Sunday, November 23, 2014

Why it all starts with good standards

According to Daniel Pink, author of Drive, we humans are motivated by three things: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

As I mentioned last week, this is why I'm drawn to the mastery model of education. If we give kids a chance to really master skills and concepts, that in and of itself will motivate them to do it.

But that assumes something else--that the objectives are clear. If they aren't clear on what they are expected to master, then I can't be surprised when they lack motivation to master it. As Chip and Dan Heath wrote in Switch, what looks like resistance is often lack of clarity.

And how much more powerful will this whole process be if the goals are not only clear, but meaningful to the students? Clear, meaningful standards will not only tap into our innate drive for mastery, but they can also tap into our desire for a purpose bigger than ourselves.

So this whole education thing should start with purpose. From these, we derive the "standards," which become the goals for mastery. Instead of starting with the biology textbook and trying to connect it once in a while with meaningful, big picture standards, we start with the big stuff, and use the text, vocab, and worksheets only if they prove useful.

Biology, after all, is supposed to be about living things. This has purpose written all over it: Improving human health and nutrition, conserving natural resources, dealing with climate change, curing diseases, improving fitness, and cleaning up the environment, for example. I can think of a slough of meaningful skills and concepts that would enable students to address these issues: use a microscope to study cells, making a bacteria culture, design an exercise experiment, analyze the impact of fossil fuels on the global carbon cycle, compare the virtues of various diets. These become the standards and indicators, and then the activities and assessments fall into place.

Choose meaningless, boring standards and the whole thing falls apart, and you're back to lecture, worksheet,  memorization, and detentions. Choose hard-hitting, real-world standards, and provide real opportunity (and time) for mastery, and natural human motivation kicks in.

Ideally, anyway.

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