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How we think about the work we do matters. Our beliefs, attitudes, and thinking frames have an impact on the goals we set, the instructional approaches we choose, and the learning our students experience. We can plan based on what we want and intend to do, or we can begin with where our students are and what they need. We can demand compliance or invite commitment. We can manage behavior or nurture responsibility.

This is a good time to reflect on how we engage our students, what outcomes our approaches are most likely to generate, and how we might adjust our strategies and techniques to stimulate imaginations, stir passion, and maximize learning. Here are five questions we can use to guide our reflection and determine if and where we need to adjust.

First, do I seek to delight or inspire? At first, these two goals may seem to be one and the same. However, on closer examination, we see that when we seek to delight students, while they may have a positive experience, little emotion remains beyond the moment. When we seek to inspire, on the other hand, students are more likely to experience a connection with the content, concept, or opportunity to which we introduce them. We open the door for students to own the experience and choose to learn more, experience passion, and act. When we seek to delight, the experience is contained in the moment. When we seek to inspire, we invite connection, reflection, and commitment that may last a week—or a lifetime.

Second, do my expectations irritate or agitate? Again, we may initially see these two terms as very similar. However, irritation typically results from pressing our interests and commitment upon students and their actions. People naturally resist when they feel pressure from someone else about something that holds little interest to them. Agitation, on the other hand, is nudging others to engage and act on something that is of interest to them or in their best interest. When we agitate—the definition in this context meaning to stir and cause to move—we nudge students to be all that they can be. We ask them to be true to themselves. Whereas irritation is a reaction to our agenda, agitation comes from our challenging students to be, do, and accomplish what is of interest and importance to them. 

Third, do I give advice or offer feedback? When we offer feedback, we provide clear, timely, actionable, non-judgmental, specific information to students relative to a learning attempt, creative effort, or work product. Our goal is to help students grasp how their actions relate to goals or outcomes and support them to see the next step to move their learning forward. When we give advice, we are more likely to speak within our frame of reference and draw on our experiences. While what we have to offer may have significant merit, students are more likely to resist and ignore our words, believing that what worked for us may not be as useful to them. Typically, sharing advice rather than offering feedback is only effective for the most highly confident, competent, and committed learners.

Fourth, do I seek compliance or commitment? Most of us experienced school as a highly structured, compliance-based institution. Most important decisions were made by adults and shared with students as expectations for their behavior. Most sanctions and rewards were based on whether students complied with adult rules, expectations, and structures. However, we know that the most powerful learning is driven by commitment and purpose. Learning driven by compliance is typically only as deep as required and retained only until it is assessed. Tapping purpose, nurturing commitment, and supporting students in order to extend their learning beyond the required curriculum can be an experience that is as transformative as it is rewarding.

Fifth, do I rely on punishment or discipline? Again, we may confuse these two concepts in pursuit of acceptable behavior. Punishment is assigning consequences intended to be unpleasant enough that students will not repeat the unacceptable behavior. The hope is that students will be reluctant to engage in future behaviors that will lead to the pain, embarrassment, or shame designed by punishment. While this approach works best with students who already want to please adults and typically do not engage in unacceptable behavior, it is largely ineffective with students who do not have strong relationships, who may seek attention, or who otherwise are not afraid of consequences. Conversely, discipline focuses on helping students to see how and why their behavior is unacceptable, develop strategies and options to achieve what they seek through acceptable means, and build self-regulating skills to manage their behavior. Punishment is about consequences while discipline is about learning.  

Convincing students to commit to their learning, become the best they can be, and take responsibility for their behavior is not an easy challenge. Students come to us with a variety of experiences in life and learning. Some students respond enthusiastically to opportunities to co-lead their learning, while others require time and patience. Regardless, when we give students the gifts of owning their learning, committing to their success, and developing their full capacity to engage the world, we give them gifts for life.

Thought for the Week

Simply pulling a strategy “off the shelf” or defaulting to the most recently read article or staff development session topic may not generate the results we seek.

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