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I’m on the final day of a 5 day detox.  It’s not any crazy fad diet, it’s just 5 days of eating whole, unprocessed food like fruits, vegetables, proteins, grains and eliminating some of the things that can be inflammatory to our systems like dairy, gluten, and sugar.  If you are interested, check out MindfulHealthwithLori.  I appreciate Lori Kearney’s positive outlook on practicing mindful and healthy habits with Mindful Health. There are many places you can get resources related to this, but this is where my journey is leading me right now and if it fits your journey, I’m happy to lead you in that direction.

So, what does this have to do with learning and exploring ideas?  This week has forced me to realize how much better I feel when I let go of things that are not really helping me and bring in lots of really good, rich food and experiences.  I think in education we are holding on to a lot of old habits and practices right now that are really not healthy.  It’s time we get rid of the junk and focus on bringing in better habits for ourselves and our students.    If we are going to move forward with innovation and a more positive focus on student driven learning we can’t keep hanging on to these potentially toxic practices.  We need a detox.  Here are my top 3 toxic habits that I would like to see eliminated.

Toxic Habit #1:  Giving a study guide at the end of the unit or the day before a test. 

There’s no reason for this.  If you can’t identify what it is you want students to know, understand and do and the beginning of the unit, you have no business wasting their time for an entire unit.  And, if you are using the same study guide you’ve used for years is there any reason not to give it to them at the beginning? Students don’t plan to fail, they fail to plan. Teachers can help by sharing the plan with them from the beginning.  Better yet, involve them in the planning process. Mindmap the unit or develop a graphic organizer to share the big ideas or schema and then have students identify some of the ways that they can learn and understand the information.  Consider what are the best ways for students to show this learning and involve them in that process.

Toxic Habit #2:  Multiple choice tests

Let’s think carefully about this form of assessment.  It can provide quick and easy feedback but should not be used as the sole measure of student learning.  The benefit is that it is easy to give and score.  However, most teachers pay little attention to the construction of the assessment itself and in general, teacher made tests are neither valid or reliable.  They don’t measure what the students learned in any consistent manner.  I’m going to go out on a limb and say I don’t really think any traditional test is really focused on learning.  My own learning has been much more impactful when I did an authentic project or had to construct a writing or project to demonstrate my learning. We often don’t realize what we have learned or not learned until we try to do something with it. It wasn’t until I tried to build a deck that I realized my A in geometry was useless.  I hadn’t learned about angles, I just learned how to solve a particular kind of problem.  The first time I asked for directions in Mexico I realized I had learned the correct question, “Donde esta el bano?” (Where is the bathroom?) but I didn’t have any vocabulary for understanding the slew of words that came next.

Toxic Habit #3:  Retakes without Reteaching

When a student fails a test it is a signal that something went wrong with our teaching.  Maybe the student didn’t study.  That’s a valid argument. But we need to consider what about our teaching failed to engage that student.  If we teach something and students don’t learn can we call ourselves teachers?  We have to stop framing our teaching in terms of what we are teaching and focus on what students are learning.  We are teaching a lot of stuff to meet standards and pass tests but I guarantee you the majority of our students are not learning.  Good students are memorizing and regurgitating.  Poor students are checking out and falling into a rabbit hole of failing over and over again. We can’t continue to simply move through curriculum with little regard for whether or not students even learned it.

Just like in my detox, you have to replace toxic habits with healthy ones.  You need to shift your mindset to focus on what you are gaining, not what you are giving up.  Here are three habits I wish every teacher would practice:

Healthy Habit #1: Identify the Who

Who are your students?  What motivates them? What drives them? What previous knowledge do they bring to the unit? What are their strengths?  Where could they use direction and growth?  Teachers should not begin planning a single lesson without first knowing who it is that will be doing the learning.

Healthy Habit #2: Identify the Why

Why are you teaching this?  Yes, I know it’s a state standard but go beyond that.  Why is it an important skill?  How is this knowledge or skill part of the discipline?  How does this content connect to other areas of knowledge?  Why is it a life skill or important piece of information for students to know?  Is it a building block for future learning?

Healthy Habit #3:  Identify the How

How will your students learn the material?  Notice I didn’t say how will you teach it.  That is irrelevant.  You can come up with a dozen ways to teach anything.  You can do a powerpoint, put kids in groups to discuss, have them do sample problems, show a film.  The question is how will they learn it?  Do they need some basic skills to get started?  Is there a big question that will get them engaged and focus them?

Once these habits are in place I think there are two essential things every teacher can do every day and in every lesson.

Make kids thirsty and teach habits.

Make the learning so engaging that the students can’t help but want to try it and then explicitly teach them habits that will make them successful.  I don’t mean that teachers have to jump up and down and put on a show for every student.  Sometimes making a kid thirsty just means letting them know you believe in them and you know they can do it.  Sometimes it’s just expecting them to be a scholar.

A habit is an activity that can be done effortlessly, continuously and without thinking.  For some reason, bad habits seem to come easily but good habits require a little more dedication and self-discipline to get going.  Don’t assume students have the self-discipline or the skill to put good habits into action.  Design your lessons to help them learn and practice good habits. Encourage them to develop scholarly habits. Don’t assume students know how to learn or how to study.  Show them how historians and scientists and writers go about their crafts.  Build habits that will spread beyond your subject area or your classroom and will help them bring continuous improvement and excellence into their life.  Focus on feedback not as a grading mechanism but as a tool to foster their growth.

I know it’s challenging to enact any kind of change in education.  Just like it’s easier to stop at McDonalds for lunch, it’s easier to give a multiple-choice test or to blame a whole host of people and things for our students’ struggles. But when we do what is right it ultimately feels better.   Small changes, continuous improvement and urgent optimism can move us in another direction and help us replace toxins with healthier habits.

What do you see as toxic for your child or students?

What healthier habits would you like to try?

I’m learning from my own journey with myself, my family and the teachers and students with whom I work.  I would love to hear any feedback about what you see as toxic in education and what healthy habits would help our students be more successful.  Let’s keep this conversation going!

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