Sunday, February 12, 2017
I think I've started this blog one hundred times -- examined one hundred different perspectives -- considered one hundred different approaches, and it basically comes down to this.
How can we effectively use competition in a classroom to encourage student learning without leaving some behind?
Let's face it, we live in a competitive society. We place value on sporting events, ACT scores, music competitions and those with high performance get recognition. Children are encouraged earlier and earlier to make commitments to areas of specialty. It's not unusual to hear comments similar to "You can't make the baseball team unless you've played travel ball," or "We've got a special voice coach to help her train for these auditions."
This doesn't mean that a voice coach or travel program isn't appropriate, but what about those who don't have the natural ability or means to make those choices. Is the door closed? What about the later bloomers who choose a path on a different timetable?
And how does this look in a classroom?
As an educator, I have a lot of "tricks in my bag." I am constantly experimenting, writing, tweaking, and working to figure out ways to allow all students to find success and grow as learners. I work hours daily to figure out what motivates teenage humans and ignites a desire to learn.
And competition plays a part in it.
Though it doesn't really look like a typical competition.
You see, it's rarely about getting the right answer. It's always about the learning that goes into the answer. In a language arts classroom it's about the ability to think, evaluate, create, articulate, and share. It's about teaching ourselves, teaching each other, and learning from different perspectives. It's about growing -- and we all start at different points.
So what does competition look like in this situation?
A lot of times it's about setting goals and reaching them. For example, I have several students who excel at grammar in a certain class. As a teacher I target different grammatical aspects that are important when it comes to student writing. I know that these students are weak in sentence structure, these students need help with transitions, others need assistance with capitalization. All of these concepts will help them grow in communication through the written word. Other students have mastered these concepts and are learning about more complex construction when writing. It starts with setting a goal with each student.
The goal setting can be easy -- it begins with a handwritten note card or a click on a Google form explaining areas of strength and weakness. It continues with a glance at performance. Who has shown mastery (in class activities and writing) with these topics? How can they help others and still be challenged? Finally, groups are set and a challenge is issued.
Those who are working are not alone. They are working as a group to improve in an area. There are "masters" in the class who are available to help direct beyond the teacher. As a community we are all working to help each other be successful.
The conversations you hear as an educator are rich when this type of learning happens. You hear kids explaining, drawing on resources, and encouraging each other. You hear answers to the WHY this is a better answer, debates, and strong connections. You see a community that is working together to grow.
As I listen, I hear things like, "What is this question really asking you to do?" "Why is this evidence important? How does it prove your point?" "Can you read my paper aloud to me so I can hear the transition from your voice?"
Of course I like to treat students along the way. We have "checks" where students (working on their set goal level) who are showing mastery get their name in a drawing. It becomes a fun conversation about potential. "Look at all of these names. Wow. Every one of them represents finding success. Pat yourself on the back." Then the name comes out, and I don't look at it. We relish the anticipation knowing that someone will win a bag of gummy bears or a full-sized chocolate bar.
Or there are the days when everyone is a winner -- and they all get something fun. I like to mix it up.
The key is in the scaffolding. Working on individual goals, setting up students for success, recognizing that everyone has a strength somewhere gives kids confidence. It helps them learn about learning together, finding success, and growing.
The reluctant learners get caught up in the enthusiasm. Often this is enough to help them want to find success. Occasionally it means that I have time to work individually with them to help meet goals (since we've identified and trained other "masters" of subjects to help while I'm working individually). Building those relationships can really affect student performance in a positive way.
So that's how I use competition in the classroom. I'd love to hear your thoughts, stories or successes in this area. I believe that sharing is an essential part of learning.