In my first post delving into this topic, I attempted to provide the broadest, longest range perspective on why the team believes the new school initiative at Greenwich High School is not only a great idea but a necessary one.
To sum up this previously presented “macro” perspective: a variety of stakeholders in education agree that our nation and its students are facing a very serious PROBLEM in that young people who have completed formal education up to and including college still have not acquired certain skills and abilities that are required in today’s job market. Those same stakeholder groups also overwhelmingly agreed that the best SOLUTION to this problem is to reframe American education to emphasize:
1. Cultivation of a passion for lifelong learning applied in and out of the classroom.
2. An interdisciplinary blending of academics with authentic problem solving and hands-on learning.
3. Incorporation of technology across the spectrum of subjects and tasks and in a manner that keeps up with real world applications of this technology.
Hmmm, so what to do? When the big gets too big, it can frequently be illustrative to come at the question from the entirely opposite viewpoint – focusing on the smallest of the small and going in as fine grain as possible. This blog will be my attempt at doing just that – taking the “micro” view.
In the fewest number of words, at the simplest level, the “problem” that the new school initiative is trying to “solve” is a student named Tina. Though Tina isn’t her real name, “Tina” is a real student that I taught at GHS over the past school year. Tina is an outgoing, bright young woman with lots of potential but a serious problem: school just isn’t meaningful or motivating for her. She would trudge through her day, virtually always tardy, virtually always tired, and frequently just cutting class altogether. I spoke with her guidance counselor, I spoke with her social worker, we had meetings and staffings – all of which very accurately and passionately outlined for her why her courses mattered, why her grades mattered, what the consequences for poor attendance and poor grades would be, the supports that were available to help her out, etc. etc. etc.
And guess what? It didn’t matter. Not because she was a behavior problem. She never acted out or became disrespectful or rude. In fact, she showed a weirdly paradoxical respect for the “rules” even as she consistently ignored them. Not because she didn’t understand what was being explained to her. She knew what she was “supposed” to do and why she should want to do it. She just didn’t want to. As she explained to me in one particularly lengthy one-on-one conversation, she felt like she was going through the motions, dragging herself from class to class, never really finding anything “meaningful,” “relevant, ” or “useful” (her words – not mine) in what she did, and therefore no way to connect with what she was expected to do.
That really, really hurt.
As a teacher, who like all the other teachers at Greenwich High School, has spent a lot of time and energy trying to construct courses and instructional experiences that are meaningful, relevant, and useful, realizing that for at least this student I had failed so miserably was a tough pill to swallow.
But why? Why didn’t it work for her? And more importantly, what would?
I asked her those questions. Her response? More projects that she wanted to do. She mentioned the schizophrenia project we did (one for which she attended class, made up all the work when she was sick, and was very on task during class time) as particularly interesting and meaningful because she worked in a group, got to pick the topic, and she had a desire to know about it because it related to her life outside of school (a friend had a family member who was afflicted with the condition). Similarly, the environmental toxicology lab and research project worked for her because she worked in a group, got to pick the topic, and she had a desire to know about it because it related to her life outside of school. Notably, for that project Tina’s group got an A+, her part was the first section completed, and her group specifically commended her for her outstanding contributions to the final work. Hmmm, I’m noticing a trend here.
As practically any teacher will tell you, student success first and foremost begins with motivation. Motivation provides engagement, stamina and perseverance, and ultimately learning. The PROBLEM:“Doing school” as currently structured is just something some students aren’t motivated to do. For these students the structure and rhythm of the school day and of the various curricula as currently in place (although successful for a majority of students at GHS) is interfering with their INTRINSIC motivation, AND NONE of the EXTRINSIC motivators – whether carrot or stick, reward or consequence – individually or in combination are sufficient to engage them in the school day.
So what’s the SOLUTION to Tina’s motivation problem? Providing a space to HARNESS INTRINSIC MOTIVATION WHERE IT ALREADY EXISTS, rather than trying to force it where it doesn’t.
Granted, creating that space – creating an entire school-within-a-school – just for Tina would be ridiculous. But she’s not the only one.
Of the Sophomores I taught last year, at least 10% were students for whom, for one reason or another, the structure, pace, and/or rigidity of the current school day and curricular timelines interfered with their ability to “get into the zone.” Students whom I observed demonstrating intrinsic motivation, stamina, and perseverance under situations and circumstances that are genuinely difficult, if not impossible, to create and sustain within the confines of a school day parsed into 6 rigid blocks of time, with at least 5 discrete curricular subject areas, and moving through at least 7 different physical spaces.
So how to achieve that SOLUTION? How can we provide a space to HARNESS INTRINSIC MOTIVATION WHERE IT ALREADY EXISTS?
1. Cultivation of a passion for lifelong learning, as applied both within the classroom and without, by providing…
2. An interdisciplinary blending of academics with authentic problem solving and hands-on learning, in which logistic constraints of time and space are minimized and student autonomy is maximized; and
3. Incorporation of technology across the spectrum of subjects and tasks and in a manner the keeps up with real world applications of this technology, thereby anchoring student’s learning in the real world and freeing them from the physical and intellectual constraints imposed by the walls of the school building.
It is no accident that the solutions to the motivation problem coincide so neatly with the solutions to the underpreparedness problem, or that these solutions are at the heart of the design principles of the new school initiative at GHS.
So how to measure success? How will we know if we’ve solved the motivation problem?
That one’s shockingly easy.
We ask students to reflect on their own process to select, and engagement with, the problem they are trying to solve. We ask students to reflect on the aspects of their work that intrigue them the most, that frustrate them the most, that annoy them the most. Besides being a valuable source of data, it’s good educational practice. Thus, an emphasis on reflection and metacognition (in non-eduspeak – thinking about one’s own thinking) is another of the core design principles of the new school initiative at GHS.