Thursday, September 16, 2010

Tom Sawyer -educator ( and Goldilocks)

I like Mark Twain. A great observer of people and a great story teller. He once described leadership like being the captain of a Mississippi paddle wheel steamer who had to to know every bed in the river, every sandbar, and every snag every twenty four hours!

Sounds like being teacher. Intuition is more important than out of date river charts. Thinking on your feet, making instant decision, is the mark of a good teacher not following lesson plans mindlessly.

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Getting students involved in learning because they want to - because it makes sense to them - is the art of the teacher. The great things is that students are born with an innate desire to learn, to explore, to experiment with things, as long as it is meaningful or fun. All too often school is none of these things. Educationalist Jerome Bruner once wrote that the ' canny art of the teacher is one of intellectual temptation'. You can't drag a horse to water but you can sure make certain the horse is thirsty. If kids want to do something they see as important they will work really hard and even practice.

Remember the story about how Tom Sawyer got his friends to whitewash his Aunt Polly's fence. Tom, knowing the universal human weakness towards jealously and competitiveness, jumped to the task of painting the fence with great enthusiasm and delight. Soon his friends were asking if they could help but Tom refused saying they might not do it right. Eventually after considerable pleading and begging from his friends Tom gives in but pleaded with them to be careful. But not before his friend Ben gives him his apple as a reward! He then gives them the brush and bucket while he rested in the shade keeping a careful eye on them.

In this situation he turned hard work in play.

Daniel Pink writes about the fence incident saying Tom turned a dreary task by pretending the grim task was a captivating source of fantastic privilege. Pink writes that Twain extracts a key motivational principle namely that 'Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do and that play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. Intrinsic motivation (learning as its own reward) increases performance and creativity. Pink calls this the 'Sawyer Effect'.

I have seen students, in creative teachers classes, becoming involved in fun challenging activities that were really maths, or science or reading. There are such a lot of interesting science, technology and maths activities that teachers can use to 'tempt' students -and, if somehow, it is the students who suggest the activity like Tom's friends they are trapped doing it for the fun of it. Tom's role as a teacher is done.

While I am at it remember Goldilocks and the three bears? This story illustrates the need for learning to be not too hot, not too cold, but just right. Goldilocks discovered what Vygotsky was to call the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) - that students will have go at meaningful task that is just within their reach.

Pink , writing about the Goldilocks's effect writes that when task exceed their capabilities the result is anxiety.When the task falls short of their capabilities the result is boredom. When the match is just right you get what Csikszentmihalyi calls 'flow' - and it is 'glorious'. Transformational or attitude changing. 'Flow' tasks provide powerful learning experiences as they inhabit the zone of living on the knife edge between chaos and disorder.

And I bet many teachers feel the same anxiety and even boredom as they as asked to 'deliver' and 'cover' curriculum tasks that they know don't make sense to them or their students! The savvy of Tom Sawyer and Goldilocks tasks provide an answer. Purpose and fun combined with mastery or feelings of success.

I bet a lot of so called failing or struggling kids feel anxiety in our schools as they are asked to do things the can't see the point of in and bright kids are all too often bored. If teachers don't get the match right teacher are asking for trouble.

Teaching is about understanding human nature and students need for fun, mastery, and power, or as Daniel Pink writes in his book Drive, autonomy, mastery and purpose. He writes that students ' default' drive to learn is 'flipped' by experiences at school where students come to see learning as something done to them.

As soon as this happens learning stops and teaching becomes hard. But if learning is about real and relevant tasks ( not too cold or hot) then teaching is lot easier. Teachers can rest up like Tom to reflect on how they can and assist students who need help to achieve mastery in what they want to do.

It's called going with the grain!

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