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Linking My Past Burning Questions with Real Kids

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Let me bring you to the edge of my thinking. Here's a quick summary of past burning questions that I've answered for myself — much of it publicly, in real-time, on this blog.

  • What's the point of school? It's the long-term flourishing of kids. Our work is to promote that flourishing.
    • So what? This question has helped me relate things like literacy or argument or student motivation to diverse groups of teachers around the country. This is the common ground that all departments and subject areas and grade levels share. From this common ground, productive PD or strategizing or change can happen.
  • What's the best way to promote long-term flourishing? It's helping our students to master school and its material (knowledge, skills, disciplines). The skills and dispositions required to master school are skills that are eminently useful in the twenty-first century. For example, writing is a skill that's getting more important, not less so. Knowledge-building is critical for critical thinking. And so on. I lay out these arguments (including the argument for argument) and practical means for doing this work extensively here.
  • What's the best way to have kids master school and its material? Ultimately, there's no way to do this unless kids 1) do work and 2) do it with care. This means taking notes, asking questions, completing assignments, engaging with projects, writing essays, conducting research, turning in homework — the gamut. If you don't do work carefully, you don't grow. At anything.
  • What's the best way to help all kids do work with care? Create classrooms and policies and schools and assignments that cultivate the five key beliefs beneath student motivation. Blessedly, these beliefs are highly malleable, even in situations where students come from hard home situations or belong to marginalized groups.

Now, let's look at five students that I teach right now. Names and details have been modified for anonymity's sake.

  • Liana likes to challenge herself in school. For Liana, challenge is fun, and it's sort of the point. Thankfully, she's in a class that challenges her, so she is happy.
  • Ali thinks that school is dumb. Based on some of the things he's written during warm-ups, I'm concerned that Ali might be involved in drugs. Sometimes, I see Ali on the streets of our town with his friends when I'm driving home at various times in the day.
  • Nolan thinks school is frustrating. He wears the same clothes each day, and a common refrain of his when I ask how his work is going is, “I'm dumb. School's dumb.”
  • Lillian found out two weeks ago that her parents are getting a divorce. She's got a boyfriend that she seems pretty excited about. The other day in class, she volunteered that as soon as she's sixteen, she's moving out of her house. School doesn't seem to be a priority.
  • Tony is a nice kid, but his homework is rarely done. He says he has a hard time telling his friends no when they ask if he wants to play Fortnite.

First of all, these kids — about 4% of my total roster — are all delightful to teach at the macro level. Sometimes they're a challenge to teach — some more frequently and intensely than others — but when you zoom all the way out, this year I find, yet again, that it's a lovely job. I cherish these kids and am thankful that they are alive, and I do hope and pray that my work promotes their long-term good.

That's not really on topic, but it's always worth saying, that I might bit by bit knead the truth into my heart.

Second (and more to the point), the burning questions and answers at the top of this post become real and meaningful when applied to these actual kids. The kids are the place where theory ends and “sleeves rolled up” work begins.

Let's look:

  • Liana and Ali are here, in my public school, so that their long-term flourishing might be promoted. Same with all the rest of the kids. That's why we as a society invest so much time and resource into education.
  • Nolan, Lillian, and Tony will all benefit if I teach them 1) to master world history specifically and 2) master the work of mastering things in school. That work can most certainly help them to live better, more meaningful, and more choice-laden lives. I've never met a kid who is harmed my learning to master world history and school.
  • None of them can get to mastery without doing work and doing it with care. Even for Liana (who's in the appropriately challenging class), the work can't be skipped.
  • I can increase the degree to which every one of these kids does work and does it with care by targeting five key beliefs. I know that I can do this because it's heavily vetted in big chunks of the research, and I've seen it play out in my classroom — including with the five kids listed above — and in the classrooms of SMC colleagues from around the world.* Specifically…
    • Credibility: I can help them to see that I'm a good teacher. The broad strategy here is as simple as CCP.
    • Value: I can help them to value world history specifically and school in general.
    • Belonging: I can help them see the work of my class as congruent with their identity — the kind of thing that people like them do.
    • Effort: I can help them work smarter and more strategically at mastering my course, thereby helping them know that their effort will pay off.
    • Efficacy: I can help them believe that they can succeed in my class, especially when I give them “hard things” to succeed at.

Okay. All of that brings us to the edge of my thinking. We're at the end of a long, teetering bridge, and these are the next steps:

  • How do I help more folks get through the preceding burning questions and answers, so that they too are at this spot in their thinking and practice?
  • How do I bring together more likeminded teachers around the country and the world to share best practices in the cultivation of the five key beliefs in our settings?
  • How do I help more departments, teams, and schools to “get on the same page” and “row in the same direction” when it comes to long-term flourishing, teaching toward mastery, and maximizing the five key beliefs? After all, the more people in a school that you have doing this work, the better off all the kids will be.

I've still got a lot more thinking to do here, so more on all of this to come.

*SMC = Student Motivation Course.

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