and communicate progress when it comes to effort? Do you think it is advisable or commendable or even worthwhile to do so?  Of course, you can leave a comment below or add to the conversation on Twitter using the hashtags #sblchat and #ttog.

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