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


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:



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.

Some Thoughts on the Myth of Icarus

The Fall of Icarus

“Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” Pieter Brueghel the Elder

With awe, admiration and a dose of humility, I watched many colleagues and friends step up to the daily March Slice of Life blogging challenge. Every day they found something to say, and every day they found time to say it—while I found myself drowning in yet another revision of the book that (to mix metaphors) has sometimes felt like a ball and chain around my ankle. What was wrong with me? No blog posts for months, no poem in my pocket, not even a picture on Facebook. Beside work and the book, all it seemed I could muster was the occasional tweet—and self pity.

But then one day I found a poem by the wonderful Jack Gilbert called “Failing and Flying” in my inbox. It came courtesy of Garrison Keillor and The Writer’s Almanac, and in it Gilbert uses the myth of Icarus as a springboard to contemplate what my teacher-mind saw as the problem of deficit thinking.

As you probably know, Icarus attempted to fly with wings attached to his back with string and wax, only to have the wax start to melt as he soared close to the sun. And that sent him into a death spiral. The myth is usually seen as a cautionary tale about the dangers of hubris or pride, with Icarus punished for having the audacity to think he could fly like a god. Brueghel paints him, for instance, as flailing in the sea, so insignificant you have to work hard even to find him in the corner of the painting. But Gilbert sees it differently. “Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew,” not just ignobly drowned. And so he “believe[s] Icarus was not failing as he fell/but just coming to the end of his triumph.”

As you’ll see below, Anne Sexton strikes the same note in her own Icarus poem, inviting us to admire his wings and not care that he fell back to sea:

Sexton Icarus Poem

These poems helped me rethink how I was looking at things. Yes, I’ve not managed to get certain things done (which in addition to blog posts includes folding the laundry), but boy, have I learned and experienced a lot. Over the months I’ve been working on the book, I’ve had the privilege to work with amazing teachers in amazing places—from New Jersey to Oman and from Buffalo to Bangkok. And those teachers have pushed me, in the best possible way, to keep on learning and growing.

Abundance vs. Scarcity Mindset

Of course, I’m not sure that constitutes triumph, but it does speak to what I realized was the abundance in my life. And among the many things I’ve learned is that focusing on abundance vs. scarcity is yet another way of thinking about mindsets that empower, not hobble, leaners. And that, in turn, has made me think that in addition to the passion I wrote about earlier that’s helped me keep on writing, I—and I believe all learners—need someone (or something like a poem) to remind us of both our strengths and the richness of our lives.

That rarely comes up, however, when we talk about helping students develop growth mindsets—not even in some of Carol Dweck’s recent articles where she’s cautioned teachers that growth mindsets aren’t just about effort. It needs to be effort that results in learning, and teachers have a role to play in that. As Dweck writes in “Growth Mindset, Revisited”, “Teachers do everything in their power to unlock that learning.” But even she shies away from reminding students of their strengths. Perhaps that’s due to the bad rap praise has, but I’m not talking about empty praise here. I’m talking about helping students see that how they successfully solved something one time might help them the next time, too—or at least remind them that they’re someone with a history of figuring things out.

And who knows? If Icarus survived the fall, perhaps he would have gotten up and simply tried again, just for the sheer thrill of flying—and the equal thrill of figuring things out. After all, I got a blog post up.

Deep Thinker Fortune Cookie


The Beliefs Behind the “Shoulds”


It was so exciting to see the responses to The Teacher You Want to Be, the soon-to-be-out collection of essays that are all connected to the Statement of Beliefs drawn up by the Reggio Emilia study group I participated in. Matt Glover and Renée Dinnerstein arranged the trip, and if you want to learn more about the Beliefs before October 22nd, I urge you to check out Renée’s wonderful blog Investigating Choice Time, where she recently shared all thirteen beliefs and regularly writes about early childhood education in ways that will inspire and warm the heart of all of you committed to student-centered learning.

Looking at them, you’ll probably be struck with how rare it is to see beliefs stated so explicitly—and even rarer, perhaps, to see connections made between beliefs and practices, as in “If we say we believe this, we should being doing this.” More frequently instead what gets articulated is what we should or must do—as in have students read shouldsmore complex nonfiction or write more arguments. Sometimes we’re offered reasons to support these ‘shoulds’—like the need to remain globally competitive or close the achievement gap—but usually they’re not explicitly connected with any sort of larger vision or system of beliefs. I do think, though, there are beliefs hidden behind those ‘shoulds,’ and I can’t help but wonder if the kinds of conversations we have about education would be different if we tried to flush them out and put them on the table to look at.

To show you what I mean, here’s two “We should” statements that seem to reflect very different visions and beliefs. The first comes from our soon-to-depart Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, while the other comes from Canada’s Michael Fullan, whose work as a Special Advisor to the Premier of Ontario helped make Ontario’s schools among the best in the world. I invite you to read them thinking about what beliefs about teaching, learning, children and the purpose of education itself each one seems to reveal (and, if the spirit moves you, to share what you think by leaving a comment).

Arne Duncan Quote

Michael Fullan Quote

For me, Duncan’s statement reflects the belief that the purpose of education is to get everyone to the same pre-determined goal at the same pre-determined time. And it also reflects what’s often called the factory or assembly-line model of schooling, with the teacher cast in the role of the foreman whose job it is to ensure that everyone is moving forward as planned. Fullan’s, on the other hand, seems to suggest that the purpose of school is to help students develop a love of learning—and that teachers and students jointly hold and share the responsibility for that.

Duncan also seems to believe in the power of extrinsic motivation—as in shaming or frightening students to get them to work harder—while Fullan seems to believe that if we design experiences students find engaging, they’ll be intrinsically motivated, which is critical if we want students to become life-long learners. Duncan’s statement also seems to reflect a binary fixed mindset, as in you’re either on track or you’re not, versus a growth mindset, which seems to be implied in Fullan’s emphasis on designing versus assessing learning.

These two are clearly extreme examples—and I’d be willing to bet a whole lot of money on which set of beliefs readers of this blog think we should embrace. But I think that beliefs are hidden beneath practices that we take for granted. As I wrote in my essay for The Teacher You Want to Be:

In America, we say we value independence, freedom, and innovation; yet too often in schools we engage in practices that seem to promote quite the opposite. We give students prescribed formulas for writing, for instance, which invites, if not enforces conformity and limits innovation. We ask them to use sentence starters, templates and graphic organizers that can box in thinking instead of open it up, as well as foster dependence. And much of the work that happens in reading supports one-right-answer thinking, which is exactly the opposite of what’s needed for innovation to thrive.

values_actions_alignmentThat’s not to say that students don’t sometime need support. But I think it’s worth considering what unspoken beliefs might be hiding behind some of the classroom practices we engage in—and whether we really believe them or not. What, for instance, does it suggest we believe about the purpose of education and learning if we regularly ask students to assess themselves using Standards-based checklists and rubric? That we actually believe what Duncan does? And if not, perhaps we need to rethink the way we ask students to reflect on their learning and establish goals. And what does it say if we’ve institutionalized certain supports as “just the way we do things”, like accompanying every lesson with modeling before we see what students can do? Might it be because we don’t think students can do much without us showing them how? And if not, perhaps we need to better align our practices with what we believe.

As for our new incoming Secretary, the former controversial New York State Commissioner of Education, John King: What does he say we should do that speaks to his deeper beliefs? Here’s a glimpse. In a speech the great educator and author Pedro Noguera gave shortly after King became Commissioner, he shared this anecdote about King. Noguera had visited a charter school King had founded, and he’d noticed that children weren’t allowed to talk in the hallway and were punished for the most minor infractions. And so he asked King a question, which revealed both Norguera’s and King’s beliefs about children and the purpose of education:

“‘Are you preparing these kids to be leaders or followers? Because leaders get to talk in the hall. They get to talk over lunch, they get to go to the bathroom, and people can trust them. They don’t need surveillance and police officers in the bathroom.’ And he looked at me like I was talking Latin, because his mindset is that these children couldn’t do that.'”

I’ll save other comments about King for Twitter. But do consider what might be behind the practices you implement as a matter of course. And if they don’t align with your real beliefs, think about what else you could do that reflects what you truly believe in.