Building Student Character in the Classroom (Part III)

The Importance of Performance Character Values

iStock_000003843521LargeOver the past couple of months, I’ve been talking about six performance-related character values that Catapult Learning is focusing on and supporting in our new programs. They are:

  • Persisting towards solutions
  • Working with precision
  • Asking questions
  • Working with others
  • Making connections
  • Monitoring progress and embracing learning

I wrote last month about persistence. Today, I’d like to talk about the importance of working with precision and asking questions.

In case you missed it, here is Part I and Part II of this series!

Working with Precision

When we talk about precision in school settings, we often mean things like proofreading, checking calculations, and following instructions. But what is it that allows students to be precise and careful in their work? As a teacher, do I get careful work just by asking for it? Surely not. I remember asking for it (begging for it) all the time, and getting it….well, significantly less than all the time.

As with so many things, it’s All About the Brain. There are several important, cognitive processes that govern precision, and together they are called “executive functions.” These processes included planning, problem solving, task switching, and monitoring (among others). Executive functioning is crucial in child development, and obviously plays a huge role in a child’s ability to attend school successfully. Historically, teachers and psychologists have seen executive functions simply as control mechanisms—processes that allow students to rule over and monitor their actions. But researchers now see two slightly different, but complementary, things at play within the larger idea of executive functions: cognitive self-control and cognitive flexibility.

Self-control is the part we understand fairly well, but the second term, “cognitive flexibility” may strike some people as unusual. The term refers to a student’s ability to think outside the box, see alternative solutions, and negotiate unfamiliar situations. The kinds of critical thinking and problem-solving demanded by the Common Core State Standards and our increasingly innovation- and creation-oriented workforce make this kind of thinking crucial, so it’s definitely an important piece of the puzzle.

But hold on a minute. Can students really think flexibly and differently if cognitive self-control is in force, ruling over their desires, urges, and temptations? Don’t we ask students to “stay on task” and not go off on tangents? Don’t we want them to do as their told, and not think up a variety of alternatives to our instructions?

Well, let’s remember that self-control and flexibility are meant to be understood as complementary. They do different things, but they work together to create a balanced approach to the challenges of life. Sometimes control and conformity rule the day; other times, flexibility and innovation are required. Not chaos; just flexibility. And this is nothing very new. The entire scientific method involves careful testing of theories and examination of results to reach conclusions. Could we even have science if self-control ruled over us so completely that we could not consider alternatives? Would we have ever left our caves or trees to try anything different?

As it turns out, cognitive self-control is more nuanced than we might have thought. It certainly involves the inhibition of bad behavior and distractions, but it can also involve inhibition of habitual, instinctive, and thoughtless responses, allowing a student some breathing room and a chance to think—to substitute an alternative response that may prove to be more effective. Self-control monitors everything—including an over-developed sense of control. It’s like that old joke: moderation in all things, including moderation. Executive functions exist to keep us from acting impulsively, and thoughtlessly following a routine can sometimes be an unhealthy impulsive.

Precision can relate not only to student work, but also to student communication with peers and teachers about the work. It should involve thinking before speaking, choosing one’s words wisely, constructing rational arguments, and paying attention to the relationships among textual details or physical pieces of evidence. It is a habit of mind—a way of interacting mindfully and deliberately with the world around you.

Asking Questions

We spend a lot of time thinking about the kinds of questions we ask our students and the various ways in which we encourage students to answer our questions. Author and researcher, Robert Marzano, has written thoughtfully about ideas such as wait time, chained response, choral response, and other strategies to maximize student responsiveness. But little attention has been paid to the kinds of questions that students ask of us, or of each other.

Modeling and posing questions lie at the heart of one of the eight Standards for Mathematical Practice embodied in the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics, but it is just as vital a performance value in English language arts, science, social studies, or any other academic discipline.

When we speak of asking questions here, we do not mean badgering the teacher with incessant demands for clarification and explanation. Obviously, we want to encourage our students to speak up and ask for help when they need it, but questioning as a performance character trait takes this basic level of questioning to a higher level. We need to encourage students to ask questions from higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy—questions of analysis, of evaluation, and of synthesis. We need to get students to wonder (and demand to know) what has been left unsaid, what lies behind the curtain, what causes certain things to happen, what would happen if…. We need to encourage their curiosity and help them understand that learning—life-long learning—is less about finding answers than seeking out new questions.

Obviously, this can pose challenges for teachers who are used to being able to manage the discourse of the classroom closely and control the range of questioning to ensure things hew closely to the syllabus or the lesson plan. When you encourage and honor student questioning, you open the door to the possibility that students will ask questions about all sorts of things. The danger here isn’t the totally-off-the-wall question—that’s an easy one to deal with. The danger comes from the question that is related to the topic at hand but demands content knowledge beyond the scope of the textbook, the question that should be honored and needs to be addressed. It demands a classroom teacher who is just as engaged and curious and questioning as we want our students to be—a teacher who knows far more about her subject than what she is teaching…or is at least willing to find out.

One of my favorite examples of how Common Core is asking us to change the way we think about instruction comes from a math teacher named Dan Meyer. He speaks movingly about the need to remove scaffolding and support from our instruction to make vital questions—questions worth asking and answering—leap into the minds of our students. If you have not seen his TED talk, Math Class Needs a Makeover, take a few minutes to watch and listen. 

One of the things I like about these performance character values we’ve been discussing is that, taken together, they paint a very clear picture of “what good looks like” –-not just for students, but also for schools and the whole idea of school culture. Every state is developing frameworks and rubrics and tools for teacher evaluation so that they can nail down—once and for all—what good teaching looks like. But if you could walk around a school and see these six performance traits at play among teachers and students—if you could see real and consistent evidence of persistence and resilience, precision and questioning, and the others we haven’t gotten to yet, I think you would feel pretty confident that you were in a good school. In fact, if I was starting a school and needed to write a mission statement, I think I’d be tempted to list these six values, draw a circle around them, and just write: “Make these happen.”

Join us for our next webinar, Habits of Mind for Successful Students on June 25th at 1PM EDT. Presented by Dr. Andrew Ordover.


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