Friday, December 2, 2011

Dan Pink for ELA: What Drives Kids?

Daniel Pink has a theory of motivation, or DRIVE.  He outlined it in a TED talk and has written the book. Now his idea has been animated in a wonderful RSA Animate video

Here are the building blocks of DRIVE:
  • autonomy - directing one's own life
  • mastery - getting better and better at what we do
  • purpose - do what we do is in the service of something larger than ourselves
Here is clincher:  When "highly cognitive" tasks are involved (thinking/creating/problem-solving), people who succeed are not motivated by tangible rewards.  Motivation is intrinsic - driven from within. When tasks are rote, the "carrot and stick" rules of motivation work well: the greater the reward, the better the progress.

To me, this sounds a great deal like what education IS and what it SHOULD BE MORE.  But first of all, teachers need to accept the fact that there is a dual task/skill set at all levels k-12:  Rote and highly cognitive.  Both are necessary for learning, both have a place in the learning experience - but they need to be approached differently.

Rote tasks in ELA are fewer than in other subjects - or should be.  They comprise the first three levels of Bloom's taxonomy (remember, understand, apply).  Examples:
  • phonics - letter sounds, combinations, recognition
  • sight words and tier 1 words for understanding sentences - colors, action verbs, pronouns, etc.
  • spelling rules (and the major exceptions)
  • definitions of tier 3 ELA words - parts of speech, literary terms, plot diagram elements, poem study terminology
  • (for some teachers) - definitions of the tier 2 words found in texts read
  • words used in text-identification and analysis (headings, introduction, conclusion, character, POV, main idea, etc.)
  • rote tasks - labeling of rhyme scheme, counting of syllables, using correct capitalization and end punctuation in sentences, indenting/double spacing, aligning to margins
  • rote grammar - NOT making the top 10 grammar errors (it's/its, your/you're, their/there/they're, etc.)
  • matching, cloze, fill-in exercises, categorizing, labeling, etc.
  • write a sentence containing two adjectives and a prepositional phrase.
  • use each of these vocabulary words correctly in a paragraph
  • trace the plot steps leading to...
If Pink is correct, the rote learning of this material should be rewarded and this reward will serve as an incentive.  Period.  If it is not done correctly, it is not rewarded.  Students will fail to earn the reward until they do the task correctly. That is the "bad side" of incentive-based learning.  But it works.

It works IF and WHEN students are allowed:
  1. autonomy - In practical terms, this means choice of how task/skill/rote practice is going to happen - when, where, and how.  Not all students learn from writing out letters.  Not all students learn when sound or motion or image is connected to a word.  Some students learn best in an entirely oral or entirely visual environment.  Others learn best in a multi-sensory environment.  Some learn best in a comfortable class, others learn best on the bus, or at the kitchen table.  Some learn best in a digital environment.  For others, this is both frustrating and fearful.  From an early age, students need choice of when, where, and how to do rote drill.  Give them iPads, iTouches, workbooks, flashcards, computer games, websites, volunteers, partners, parents, crayons, headsets, cameras.  Give them what they need.  And give them the freedom to explore using it.
  2. mastery rewards - Mastery can not be communicated without goal-based assessment and it can not accomplished without small-steps.  From an early age, children should be given stepped tasks for rote learning and stepped-up rewards for mastery.  This is what providing incentives means.  Not everyone will earn all 5 stickers in the first week of school.  Not all spelling tests will earn 100%.  Not every 4-year old easily get through all of the levels in Fish School.  Children will fail - all children will fail at some point, probably repeatedly.  This is not a popular stance in education today.  But think of it this way: Students are learning, through extrinsic rewards, the habits of autonomy that they will need post-schooling.  I believe in this absolutely.  Parents used to provide this schooling in "habits for success" - schools now must take on the task.
  3. purpose transparency - I have never found it difficult to tell a student that the purpose of rote ELA tasks like those above is to read, write and speak smarter.  I know that this too has fallen out of fashion.  But, given the pressures in this country to raise reading and writing performance (at local, state, national and global measures), we can not longer pretend that rote ELA tasks don't matter.  Spelling, grammar, usage, vocabulary, writing mechanics, knowledge of core literary terms (etc.) do matter.  Adults are judged by them in the real world.  Skills and methods used repeatedly to demonstrate rote learning become automatic skills and methods used to process new information.  That is purpose enough for me - and for most kids.  Most kids want to be on top of new information - to master it quickly.  I would suggest that one greater purpose for students is a passing school or a school that sits at the top of the state report card.  Schools that go there, get there.  Another greater purpose is success at the next level of tasks, all of which are needed for eventual success in the adult world.
Put rote tasks into this framework and students will have the incentive to achieve mastery.  Not only that, but they will enjoy it!  I have to say that a digital environment makes it easier to provide autonomy and mastery, but PD (pre-digital) ELA teachers did a fine job.  They just had to work a little harder at the details.

Highly cognitive tasks in ELA are everything else - or should be. They comprise the remaining levels of Bloom's (analyze, evaluate, create) and should be the majority of the curricular locus.  ELA teachers who make cognitive tasks into rote tasks don't get it (or are unsure of the material or just plain lazy).  When students are cognitively challenged, there is no one right answer or argument.  Examples:
  • Compare/contrast the book, movie, and graphic novel versions of...    
  • Explain why prepositions are essential to the English sentence.
  • Character study - analyze or trace the growth of X... What decisions did the author make in creating this character?
  • Critique the author's portrayal of the childhood experience
  • Create a personal response to the theme of a poem/story/novel
  • Analyze the use of repetition, figurative language and parallelism in the passage
If Pink is correct, the more highly cognitive the challenge to demonstrate understanding and learning, the greater will be the drive to do well.  Rewards are not the incentive here.

This works IF and WHEN students are allowed:
  • autonomy of task - This means choice of task, choice of text or passage, choice of method (at times a paragraph or essay is not best response to a challenge).  Teachers should be looking at the method, reasoning, and argument behind the solution, not just the final product.  
  • mastery of process - Whether the process is close textual analysis, idea-finding and idea-critique, persuasive analysis, or use of oral, visual, paper or digital tools and methods, students need to feel that they learn mastery through clearly explained and articulated steps.  This means, for the teacher, careful planning not by unit, but by year.  Students will demonstrate incentive when the final "product" contains elements that have been mastered slowly throughout the year.  For some students, this will be mind-bending. For others, it will seem parochial.  The trick for the teacher is to support, scaffold, and honestly evaluate each student's efforts individually.  This means rubrics focused on content, skills, and quality.  This means standards-based cognitive challenges.  The CCSS are going to be helpful here.
  • purpose - It's not easy in ELA-land to create "authentic" outcomes without seeming terribly fake.  One letter to an author, one to the principal, maybe a proposal to a community group... but this does not work for, say, an analysis of Frederick Douglass, Winston Churchill, or even a dystopian novel.  For these standards-based outcomes, purpose needs to feel more like authentic audience.  Students who complete a highly cognitive task are doing something original - albeit small.  Purpose comes in the sharing.  Publish their work!  
Of course, we are talking about kids, not workplace adults.  None of this will work at all if all Hell is breaking lose at home or on the social scene.  The best teachers have a feel for that.  There are times when the best student can not handle highly cognitive and needs instead a very rote path.  Like all things education, there is no one plan, no one measure, and no one driver. 

Nonetheless, it is interesting to think of there being a serious rationale behind much of what I developed on my own...

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