Friday, October 24, 2014

Passion for living

What a week at school!  Our treasured middle school visitors from St. Peter's School in Barcelona have been here all week, living with our host families.  They toured the capitol and the State Museum with 6-7's.  8th graders went to a Poe presentation by the Capital Rep.  On Wednesday the whole middle school went bowling after school - and dancing, too.  Thursday was a day at the Hudson River doing water quality testing - the cold and rain couldn't stop us!  2-3's and 6-7's were intrepid scientists, undeterred by the conditions.  This afternoon there is a soccer game and our St. Peter's friends are joining in.

Today was Robert C. Parker Day  - everyone performed at Assembly, including the new chorus, and our Barcelona friends expressed their thanks for a wonderful time.  This poem was written for the day and characterizes Bob Parker, former Head at Emma Willard School and an inspiring educator who died in 1986. It's a great way to end a week of learning, international friendship and fun.

 RCP Day Poem by Seth's Advisory

From tower with his trumpet playing
Wise words he was always saying
To rivers with his paddle rowing
The best example he was showing
On mountains to the top he’d climb
To him books were divine
Television he found boring
He preferred to learn by exploring
From students he expected the best
He wanted for them great success
In the countryside he would run
For him this challenge was fun
He showed great passion for living
Even today, he continues giving

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Novelty and challenge

Novelty and challenge are essential for a developing brain to continue learning.  So says Anya Kamenetz in a recent Mind Shift article Plumbing the Mysteries of the Teenage Brain.  This is true for all children, but in adolescents it is even more crucial to keep the level of challenge high to maintain students' interest.  The adolescent brain is primed to learn self-reliance through newness and a certain amount of risk-taking.  By putting students into many new situations in school they can gain self-reliance within the bounds of safety.

In a recent week of science for 6-7's, students explored the mysteries of combustion engines.  A retired engineer and friend of the school brought us 4 engines and 4 well-stocked tool boxes for this intriguing project.  He posed a scenario: A polar science station has lost all power. You must repair the engines so they can continue their work.

This hands-on study had a large dose of novelty and challenge and was a recipe for keen interest, motivation and fun.  Not to mention deeper understanding of engine mechanics, forces of motion, power and energy.  And using a spark plug gapper, feeler gauge, and torque wrench!  Sounds pretty self-reliant.

Intrinsic Motivation

Motivating kids to want to do their best, to give their all, is kind of tricky.  For most of us adults, the reward for good school work was a grade.  And maybe also a parent's promise of a dollar for A's on a report card, or perhaps the teacher would display the spelling tests for all to see.  You felt rewarded if yours was perfect (or humiliated if yours was not).

I guess the hope was then, as it is now in most schools, that the grades or the stickers or the treat would be a motivator for the short term, and that the habit of working hard would lead to internal motivation later.  But I'm not sure it works that way for many kids.

When new children come to Parker in about grade 3 and above, we often find that they are not used to being asked to stretch themselves or to do more than the minimum.  They have not felt the power of self-motivation - at least not in the classroom. 

As Linda Flanagan reports in the latest MindShift, "If you start kids the wrong way — say, by rewarding them with pizza — then their intrinsic motives will vanish."

So, how do we teach internal motivation? At Parker it is a very intentional process.  We give students choices that they appreciate: deciding on a book for literature circles or a topic for research.  We connect subjects like art, social studies, science and reading as when 4th graders prepare a presentation about honey bees. Or we challenge them in a STEM week to design and build a real bridge, because it's interesting and they get to experience the "why" of things.

We promote autonomy - children need to handle themselves in the classroom and the hallways with a minimum of adult-made rules.  And the children help develop the rules, because then they are vested in following them. 

We train children in critique.  They practice giving useful feedback and doing multiple drafts of a piece of work so that it reaches excellence.  Children also help to define what excellence looks like, because then they know what they are striving for. Holding your work up to the evaluation of peers is powerful stuff.  Children want to show their friends their best - and that is way more powerful and life-lasting than going for the grade.

One other big motivator for children is in the social element of learning:  children are naturally driven to be social.  Working with friends and classmates isn't always easy, but it is highly motivating and it reinforces learning.  That's why we stress cooperative teams and groups working together on projects or towards a mutual goal. 

Intrinsic motivation is probably the most useful trait that children can ever develop.  It can't be extracted from a grade.