Out of the Mouths of Babes

My son is a fifth grader now, dancing on the precipice between childhood (wanting to tell me every last detail about his day) and adolescence (where shrugging as he says, “nothing really happened”). He has seen over ten teachers or so in his career as a student, plenty of experience to develop his perspective about what makes a great teacher. That was the topic of our walk one afternoon, about two weeks after the start of school. As my son explained what he valued, there was such power and simplicity in his description. And what he said completely lined up with what we know about how people learn.

• “The teacher has to be kind.” Relationships are vital to the health and growth of the individual learner. When a student experiences significant stress such as being the subject of ridicule, being reprimanded, or being ignored, the brain moves into survival mode: fight (lashing out at a student or a staff member), flight (running away to the bathroom or the nurse’s office, skipping class), or freeze (putting his head down on his desk, zoning out in class). Once the student sees that a teacher is not habitually kind, it will permanently damage not only his relationship with that teacher, but his willingness to take risks in that classroom and his likelihood to succeed. There are a lot of areas we cannot control — influence of peers, media, family environment, poverty, budget shortfalls — but this one we can. Never underestimate the power of a kind word, a firm but respectful reprimand in the privacy of the hallway, an unwavering belief that with significant effort everyone can improve.

• “The teacher needs to be smart, she needs to know a lot of stuff.” Students want to believe that the teacher is the smartest person in the room, but at the same time they don’t want to be told all of the information. Ideally, there should be a robust blend between exploration (through the use of essential questions, rich problems, and complex tasks) and “just in time teaching” to ensure the students see the value of what they are learning and why they are asked to learn it.

• “It helps a lot if the teacher is funny.” Humor goes a long way. Whether it comes in the form of an entertaining anecdote, an amusing photo or comic, or role play in the classroom. Not only does it add joy and lightness to the experience, but humor has another impact — it makes the brain much more likely to retain information. When students experience an emotionally charged event, dopamine is released from the Amygdala which strongly benefits memory. John Medina, author of Brain Rules, describes the effect of emotionally-charged events, “Getting the brain to put a chemical Post-It note on a given piece of information means that information is going to be more robustly processed.” Other powerful emotions that you can incorporate in the design of instructional hooks: fear, disbelief, astonishment, and happiness.

• “The teacher tells lots of stories to help you remember and help keep you interested.” Narratives are another form of an instructional hook that are very powerful in conjunction with the information you want students to remember. It may reveal our humanity, our flaws, our struggles, our perseverance to continue to communicate that we are all a work in progress. As many “door handles” you can create so that the students can retrieve what it is that you want them to remember, the better. The key with all hooks (both this bullet and the one above) is that they must be directly connected to the content material. Judy Willis advises, “Memories that are associated with emotional or personal meaning are most likely to become relational memories and be stored.”

• “It is important that the teacher shows what is expected.” Modeling what quality work looks like is absolutely imperative. Teachers can do this through identifying or creating several strong examples paired with an accompanying scoring tool. Not only do students need to see the connection between the strong examples and how they are scored, but they also benefit from studying weaker examples and discussing potential strategies for improvement. By examining outside examples first, students can depersonalize the process when it comes to analyzing their own work and offer meaningful suggestions to their peers.

• “The teacher gives you space to try again and again. I worry when I have only one time to get it right.” The stress of taking a test, writing an essay, or completing a project has a negative affect for many students. From the way they prepare (cramming it in the night before with very little sleep) to how they perform (rushing through without deliberation on the question, the problem, or the task), to how they review their performance (focusing on the score rather than the comments), it is a recipe for disaster. Everyone learns from mistakes, but when a mistake is made with no opportunity for correction, it has a counterproductive effect on the learner. First, provide timely and actionable feedback for the student. Second, offer a clear revision policy on summative assessments where every student can take advantage of using the feedback given. Third, encourage reflection through conferencing, self-evaluating on the scoring tool, and general feedback on how the test/essay/project went from the student’s perspective.

Imparting some basic knowledge about the brain and growth mindset can go a long way to improve both effort and achievement in your classroom. Judy Willis’ webinars, blog posts, and Ed Leadership articles are great resources for both you and your students. John Medina’s Brain Rules is a very accessible book that focuses on twelve rules that we need to know about how the brain works. Carol Dweck’s book entitled Mindset is another must read and certain passages can be excerpted for students.

I would love to hear your insight and ideas about how you teach students about the brain, the importance of relationships, and the role of failure as a natural part of learning.

For more information and ideas, check out my latest book: Breaking Free from Myths about Teaching and Learning (2010)