About The Thrivapy Blog

I created The Thrivapy Blog to share my thoughts and ideas about living a learning lifestyle.

For more, visit my website: www.thrivapy.com
Thank You,
Dr. Troy P. Roddy

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Joy of Learning with Minimal Direction

In early June, I participated in a three day summer planning session. This session included members of the school's leadership team as well as a number of faulty members who had volunteered to represent their colleagues. During those meetings, I took plenty of notes, but one particular item I wrote down has stuck with me over the past few weeks.

"Preserve the joy."

Some context here may be in order; I serve as the Head of Middle School (grades 5-8). The discussion, at the time of writing the note, center around the daily life of the lower school and early childhood programs at our school. During the conversation, I was struck by the descriptions of the children and the opportunities they have each day. Being that this is my first year with this school, I listened very closely to try to get some insights into how those experiences might transfer into the middle school.

This discussion prompted me to write, "Preserve the joy" not as a item to address in the fall as much as it is a reminder to be vigilant.

Finding the joy is one of the suggestions I make in The Golden Apple Manifesto. In that chapter, I state that there is no joy in boring. Rather, joy is found in the challenge. Unfortunately, leading students to address challenges joyfully and with a growth mindset is an area many teachers struggle. As a matter of fact, for some, engaging in challenging work is frustrating and, therefore, avoided as much as possible.

So, engaging in challenges can help joy emerge, but challenges can also lead to frustration, the what should we do?

This is a very good question and I struggled for some time to come up with a simple suggestion. That was until I was reading a recent blog post by Rick Ackerly (@Rickackerly, rickackerly.com). The article's point is that self-confidence is built by letting kids do for themselves. In other words, don't do for kids the things they can do for themselves. After reading the post, I realized that the same message has applied to my teaching and building joy back into the classroom. I also realized that I may be mistaking the struggle. It may not be the challenge after all.

I began thinking about the times when my students were most "joyful" in their learning. One may think it was in the most playful moments. Sure, playful moments are often sources of joy, but the root of the issue was not the play as much as the minimal direction. It is in here that the art of teaching becomes critical because minimal direction can easily be misinterpreted as lack of direction by a casual observer.

I define lack of direction as an environment in which there is an inconsistent understanding of the purpose and goals of the lesson. One way to test for lack of direction is to ask the students WHY they are doing the work being asked of them. "Why?" is the important question because it speaks of purpose. If the answer varies widely from student to student or if the most common answer is, "I don't know" then there is a real chance that the class is experiencing a lack of direction.

It is important to point out that asking, "What are you doing?" does not address direction or purpose. Students can be engaged in any number of different activities, but those activities must be clearly linked to a learning. If you ask students, "What are you doing?" a simple follow up, "Why are you doing that?" is insightful.

A lack of direction is not the same as minimal direction. Minimal direction is defined as activities with clear learning goals, but are open ended as to how they are met. Essentially, minimal direction provides the purpose while leaving the "what to do" somewhat adaptable to the lesson.

Here is an example based on a recent conversation I had with a history teacher.

The class is learning about the American Civil War. Specifically, the hardships facing soldiers camping out in the field are the lesson topics. Let us examine what the teacher could do from three angles: no joy, lack of direction, and minimal direction.

The "no joy" class is only challenged by their ability to keep up with the note taking. Maybe, a reading selection from the text is chosen and students take turns reading to each other out of the book. Possibly, the teacher prepared a slide show and reads it to the class. An observer in the rooms would likely see little to no student interaction and blank stares from the teacher's audience.

Another teacher provides a lack of direction. Students are asked to research Civil War camps and create something that demonstrates their understanding of the topic. Without any more instruction, student begin "doing something." While they can all tell an observer that they are researching Civil War camps, when asked, "Why?" the students are unsure and cannot relate the topic to a specific learning goal. They are working, but towards an unclear purpose.

The teacher providing minimal direction starts with a guiding question. Possibly something along the lines of, "The hardships of war may have an effect on the behaviors of soldiers when they fight and when they are not fighting. Based on an examination of Civil War camps, what behaviors might be more apparent during war time than during peace time?" After providing a guiding question, students are shown three stations set up in class. One is a "campfire" with a few basic musical instruments available. Another station is a tent with paper and pencils. A third is a table st up for amputations with some crude instruments and hard objects. The teacher instructs the students to visit each station during class and engage with each other at each as if they were Civil War soldiers. A link back to previous lessons about the Civil War may be in order to help set up important connections.

While the minimal direction teacher may appear to micro-manage the activities, she does not. Instead, the class is presented with a clear learning outcome and opportunities to investigate the guiding question. What each student does at each station is not prescribed. The "what to do" is left up to the student who will eventually take his experience at each station and report back with an answer to the guiding question.

To "preserve the joy" one must first "find the joy." That discovery; that flow of learning experience, is more than providing student choice. It is more likely to occur when you make connections to previous learning, demonstrate a clear purpose, and provide a easily understood method of checking for understanding. 

Stop worrying too much about "What?" Spend more time on "Why?" 

Preserve (or rediscover) the joy.