Do you create in your classroom a culture of “done” or do you create a culture of learning and improving? A culture of “done” implies task completion. Very quickly students begin to see school as a list of tasks to complete. Completion is the goal, not the process. Within a culture of “done” we also tend to create a culture of “correct” because “done and correct” is the ultimate goal. But, “done” frequently supersedes “correct” and students become satisfied with getting the work done. Most often, these tasks to complete are routine, unchallenging and mundane. If you want your students to move past task completion, you need to recreate your culture.
On one of my summer walks I was listening to a Freakanomics podcast about failing. The gist of the podcast was that human beings don’t like to fail, and, in fact, will persevere with projects even though it is quite clear that it is not going well, just to avoid the feeling of being wrong. Isn’t that the same as “done”? It lead me to think about how we develop classroom cultures. How often do we make it okay to fail? Do our students see failure as a chance to learn or as something to be avoided at all costs? Do we model saying “I don’t know”? Do we help students to see that their mistakes can lead to greater learning? Do we develop tasks that are challenging and difficult and require hard work to achieve?
Let’s think about the student who is working through a math problem in a small group. The problem is challenging for the students but not impossible. As they work through the problem together they are receiving feedback about their mathematical thinking each time they do not get the correct solution. They receive feedback from each other as they discuss the problem. Once they arrive at the solution, they get feedback that grit and resilience pay off. What would happen if the teacher had gone in and rescued them the minute they went off on the wrong track? Their feedback would have been that this problem is too hard for you. Does that mean that the teacher has no role at all? Definitely not. It is the teacher’s job to observe and enter into the math conversation to offer the exact amount of feedback or direction that will allow the students to move forward, without telling the students what to do. I often suggest to teachers that they give their little piece of feedback and then WALK AWAY. Walking away tells the students that you trust them to arrive at the solution.
Let’s think about a workshop environment in reading and writing as a means of moving away from “done”. If a student is engaged and making choices about his or her writing, completion happens when the piece meets the criteria the student has set out. The piece says what the student wants it to say. The teacher now provides feedback that helps the student meet the writing goal (e.g. “I’m not sure that your lead hooks me as a reader. What were you trying to do here?”). If a student has choice in what he or she reads and has opportunities to discuss the text with others, then “done” happens only when the student has a good understanding of the text. In both instances, students are learning that a deeper feeling of accomplishment requires engagement and perseverance.
I hate doing laundry. It is a mindless, never-ending chore. I am always happy to be “done”, except the next day rolls around and there it is again. Laundry is task completion. I love solving problems. I love being challenged and having to think hard. In those instances the time flies, I persevere, I check and recheck to make sure I have it right. When the problem is solved I am proud and I know that it is done, because I have determined it to be so. As you begin the new year, think about the tasks you set, the culture you create, and move away from laundry-like task completion.