We are four days into the new school year and Joe, a new teacher, caught me in the mail room. “Have you ever had this happen? On Monday you start a lesson and the students all know it. They breeze right through. So, the next day, you move ahead, and they all panic? It’s like they don’t know what to do when it's new.”
“I think you found a "two" Joe.” I had just been describing this to my students.
“If we are using a one through four point scale; where one means you must have been in the bathroom and four means I’m taking the afternoon off 'cuz you got this, then our job is to look for your twos. Because that’s the start of new learning.” Then I ask the students, “How do you know when you have a two? What does it feel like?”
“I have to think too much.”
As a teacher, it looks messy. Hands go up because everyone wants to use the restroom.
“I don’t get it.”
“I need help.”
“I’m just going to figure it out tonight with my mom.”
This is the signal that I have uncovered a room full of twos, meaning the majority of my students are engaging in new learning. We know from research that a learning brain should be a little frustrated. If a lesson is too easy then the students can be on auto-pilot. There should be a little adversity. There might even be some resistance. Frequently, there is a bit of moaning until students get into the flow of learning.
Years ago this frightened me as a teacher. I wondered if I needed to change in order to make it easier? I wondered if great teachers perfect their craft in such a way that the students gracefully move from one concept to the next; like a choreographed ballet? Now, I'm pretty sure it’s not really supposed to be like that. Instead, I’m listening for signs that we have hit a two because I know that I’m in the right spot to support growth.
I am not suggesting that the students should be painfully frustrated with a curriculum that is far beyond their capabilities. To make sure this is not the case, I first have to find the threes and fours, just as Joe had done first, and then take steps forward until we hit the two. My students and I call it Goldilocks learning, because we are identifying the level that is just right.
Today, I also found a two when I asked students to generate their own questions for our unit. “I don’t have any questions,” one student suggested. Another chimed in that I, as the teacher, could just give them the questions, and they would be willing to research those. Three others asked to go to the water fountain all at the same time. I realized that I had uncovered a two, and they needed “new learning” support. We slowed down, I modeled, and the students worked together to generate questions. The moaning decreased and I have some formative data to help me determine where we go next.
When I spoke to Joe, he was teaching a high school class of competitive, college-bound students. It makes sense that they faced finding a two with anxiety. The stakes are high when trust at the start of a school year is still developing. My advice for Joe was to make sure his grading did not permanently penalize the students for revealing a two, build relationships with them, and help them to track their learning-- keep the focus on the process of learning rather than the grade.
These shifts in mindset are dynamic experiences, and frequently, even when we “get it”, there is still so much to work through as we put new understandings into practice. But hey, it's just four days in, and we are figuring out where to begin. We all have lots of “twos" ahead of us.