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Posts Tagged as "autonomy support"

The seven learning spaces

Monday, January 31st, 2011

While I’m on the topic of designing new schools, here’s a great article by Ewan McIntosh on applying the seven digital spaces to creating new school spaces.

The seven spaces are:


McIntosh points out that every school needs all of these physical spaces, even though most schools are primarily geared towards “watching spaces” and prevent people from collaborating or talking to each other.

The article asks, Can we design schools around the kind of teaching and learning you’d like to do, instead of the teaching and learning you already do?

Can we design schools that, instead of being “big things that do wonderful stuff for people” “allow people to create great things for themselves”?

This article is chock-a-block with great links and thoughtful ideas. Check it out!

I wonder what Ewan McIntosh and the creators of the Green School would think about each other. I feel like they’d have a lot to talk about!

Thanks to Vicki Davis for posting about this on her blog and bringing this post to my attention!

Related Posts:
Self-taught heroes: William Kamkwamba, the boy who harnessed the wind
Encouraging independent problem solving (subliminally?)
Self-taught heroes: Pearl Fryar
Could every school be this enchanting (and sustainable)?

Posts Tagged as "autonomy support"

I was a crazy course shopper

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

After four years of Arena Scheduling at my high school, I had some serious experience designing my own schedule and customizing my education.

I’d taught myself French and trigonometric functions over the summer to skip ahead. I’d gotten high school credit for apprenticing with an orchestra and performing in a professional play. I’d created an independent study for Advanced Placement 12th grade English so I could get credit for being in the Folger Shakespeare seminar for high schoolers.

I was prepared to make my education my own.

So I was pretty disappointed my first semester of college when I ended up with an ineffective music theory teacher, an unhelpful French professor, and a modern dance instructor who didn’t seem to notice that no one could perform her combinations.

I was not going to let this happen again.

For the rest of my college career, I used my mad scheduling skills to spend the first two weeks of each semester (before the add/drop period closed) trying to ferret out hidden jewels and find people who could really help me learn. It was extremely instructive.

I’d thought it would be great to learn Hindi to help me with my Indian music studies, but the class I visited seemed completely ineffective. I thought Yoruba language skills would be useful for my project on Yoruba drumming, but the class did not seem to actually exist when I tried to track it down. I wanted to take a self-defense class for women, but the one offered consisted of running in laps around the gym, which was not going to give me the skills I was looking for.

Instead, I ended up working with an encouraging, helpful Francophone French teacher. I found good Spanish instructors who prepared me for my trip to Cuba. I got to work with an incredible professor of eastern religion who helped me contextualize my experiences with non-Western music.

My search for great classes even led me to shop at other schools in the Boston area for classes I wanted that weren’t offered at my own university. It’s true, I had an exceptionally flexible advisor!

The beginning of every semester was chaotic, but definitely better than wasting my precious college credit hours in situations that weren’t going to help me learn. Whenever I heard a fellow student complaining about a poorly designed curriculum, a disinterested instructor, or a negative classroom environment, I knew it had all been worth it.

Related posts:
I was a t(w)eenage (scheduling) gladiator
A cosmic imperative to customize
What a Balinese dancing queen taught me about praise and encouragement
When learning feels like a forced march

Posts Tagged as "autonomy support"

I was a t(w)eenage (scheduling) gladitator

Monday, September 6th, 2010


Does it sound crazy to expect a 12-year old to be able to determine their requirements, decide what electives they’re going to take, fit them all into a schedule, and formulate a back-up plan (or three) in case the classes they want are full?

Does it sound even crazier to release them into an entire gym full of t(w)eenage scheduling gladitors, dashing from table to table to sign up for the classes they want?

Maybe, but it worked: at the unusual public school I attended from 6th to 12th grade, starting at the end of 7th grade, we all designed our own class schedule in an annual ritual called Arena Scheduling.

To prepare to enter the Arena, each student would plan a schedule according to their own priorities, and also prepared a few back-up schedules in case they didn’t get their first choice of classes.

After our advisors looked our plans over, we’d stand in nervy anticipation outside of the school gym, waiting for our turn to be admitted. The sooner a student was graduating, the sooner they’d be admitted into the gym to run around and write their name down for the classes they wanted.

In the gym, there was a table for each subject, a piece of paper for each course offered in that subject, and a line on that paper for each spot available in that class. When it was our turn, we’d strategically dash from table to table, securing a seat in each class we wanted, or execute our back-up plan if our first-choice classes were full.

I think each of us scheduling gladiators had a moments of panic. And probably everyone, at least once, was disappointed or had to make a tough decision.

But even in the midst of all the dashing, no one split a lip. No one came to fisticuffs with their fellow students over the last seat in a coveted class. No one failed to graduate because they had to pick their own classes and they somehow didn’t fulfill their requirements.

Not only did nothing bad happen, but this seemingly chaotic process had numerous major benefits:
We learned how to go for what we really wanted.
We learned how to make a plan and execute it.
We learned how to activate a back-up plan if we didn’t get our first choice.
We learned to advocate for our own educational goals, instead of just doing what we were told.

Arena Scheduling also had the (probably unintended) effect of contributing to a culture of passion. Instead of groaning over being assigned to a challenging class, kids schemed about how they could get into one.

It might sound chaotic, but I honestly think it works better than the alternative, which is having students’ schedules created by administrators—a task which cannot be enjoyable for the administrators either, and presumably takes weeks of brain-numbing planning.

I’ve seen students with administrator-designed schedules have their math classes scheduled for the absolute last class period, which totally didn’t work for them. I’ve seen schools were students were only able to request a different math teacher if they had already failed a class with that teacher.

In my opinion, letting students choose their own schedules is way more practical and realistic. And it empowers students to make choices that work better for everyone.

Photo credit: these great pictures of playmobil gladiators are from bloggerCosmicBaby.

Related Posts:
When learning feels like a forced march
“This is really neat”
When persistence isn’t enough
No More Girls Versus Boys

Posts Tagged as "autonomy support"

“This is really neat”

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

Given the counterintuitive new research that has found that certain kinds of praise can undermine student motivation and achievement, I’ve been working over the past year to refine how I praise my students.

Here’s some very specific advice from NurtureShock co-author Ashley Merryman’s blog archive (to read the original, keep scrolling, scrolling, scrolling until you get to the post titled “How not to talk to your kids – Part 4”):

A common praise technique that people use (I know I did it with my tutoring kids… up til a few weeks ago, that is….) is to use a present success to control future performance. For example, if a typically-sloppy child writes an essay that’s atypically legible, a parent or teacher may say, “That’s very neat: you should write all of your papers like this.”

Even if it’s meant as sincere praise and encouragement, the research shows that’s not only an ineffective way to praise. In fact, like praising for intelligence – it can actually damage a child’s performance.

Here’s what is going on. While the first part of the sentence was positive, rather than focusing on that success, the latter part of the sentence (“You should write all like this”) was negative, doubly-so.

First, rather than simply focusing on the present achievement, the second half of the sentence reminds the child about all the past mistakes. Second, it’s an expression of pressure to continue at this level in the future. But the kid may think that the work he just completed was very difficult, and he doubts he can live up to these new expectations.

Even worse, a child who suddenly wrote more legibly did it on his own volition. But if the praiser qualifies the praise with the expectation of future performance, now if the child continues to perform, he’s not doing it because he wanted to: he’s doing it to fulfill the praiser’s expectation.

Basically, the whole exchange kills the kid’s intrinsic motivation to improve. Furthermore, studies have shown that children’s performance actually may go down: they will even intentionally underperform, just to show that they refuse to follow the attempted control. In other words, yes, they do badly just to spite you.

The better thing to have said was, “This is really neat,” and left it at that.

I have been waiting for a year for a chance to try this out with one of my own students. I finally had a chance to implement this a few days ago while tutoring a rising fifth grader online.

He did a particularly neat job of writing out a problem on the online whiteboard, so I told him, “You did a good job of writing that out neatly and lining up the decimal points and the columns.” That’s it. I didn’t say anything about how he should write future math problems.

When he wrote out the next problem much less neatly than the last, I didn’t say anything.

Without me saying anything at all, he scratched out the messy version. And then he started over and wrote out a new, neat version, all my himself.

As a tutor, I am so excited that this style of feedback encouraged him to manage this on his own, without any cajoling or controlling from me — just an objective assessment of what he did well.

And I love having this clear guidance from Ashley Merryman’s archive on how to praise my students without worrying that I’m doing it the wrong way.

Related Posts:
Tips on Effective Praise from Ashley Merryman

What a Balinese dancing queen taught me about praise and encouragement

Praise and Intrinsic Motivation: An Answer?

Posts Tagged as "autonomy support"

Power of Praise (2)

Friday, November 13th, 2009

In an earlier post, I wrote about Po Bronson’s New York Magazine article on praise. In it, he covers recent research that shows how praising students for their effort (which they can control) increases motivation, but praising students for their intelligence (which they can’t control) undermines motivation.

Here’s some more crazy good stuff from the same article. Carol Dweck and her protégée Lisa Blackwell conducted a semester-long intervention to improve students’ math scores.

“In a single semester, Blackwell reversed the students’ longtime trend of decreasing math grades.

“The only difference between the control group and the test group were two lessons, a total of 50 minutes spent teaching not math but a single idea: that the brain is a muscle. Giving it a harder workout makes you smarter. That alone improved their math scores.”

I recently had an opportunity to test this out with a rising 5th grader. I asked him to do three pages from his workbook for our next meeting. He came back the next week having completed most of it… in the car on the way to tutoring that day.

Clearly, this pretty much defeated the point of giving him homework, because he was still doing all his math in one big lump all on the same day. Remembering what I’d learned from reading Carol Dweck, I seized this opportunity to explain to him that the brain is like a muscle: when you use it, it gets stronger. And like a muscle, when you spread out your workouts, you don’t have to train as much. I told him that it was great that he’d done most of the work, but it would help him even more if he spaced it out.

We spent some time creating a better plan for the next week. I tried to be really autonomy supportive. I asked him which days would be good to do math work, and labeled the pages of the workbook with the dates he picked. We talked about what time of day would work best for him, and where in his house he liked to do his homework.

I remembered what Carol Dweck had said, that it’s much more likely that we’ll actually things we don’t really want to do if we visualize ourselves doing them instead of just having some sort of vague plan. So after we had picked his dates, times, and location, I asked him to close his eyes and visualize himself finishing dinner, carrying his plates to the kitchen, walking to the living room, picking up his workbook, and sitting down and doing a page of math.

So… it worked!!!!! Next week, when he came back, he had done all three pages from the workbook! Although he’d changed the plan a little bit, and practiced 2 days instead of 3, it was a huge improvement over the past week.

The absolute best part of all was when his Mom picked him up and I commented on the improvement in him doing his work, she said, “That was all him.” This rising fifth-grader had taken total responsibility for the plan!!!

Update: This same research is covered in detail in Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman‘s amazing new book, NurtureShock. I highly recommend you read the whole thing!

Posts Tagged as "autonomy support"

I am SO EXCITED about Math U See!!

Monday, November 9th, 2009

I stumbled across this curriculum while looking at a website of suggested resources for Visual-Spatial Learners. Math U See is designed to be a homeschool curriculum, but I’m wondering why more people don’t know about it and use it. I really wish I had learned about it a lot earlier—like when I was in middle school.

Some core principles set this curriculum apart. Students use blocks (aka “manipulatives”) to build all the numbers first. So for every problem they “build it, say it, AND write it”—thus appealing to many different learning styles—tactile, visual, verbal, etc. An integral goal of the curriculum is that students not only know how to do math operations, but also that they know when to do each one.

Also, teaching Math U See style involves four steps: preparing the lesson by watching a DVD of Math U See founder Steve Demme teaching the curriculum; presenting the lesson to the student; practicing in the workbook; and proceeding when the student can demonstrate mastery by teaching the material back to you.

I love the autonomy support aspect of this curriculum. Steve Demme explains that many people ask how long they should spend on a lesson, and he believes you should really take as much time as you need. I think it’s so cool that the student really sets the pace for when it’s time to move to the next new idea.