Thursday, March 24, 2011

"The Window" Moving to New Location!

This blog, "The Window," is moving to a new site:

This will be the final post at this site.

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The move is part of a total revision of the Clerestory Learning Web site, where more information is presented in a snappy new look. We hope you will visit us there soon!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Environment of Achievement, Part 2

But hope is not disconnected from action or result; it is the drive that propels action and result. It is not an ungrounded feeling but a belief that action can bring about change.

Hope is word #1, a characteristic of an atmosphere that enables optimal achievement.

The second: humility.

The dictionary suggests it involves a modest view of one’s own importance.

At this point I could rail against the lack of humility we often see in our public personas. I won’t, except to mention its potential influence on our thinking and on that of our students. The message we get from the media: to be successful see yourself as more important/gifted/intelligent/_____ than the next guy, and find a camera crew to capture your bravado. This viewpoint is actually detrimental to a learning mindset.

Why? What does humility have to do with learning?

Humility opens the mind to learning. In Fires in the Mind, Kathleen Cushman makes a convincing argument for valuing as initial motivation for learning.1 We become interested in something new when we value the relationship we have with others who already know something about it (e.g., a son becoming a baseball player like his father), the products we can produce by knowing more than we do (e.g., a photographer who pursues mastering a new camera lens), and/or the satisfaction we get from having our questions and curiosities addressed (the child who tears a computer apart to discover what’s inside that makes it work). We value something other than our previously gained understandings. We place ourselves in the role of humble learner rather than overconfident know-it-all.

Note the implications for us as educators. To create and maintain a learning environment characterized by humility, we need to attend to our relationships with students. (Do I establish relationships with students that enable me to potentially inspire their interests in new learning?) We need to reveal what new learning will enable students to produce. (Do I know how what I teach has value beyond the classroom? and do I engage students in using what they learn beyond the classroom?) We need to foster students’ curiosity. (Do I use the power of questions and “I wonder…” statements to engage students’ attention and thinking?)

Humility makes the mind receptive to feedback. To summarize Daniel Pink in an overly succinct way, the equation for motivating learning is meaning + feedback.2 If valuing initiates learning, feedback maintains the interest and deepens new understanding. But not just any feedback will fill this vital role. A paper returned to a student after three days with nothing more than a “B” or an “84” at the top does more harm than good. Why? Because it sparks a prideful, protective response. Either the student will pretend not to care about the grade (“I know I’m better than you think I am.”) or the student will argue to regain the points that were mysteriously lost (“I’ll prove that I’m better than you think I am.”). Either way the opportunity for learning from mistakes is likely lost.

To be effective, feedback must be part of learning; while the cement of new knowledge or understandings is still wet, the teacher needs to engage students in discussion, offering redirection, encouragement and exhortation, and additional challenge. Instructive feedback should have the goal of enabling each individual student learn as deeply and achieve as highly as possible.

How does instructive feedback contribute to an environment characterized by humility? First, the teacher models humility through the way feedback is given. Dr. Robert Brooks uses the term “we statements” to describe an effective approach.

Second, feedback communicates that error is part of learning and is expected. In Kathleen Cushman’s research, one student suggested that feedback during learning enabled her to laugh at herself and use the error as a prompt for additional learning. Without the feedback, she would have continued to practice her errors and have become frustrated when her progress stagnated. Such frustration often activates a defense response rather than a mindset that accepts and even seeks feedback.

Finally, feedback maintains the correct perception of learning as being endless. We can always know more, understand better, or improve how we do something. Feedback keeps us challenged and helps us avoid feeling like we know all we need to know. We accept the humility that comes with recognizing we never reach perfection in any area or with any topic.

In this area, I’m concerned about students for whom school learning seems to come easily. They often absorb and live by the idea that being smart means not having to put forth effort. This erroneous belief about intelligence has significant, negative ramifications for their learning and achievement.

When working with the teachers, I’m often asked, “What do I do with the students who master the concepts or skills easily and quickly?” A question I use to prompt my own thinking in this area is, “What does the next level of achievement with this concept or skill look like?” I then use the answer to direct my feedback to these students.

Implications for us as educators? We need to be providing students with supportive and helpful feedback during learning. (Am I engaging my students in such conversations?) This includes challenging students to keep learning, keep refining, keep extending their knowledge and skill, even when the immediate task is completed easily. (Do I keep every student challenged and growing? Do I pursue learning myself so that I model the endless nature of mastering new concepts and abilities?)

Humility maintains curiosity (and vice versa). Curiosity is the name we give to the state of having unanswered questions. And unanswered questions, by their nature, help us maintain a learning mindset. When we realize that we do not know all there is to know about something in which we are interested, we thirst. We pursue. We act as though what we do not know is more important than what we do. Humility allows us to question; asking questions keeps us humble.

How do we spark curiosity in the classroom? One of my favorite suggestions and examples comes from one of my favorite teachers, Dr. Judy Willis:

Hoping for ways to energize the next day’s math lesson for her middle school students, Dr. Willis visited a supermarket, seeking an inexpensive item she could display on the students’ desks as they entered the classroom. She settled on a small vegetable, not knowing exactly how she would use it. The next morning, Dr.

Willis started teaching the lesson without explaining the radishes the students discovered on their desks. At the lesson’s conclusion, the students asked about the radishes. Still uncertain of the answers, Dr. Willis replied, “Why do you think I put a radish on your desk for today’s lesson?” The students offered several explanations. They connected mathematical concepts with their sensory experience of the radish, making associations that seemed sensible to them. Though Dr. Willis could have “come up with something” to share as an explanation, the students’ thinking generated more connections, and their discovery of these connections fostered deeper understanding and better memory formation. In short, the students were engaged in significant elaboration of the day’s mathematical content prompted by its curiosity-generating pairing with a common vegetable.3

Curiosity, having unanswered questions, propels learning. (Am I making serious efforts to spark curiosity in my students?)

We may think of hope as looking up. However, that should not prime our thinking to view humility as looking down. Humility is looking around, finding out what we do not know, seeing what’s available for learning it, and pursuing it until we become, we produce, or we satiate.

How do we foster an atmosphere of humility in our classrooms, schools, systems? Here are the questions I’m using to prompt my thinking:

  • Do I establish relationships with studnets that enable me to potentially inspire their interests in new learning?
  • Do I know how what I teach has value beyond the classroom? and do I engage students in using what they learn beyond the classroom?
  • Do I use the power of questions and “I wonder…” statements to engage students’ attention and thinking?
  • Am I engaging my students in conversations that capitalize on feedback’s contribution to learning?
  • Do I keep every student challenged and growing?
  • Do I pursue learning myself so that I model the endless nature of mastering new concepts and abilities?
  • Am I making serious efforts to spark curiosity in my students?

What questions would you add?


  1. Cushman, K., Fires in the Mind: What Kids Can Tell Us About Motivation and Mastery (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010).
  2. Pink, D.H., Drive: The Surprising Truth Behind What Motivates Us (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009).
  3. Washburn, K.D., The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain (Pelham, AL: Clerestory Press, 2010), 45.




Monday, January 24, 2011

The Environment of Achievement, Part 1

Three words grabbed my attention. Ideas that can make the difference between a t-ball novice and A-Rod, between nephew Johnny’s string recital performance and a Yo-Yo Ma concert, between the weekend jogger and Paula Radcliffe.

No, not age, not time, nor even practice. (Though all these play a role.)

For decades, researchers have pitched their tents in one of two camps: either nature (i.e., genetics) makes us who we are, or nurture (i.e., environment) does. For every study claiming to capture the flag for one camp, a counter study contends that it retains the banner.

In The Genius in All of Us, David Shenk argues that the interaction of genes and environment produces the individuals we become. Environment, contends Shenk, plays a leading role in how genes are “expressed.” But let’s set the science and the debate aside for now and simply consider what allows ability to reach its fullest potential.

This brings us back to those three words. They appear in the opening of David Shenk’s book, and they should play a leading role in education: hope, humility, and determination.

Word #1: hope. Of the three words, this one gets the most negative press. Cynics point out that hoping never made something happen nor brought anything into existence. Some even suggest hope is damaging, viewing it as wishful thinking that prevents the action needed to generate change.

Such arguments fail to look behind results; they fail to consider the causes of observable effects. They’re akin to arguing that the pleasure of a warm fire on a cold night is unrelated to, and certainly not dependent on, the match used to ignite the flame.

But hope is not disconnected from action or result; it is the drive that propels action and result. It is not an ungrounded feeling but a belief that action can bring about change. No great change has ever been attempted without hope, even if the belief was never voiced.

The dictionary associates several concepts with hope: expectation, belief, desire, good. I’d add another: resilience. Here’s why:

Resilience involves maintaining hope despite failure. Set-backs in life are inevitable, whether one is trying to strut across a narrow balance beam or learn to balance lopsided equations. Response to setbacks makes the difference between progress and stagnation, and hope motivates forward movement. Students need to learn to remain positive, believing that hard work can eventually overcome most setbacks and that the effort can yield beneficial and satisfying results. Relatedly…

Resilience involves embracing failure as an element of learning and progress.Hope can endure difficulties when the difficulties are seen as revealers of weaknesses that can be targeted and tweaked. Once recognized, weaknesses can become the focus of the efforts that lead to eventual success. (If students are not failing—encountering challenges—in your classroom, their learning may be minimal or even non-existent.)

David Shenk shares a compelling illustration. Basketball great

Michael Jordan would use

informal, pick-up games to work on

skills he knew were his weakest. While others in these games relied on doing what they already knew they could, Jordan

analyzed his setbacks, identified their causes, and then worked to correct them. The hope of eventual success made failure something to seek rather than avoid.

As teachers, we have a critical role to play in helping students perceive failure correctly. The feedback we give students can make the difference between failure that focuses effort and failure that is fatal to further attempts.

Finally, resilience involves being able to change direction. Failure is easy to repeat. You simply do the exact same thing you did previously while expecting the result to be different. (I believe this was Einstein’s definition of insanity.) It takes effort to consider alternative approaches and to maintain the hope that making such changes can yield better results.

To help students grow into individuals who do not view failure as fatal, we must nurture their spirits, helping them maintain hope, especially when learning is challenging.

Some questions I’ve been pondering lately include:

  • How resilient is my hope in the face of challenge?
  • How do I convey hope when my students face challenges and obstacles?
  • Is my classroom/school/district a place characterized by hope and its accompanying momentum?
  • How am I modeling resilient hope?

What questions would you add?


Shape of a hoper


Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Using Groups Effectively: 10 Principles

Confession: as a student, I usually hate group work. I know, I know. Having students

work in groups reaps a bounty of benefits, including boosting students’ social skills and upping the number of “happy campers” in the classroom. Such findings filter through my thinking when I’m preparing to teach, so I do use group interaction, hoping that the promises from its advocates will be realized. Occasionally they are; often they are not.

I recently attended a conference session featuring Keith Sawyer. In addition to being a jazz pianist (a musical collaborator), Sawyer is an expert on the effectiveness of group efforts. His presentation focused on what has been and potentially can be accomplished through collaboration, but he hinted that just getting people into groups is not the answer.

This piqued my curiosity, so I bought his book Group Genius. In it I’ve begun to find some answers to my questions: When are groups effective as means of learning? What tasks are better accomplished collaboratively than individually? How do you structure groups for optimal effectiveness and results?

Though his focus is on creativity, I think Sawyer’s insights apply to our use of groups to foster learning. Here are ten principles I’ve picked up:

  1. Flow matters. Flow is a term used to describe a state of high engagement in which thoughts run freely and progress occurs, often without group members being conscious of it. However, flow is like intrinsic motivation; it can’t be created on demand. The best we can do as teachers is provide a classroom environment that fosters flow.
  2. Conversation is key. Sawyer succinctly explains this principle: “Conversation leads to flow, and flow leads to creativity.” When having students work in groups, consider what will spark rich conversation. The original researcher on flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, found that rich conversation precedes and ignites flow more than any other activity.1 Tasks that require (or force) interaction lead to richer collaborative conceptualization.
  3. Set a clear but open-ended goal. Groups produce the richest ideas when they have a goal that will focus their interaction but also has fluid enough boundaries to allow for creativity. This is a challenge we often overlook. As teachers, we often have an idea of what a group’s final product should look like (or sound like, or…). If we put students into groups to produce a predetermined outcome, we prevent creative thinking from finding an entry point.
  4. Try not announcing time limits. As teachers we often use a time limit as a “motivator” that we hope will keep group work focused. In reality, this may be a major detractor from quality group work. Deadlines, according to Sawyer, tend to impede flow and produce lower quality results. Groups produce their best work in low-pressure situations. Without a need to “keep one eye on the clock,” the group’s focus can be fully given to the task.
  5. Do not appoint a group “leader.” In research studies, supervisors, or group leaders, tend to subvert flow unless they participate as an equal, listening and allowing the group’s thoughts and decisions to guide the interaction.
  6. Keep it small. Groups with the minimum number of members that are needed to accomplish a task are more efficient and effective.
  7. Consider weaving together individual and group work. For additive tasks—tasks in which a group is expectedtoproduce a list, adding one idea to another—research suggests that better results develop when individual thinking precedes the pooling of ideas in a group setting. Researchers also suggest that alternating between individual and group work helps keep the work focused but not fixated—i.e., not limited to one aspect or detail of an idea or issue. (By the way, this weaving of individual and group interaction may be reason why technological or “electronic brainstorming” is often effective.)
  8. “Divide and conquer” ≠ collaboration. When groups assign members to specific responsibilities for completing a task they undermine the thinking that collaboration can produce. Sawyer talks about creativity via collaboration as being “exponential,” meaning that it is constructed via conversation. One individual’s thought may inspire another group member’s insight, which in turn sparks new concepts for another. It is this emergent thinking that enables collaboration to accomplish what individual effort cannot.
  9. Think threefold. Group tasks that produce the best results often have three defining characteristics: 1) they are novel, something students have not done before, 2) they feature a visual component, something that can be represented in nonverbal forms, and 3) they are relational, meaning they require the combining of ideas or components to be accomplished.
  10. Be complementary. The best groups are composed of members who have enough familiarity with one another to be comfortable but who possess varied backgrounds and experiences. Again, because of how we typically use groups in classrooms, we tend to form groups around ability—if there is at least one “good student” in the group, we think something will get done. However, Sawyer suggests ability should be less of a consideration than diversity in experience. This can be challenging to accomplish but it’s worth considering when grouping students for collaborative tasks.

These insights have me rethinking groups, not whether or not to use them, but when and how to use them effectively. As with every aspect of teaching, using groups effectively requires mindful planning and attention to more than who works with whom. As Sawyer summarizes, “Putting people into groups isn’t a magical dust that makes everyone more creative. It has to be the right kind of group, and the group has to match the task.”2


  1. Sawyer, K., Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 43.
  2. Ibid., 73.