What’s in a Word: Some Thoughts on Learning & Achievement

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Earlier this month I had the opportunity to work with teachers at the American School in Doha, which is located in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. The school belongs to an organization called NESA (the Near East South Asia Council of Overseas Schools), whose mission is to “serve member schools by facilitating sustainable and systemic school improvement to maximize student learning.” And whenever I work in a NESA school I’m struck by their use of the word learning, rather than achievement, which is far more often the world of choice in Stateside schools’ mission statements.

As I’ve written about other words (such as rigor, grit and productive struggle and evidence and claim), I think there’s something worth exploring about these words. To me, learning has to do with truly understanding something deeply enough to be able to apply and transfer the concepts from one setting to another, while achievement is focused on skill-based goals that can be measured by grades or scores. And Merriam-Webster’s online thesaurus echoes this distinction, with enlightenment popping up as a synonym for learning, while words like performance, execution and success show up for achievement.

To see how this difference can play out in life—and why it’s important to think about—consider this anecdote from Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better TeacherAt some point the fast-food chain A&W attempted to compete with McDonald’s Quarter Pounder by offering a burger with a third-pound of beef. Strangely though, customers “snubbed” it, wheres-the-beefdespite the fact that it was cheaper than McDonald’s Quarter Pounder and preferred in blind taste tests. Turns out the problem was that customers believed they were getting more beef for their money at McDonald’s, because they’d reasoned that one-fourth was greater than one-third since four was larger than three.

My hunch is that in grade school many of these customers had been able to answer questions about fractions well enough not to fail math. That is, they managed to achieve a passing grade without having understood the concept of fractions. And unfortunately this doesn’t just happen in math. In Doha, for instance, I worked with teachers on ways to more deeply teach grammar and conventions, and right off the bat, the teachers acknowledged something Mary Ehrenworth and I had shared in The Power of Grammar: Students could often correctly punctuate or fix grammatical mistakes on worksheets, but they weren’t transferring that to their own writing. So before we headed into classrooms, we looked at some ways of helping students not just learn rules but the concept behind them in more meaningful ways.

When it came to punctuation, for instance, I shared something I’ve been doing for years: showing students a retyped unpunctuated chunk of text, like the one below from The Watsons Go to Birmingham. Then I ask them to read it, as I invite you to, paying attention to when you’re confused or do a double take because there’s no punctuation to guide you.

the-watsons-go-to-birminghami couldnt believe it the door opened in the middle of math class and the principal pushed this older raggedy kid in mrs cordell said boys and girls we have a new student in our class starting today his name is rufus fry now i know all of you will help make rufus feel welcome wont you someone giggled good rufus say hello to your new classmates please he didnt smile or wave or anything he just looked down and said real quiet hi a couple of girls thought he was cute because they said hi rufus why dont you sit next to kenny and he can help you catch up with what were doings mrs cordel said

This activity brings home to students the concept that punctuation isn’t just about rules; it serves a vital purpose, helping readers navigate uncharted seas of words that otherwise might not make sense. And that, in turn, invites students to consider what might happen to their readers if they failed to include these signposts.

Similarly, to more deeply learn—and understand—the role of verb tense in writing, I shared the following two versions of a nonfiction text, one in the present tense and the other in the past, and asked the teachers to consider if and how the tense affected them as readers:

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As you may have felt, the present tense seems more immediate and suspenseful—or, as kids often say it makes you feel like you’re there. The past, on the other hand, can feel more authoritative but also more distant. With students, once students have noticed and felt this, you can then give them a choice: Which effect do they want their readers to experience, the suspense of the present or the authority of the past? And once they’ve decided, their job as writers is to make sure the tense is consistent.

alfie-kohnLike the inquiry work I shared earlier, these kinds of lessons help students not just know the rules, but more deeply understand their purpose in ways that support the transfer of learning. Of course, letting students wrestle with concepts takes longer than explicitly teaching rules through direct instruction, which might not make it seem like the most expedient path to achievement. But as Alfie Kohn wrote in a blog post, there are costs to focusing on achievement over learning, beyond forgetting what was learned. According to Kohn, when we overemphasize achievement, five things tend to happen: “Students

  • come to regard learning as a chore;
  • try to avoid challenging tasks;
  • tend to think less deeply;
  • may fall apart when they fail; and
  • value ability more that effort.”

It’s worth noting that Kohn wrote this post before the concept of growth mindsets took hold. But a survey taken just last year by The Princeton Review shows that high achievement-vs-learningschool students care far more about achieving good grades than they do about learning. This is truly unfortunate because the thing about learning and achievement is this: If we focus on deeper learning, achievement tends to happen as a natural by-product. So why would we choose the word achievement when learning supports application and retention and increases the likelihood of achievement?

My hunch is that it has to do with our fear and obsession about competing globally, in a way that’s also tied to our culture of testing. Most American overseas schools, however, have adopted the Common Core Standards but not the standardized test apparatus that comes it here, which helps them to focus on the higher goal of learning. But I think it would do us good to remember these words of Marilyn French (as quoted by Kohn) and consider which word we want to embrace:

Only extraordinary education is concerned with learning; most is concerned with achieving: and for young minds, these two are very nearly opposite.

On Beliefs, Books & Being True to Yourself

What Needs to Happen

From Read, Write, Lead by Reggie Routman

While preparing for a leadership workshop I led this summer for a district embarking on a new literacy initiative, I dipped into Regie Routman‘s great book Read, Write, Lead and discovered this nifty chart which captures what she thinks often happens when we try to implement change at a district, school, or even classroom level. According to Routman—and seen first-hand by me—districts, schools and sometimes teachers themselves often begin discussing change by exploring resources. And that Read, Write, Leadoften leads many to gravitate to programs that promise things, such as alignment with the Standards, increased student achievement, research-proven practices or ease of implementation. Every resource, in turn, comes with its own prescribed practices, whether it’s lists of text-dependent questions to ask (along with the answers to look for), scripts of mini-lessons to follow or protocols to use for instructional approaches like reciprocal or guided reading.

Rarely she notes, though, do we think about change by first defining for ourselves what we believe—about children, how they learn, what it means to be literate and the purpose of education itself. And this is critical because as Routman writes: “Practices are our beliefs in action.”

I share this story for two reasons. First, in an age where everyone seems to be clamoring for quick fixes or some magical way to reach unrealistic (and sometimes questionable) goals, it reaffirmed my own belief that for practices to be truly effective, they need to be The Teacher You Want to Berooted in some deeper understanding about children, learning and reading and writing. And secondly, it seemed like a nice way to announce that while my book on reading is still being fine-tuned, I’ll have an essay in another book coming out this fall from Heinemann called The Teacher You Want to Be: Essays about Children, Learning and Teaching.

The book grew out of the study tour I went on to Reggio Emily in 2012 (which you can read about here, here and here). Our ostensible aim was to see what we could learn about the teaching of literacy from their world-renown schools, but we came away with a much larger mission: to publicly share what we’d seen and learned in order to promote serious conversations about the state of education here at home.

To begin that work, we collaboratively created a Statement of Beliefs, a document that captures a baker’s dozen of tenets that reflect the group’s jointly held beliefs about how children best learn and how, therefore, teachers and schools need to approach teaching. And as you’ll see in the example below, for each of these thirteen beliefs we provided a more in-depth explanation as well as a description of practices we currently see in many schools that reflect a very different—and we think problematic—set of beliefs. Then with the help of Heinemann, we invited educators and thinkers from across the field to write essays that would in someway connect to one or more of these beliefs.

Reggio Belief #13

As will appear in a slightly different form in The Teacher You Want to Be, coming from Heinemann in Fall 2015

The book that resulted is edited by Matt Glover and Ellin Oliver Keene, and it’s graced with a forward by one of my personal educational heroes, Alfie Kohn. Some of the essays were written by study group members, such as me, Kathy Collins and Stephanie Jones; some are by those who couldn’t make the trip but were there with us in spirit, like Katherine Bomer and Heidi Mills; while others come from great educators and thinkers who saw their own beliefs reflected in ours, such as Sir Ken Robinson, Peter Johnston and Tom Newkirk. And while we’ll all have to wait till October 22nd to get our hands on the book, I’m sure you’ll agree that’s quite a line-up.

I also suspect that many of you will find your own beliefs reflected in this book. While for others it may be an opportunity to clarify and define what it is you believe or to consider how your beliefs (may or may not) align to your actions and practices. And for those of you who know what you believe but often find yourself teaching, as I write in my essay, “against the backdrop of a system I often feel at odds with,” I, along with Matt, Ellin and all the essay writers hope you find in this book the strength, support and inspiration to keep your teaching true to those beliefs—and to be aware of when your practices are out of step with what you believe.

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On Rigor, Grit, Productive Struggle and What Our Word Choice Means

Word Choice Matters

As happened last year, many of the teachers, administrators and parents who left feedback on last month’s English Language Arts test at testingtalk.org pointed to what they felt were questions that focused on minutiae which, as Brooklyn principal Liz Phillips said “had little bearing on [children’s] reading ability and yet had huge stakes for students, teachers, principals and schools.” Most of those questions were aimed at assessing the Common Core’s Reading Standards 4-6, which are the ones that look at word choice and structure. Having not seen this year’s tests, I’m not in a position to comment—though if the questions were like the ones I shared from some practice tests earlier, I can see what the concern was about.

Most of the practice test questions associated with those standards were, indeed, picayune and disconnected from the text’s overall meaning. But I don’t think that means that thinking about word choice and structure isn’t important—only that the test questions weren’t very good. Word choice and structure can, in fact, be windows onto a text’s deeper meaning. Or as my colleagues Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan have suggested, thinking about Reading Standards 4-6 can get us to Standards 1-3, which are all about meaning. And so this week, I’d like to apply Reading Anchor Standard 4—”Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choice shape meaning or tone”—to three key buzzwords attached to the Standards—rigor, grit and productive struggle.

Rigor DefinitionTo me, all three seem to have strangely negative connotations. And in that, I’m not alone. Many educators have pointed out that, if we look up the word rigor in the dictionary, we find definitions that suggest something downright punishing. That’s why some educational writers, such as Stevi Quate and John McDermott, the authors of Clock Watchersdeliberately decided to use the word challenge instead of rigor in their most recent book The Just-Right ChallengeOthers, such as former NCTE president Joanne Yatvin prefer the word vigor, which turning to the thesaurus this time, lists synonyms such as energy, strength, gusto and zing. Either or both of those words seem better than one connected to stiff dead bodies—i.e., rigor mortis. Yet rigor is the word that’s most in vogue.

The word grit is also popular today and is frequently touted as “the secret to success.” Yet it, too, has a whiff of negativity about it. Grit is what’s needed to get through something
Child Refusing Dinnerunpleasant, boring or even painful that someone else has said is good for you—like eating your vegetables or sitting through days and days of standardized testing. And as Alfie Kohn notes in his great piece “Ten Concerns about the ‘Let Them Teach Grit’ Fad,” grit seems connected to a slew of other terms, like self-discipline, will power and deferred gratification, all of which push students to “resist temptation, put off doing what they enjoy in order to grind through whatever they’ve been told to do—and keep at it for as long as it takes.”

Here, too, we could choose another word, like resilience, without the same connotations as grit, but we don’t. According to Merriam-Webster again, resilience focuses on “the ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change,” not just the stamina or toughness to trudge through it. And as former principal and speaker Peter DeWitt notes in his EdWeek blog post “Should Children Really Be Expected to Have Grit?“, resilience “can coincide with empathy and compassion,” whereas grit seems more about sheer doggedness—and in the case of vegetables and tests, compliance, which may be the word’s hidden agenda.

And then there’s the term productive struggle, which I confess I’ve embraced in the past, as an earlier blog post attests to. I believe completely in giving students time to explore and wrestle with a text in order to arrive at their own meaning because whatever is learned through that process—about that text, texts in general, and the reader himself—will stick much more than if we overly direct or scaffold students to a pre-determined answer. But that word struggle comes with the same negative connotations as the two other words do. The thesaurus, for instance, lists battle and fight as synonyms for struggle, with pains and drudgery as related words. And while I think we can reclaim words—such as turning the word confusion into something to celebrate rather than avoid—I’ve recently started to wonder if we shouldn’t choose a more positive word to get at the same concept, as you’ll see in the twitter exchange I had with two teachers after reading a blog post by the wonderful Annie PaulTwitter Inquiry vs. Struggle

Merriam-Webster defines inquiry as “a systematic search for the truth or facts about something” and unlike the word struggle, which seems mostly connected to hardship and conflict, the word inquiry is connected to questioning, challenge and self-reflection. In fact, it seems to embrace the very habits of mind that NCTE has identified in their Framework for Postsecondary Success:

NCTE Habits of Mind Framework

So what does it say about our culture that the words we’ve chosen to latch on to the most all seem to carry connotations of hardship, toughness and forbearance? Some writers, like Alfie Kohn, see this as simply a new manifestation of the Puritan work ethic—in a time in which it’s become much harder to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Others, like P. L. Thomas of Furman University, sees in the “‘grit’ narrative” something much more insidious: “a not-so-thinly masked appeal to racism”, with students of color being tagged as the ones most in need of more rigor, grit and time spent struggling.

In addition to these troubling implications, these three words also focus on student deficits, not on student strengths. And they suggest that we, as teachers, should be like Catwoman with her scowl and her whip, rather than like the Cat Lady who invites children to get to know the kitties. And I can’t help thinking that if, as a society, we chose some of those other words from the NCTE Framework instead—such as curiosity, openness, creativity and engagement—students would engage in productive struggle, even with something deemed rigorous, without explicit lessons on grit. And that’s because . . .

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