In Separating Product from Process we looked at the value, for students, teachers, and parents, of more explicitly communicating both the what and the how of learning. Regarding the latter, I explained how MAK will be communicating process through scores in three areas: Respect, Responsibility, and Engagement. The former two categories are more familiar to us in the form of traditional participation grades, but what is engagement? What kinds of things are MAK teachers looking for?
In the back of the MPR hang six large banners that communicate Morrison’s Vision For Our Learners (VFOLs). On these banners I’ve tried to communicate this vision in kid-friendly, actionable language. This same message is also communicated on posters (shown here) in every classroom in the school. Two of the six actionable phrases, Show Respect and Be Responsible, obviously link to the first two areas of the process score mentioned above. It’s the other four that communicate our idea of ‘engagement.’
At MAK ‘engagement’ is Asking Questions, Taking Risks, Seeking the Truth, and Collaborating.
Asking Questions (VFOL: Lifelong Learner)
Asking questions is foundational to being a Lifelong Learner. It’s hard to imagine the real pursuit of knowledge without questions like How does this work? or How could I improve this? or Where does that come from? But while we often say we value learning, we regularly stifle it by telling our kids to bother us some other time, by fearing that if we ask questions we might look silly or uninformed, or by worrying that if we ask a question we might embarrass whomever we’re asking if they don’t know the answer. But at MAK we want kids to ask questions, whether among peers, during a lecture, while working on a project, or after class. A great learner is first a very curious person, not someone who is incredible at memorization. True curiosity is what we want to foster and in turn assess.
Taking Risks (VFOL: Creative and Critical Thinker)
Risk-taking in learning is when we push ourselves to do something or to think about something in a way that we haven’t before. It is the core of being creative and truly critical. Often education can feel like we are jumping through hoops, but this is often because we’ve opted for the easy, non-creative or non-critical path. When learning takes on true meaning is when we decide to try something that others wouldn’t do or that we ourselves are hesitant to do. Consider the following scenario.
Parent: What are you working on?
Child: I’m preparing for my book club discussion on To Kill a Mockingbird. I need to figure out the theme.
Parent: I love that book! So, what do you think the theme is?
Child: Well, it looks like it is something about whether or not people are essentially good or evil.
Parent: What do you mean, ‘It looks like…?’ Wait, are you getting that straight from SparkNotes?!
After some studying in SparkNotes, this student might be able to answer an essay question about theme beautifully on a test or to discuss it convincingly in a book club. But the how of her learning is a bit off. For one, our teacher could probably think of a better question than “What is the theme of To Kill a Mockingbird?” (I once heard a presenter say at an EARCOS conference, “If you can Google the answer, it’s probably time to think of a better question!” There is a lot of truth there!) But the student is also not trying to think about the book in a new, fresh way. There are no risks being taken. She is memorizing the recipe and never actually baking the cake.
Willingness to take risks is easy to identify in its extremest forms like cliff diving or racing at high speeds, but it can be tricky to identify in the context of learning. Public speaking might be a big risk for some while for others it’s no big deal. As a result, accurate identification takes a caring and observant teacher who can identify which kids are truly going out on a limb, and at MAK we are blessed with teachers who truly care.
Seeking the Truth (VFOL: Spiritual Discerner)
Of the four categories listed here for ‘engagement,’ this is probably the trickiest to consider, or worse assess, as a teacher. In many ways this is because teachers don’t truly know what is going on inside a student’s heart! However, where I have seen this characteristic reveal itself in my students is when they begin to think bigger and deeper about course content.
In his book Naming the Elephant, James Sire attempts to define worldview as answers to eight major life questions. Our MAK version of these questions is listed on the poster pictured here, which hangs in each of our high school classrooms. Each of our school’s disciplines is essentially an attempt at exploring one or more of these questions. In math we explore the nature of the world around us. In history we explore the meaning of human history. In Bible we explore right and wrong and what happens to a person after death.
It’s when students begin making these connections – and asking about them – that they finally begin to see education as a pursuit of the Truth. Imagine our previous student passionately arguing in a discussion about how To Kill a Mockingbird reveals what it truly means to be human. That would be excellent evidence of her seeking the Truth.
Collaborating (VFOL: Effective Communicator)
According to Forbes, what matters most to modern employers even more than technical knowledge related to their field or industry is “good teamwork, decision-making and communication skills, and the ability to plan and prioritize work.” At MAK we have always valued Effective Communication, spending lots of time on reading, writing, and presenting in elementary and middle school, even requiring a double period of English in middle school. These are foundational. But also essential to being an effective communicator are the soft skills involved in collaboration with a team.
I just walked through the Shark Cafe this morning to see a group of seventh graders using their core knowledge from World Geography to put together a video weather report from Afghanistan. While much of their time was spent on the content, much of it was also spent on problem-solving, assigning tasks, and trying to get it all done on a schedule. These are massively important skills.
Our teachers understand these skills’ importance. On Wednesday I sat through a discussion on the middle school team about how to best assess this type of collaborative work, looking at a peer assessment rubric, touching on what good collaboration looks like, and considering when it’s best for students to share in the entirety of a project versus share in only the process, not the final product.
By separating these elements of questioning, risk-taking, Truth-seeking, and collaboration out from the singular grade into an engagement grade, I’m confident that we will see an elevation in awareness of their importance among our students.