By Dr. Harry Tennant


by Harry Tennant
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Entries from July 2011
Posts 1 - 12 of 12

Friday, July 29, 2011

Can you nurture students' enthusiasm?

We would like to nurture the enthusiasm of students, children, coworkers and ourselves. An enthusiastic life is simply a better life. But enthusiasm is synonymous with intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation comes from within. How can we build enthusiasm, intrinsic motivation, in others? We can't.

Instead of "building" enthusiasm in others, we can nurture enthusiasm in others. Here are some ways.

  • Model enthusiasm. Smile. Remember that enthusiasm is contagious. Infect others.
  • Recognize enthusiasm. I'm not talking here about praising enthusiasm so that a student behaves enthusiastically (false enthusiasm) for the reward of praise (i.e., extrinsic motivation). Rather, I'm suggesting recognizing enthusiasm in a student so that she can also recognize it and associate the enthusiasm with the enjoyment she's feeling in the moment.
  • Take interest in the enthusiasm. Talk about it with the student.
  • Communicate the benefits of nurturing one's own enthusiasm, the benefits of hope and patience.
  • Encourage enthusiasm by suggesting or allowing ways to combine the enthusiasm with responsibilities. In a writing class, for example, can the enthusiasm be the subject of a project or paper?
  • Provide opportunities to follow the enthusiasm. One of my fond memories of high school chemistry class was that Mr. Battenhouse allowed me to come into the lab after school and do some of my own experiments. The experiments didn't do much to expand mankind's knowledge, but I sure enjoyed melting stuff, burning stuff and causing reactions.
  • Teach enthusiasm appreciation through such things as Emerson's quote, "Nothing great is ever accomplished in life without enthusiasm."
  • Help your students understand their feelings: although feelings arise involuntarily, they are just thoughts and can be changed by changing their minds. Help them to choose their positive thoughts and enthusiasms.
  • Avoid those things that destroy enthusiasm such as boredom, loss of control, frustration and fear. But since these will never be entirely eliminated from their lives, help students overcome the enthusiasm killers.

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Keywords: enthusiasm


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

In praise of nerds

Full disclosure: I am a nerd.

Nerds (geeks, hackers, propeller heads, etc.) get a bad rap. And by "nerds" I mean people who are intensely interested in, knowledgeable about and eager to learn about technology. The stereotype is that they are also socially inept.

I have no defense for nor do I advocate the social ineptitude of myself and my fellow nerds.

Here's what is admirable about nerds: they have an intense interest. Nerds will learn about and talk about and think about their intense interest all the time. Ok, the "all the time" part contributes to the social ineptitude aspect, and that's not so good.

I praise nerds for their interest and enthusiasm about something of value. One of the greatest gifts a teacher, parent or mentor can give a child is an intense interest in something of value. An enthusiasm. Along with some social grace.

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Keywords: enthusiasm


Monday, July 25, 2011

Keeping aware of goals and progress

Do you want to improve a habit? Here's a powerful first step: keep track of how you're doing it now. Let's say you want to make your explanations to your class more clear. How would you know? Ask your students a question like

I found the explanation of mitosis in class clear and understandable.
Strongly Disagree o o o o o Strongly Agree

Start with baseline scores. Now, as you attempt to improve the clarity of your explanations, your scores should go up.

The approach actually accomplishes two things.

  1. You are made aware of the progress you're making toward your goals (or not making.)
  2. The fact that you have a routine of repeatedly testing your performance will keep you more aware of your goal. And keeping aware of your goal is a requirement for attaining it.

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Friday, July 22, 2011

How will student achievement be improved?

Think of learning in school as an onion.

1. At the very center of the onion of learning is the question, what is the student doing? Learning can't be imposed on someone. It's something that we do for ourselves. So if learning is to happen in schools, it will or won't happen depending upon what the student is doing. Most importantly, the student must be paying attention to the situation or information in order to learn it. Unfortunately, the learning-by-osmosis theory doesn't work. If student achievement is to improve, it must improve here.

2. A layer out from the center is the learning activity that the teacher has designed. Much of the art of teaching happens right here at the learning activity. The learning activity creates the challenge and environment for students that will engage them in the process of learning so that they will do the real work, the learning, on their own. The teaching art at this layer is not only to engage students, but to engage them in the knowledge and skills that they are there to teach. While teachers and schools cannot control student engagement and hence, learning, they can nurture it. In this way, teaching is more like gardening than manufacturing. It is at this layer, learning activities, that schools and teachers have the greatest effect on improving student achievement.

3. The third layer from the center is where teachers determine how they will expose students to the knowledge and skills students are there to learn. Will they simply tell the students what they need to know? Telling is simplest in terms of preparation, but one of the least effective for learning because the student's role is to sit quietly and listen (or not). That student activity is unlikely to result in effective learning. Also in this layer, teachers decide how to parcel, structure, scaffold and model the new knowledge and skills as well as check for student understanding. Considering improving student achievement, this layer mainly represents an opportunity to mess up. If the students are overloaded with information, can't connect it to what they already know or are confused by disorganization, learning will be impaired.

4. The next layer out is, what to teach? These days, this is largely determined by state learning standards. It must also consider alignment with what students have learned in previous years and what will be expected in future classes and after graduation. This layer is extremely important and controversial. On one hand, there are those who insist that facts specified in learning standards are the goal of student achievement. On the other, many say that in the era of the Internet, facts are readily available but skills for problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity are where improvements in student achievement need to focused. And others say that while problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity are indeed valued skills, we can do little to teach students to be better problem-solvers, critical thinkers or be more creative. While this layer is very important with regard to improving student achievement, there is disagreement about the path toward improvement.

5. The next layer out is the general school environment. Is the school well equipped and well maintained? Are the teachers and staff friendly, welcoming, optimistic and non-threatening? Is it safe? Do students feel secure and valued? Improvements at this layer can do a lot to foster student achievement. Improvements at this level are strongly influenced by the school and district leadership. If a school is a mess, unfriendly, uninspiring or unsafe, only the school or district leadership can turn it around. Neglect at this layer can drag student achievement down.

6. The outer layer of our onion addresses the question, how is learning valued by parents and society? We can improve student achievement by enlisting the support of parents for learning. And we can improve student achievement where the culture generally celebrates learning, contribution and service rather than fame, consumption, leisure, pleasure and wealth. While one school is unlikely to change our culture, it does have the power to selectively shine a light on models that we hope students aspire to emulate.

Continuous improvement toward higher levels of student achievement can and should occur at many layers surrounding the students. And while they are all important, let's keep in mind that it is most important to occur at the very center where the student is doing the learning.

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Keywords: continuous improvement


Friday, July 22, 2011

If there is a crisis in education, who's going to fix it?

Let me say first off that I don't believe in the "crisis in education" talk. Is there need for improvement? Sure. There always is. And improvement is always important. But a crisis? I don't think so.

But let's assume for the sake of argument that there is a crisis in education...in other words, there is an urgent need for improvement. I can subscribe to the notion that there is a need for improvement in education. In fact, I believe there is a need for improvement in every endeavor. Is the need for improvement urgent? Let's put it this way: there is always an need for improvement and if some urgency is attached to the effort to improve, it may happen more quickly. Where we go astray is when urgency becomes panic, and change efforts become irrational.

So, let's accept that education (like everything else) needs to be improved and we think it's important enough to assign it high priority (we give the task some urgency).

Who is best prepared to improve education?

  • Economists and business people? This approach is based on the assumption that the market knows best in all things because everyone is motivated primarily by money (market forces). And money is why teachers have worked hard for low pay for decades? I doubt it. The economic argument misses the primary motivation of teachers: to affect the development of children.
  • Politicians? Education involves a considerable amount of money and parents' most precious resource, their children. So, of course, politics will play a role in public education. But politicians are far removed from what goes on in the classroom. Although the control they budgets, they don't control the ideas or wisdom that will become the solutions.
  • Researchers? Research in education is not in very good shape. The notion of research suggests that research findings have scientific validity. But much of the research done in education is done by researchers without a scientific background. Often "research" findings in education is little more than opinions and anecdotes. Other education research has sound scientific basis. The problem is that it is hard for a non-specialist to tell the difference between the two. There is a lot of talk about "evidence-based" methods, which means scientifically valid findings. Unfortunately, just because a paper appears in a peer-reviewed education journal does not guarentee dependable, evidence-based findings.
  • Schools and teachers? For good or bad, this is where the change has to come from. Teachers are on front lines of education. They can observe what works and what doesn't. But they may need help with the skills for applying the results of their observations to making lasting improvements. How to do that?
    • They must make improvement a priority as important as teaching itself.
    • They must be clear and explicit about desired outcomes. (This is the good thing that learning standards has done.)
    • They must reflect on their experience and track their own and students' performance in a systematic way, rather than simply depending on impressions.
    • The improvements and problems in student achievement must be tied back to the circumstances that brought them about.
    • They must feel the freedom to experiment, which includes the likelihood of failure. And with that freedom, they must accept the responsibility to learn from the experiments.
    • They must be willing to collaborate with their peers to accelerate the schoolwide learning process and minimize repeating experimental errors.

The way to improve education as quickly as possible is to give the responsibility for improvement to schools and teachers, make improvement a priority as high as teaching itself and give them the tools to do the job.

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Keywords: continuous improvement


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How to keep continuous improvement continuous

Everyone knows how New Years Resolutions go...frequently they fizzle out by January 15. It's tough to change yourself. And it's at least as tough to change an organization like your school.

If your goal is continuous improvement, of first importance is keeping it going, which is to say, keeping it continuous. There are two main risk times: getting over the initial hump, and keeping it going in the long term.

Personal Goals: The initial hump
When making personal change, you can help yourself get past that January 15 slack-off by

  • Keeping track of your process daily (am I exercising daily?, am I eating healthful meals?, am I drinking water?)
  • Keeping track of your outcomes (am I losing weight?, have I increased the number of pushups I can do?)
  • Reminding yourself of your goals every day (I like something automated like a file of goals that pops up daily on my computer as a scheduled task)
  • Reminding yourself of the motivation for your goals daily...why it's important to achieve those goals

Personal Goals: The long haul
You've made it when your process (exercising daily, drinking water, skipping dessert) has become a habit. For personal habits, that usually takes daily repetition for three or four weeks. Once you've made a good habit, just keep it up and benefits will accrue effortlessly.

Organizational Goals: The initial hump
Making changes to your school is similar to personal changes, but with a few key twists. First, as with personal goals, organizational change has an initial hump to overcome. Here are some tips.

  • Involve the people who will be changing in planning the change. Orders to change from on high typically meet with resistance and little success. But when the people who are going to change are deciding how, they will be more eager to cooperate.
  • Start small. Small changes are less threatening than big changes so they meet with less resistance.
  • Set some short-term targets and accomplish them. Then publicize them. When progress is being made, even the cynics are more eager to get on board.
  • Keep track of process and outcomes.
  • Keep attention on the process of change through the critical short term. If the attention of leadership flags after a week or two, don't expect the enthusiasm of others to continue. Ask about it, remind everyone of the importance of the goals and the progress that's being made.

Organizational Goals: The long term
People build habits. Organizations build processes. Processes are institutionalized by being explicit about what the process is (typically a checklist of items will suffice), by keeping track of when the process is executed and by scheduling when it will be reviewed.

Make sure everyone involved understands the new process. That doesn't mean just telling everyone, but demonstrating it, practicing it and following up when the process breaks down.

Institutionalizing a new process for change for the long term not only nurtures improvements, but it helps assure that the processes for continuous change continue without you. Continuous improvement is continuous. Even after you're gone.


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Keywords: continuous improvement


Monday, July 18, 2011

Student surveys

In order to determine the effectiveness of teachers and schools, we must learn from their students.

The most obvious metrics of student learning come from testing students on content. While critically important, those aren't the only metrics.

Another way to learn about effectiveness is to do periodic student surveys. Student surveys will not tell you how much the students have learned (tests tell you that and students aren't very good judges of their learning). However, students are the world's best experts on some other important information: their perceptions and their feelings.

Here are some student feelings that can lead to changes to make teachers and schools more effective.

  • Enthusiasm - are you growing it or killing it? Only the students can tell you. What we're really talking about is the student's intrinsic motivation. Ideally, we would do everything possible to nurture intrinsic motivation. We use the terms "enthusiastic" or "enjoy" because we can ask even students in early grades if they enjoy learning to read, but not if they are intrinsically motivated to learn to read.
  • Fear - are students afraid of teachers, classmates or the trip to and from school? Fear can be debilitating.
  • Stress and anxiety - other names for fear, but typically referring to a chronic situation. Stress can be a motivator...until it gets too high, when it degrades performance.
  • Frustration - perhaps the teaching is proceeding too fast or is not as well organized as it should be or assumes prerequisite learning which hasn't occurred.
  • Difficulty - there is nothing wrong with teaching challenging material. But challenging material without the appropriate methods for meeting the challenge (small steps, review, deliberate practice, analogies, extending existing concepts, collaboration, etc.) is more difficult than it needs to be.
  • Confidence - how does the student feel when approaching a challenging topic? (And shouldn't they all be challenging?) Does the student approach it with confidence that she will be able to master it with appropriate effort?

Notice that we aren't talking about replacing education with entertainment. It isn't worth having students be enthusiastic about their schooling at the cost of compromising learning objectives. But if we want students to be enthusiastic about their learning, we must measure their enthusiasm and discover what increases it and what decreases it.

If you want to improve the student's emotional reaction to learning, you must first measure what it is.

The only way to measure student emotions like these is to ask the students.


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Keywords: continuous improvement


Friday, July 15, 2011

School goal for continuous improvement

Looking for a goal statement or mission statement for your school that emphasizes continuous improvement? Here's a candidate:

Increase the positives and decrease the negative so that each student learns the target curriculum to the best of his or her ability and all are enthusiastic about learning.

Here's why I like this goal statement.

  • Increase the positives and decrease the negatives - this phrase emphasizes that we're about improvement. We do some things right and some things wrong and we can always get better.
  • Each student learns - that's why we're here.
  • The target curriculum - clearly, performing well on standardized tests and state learning objectives is important. It's insufficient if every child learns but doesn't learn what we're there to teach.
  • To the best of his or her ability - the weakness of this phrase is that it's hard to know exactly what a student's ability is. On the other hand, we know that students do have a range of abilities which will affect their learning.
  • And all are enthusiastic about learning - going through school is a start, not an end. Kids enter kindergarten eager to learn just about everything, but often leave high school with much different attitudes. The content is important and the attitude toward learning is at least as important.

How does this guide continuous improvement?

  • Identify the positives and negatives for learning content and enthusiasm. Measure improvement along these dimensions. Positives and negatives include teaching approaches but also include the schoolwide discipline climate, issues at home and even the condition of the physical school building.
  • Testing is obviously an important metric, but not the only one. How the student feels about the learning experience may also guide how teachers teach.

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Keywords: continuous improvement


Monday, July 11, 2011

Do less

How could you do less today yet have better results?


It's a serious question. With a little thought you may come up with a lot of answers. Whether you do or don't, ask yourself the same question tomorrow and the next day, and every day for at least a week. The repetition will tell your brain, hey, this is important...I need to get to work on this! And then the answers will start popping into your consciousness.

Here are some suggestions.

  • What is your absolute priority for the day? If you don't have one, just about anything might distract you. If you do, you'll get to it right away and get it done. It's amazing how much time a strong priority "creates."
  • Where is your scoreboard? Do you have a chart right in front of you that tells you how you're doing toward your most important goals? If you do, you're immediately reminded what needs to be done now. And about those goals: process goals are more helpful than outcome goals. Process goals are the daily things you do in order to achieve your longer term outcome goals. Process goals are simpler and more immediate so they are more motivating.
  • What excites you? Those tasks that are exciting may be exciting for a good reason. If you give more attention to your most exciting tasks, you may spend more time doing what you're really best at and have better results in the end.
  • What scares you? Fear is a major cause of procrastination and inaction. If there is something hanging over your head and causing anxiety, either do it right now or decide not to do it at all. Or if it is too big to do right now, do one tiny piece of it so some progress gets made.
  • Delegate. Can an aide, student or parent helper take care of it? Delegation can be a bit of a hurdle to get started but can save a lot of time later. Have you ever considered hiring an online personal assistant? You may be able to delegate some bothersome tasks for no more than a few dollars.
  • Say no. Focus on what matters most. Let the rest go.
  • Automate. You don't still grade multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank quizzes do you? That's what computers are for.
  • Prioritize. As Mr.  Pareto tells us, 80% of the benefit of just about anything come from 20% of the opportunities. Rather than addressing tasks as they come up, look for the ones that will have the greatest impact from the smallest effort. Either do those first, or do those only. Another way of looking at this, you may be able to dump 80% of your to-do list with little impact on your results!

So, if you take this suggestion and repeatedly ask yourself how to work less yet have better results, will you end up working less? The answer isn't yes or no. The answer is that the question is irrelevant. You will become more focused on high-value work which is more fun. You'll be more engaged. You'll spend less time thinking about whether you're working more or less and spend more time working on those high-value tasks that are indistinguishable from fun!

Ask yourself repeatedly: How could I do less today yet have better results?

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Keywords: continuous improvement


Friday, July 8, 2011

Continuous improvement and realism

Edclick provides web-based applications for continuous improvement in education


Continuous improvement? Empowerment? Reduced workload? Teacher professionalism? Let me tell you about a teacher I know who can't control her class, is as interesting as a stump, doesn't get around to grading papers...

Sure, teachers are people. Some are smarter, more motivated, more exciting, more insightful and more industrious than others.  But here's the secret: poor performing organizations (schools, factories, fast food restaurants...) perform poorly because of the way they are run, not because the people in them are defective.

The way to improve an organization is to improve the organization, not replace the people. If an organization improves because the people were replaced, it's because the new folks figured out how to improve the organization.

Improving the organization means "improving they way we do things around here." It means improving processes, improving planning, improving goals, improving communcations, improving skills, improving leadership. It can mean all sorts of things and the particulars will depend upon the specific problems that need to be solved in an organization.

To improve your organization, start with improving your own outcomes and your own efficiency. Accumulate small improvements. Work with others so that they can benefit from your improvements and you can benefit from theirs.

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Keywords: continuous improvement


Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Continuous improvement and workload

Edclick provides web-based applications for continuous improvement in education


Here's a suggestion for improving education: just make teachers work harder and work longer. And while we're at it, let's cut budgets, cut their pay and threaten them with dismissal if things don't improve. That approach, which I've heard from a number of politicians over the past year, is absent any actual ideas of how to improve education and demonstrates an appauling lack of respect for teachers. Let's agree that that is the wrong approach.

In this respect, teachers are no different from those in other professions and other sectors of the economy. Provide teachers with an environment where their professional expertise is respected, where the administration is clearly focused on excellence and backs that up with inspiring leadership and where teachers are given the opportunity to improve their skills and their outcomes. Those elements improve motivation and performance.

The history of industry over the past hundred years is a story of improved productivity and improved quality. The improvements didn't come from making workers work harder, but by making them more efficient and developing better tools and work processes. This was done while worker hours were reduced, not increased. The history of the improvement of service businesses has been a story of improved consistency and quality, not through working harder or longer but through better tools and processes. This can be done. This has been done. We know how to do it.

Improvements to education that require teachers to work longer hours are going in the wrong direction. We want educators to have better outcomes while reducing their workload. We will work toward better outcomes and greater efficiency through one small improvement upon another, accumulating over time.

Ask yourself: What small change could I make that would save me five minutes per day?

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Keywords: continuous improvement


Friday, July 1, 2011

Continous improvement requires empowerment

Edclick provides web-based applications for continuous improvement in education


In the last post I said that improving education is everyone's responsibility. And there are many small steps that can be taken toward better education that don't require permission from anyone. We can just do it.

Changes in policies and procedures...changes that require coordination with other people...are a bit more difficult. But they can be important and must be open for improvement.

Everyone involved in education must have the power and obligation to advocate and implement improvements. That doesn't mean "no rules" or "chaos reigns." It means that the administration, department heads, teacher teams and the rest must be receptive to the idea that improvements can and will come from everyone throughout the school. It means that, rather than being resisted, these improvement advocates must be encouraged, taken seriously, changes must be tried and improvements must be retained.

A culture of continuous improvement requires that change must be sought after and rewarded. It means that all must understand that the purpose of the school is not simply to educate the students but...

The purpose of the school is to educate its students and continually improve student achievement and staff effectiveness.

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