About twenty-two centuries ago, Greco-Roman philosopher Ptolemy argued in Almagest that the sun and the moon and the other heavenly bodies rotated around the Earth. This geocentric view remained predominant for 1,700 years until the Renaissance's Nicolaus Copernicus argued for a sun-centered system. In the decades that followed, new-fangled “scientists” like Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei confirmed this heliocentrism using telescope observations and the concept of elliptical orbits.
It turns out that even though the Earth is amazing, it's not the center of the system. And a similar truth applies to you and me: even though our work is important and our efforts are admirable, we're not the center of our students' lives.
Many teachers I meet get frustrated and freaked because they think more like Ptolemy than Copernicus. They take it very personally when a child doesn't behave as though school or Intro to Biology or seventh grade math is the center of all things.
What do you mean you didn't do your homework last night?
What do you mean my class isn't your favorite?
What do you mean you don't find this all as fascinating as I do?
What I love about teaching is that I believe what I teach is beautiful and important. It doesn't just expand horizons — it can create new ones. Education, properly conceived and carried out, is emancipatory. It is one of humanity's best tendencies.
And yet my students, and perhaps yours, don't always see it this way.
And so I have — and you have — what can be an intriguing puzzle. How do I help my students to value the work of my discipline? How do I create an environment in which they'll tend to do work with care — a sphere in their lives, so to say, that exerts a strong gravitational pull amidst many others?
That's the work. When we remember that, it lets us see student motivation problems as natural, expected puzzles rather than unnatural, “how could this be happening!?” crises.
Be Copernicus, not Ptolemy. Your work is important, but it's not the center of a child's universe.
For more on student motivation, check out chapter 2 of These 6 Things, my free student motivation checklist, or the Student Motivation Course.
Rachel Wasserman says
Dave, I agree with you that often our classes do not even come close to being important to our students — but here’s the rub. I teach 11th grade U.S. History, and my state, in its wisdom, has mandated that all public high school students must take a state created 60 question end-of-course exam which counts for a whopping 30% of these students’ U.S. History grade. Even when I gave final exams, they were NEVER worth more than 10% of my students’ overall grade! Teachers are not allowed to ever see these particular exams by the way, which makes “teaching to the test” even more problematic.
I love U.S. history, and do everything I can to make the class interesting and enjoyable. My extensive knowledge of U.S. history allows me to drag in some interesting tidbits about the people and times we’re studying, and I also offer lots of mini-extra credit assignments (when a student asks a question that I either cannot or don’t want to answer, finding the answer using 3 sources, one of which can be Wikipedia, becomes the extra credit opportunity — but usually the only kids who take advantage of these opportunities are the ones who don’t need the extra credit!).
Students who do not pass this test, particularly students who have Fs and Ds in U.S. History, risk failing the entire class, and put their on-time graduation at risk. So I must do everything I can to encourage my kids to take this class and this test seriously. I normally give 3 assignments for each chapter, and at least 2 of these assignments are given out a week before their due date. I stay in my room during every lunch period (and even provide snacks for those kids who don’t bring or buy a lunch), and stay at school for at least an hour or two every day to offer students extra help (or even just a quiet place to work) with these assignments. Almost none of my students take advantage of these offers.
Aside from not assigning any work, which is what some of my administrators have suggested, what else can I do to help my students be successful in this class?
I am getting tired and frustrated — not so much with my pupils, but with an educational system that does not seem to be adapting to the changing needs of today’s students.
Tammy Elser says
Oh, so many thoughts here, but I felt a strong desire to respond to Rachel Wasserman’s powerful and frustrating dilemma! Wow, I feel your frustration and the fact that you can’t even see the “big test” they are required to pass is unjust. The circumstances sound like a set up for a “drop-out” factory, created by thoughtless policy decisions.
I see three opportunities here that relate to the Chapter I just studied in These 6 Things on knowledge building.
First, the vertical articulation of background knowledge required to deeply understand your content area is, for the most part, broken. There is no ladder, and what passes for learning (aka passing a test) rarely involves long-term memory which creates the cognitive hooks -think magnet! that attracts and organizes for retrieval, new content knowledge. “Catching them up” can’t occur effectively in a single school year, but the knowledge building if done cumulatively over time is an untapped resource leading to not only fantastic knowledge of history (or science, or music, or health, or…._______) but also deeper comprehension of any new text they encounter over a life time. So this involves a cross grade level conversation about what, from grade K-12, kids are being required to read and expected to learn.
Second, I have been trying to figure out, in my own role as a teacher educator, what constitutes essential background knowledge, creating cognitive hooks or a map to facilitate new learning. The analogy I use is a closet framed in a home, that has no bar or hooks to hang things, no shelves and no bins… just a box. Information that goes into this “box” can’t be retrieved or connected to prior content knowledge, it all just goes in a pile on the floor -dirty, clean and unretrievable. Now picture a “California Closet” system. I am trying to figure out what that structure is and to instill it, so students have essential knowledge that they need to gain additional knowledge and make it “sticky” as the book says. I am calling this structure a “set of knowns” and as you can imagine, it has grown over time. I gave my college students a 196 point final, without a single multiple choice item —- just graphic organizers for the “sets of knowns” that they fill in and hopefully elaborate on. It is FAR from perfect, and I am particularly interested in how my students articulate what they know (love it in their own words) and the level of elaboration, if any. Note that I get my students for 5 classes over 2 years. They get all “finals” from me on the first day of the very first class and we work it throughout all classes, with lots of test and retest and game and elaboration, and spaced practice, and retrieval practice etc…
(Yes. I just responded to Dave’s post on Ptolemy and Copernicus with California Closets. I did that. I own it.)
This gets me to a third thing. I am using http://www.learningscientists.org to help me design a process that takes only a few minutes a class period, but basically keeps us moving to mastery of the “sets of knowns.” I do this to model for them in hopes that they will both master the content and teach these cognitive learning strategies to their future students.
Been thinking on five habits that teachers Pre-K – 12 could adopt that would help with background knowledge building, but that is for another post.