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Aurora Institute

Red Flag: When Habits of Work and Learning Become Extrinsic Motivation

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

If I had only two choices between a thumbs-up and thumbs-down, I don’t know which I would use to comment on Portland School District’s new policy that will prohibit students from participating in extracurricular activities if they don’t meet the expectations for demonstrating the habits of work and learning. It is a great idea for a school district to embrace the idea of Habits of Work and Learning (I’ll use HOW as an acronym to indicate the behaviors and skills students need to learn only because HOWL raises images of wolves in my mind), since becoming a lifelong learner is essential to preparing students for college, career, citizenship, and their well-being as adults. However, in tying it to access to and the denial of extracurricular activities, the district has bureaucratized and corrupted the power of using HOW to engage and motivate students.

When you see a good idea at a school, it makes sense that district leaders would want to scale it to everyone. Certainly Portland’s Casco Bay High School a leading example of competency-based education highlights how a competency-based structure (referred to as proficiency-based in Maine) can contribute to a school that has a rich pedagogical theory of learning emphasizing inquiry, communities of learning, and horizon-broadening experiences. The problem is that when we do this, we take a practice out of the context of the culture and related practices that make it work. Implementing habits of work and learning as a gate for whether students can play football will simply never work to improve engagement, motivation, and academic learning, or to prepare students as lifelong learners. Here’s why.

#1 Opening the Door to Opportunities for Learning, Not Closing Them

In competency-based (or proficiency-based) schools, the practice is to shift how we communicate student progress. The traditional grading system is based on points (extrinsic motivation that works for the students at the top and does little for everyone else) for: 1) assignments and summative assessments (which may indicate how well a student understands the material but does little or nothing to motivate students who are not understanding, as they never have a chance to go back and learn it) and 2) points for behavior that may be related to learning or not (being helpful or bringing in cans for the food drive). Zeros for not turning in an assignment are nearly impossible to recover from and will actually chip away at a student’s motivation.

Underlying the traditional grading system are two beliefs: 1) extrinsic motivation is the best way to get students to put in the effort and 2) a focus on ranking students that believes some students are smart and others not so much, and there is little a teacher can do to help students learn. The second one is directly related to our ability as a nation to improve equity or continue to reproduce it – if we don’t think students can really learn, we just pass them on with Cs and Ds. If we believe that all students can learn, if we truly believe the evidence underlying Dweck’s theory of a growth mindset, then we should be constantly seeking out opportunities for students to keep learning and for educators to have opportunity to build their skills to better support students. Instead of ranking, we should be monitoring growth and seeking to discover each student’s potential.

In competency-based grading systems, we make two big changes from the traditional grading system. First, grading is no longer used to rank students. It is focused solely on letting students know how they are progressing toward mastering the material. A student who attempts a unit with misconceptions and/or gaps from previous years may stumble at first and take more time to do some more learning. The scoring system lets them know if they are just getting started, are making progress but aren’t quite there yet, or have mastered the material. All students have a chance of succeeding if they keep at it and if they receive effective instructional support. (It’s important to remember: Asking a student who has a misconception to just keep trying is totally unfair. They’ll never know that they have a misconception and will discover no way of uncovering it. It will only reinforce that they are dumb, when the fact is that no adult offered them the help they need.)

Second, habits of work focus on the behaviors students need to be lifelong learners based on the research on engagement and motivation. Habits of work are intentional and linked to learning. Homework isn’t just something you do or don’t do. Homework offers an opportunity to practice and provides evidence to the teacher that you are building your skills. They are also linked to the shared values and vision of the school. Being on time may be important to you to ensure you have the opportunity to work on projects or meet with the teacher, and it is important to the well-being and culture of learning of your classmates. Students learn that there are consequences for themselves and others based on their behavior, not because they are going to be denied a chance to participate in the choir.

I’m not convinced that we have the research base to judge which HOWs are most important to learning. Certainly some may be more focused on compliance and alignment to social norms rather than helping students become lifelong learners. In the article on Portland, there is a reference to the skills students need to succeed in the workplace, including wearing socially appropriate attire or showing up on time. This is very different from the seventeen HOWs used by Making Community Connections, including quality work, problem-solving, and curiosity & wonder.

What happens when students don’t demonstrate the HOW in a high quality competency-based school? Adults use it as an opportunity to talk to students about the importance of the HOW, to find out why a student wasn’t turning in examples of their learning or missing days, and to develop strategies to either build the skills or address underlying issues (see the section below on bias for more discussion on this). The impact is that students begin to understand the consequences, build more trust with adults in the school (a necessary ingredient for learning), and, as is the case with their academics, have opportunities to keep building their skills.

Casco Bay does have consequences for students who don’t demonstrate the big three of the HOW: If students don’t come to class on time and turn in their homework and if they don’t demonstrate mastery on an assessment, they aren’t able to have a second chance on the assessment until they demonstrate the HOW. Thus, the link to learning is reinforced.

The HOWs are a way to open a door for important discussions with students about their lives, their learning, and what it takes to succeed – not a way to close the door on their future.

#2 Fertile Grounds for Bias to Reinforce Inequity

Let’s start with an agreement that we all bring some bias to our work and to our interaction with others. I may not want to believe I’m a racist, but the probability is very high that somewhere in my mind are some shadows in which prejudice hides. I may not think that boys are somehow better than girls, but it is likely that some assumptions about masculinity and femininity are going to shape my interactions with students. If I knew about these shadow biases, I would challenge them and sweep them out of my thinking. The problem with bias is that we don’t know it’s there.

In determining habits of work and learning, subjective bias is going to make an appearance. Do you need an example? What about appropriate attire? One school penalized the Cook sisters for their beautiful braids. There is plenty of research that we give whites and boys more time to answer questions. We have way too much evidence from the work on school disciplinary policy and how it became the school-to-prison pipeline about how children of color are treated differently. If the HOWs are going to have consequences, what is going to be in place so we can ensure it doesn’t lead to more of the same: excluding children of color or children whose parents may be working around the clock to put food on the table and didn’t notice that the homework wasn’t done?

Portland School District needs to think about how attribution bias (in which students who have high levels of responsibility, professionalism, and drive are considered irresponsible, unreliable, or lazy) may appear. This happens when we make an attribution about the behavior, when we interpret behavior without opening the door to dialogue to understand the behavior. For example, what about the student who is often late? We could just focus on their being late and tell them they can’t be in the afterschool theater program anymore. Or we could talk to them and find out that they are taking their younger siblings to school every morning because their mother’s employer suddenly shifted her onto the early shift without time to figure out childcare. Instead of thinking a student is lazy because they don’t turn in their home work every day, by talking with them we might discover the student works until midnight four nights a week and only can work on their homework the other three. If the practice of HOW is not implemented within a context of respect, communication, and cultural responsiveness, it is an at-risk policy – at risk of reinforcing inequity.

An important step for Portland is to determine what needs to be in place to ensure that teachers understand how to use the HOW to build the skills, develop intrinsic motivation, and guard against bias. Without effective implementation – with a culture of learning, safety, and belonging as well as the package of practices that make HOW effective ways to build lifelong learners – Portland is probably just creating another hoop for students to jump through. For those who fail to jump exactly right, it is going to reinforce that they don’t belong, aren’t valued, and that the system is unfair.

#3 Extracurricular is Personalization

There seems to be several definitions of the the term personalization being used these days. Let’s assume it has to do with students and not with technology (we have always used tools in schools, now we have new ones that we need how to learn use effectively). One important aspect of personalization is relevance – helping students to make connections. One strategy is to creating opportunities for students to pursue things that are interesting to them and discover their talents and passions in the hope of building intrinsic motivation.

Interest-based experiences also give students a chance to learn how to learn in something they like to do. It’s an incredibly powerful opportunity to build metacognitive skills – how do I know when I’m stuck; what can I do when I get stuck; how do I feel when I get stuck; what can I do to not let my emotions take over when I’m having troubles learning something?

To deny students the opportunity to do something they love at school simply makes no sense except for very destructive or harmful behaviors. This is particularly important for students who are having a difficult time learning – the football team might be the one thing that is getting them to school every day. Having consequences is important, but we want to make sure these consequences work to engage and motivate students. We want to make sure they work to increase ownership and student agency. Instead of excluding students from extracurricular activities, the expectation is set that every school has Flex hours built into the school day for students to work on their homework or do some planning and reflection with adults on how to build up their habits (remember, it takes at least three weeks to build a new habit).

Going Forward

We all believe that our mistakes and failures are an opportunity for learning. I certainly believe that Portland School Board can learn to make a stronger policy that builds on the science of learning, motivation, and engagement. Perhaps the school board might do a little homework themselves. I suggest starting with the Students at the Center briefing on Motivation, Engagement and Student Voice.

One of the lessons we’ve learned in the world of competency education is that top-down, one-size-fits-all policies just don’t work well. Instead of turning one practice into a policy, how about investing in the concept of habits of work and learning by rethinking transcripts, ranking systems, and scheduling to support proficiency-based schools without one-size-fits-all rules? The best place to start is by engaging students, teachers, and school leaders to talk about what a strong HOW approach might look like. As the consensus builds, then turn to the idea of reciprocal accountability – any policy introduced would also have an accompanying strategy of support. These are the new habits of transformation that districts and schools need to build.

Read more about what’s happening in Maine: