Sunday, September 15, 2013

Guest Blogger: Effort and Persistence

We are lucky to hear from guest blogger Rob Reetz:  Professional Learning Specialist, Moundsview Schools and TC2 Residency faculty this month. Rob writes about the importance of and how to encourage students' effort and persistence.


In 2010 Daniel Willingham authored a book that asked Why Don’t Students like school?  His answer? Thinking is hard. It’s hard for people of all ages. In fact, our brains naturally reduce engagement during routine activities as a vacation from all those times we force them to think deeply. It is as though the human mind would prefer to not think.  Yes, thinking is hard, but it’s also never been more important. The kindergarten students that learn in 2013 classrooms will retire in 2073. Is there any doubt our schools are preparing students for a future we can’t predict?  As Dylan Wiliam says, today’s learners must be capable of success in situations for which they are not specifically prepared.

So thinking is hard, and thinking is important. Thus, it is imperative students learn to persevere and maintain effort in the face of thought fatigue.   But what can we do as educators to encourage students’ effort and persistence, and what are we doing that discourages their effort and persistence?

How do educators unintentionally discourage students’ effort and persistence?

1.    Through inequitable grading practices.  Traditional grading methods rank among the greatest drains on students’ effort and persistence. Reeves (2010) argues grades elicit an emotional response and wrongfully signal an end to learning. Worse, letter grades provide poor feedback on learning. If you disagree, ask an “A” student to list their academic strengths. Many will struggle to specifically articulate learning strengths, mostly because the primary feedback they receive is in the form of an A, B, C, D or F (which really tells them nothing).  Even when teachers litter student work with all kinds of feedback, most students won’t read much past the letter grade atop the page.  When that letter grade is consistently average or below, students develop a mindset that they’re “just not that smart,” thus reducing effort and persistence.

2.   By focusing on weakness. Schools are conditioned to focus on student weaknesses rather than student strengths. We track the same students in intervention classes designed to address areas of academic weakness.  Why do we do this? Yvette Jackson (2010) writes of the Pedagogy of Confidence, and states that student motivation to learn is directly affected by teachers' confidence in their students' potential. If teachers don’t act in ways that express belief in all students’ capacity to learn, students will opt-out when learning becomes hard. 

3.   By lacking efficacy. Low self-efficacy among teachers leads to reduced effort and persistence among students. In Finding Your Leadership Focus: What Matters Most for Student Results, Reeves defines educator efficacy as “the personal conviction of teachers and administrators that their actions are the primary influences on the academic success of students” (Reeves, 2011).  When teachers fail to see in themselves the ability to motivate students when learning becomes hard, traditionally underserved, unsuccessful students will persist less.

4.   By ignoring performance character. Schools don’t traditionally teach students important character traits like perseverance, grit, self-control, optimism, and curiosity. Tough (2012) argues that to help chronically low performing but intelligent students, educators must first recognize that character is as important as intellect. If we don’t help students develop habits aligned with academic and intellectual success, they will fail to persist when learning becomes difficult.

What can teachers do to encourage students’ effort and persistence?

1.    Grade more effectively. Teachers can encourage student effort and persistence by providing feedback that is timely, targeted, and requires more thinking and more work on behalf of the student. Whereas grades denote an end to learning, comment only grading allows students to see failure and mistakes as integral components of the learning process. In addition to providing actionable feedback, teachers increase the effort and persistence of their learners when they allow students to self-assess/self-grade their learning. When given the chance to grade their own learning, many students become quite critical of their understanding, and reflect upon what they might do differently to show growth. 

2.   Connect to students. Schools strong in Student connectedness graduate students strong in effort and persistence. Delpit (2012) writes that students learn as much for their teachers as they do from their teachers.  The stronger the connection a student has to their teacher, their classmates and the curriculum, the more likely they are to persist when learning is hard. School systems can establish stronger connections to students and their families by becoming more culturally and linguistically responsive. All teachers’ classrooms, content and actions need to reflect and validate the home experiences of the students they serve.

3.   Care differently. I’ve never met a teacher that didn’t care deeply for each of their learners. We care so much, in fact, that we avoid addressing students’ failure and/or unintentionally lower expectations and rigor. Teachers will show students they care differently when they accept their struggles and failures as necessary components of the learning process. Students’ effort sustains when they aren’t penalized for the extra time they needed to learn content or show understanding.

4.   Learn from each other. Teachers can no longer view learning as just for the students. Schools become vibrant learning cultures where teachers view each other as leaning resources. When teachers start utilizing each other’s genius, students will benefit and entire schools systems will give more effort.

If students don’t learn to persist, gaps in student achievement will.  School leaders across the country must begin to ask their teachers what they’re doing to encourage or discourage effort and persistence so that students can begin to develop habits and mindsets that yield increased success. All schools can narrow gaps in student achievement and prepare students for an unpredictable world if teachers begin to care differently by acting in ways that ensure students learn to persist.