Teaching Good Robots

I have a problem. There’s a handful of students that I’ve looped with over the past two years who have me worked out. They’ve called my bluff. I have no positional authority, and they know it.

If I give them my classic “obviously-you’re-learning-via-osmosis-today-because-you-haven’t-looked-at-your-book/screen-for-the-past-five-minutes” glare, they just lock eyes and stare right back at me. If I double down with the suspicious squint, slight head tilt, or a shrug, they give me nothing. Zip. Zero. Nada.

When they can’t hold their scowl for a second longer, an impish little smile breaks out across their face, and I’m met with the tween-trifecta of head shaking, eye roll and sigh. They fear me not. In fact, I’m pretty sure they’ve started some kind of club that awards a badge-of-honour for staring me down. But I’m a victim of my own making. I gave my power away.

When we have power, we don’t need relationships. When we have relationships, we don’t need power. As teachers, we have a choice. — Monte Syrie.

It may sound counterintuitive, but I maintain “control” in my class by giving it away. I don’t control discussions because students don’t raise hands to speak. Instead, they try to find polite entry points to enter the conversation. Kids go to the toilet or take breaks when they need to; I only ask that they inform me of their choices. Increasingly, I try not micromanage where or when or what students learn or how much effort they invest into tasks. Slowly, over the course of the year, I become as redundant as possible.

In What School Could Be, Ted Dintersmith shares a reading from Mac Bledsoe that I think also holds true for educators:

Parents need to effect an orderly transfer of decision-making responsibility from making 100% of your newborn’s decisions to making 0% of your eighteen-year-olds decisions. Not just the unimportant decisions. All decisions. Prepare your child to enter adulthood with the skills, experience, and confidence to make sound decisions.

I don’t want to teach good robots

In a previous post, I highlighted a finding from Dr Tina Boorgen that suggested multitasking teachers are responsible for around 1500 decisions per day, or about four per minute. I don’t want to be that teacher; I don’t want to teach good robots.

In my experience, students who are trusted learn to be trustworthy. Not just trusted with unimportant decisions; all decisions. So I’ve done something a little different this year. I’m allowing students to decide whether the learning is worth doing.

Imagine being a twelve-year-old in a classroom where the learning tasks are optional, and there are no grades, percentages or points associated with anything you do. How do you respond to that? Why “do the work” when there are no rewards or consequences?

What if it’s because learning is the consequence?

Some suggest that we have to have consequences in the classroom. I wonder if they would entertain the notion that learning is a consequence? Consequence does not have to equal penalty. When we use penalty as a consequence, we create a culture of compliance. Maybe consequence can equal opportunity. When we use opportunity as a consequence, we create a culture of commitment. Monte Syrie, Twitter thread.

While on the topic of consequences, I encourage you to take a minute and read this post from Mary Wade titled “Instead of Keeping Them In from Recess, What If…”It’s a short but powerful piece that compliments the idea of learning as a consequence.

But here’s the interesting thing, when presented as a choice, kids still do the work. In trying to understand why, I came across Schlechty(2002) and the five levels of student engagement:

Authentic Engagement — students are immersed in work that has a clear meaning and immediate value to them.
Ritual Compliance — the work has little or no immediate meaning to students, but there are extrinsic outcomes of value that keep them engaged (i.e. grades).
Passive Compliance — students see little or no meaning in the assigned work but expend effort merely to avoid negative consequences (not having to stay in during recess to complete work).
Retreatism — students are disengaged from assigned work and make no attempt to comply, but are not disruptive to the learning of others.
Rebellion — students refuse to do the assigned task, act disruptive, and attempt to substitute alternative activities.

When learning is framed as an opportunity, rebellion is off the table. Passive compliance? No need. If the activity or assignment has no value, don’t do it. Without grades, points or other external rewards, there is little place for ritual compliance. There are, of course, times when I need my class to be compliant, like during NAPLAN testing, a fire drill, or an assembly, but compliance shouldn’t be the driving force behind any child’s education.

It would be naive to think students authentically engage all the time or that motivation is purely intrinsic. Consequences and extrinsic motivators are ever present, even in a gradeless classroom. Because I work with twelve-year-olds, not robots, I still leverage external motivators at times. Sometimes I have to be the adult in the room. Even then, I try to ask, not tell, and let students draw their own conclusions and remedy solutions.

Here’s something a little different, I sometimes wander around my classroom asking students “why” they’re doing. Not what they’re doing; why. In the past, I’ve encouraged students to ask why we were covering certain topics, but they rarely did. Flipping the decision about whether the work is worth doing (or not) to students means they have to ask themselves “why should I care about this?” or “How can I make this meaningful to me?”

When I design learning, the challenge is to create low-floor, high-ceiling tasks with a range of entry and exit points. To devise opportunities and experiences that accommodate voice and choice, but also have enough structure and boundaries to avoid overwhelming students. I’m not sure if it’s engrained compliance, positive peer pressure from the critical mass of students who just do the right thing, or because we design success criteria and units of work together, the vast majority choose to do the learning. But of course, not always.

I lose battles over “doing the work” every single day, particularly with students on the autism spectrum or those with trauma backgrounds. These students mostly use retreatism to avoid “the struggle” of hard thinking or persisting with complex tasks. I don’t like it when kids opt out, but I honour their choices. It pushes me to ask ‘how I can help this kid find a way into this task?

There are no “gotcha’s” or punishments or shaming when students opt out, just a missed opportunity. A chance to explore “why” and seek solutions. Without question, the ASD and trauma affected kids in my care are amongst the most challenging to work alongside, but also the most rewarding. They’ve taught me to be more compassionate, thoughtful and patient, and pushed me to be a better teacher and person.

If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. -Dr Stephen Shore.

I prescribe to the notion that “we gotta Maslow before we Bloom” and invest significant time into self-regulation and self-management skills, metacognition, and developing flow. Developing a culture of belonging, connection, purpose and relevance also plays an important role in creating a students led environment, but that is a blog post for another day.

So, am I just building castles in the air with this idea? Is it equitable? Or am I missing something in my blind spots? Does it lead to all students achieving their personal best? Honestly, I’m not sure yet. But it’s working for us.

Lousy robots, my students. But wonderful little humans.

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