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.