You say it can’t be done. Have you tried it?


One of the things I run up against often in my workshops on student-paced and student-directed mastery learning classrooms is the “that won’t work” response.  And today I read a blog post that was asking connected teachers to stop “ignoring reality” in the ideas that we post/talk about.  An example the blogger gave was there was no way they could get quality work and effort out of an ungraded assignment.

But you absolutely can do many of the things that seem like “pie in the sky” ideas.  For instance, you can get quality work and effort from ungraded assignments.

The first question I ask people when they question ideas put forth by others in this manner is “Have you tried it?” and most often the answer is “No, but I know it wouldn’t work.”  Or, sometimes they have tried it but either didn’t prepare themselves and the students for the changes or didn’t give it enough time to work.

See, the longer children are in school the more they are trained in “how to do school”.  We’ve taught them through years of experience that the things we ask them to do are not intrinsically interesting and in order for us to get them to do those things we need to use the carrot-and-the-stick approach of motivation.  Changing this conditioning is not easy and does not happen overnight – and takes longer and more work the longer the kids have been “in the system.”

(For MUCH more incredibly great reading on motivation and why the carrot-and-the-stick doesn’t work, check out Daniel Pink’s book Drive!)

So we know that not trying something means it will never work.  So for those that don’t try things and write them off as not working…I ask you to not pass judgement until you’ve tried it.  Many of the things that are true about motivation go against what our “common sense” tells us!

Not everything you hear about or read about will work.  And not everything will work for you and your students.  (Although I do happen to know that the example of ungraded assignments DOES work!)  But before you right it off, try it and try it with some key factors to ensure its possible success.

Here are some questions to ask when determining if something will or will not work:

  • Have you talked to people that have successfully implemented the technique/intervention/attitude?  And “talked to” can also include read their writings on the topic or attended workshops or sessions.  Going “to the source” of someone that has tried it will always up the chances of it working (as opposed to someone that “thinks” it will work but hasn’t gone into a classroom and done it themselves).
  • Are you trying it for the right reasons?  Not because your administrator or someone else told you that you had to try it.  But instead because you’re being open-minded and are trying it in hopes that it will help your students learn or become more self-directed.  If you don’t believe something will help, or at least have an open mind to the possibility that it will help, it’s not going to.  (Autonomy is one of the keys to motivation – again, see Pink’s book – and it’s just as important for teachers as it is for students.  You’ll never be motivated to make anything work if you’re “forced” into it!)
  • Are you clear about what “it working” will look like?  What is this new technique/intervention/attitude trying to change or improve?  Unless you know what changes you’re looking for, you’re not likely to see them!  And knowing what to look for will allow to you gather the data necessary to share with stakeholders about why what you’re doing is working.
  • Do the students know what you’re trying and why you’re trying it?  Before I start a year off with a mastery learning setting, I take a while to explicitly explain to my students WHAT I’m doing in my classroom that is different from their prior experiences and WHY I’m doing it.  It makes a huge difference in getting them on board with things and ready for the changes.
  • Do you stick with it through the initial discomfort period?  Change is not easy.  You will be uncomfortable and so will the students, parents, administrators and your colleagues.  Implementing change is similar to the concept of Activation Energy needed for a chemical reaction to proceed – you have to get over the minimum effort/discomfort/time “hump” before things begin to work.
  • Do you attempt to adjust to solve issues that come up or scrap the idea completely?  Every group of students has unique characteristics.  Do you see issues with the new technique/intervention/attitude that an adjustment can address?  Have you tried that first before declaring “it doesn’t work?”
  • Do you know where you can go to talk with others trying it?  Discussing issues that arise with others than have “been there” is extremely helpful…if for no other reason than they can tell you to keep going over that “minimum effort hump” to get to the other side!

What have you tried that you were convinced wouldn’t work until you gave it an honest effort?

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Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.”  This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission.  Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the User of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
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