Sunday, February 28, 2016

Motivation required... or provided?

"As you can see, I have a lot of goals."
"As you can see, I have a lot of goals."

That's how she introduced the final slide in her exhibition presentation.

She's an intern at a law office, where she does clerical work and regularly communicates one-on-one with the attorney's there.

Now she laid out her goals for the rest of her junior year: take the SAT, finish two math courses on Khan Academy, her internship project, and plan our trip to New York City.

It's exciting to see our students sharing the real-world learning they're doing at their internships, their growing independence as learners, and their plans for the future. We're in the thick of second trimester exhibitions, and I get to see every one--music production projects, work at a veterinary clinic and hospital, and more.

But they're not all like that. For every student like these, we have one that struggles to hold an internship or to complete their academic work. Though we provide all of the autonomy, mastery, and purpose they could dream of, they still struggle with motivation.

This is why we've implemented new tiered supports to try to boost the "Expectancy" factor in Steel's motivation equation:

And yet we're finding it's sometimes not enough. There are some who still struggle with the motivation they need to succeed at the Depot.

The Big Picture model requires students to work at internships, complete independent projects, and learn most of their math and science on their own, all while giving them only 60% as much direct instructional time as traditional students. This requires lots of intrinsic motivation. If we do all we can and they're still stagnant, then we need to make some tough decisions.

A Director of Special Services once told me, "One of the hardest lessons for an administrator to learn is that we can't help everyone," and that's become clear to me lately. Many who struggle at traditional school thrive in our model, but there are others who are not making progress, though we've ramped up support as much as we can. Hopefully, someday we'll be able to serve those students, because I think the autonomy, opportunity for mastery, and purpose we provide has the potential to bring out the best in every student. For now, the best support I can offer is to help them find a place that can give them what they need, like a doctor referring her patient to a specialist.

There was a lot of encouraging stuff going on this week. Not only did I get to sit in on some really awesome exhibitions, there were also 14 students who signed up for our Fitness Challenge, setting fitness and health goals they'll try to meet over the next three months! But in the midst of that, there were some tough decisions, some tough conversations, and plenty of wrestling with this issue of our purpose and limitations as a school.

In morning announcements on Friday, I started with a slide that said, "Welcome to the Depot! Motivation required." That little statement has been bothering me since then--do we help students find motivation, or do we require it?

My conclusion is, both. We scaffold the process until they develop sufficient intrinsic motivation to take full advantage of our model. That's the ideal we're working towards, but until then, there will be some we can't help.

It's a tough way to end a post, but it's not the end of the story, either for them or us. They'll hopefully move on to something that works better for them, and we'll move on toward the goal of helping more students "have lots of goals."

Sunday, February 21, 2016

How a new school changed my views on motivation

Depot students work on their balsa airplane experiment.
I've always been a big fan of alternative education, innovative ways to teach and new kinds of schools. I've always thought that the way we run school is the biggest problem we have in education: traditional school crushes students natural desire to learn. But I think I'm going through a paradigm shift, again, and my views on education and motivation are changing.

Since reading Daniel Pink's classic, Drive, I've been convinced that if we just give kids more autonomy, mastery and purpose (A.M.P.), they'll automatically flourish. I tested out some of these principles in my mastery-based biology class (with lots of encouraging results), and here at the Depot I've seen more evidence of the power of A.M.P.. We have students who were struggling in the traditional school, but are now thriving in our model. They have successful internships at vet clinics, law offices, schools, computer repair shops, photography studios, restaurants, and hospitals. They're writing novels, building bridges, planning field trips, growing mushrooms, studying languages and math online, building arcade stations, cooking delicious weekly breakfasts and soups for the school, and more.

But my engagement numbers in biology were not quite as high as I had hoped, and at the Depot, though there are many students thriving, there are just as many struggling. Nearly half our students struggle with attendance or academics. Nearly half have major social/emotional issues that leave them unable to take advantage of the autonomy our model provides.

It seems there's more to motivation than autonomy, mastery, and purpose. There's more to helping students succeed than increasing autonomy and real world learning.

I found this cool article by Piers Steel, in which he gives evidence for an alternative model of motivation (called TMT), which looks like this:

"Utility" is motivation. In this equation, "E" is expectancy, which includes whether you think you can do the task. "V" is how much you value the task. The funny looking "T" thing is the uppercase Greek letter, gamma, and it represents impulsivity and distractibility. Finally, "D" is the delay--how long you have to complete the task. Applying this formula, the way to motivate kids is to increase their confidence and competence, make it meaningful, decrease their impulsivity, and make the deadlines shorter.

I'm not sure how A.M.P. fits into this model (maybe it all gets lumped into "V"),  but in any case, I've had this gnawing feeling all year that my mental model--my paradigm--was missing something. Now I see that it's missing "E" and gamma. Many of my students either lack the skills they need, believe they lack them, or have other factors in their lives that make them unable to do the tasks. They have burdens, obstacles, and deficiencies that lower E or increase gamma.

This is why my paradigm is shifting: even in an innovative school where they have all the autonomy and real world connections they could dream of, many still struggle to find the motivation they need to succeed.

And this means we need to continue to ramp up supports. We've got the V thing taken care of with A.M.P., now let's work on E. We've set up a school that allows for highly valuable learning tasks, now let's get the kids to the place where they can take advantage of that.

The problem with modern schooling is not just a lack of autonomy and meaningful work, it's also a problem of a lack of supports for students who need it.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

How I lowered my cholesterol, in four easy steps

Here's how science can kick cholesterol's butt.

I'd had my cholesterol checked a few times before last year, and it was a bit high, but I wasn't really concerned. True, I'd started the high fat "paleo/primal" diet in 2012, and I'd been wondering if all that meat and fat might affect my heart, but I also knew the research was mixed (see here and here, for example). So, I ignored it and kept eating as much bacon as I could.

Then, in July 2015, my total cholesterol was up to 218, and my doctor mentioned the unmentionable: "We should probably take a look at statins," he said, "or if you want, you could try changing your diet first."

I didn't want to change my diet, which had lost me 30 pounds and had me feeling very good, but I also didn't want to take statins, with their potential muscle and liver damage.

I decided to do my own experiments.

I found It's a site where you can order blood tests, get your blood drawn at Quest Diagnostics, and get the results the next day online.

My plan: Get baseline data, and then every month change one variable (diet, lifestyle, etc.), and see if it changed my cholesterol.

I began last October. My baseline LDL (the bad cholesterol) was 163 mg/dL--in the "high risk" category. Since then, I've done four separate, controlled experiments on my body--one per month.

The experiments

November: Reduced saturated fats. I quit coconut milk (used in my smoothies and curries), bacon, and bacon grease (used for cooking).

December:  Supplements. I decided to start taking my old supplement regime, which included some supplements that I thought might help lower my cholesterol (Phosphatidyl choline and EPA/DHA complex). I added back the coconut milk and bacon so I could be sure I knew exactly which change had the effect.

January: Wine. I quit the supplements, kept the fats, and increased my wine intake to every day instead of just the weekends. I know, it was tough, but my health was worth it. :-) But seriously, red wine has been shown to have a beneficial effect on LDL and HDL (see here and here).

February: Exercise. Cut back to weekends-only with the wine, keep the fats, and add more exercise. For this, I started doing CrossFit at CrossFit Storrs three times a week for a month (in addition to my normal, much milder workout regime).

The results

The graphs speak for themselves.

(Data is beautiful, and science is so awesome!)

Reducing saturated fat  lowered my LDL.

Supplements had no beneficial effect.

And wine... wow! This is your HDL on wine:

After a month of a couple of glasses of home made Cabernet per night (with beer on my Saturday cheat days), my HDL went from 51 mg/dL to a whopping 60, and LDL went down as well!

And then there was CrossFit... Boom! After a month of CrossFit, my LDL was a full 24 mg lower than baseline--almost out of the red zone, and HDL was up again.

But to see the real power of these last two experiments, let's take a look at the total to HDL ratio. Because HDL counteracts LDL, this ratio may be the best way to assess risk, and the CrossFit drove the ratio down to 3.4, a full unit below the highest it had been.

This month, I didn't want to stop CrossFit, but I'm doubling down on the saturated fat reduction--cutting out coconut and bacon again and reducing red meat and eggs.

Finally, next month I'll put it all together: reduced fats, increased wine, and CrossFit. I'm hoping to push that LDL into the orange zone, that ratio right through the floor of that graph, and those statins right out of the realm of possibilities!

It's been so much fun doing science again, especially on my own body! It's a great example of the power of the scientific method for solving real problems.

Avoiding statins is huge, but discovering CrossFit has been a major added bonus! The people are awesome, the workouts kick my butt, I feel great, I'm learning all sorts of new skills, and I'm getting stronger.

Meanwhile, keep calm and science on!

PS: Obviously this is not a replicated study, so all these effects could be random. It would be great to replicate this, but that would take a long time. What the heck. Maybe I'll do it. But I'm also hoping that by adding all the beneficial factors together at the end, I can increase confidence in the effects.

Friday, February 5, 2016

This week started rough, but then I remembered...

Depot students making fund raising muffins.
I knew I was in trouble when I felt tired before the students even came in.

I really knew I was in trouble when they started coming in, and there weren't many smiles. Negative vibes seemed to be rippling out of them (or were they coming from me?).

There weren't any more crises than usual, just a vague feeling of weight.

Maybe it was just a sort of regression to the mean: Friday was so cool, the new week had to be a bit of a let down. Or maybe it was the effect of a weekend of stewing on all of the troubles of my students. Or maybe I had fixated on my own recent failures to reach them. Whatever it was, it weighed on me... until I remembered.

I knew that constant crucial conversations are needed, but I also knew they drain energy. They're heavy. And that's all I felt coming into this week--the weight.

By the time Tuesday rolled around, things were brightening a bit--I had some great convos with students as they cleaned and baked (part of their Depot Tier 2 Internship work), and a powerful conversation with another student about strategies for dealing with stress and relationships.

But then on Wednesday that same student crashed again.

And then my Quantitative Reasoning group went into meltdown mode--angry, hurting students rebelling against math.

That was the low point, and turning point, of my week. As I reflected on the meltdown later, I realized it would have been a great opportunity to talk about anger and social skills. I made a note for a future lesson adjustment strategy. We emphasize basic life competencies here at the Depot, and my plan is to change gears as needed during lessons to address them explicitly: "Soooo, what's happening with your mood right now, and how is that affecting the rest of us?" It's about explicitly teaching things like social/emotional skills, goal setting, organization, and self-control. (I'm so fortunate to have a teacher on staff, Shannon, who is a master at this sort of thing, so I can learn from her.)

This principle was driven home again on Thursday. As I talked with one student in the morning about the career skills rubric and setting goals for productivity, we set a goal for him of two job shadow letters by noon. He frowned and hung his head, not believing he could do it. He ended up sending out five job shadow letters.

A tough conversation later that morning with another student led to questions about depression, and later, there were conversations with students about sharing food they'd received while volunteering--all great opportunities to mentor kids and help them develop the key skills they need.

As Thursday wrapped up, I had remembered something. While talking with a staff member about issues she was having with student motivation, I remembered that this is a process. We can't expect instant success, either from ourselves or our students.

This work is heavy, and sometimes pretty rough, but it also has tremendous meaning, and it's more than worth it. Every little success is a reminder of that.

I'm not sure how I lost sight of those successes coming into this week, how I lost sight of that progress, the slowness of the growth process, or how I lost my patience, but it doesn't matter. What matters is these young people and their success, not mine.