The dictionary describes determination as a “firmness of purpose,” “perseverance,” “intentness,” “a state of indefatigableness.”
As with most tone-related aspects of the classroom, an atmosphere of determination begins with the teacher. I believe every great—and bygreat I mean not just instructive, but inspiring—teacher is him or herself a determined learner. An excellent professor I had in college beat this drum in almost every class: “The true professional never stops growing. He or she is always learning, always growing.” As Karen Cushman puts it, “…expertise is a process, not a product…”1
Why? Because being a determined learner keeps learning an ever-recent experience. And when we are engaged in learning, we experience failure. We experience the need for feedback. We experience the need to adopt and maintain a learning mindset. We engage in targeted practice. We maintain a passion for learning and a fresh awareness of how it benefits the learner. These experiences translate in two ways. First, as a learner ourselves, we better understand the needs of our students. Second, as we work to meet the needs of students, we are more likely to engage in methods and practices that we know to be effective, such as increasing instructive feedback during learning. By consistently engaging in learning, we become more mindful of ways we can optimize student learning.
We can also help establish a classroom environment where determination can flourish. Here are a few ways I see this happening:
- The teacher targets practice according to individual needs. No one likes doing the same thing over and over just to complete a task. Certainly there are things in life that must be done according to a system just so they are accomplished (e.g., mowing the lawn). However, learning does not progress if activity is only directed toward what is already understood. In fact, if such activity deepens anything it’s a student’s resentment for “busy work.” Masterful teachers direct students to activity that will sufficiently challenge each individual while also keeping success in each one’s sight. Targeted practice helps students recognize a purpose in their activity, and that fosters motivation for completing it. When combined with instructive feedback, such activity taps into the brain’s perception of movement:
Professor of biology James E. Zull suggests that providing teacher feedback triggers the learner’s sense of progress. This sensation ignites activity in the brain’s basal structures, neural regions associated with pleasure and reward. Such “active learning,” claims Zull, makes learning “pleasurable and effective for developing concepts and applications.”2
Blanket activity, often the norm in many classes, does little to foster student determination in students. Determination is more likely to flourish when a learner can see purpose in activity and witness progress toward a goal. Since not all learners begin at the same point in learning, what they need to progress will vary.
With her team of student researchers, Karen Cushman3 identified characteristics of “practice that gets the desired result of increasing mastery”:
- It has an express purpose. Knowing why they are engaging in practice helps students direct their attention and actions.
- It demands attention and focus. Without attention to what they are doing and the results, students will fail to process the data that will actually strengthen their learning. In other words, mindless practice is worthless practice.
- It involves conscious repetition or rehearsal. Repetition is not the enemy unless repeating the actions does nothing but keep a student busy. Mindful repetition, in which the student frequently analyzes and adjusts his practice, leads to mastery.
- It is geared to the individual. Helping a student attack a weakness prompts improvement.
- It is not inherently enjoyable. However, feedback during practice helps students recognize its value. To summarize Daniel Pink4, authentic learning = meaning + feedback.
- It develops new skills and knowledge. It is challenging enough to require true effort.
- It applies to new endeavors. There is a recognition that meeting the challenge will enable the student to accomplish something more than is currently within reach.
- Relatedly, the teacher helps students notice their learning. Little feeds determination like recognizing results from effort. I once observed a middle school math teacher who understood the motivation and determination such recognition can generate. Each student had a file folder with a graphic representation of the various skills in the current unit of study. The skills built on one another until students would be able to solve complex problems that would require the combined use of the individual skills. As she observed evidence of mastery, the teacher would have the student pull out the file folder and fill in the next section of the graphic. As the students did this, they became aware of their progress, both of how far they’d “moved” from the start and how much closer they were to the goal. This simple tool helped each student become aware of progress without the burden of comparing with classmates’ achievements. With a goal clearly in sight and a way to track progress, these students were doggedly determined learners.
This shouldn’t be surprising. As adults, we grow more determined when we’re given such awareness and feedback. For example, I’m a runner. I use a gizmo that tracks details of all my runs, such as my distance, pace, and total time. When I upload this data, I can compare it to all my previous runs and note my progress. No matter the results, noting my progress (and even lack of it sometimes) delivers a dose of determination—to run faster, farther, more faithfully, etc.
Researchers often refer to this as something like the “gamer effect,” gamer being the player of video games. When you play a video game and reach the end of a challenge, you move on to the next level. You always know where you are in relation to the game’s ultimate challenge and conclusion. You can “see” progress. Seeing progress deepens determination.
Determination combines focus and intentional action. It is a willingness, even an eagerness, to engage in “practice that gets the desired result of increasing mastery.” A classroom where mastery increases can certainly be considered an atmosphere of achievement.
Hope. Humility. Determination. Are these the characteristics of my classroom and school?
- Cushman, K., Fires in the Mind (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010), 87.
- Washburn, K.D., The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain (Pelham, AL: Clerestory Press, 2010) 163.
- Cushman (2010), 71-85.
- Pink, D.H., Drive: The Surprising Truth Behind What Motivates Us (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009).
- pinewood derby: wood putty, http://www.flickr.com/photos/73645804@N00/5446363559