The Hook: What’s in a name

The language we use has a real power to influence how we understand our world—and act in it. –Kristin Lin, Editor, The On Being Project

My wife Joanna and I just finished facilitating two wonder-full institutes on Deeper Learning in Christian Schools and are planning a third in the Dominican Republic. David Smith has been with us (in spirit–see his book On Christian Teaching), prompting us to think more deeply about the implicit messages in our teaching practices. The ways in which we design curriculum, instruction, and assessment; the ways we utilize space, time, and resources; and the ways we structure leadership and communication operate at a level deeper than cognition, more formative than what we think and talk about with our heads.

Even the name we assign to our practices carries a formative message. It is through language that we make meaning of our experiences, that we shape chaos into order, just like the logos in the beginning. How we name something affects how we understand it, how we feel about it, and how we act. I was intrigued by Mark Allan Powell’s challenge (in Chasing the Eastern Star) to think of how we might name the parable we often call “The Prodigal Son.” What if we called it The Forgiving Father? The Loyal Son? The Two Lost Sons? The Foolish Father? The name we give this story has a significant effect on the way we read the text and the message we get from it.

This issue of naming brings me to “the hook,” also known in education as the lead-in, anticipatory set, advance organizer, provocation, or set induction. The intent to engage students is similar, but each title implies a different “lesson-view.” The language we use conveys our assumptions about who the learner is, what the subject is,  what the purpose is for our learning. What does the “hook” imply?

There is a lot we could unpack in the metaphor of the “hook.” But we don’t have to sink very deep to catch the primary implication–that our students are not naturally inclined to learn, that we have to somehow trick them with shiny objects, catch them against their will, and pull them grudgingly into our boat.

I know it’s just a word, but words themselves are anticipatory sets: they activate our schema and evoke all manner of preconceptions, associated feelings, and experiences. (Reading teachers, see “The Voice You Hear When You Read Silently” by Thomas Lux).

There are other educational buzzwords that we should probably replace. When I worked with EL Education, the first word we banned was “fieldtrip.” What do you think of when you hear this word? What associations do you make? The trip to the farm, the aquarium, the museum. Kids running around looking for the next “shiny object.” And whenever possible, the gift shop! Ice cream! How do you prepare yourself and your students? What do they anticipate when they prepare for a “fieldtrip”? EL Education schools don’t take fieldtrips: they do fieldwork. Fieldwork is what adult professionals do: fieldwork is research in the real world. Fieldwork demands an entirely different preparation and expects an entirely different result.

Or, who comes to teach your class when you are absent? Probably the “sub.” What is activated in your students’ minds when they hear the word “sub”? And what does that say about the person coming in to teach them? I encourage schools to call them “guest teachers.” Welcoming a guest gives an entirely different message than having a sub!

David Smith suggests that we imagine our teaching as an act of hospitality, welcoming even our students as guests: “[W]hat if we thought of teaching as an act of hospitality, and of the classroom as a hospitable space? . . . How might this image of the classroom offer resources for facing difficult students and insensitive behavior? How might it frame the relationship to knowledge that we model, and the amount of time we give to student voices and contributions? What kinds of learning might help students to become more hospitable towards others?”

How might this idea of teaching as hospitality frame our intent to engage students in learning? In the spirit of hospitality, let’s call it an invitation. An invitation sets up a fundamentally different context for learning than a hook. I asked Joanna, who serves as principal of New Covenant School, to describe how she invites her students on the first day of school into the great adventure of learning in order to serve the King who calls us to build for His kingdom–a kingdom of justice, stewardship, healing, reconciliation, restoration. Here is the invitation she described:

At New Covenant School in Arlington, Massachusetts, we dress in our finest outfits for our opening ceremony to reflect the importance of the work we will do in the coming year. At some point in the ceremony I hold out a rolled-up parchment scroll edged in gold and bound with a rich purple ribbon. I tell the students that I found it on my desk and ask if they think I should open it.  Of course they do!  I unroll it with a flourish, scan it quickly, then share that it is an invitation from the King. 

A paragraph addressed to each class invites them to use their learning during the year to build for His kingdom in a particular sphere, thus giving a hint of what their expedition will be, but not giving it away. For example, the King may invite one class to give particular honor and respect to people who are lonely and forgotten in our culture. It asks them to work in such a way that these people know that God has not forgotten them. Later the students will learn that they will be writing the life stories of the elderly at an assisted living facility. Another class may be asked to steward one of God’s most amazing creations through conservation and make it available to those who don’t have access to it. The class later discovers they will be studying water and raising money to support digging wells in developing nations.

With each of these invitations comes a special gift–one of our six words of servanthood that will be key in doing this work: “Respect” for those working with the elderly and “Integrity” for those learning to conserve and share clean water.  Each teacher posts the invitation to her class in a prominent spot in their room. As a new trimester opens, we revisit the invitation and share the ways in which we have responded. By the end of the year, each class presents to the community how their work has built for the Kingdom.

Next month I’ll share some other ideas about creating engaging invitations. 

Offered in the spirit of hospitality, an invitation communicates messages like my friend Carol Ann Tomlinson describes in her article in EL Educational Leadership. Every teacher would tell their students they believed these things, but the challenge is to align your practices with them–in deed, not just in word:

I have respect for who you are and who you can become. I want to know you. I have time for you. I try to see things through your eyes. This classroom is ours, not mine. There is room for what you care about in what we learn. Your peers and I need you here as a partner in learning. I will help you understand yourself and your world [*and your God!] through what we learn. . . . Your success is central in this classroom. . . . There is great support for you here but no room for excuses. I watch you and listen to you carefully. I make sure that I use what I learn to help you learn better. You’re growing, but you’re not finished growing. There is no finish line in learning [∗about yourself, your neighbor and your God].

∗ additions mine (Steven’s)

Homework – Who’s game to take the first step?

I remember a few years ago hearing a Horse racing trainer turned commentator (I think it was Richard Freedman on the Triple M Dead Set Legends) talking about the early starts that face race horse trainers and jockeys. When asked by his colleagues why they train so early in the morning he replied something like ‘because everyone else does.’ He went on to say that historically the hours gradually got earlier and earlier as trainers tried to get an advantage over their peers. When asked by his radio colleagues whether it made a difference, he replied “No”. So when they asked him why people keep doing it his response was “Because no one wants to be the first”. When it comes to homework, teachers and schools seem to be in the same boat. No one wants to risk being the first to cut it incase it does lead to lower learning outcomes.

So it was with interest that I read an article today from the Washington Post about an Elementary school in Vermont USA that removed all homework other than reading for pleasure each day.

A couple of days ago, I was talking to some friends whose daughter has just started high school at their local Girls school. I asked how she was settling in. Mum’s response was “Yeah, it’s going ok.” From her tone though I could sense that it hadn’t all been rosy. As I asked more about it, Mum said that her daughter had become very overwhelmed with the amount of homework. She wasn’t going to bed until 9:30pm each night and hadn’t had any down time to just relax.

We spoke about how they might be able to support her but I wondered how it must feel to be at the end of your fourth week of High School and come to a realisation that this is her reality for the next 6 years of her life. School, a few extra curricula activities and then a second shift of school work. And don’t even get me started on the teacher who told them that the work they were starting would be completed for homework if they don’t get it finished in class and then gave them more when more than half had finished before the end of the lesson! Trust gone.

There seems to be enough research to suggest that there is little academic benefit for Primary (Elementary) aged students and many schools have responded. Many have not. It’s also apparent that there is a slight academic benefit for students in early high school that grows as they get (Alfie Kohn, 2012). However, correlation doesn’t mean causation. That is, is the increase in academic performance due to a student doing homework, or, is it that the students performing well academically more likely to be doing more homework?

What concerns me is that regardless of what the research says, schools are still dishing out hours of homework based on historicity and unproven anecdotal evidence. On the other hand, we have rising child and teen mental health statistics and students who are under increasing time pressure. We need to balance the desire for higher academics with a desire to have healthy, well balanced students who have time to rest, time to play, time to be creative – all things that have been proven to assist brain development. The brain needs time to process but also down time.

If teachers are serious about the well-being of our students then we need schools to step up and reduce the amount of homework they are giving students while ensuring that what they do set is meaningful, engaging and, if possible, relevant to what the student has identified as an area of required practice or reinforcement in their learning.

So, who is going to be next to take the first step?

References

Cooper, H. Robinson, H. J. Patall (2006) Does Homework Improve Academic Acheivement? A Synthesis of Research 1987 – 2003 Review of Educational Research

Kohn, A. (2012) http://www.alfiekohn.org/blogs/homework-unnecessary-evil-surprising-findings-new-research/

How “school” can kill the desire to learn

I used this image in one of my classes earlier this year and thought I’d struck gold. I actually had but, sadly, the school “system” quickly tarnished it and gave me clearest indication that school, which is intended to increase our students desire to learn, in it’s institutionalised form can actually do the opposite.

I’ve been encouraged to use stories and stimulus materials to pique the student’s curiosity and to use the stories behind the pictures to challenge their thinking and actions. As the Olympic games were bearing down on us, we were doing a unit in our elective sports science class about “Issues in Sport”. I thought I’d use this famous image of the 1968 Olympic Games 200m Podium to discuss the place of sport in society and whether their is a place for protests in sport or at the Olympics.

As the students entered the room I had this image up on the wall waiting for them. At this time, I gave them no information about what it was, when it was or what was happening. I simply asked the students to do two things:

  1. Write down everything they observed in the image
  2. Write down any questions that you have about the image

It was slow to get started but with a little bit of prodding the students really got going, they were calling out the things they observed and others were writing down ideas they were hearing from other students, they were asking me lots of questions and I just told them to record all the questions they had. They’d wondered why they were wearing gloves, why they had no shoes, why were they facing the way they did, what was the badge they were all wearing and plenty more.

Once the observations and questions started to dry up, I shared with the class the key details: that it was a picture taken at the 1968 Olympic Games after the 200m Sprint. Once the students had this they were then able to go and find answers to the questions. The next 20 -30 mins was some of the most enjoyable moments of my teaching year. Some of the students had found footage of the race and were watching it, others were finding answers to their questions. All 18 students were ‘hooked’. They were calling out the answers they found “The two Americans were banned from going to the Olympics again. Why was that?” Good question, write it down was my response. “Peter Norman never represented Australia again after this either. Why wasn’t he allowed to compete? He didn’t make the salute.” Good question, write it down.

This went on for the remainder of the lesson. It was pretty to watch.

Then the bell rang.

I didn’t have my class for another 3 days. As they came in, again I had the same picture on the wall. The immediate response from most students was “What? Are we still doing that?”. The break had killed their enthusiasm and curiosity. It had drained all momentum that had been built as we worked toward talking about why human rights were important enough to these athletes that they’d risk being banned from competition and why an Australian who wasn’t living amongst the racial tensions of the USA at the time would stand up for the same thing. Or what we’d be willing to stand up for?

It made me realise it must be so frustrating for students to go from one lesson to the next regardless of where they are up to. To be fully immersed in a learning experience and have to stop, pack up and move to another lesson and start again.

I’ve got no answers to make it right other than to say that it’s broken. So much of our schooling is institutionalised and constructed to fit in the “timetable” to make it easier for teachers to work but how much of what we do is set up to make it easy for the students to learn and enjoy learning?

As someone who doesn’t have the power to change things, I can only ask the questions. I don’t even have a solid answer to my own questions really, but it’s becoming clearer how much of what we are doing is actually making it hard for students to grow in their love for learning.