Purpose and Alignment

Foundations of Teaching Part 1

You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.

What if you make it thirsty, then offer water?

Introduction:  Take a moment to answer this question.  What is the purpose of your class? 

Now, is that purpose likely to be intrinsically meaningful to the majority of students?  If so, do they explicitly understand the class’ purpose?

Last question, for now.  If another adult observed your class for a week or so, could they tell you the purpose of your class without first being told?

We are going to discuss the benefits of defining a student-centered purpose of your class, as well as aligning your class activities with that purpose. In short, if a student understands the purpose and finds it personally meaningful, they’ll be coachable, they’ll give a sincere effort, they’ll be more likely to fall in line with compliance issues, and of course, the results will be better. 

By having a well-defined purpose that is intrinsically meaningful to students, and then ensuring that expectations and behaviors align with that purpose, you’ll be a more effective teacher.  There are many other components to be an effective teacher, but this discussion will challenge you to work on the first pair of seven total components in this series on the foundations of teaching.

These discussions are focused on designing and running a successful class, which includes instruction, assessment design, pacing, classroom management, and student relationships.  However, this is a big picture approach, zoomed out to get the big stuff, the foundations, correct.  We will spend lots of time at the granular level, but for now, let’s get the big stuff some attention. Let’s begin with defining the purpose of teaching a class. 

To begin we will separate the foundations into seven components.  We will discuss the first two now, but for a sneak peek of what’s coming, here are the total seven.

  1. Defined purpose
  2. Activities and work aligned with a purpose
  3. Student lead goals
  4. Grade articulation
  5. Access, training, and encouragement
  6. Purposeful practice
  7. Review, reflection, remediation

Right now we will dig into the first two components, having a defined purpose that is meaningful to the students, and making sure the activities and work for the class are aligned with that purpose.

While it certainly doesn’t sound like rocket science this is a lot harder to pull off than it might seem on the surface.  Let’s start with purpose.  Fill in the two blanks from the following sentences.

The purpose of my class is __________________________. 
I know we’ve fulfilled this purpose when ________________________.

Now, look at the purpose statement. Is that something likely to be intrinsically motivating to the majority of students?  If not, it’s going to be hollow and students won’t buy-in.  That means there will be an increase in behavioral issues, students will under-perform and many will simply choose to do the bare minimum.

Keep in mind, your class will likely have more than one purpose.  It can have a very practical purpose like the students will learn XYZ in Chemistry, but also have other purposes.  Also, each student will resonate differently with the proposed purposes.  One student may want to learn everything they can about Algebra, while others might just want to get a credit under their belt.

Like most things we will discuss, I am still developing my ability or proficiency with this task.  But, I had an eye-opening experience this past summer school session that placed items 1 and 2 on this list.  Let me share this before the experience that cemented the importance of a student-focused purpose. 

The other teachers I worked within this program are superb.  I do not feel ranking teachers as better or worse is valid or fruitful.  Among effective teachers, each has strengths and weaknesses.  An effective teacher knows how to use their strengths to bring about quality results.  Each of the other teachers is effective and I admire each as they all possess strengths that I lack!  This is not a story of how I am better than they were.  If anything, my impetuous nature brought about a realization by accident, not by design.  Here’s what happened.

Because of COVID-19, summer school was strictly online.  Students that had failed a class had the opportunity to retake that course in an online, self-paced setting.  My school has a subscription to one of those online education programs where students progress through the curriculum at their own pace.  They watch videos, do practice problems, then homework and quizzes.  It is, in my opinion, a true disgrace to education, placing all of the emphasis on students spitting out correct answers in the complete absence of encouraging any personal development, but is seemingly everywhere, even in universities. 

A teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be.

Sir Author C. Clarke

Regardless of my beliefs on the subject that’s the program we used.  Under such a circumstance it was a blessing to have. 

Here’s how the program worked.  Each teacher was assigned a group of students to monitor for the first session, with a new batch of students for the second session.  Teachers were supposed to meet with each of the students individually daily.  Should a student fail to attend a meeting or fall behind, the teacher was to harass the student and contact the parents immediately.  The logic was that this population of students need the most shepherding, they’re the group least likely to handle themselves with personal discipline.  After all, they failed their classes during the regular school year, which is quite a feat given the amounts of retakes, late work, and extra credit offered to just about any student requesting such things.

To receive a passing grade, and thus credit, students needed to complete the course with a minimum of a 70% grade.  So, get all of it done with at least a C average and their lost credit is recovered, they’re back on track to graduate.  Slam dunk, right?  I mean, it’s online, they’re at home unsupervised.  They can use whatever resources they like to answer the questions, have anybody they can find help them to whatever extent the helper is willing to go.  Plus, they get virtually unlimited attempts on the assignments and are shown the correct answers when they submit their attempts.  There are so many ways to “hack,” such a system and pass.  All it takes is a minimum amount of effort.

I didn’t follow the protocol.  I didn’t meet individually with students and soon stopped harassing students that fell behind. I quit contacting parents.  Instead, I just laid it out for those that didn’t understand.  Here was the message: “Hey, if you pass this class you’re back on track to graduate.  I assume that’s important to you, which is why you paid the $100 enrollment fee for this class.  Here are the rules.  Finish the class by this date at this time.  That means all of the assigned chapters with a 70% minimum.  I can help you with the content if you’re confused.  The rest of it is up to you.  I hope you get it done, let me know if I can help you in any way.”

My job got a lot easier and students began to get caught up.  All but one finished with credit.

For the second session, I was given a group of students that failed to complete the first session with other teachers.  This was the high maintenance group taken from the high maintenance population! 

On day one I broadcast the message.  If you complete the course you are on track to graduate high school.  Here is what you need to complete every day to finish the course. I’m here to help you should you get stuck. 

When a student fell behind I reminded them of the arrangement and gave them a reference for what to do to get back on track, but only did this once.  For the second session, all but two students passed the course, most finishing early.  I did not reach out to those two students that failed to complete the course and didn’t harass their parents.  Strangely enough, both of them sent me an email apologizing for having wasted my time!

At the end of the summer school sessions, I spoke with the administrator overseeing the program.  We discussed how haranguing students is completely ineffective in an online setting and how these kids didn’t respond to such treatment when attending school in person.  They reason they responded positively to being given the freedom and responsibility to self-govern is that they #1 understood the purpose of the class, #2 the purpose of the class had a personal meaning to them, and #3, understood that what they were required to do in the class fulfilled the purpose of the class.  The action and purpose were in alignment.  The purpose was meaningful to them personally.  Once that was in place, the role of the teacher changed from a hen-pecking nag fretting over each misstep by the students to a guide and mentor.

Let’s explore one more situation, outside of education but still involving kids, where such an approach is appropriate and effective.  Such an approach will motivate kids to do something they would otherwise be unlikely to do.  They’ll willingly do something they rather dislike and do it well!

Cross country athletes have to run, a lot.  They have to spend hours and hours early in the morning running on their own before the season even starts!  Many students get up before school to run for 45 minutes to an hour several times a week and they are up early in the morning on the weekends for longer runs. 

It is possible that punishment would hold these kids accountable.  They fill out a log of their miles, or else.  The problem is they can lie and say they ran when they didn’t, or even more likely, they’ll not run with the quality of effort that is optimal.  These are the types of engagements we can expect when students are expected to fulfill an obligation to avoid punishment, or even to receive an artificial award.

At the time this is being put together many schools are still closed due to COVID-19 concerns.  Students, typically, aren’t responding well to distance learning.  Many are not participating at all, and when they do show up to Zoom meetings, a large majority simply do not engage, and a substantial portion simply log into the meeting, turn off their camera, and leave.  Without a teacher there to say, “Hey, get your notes, where’s your pencil, why aren’t you working on this example, what are you doing right now to help yourself,” they simply do nothing.

The reason they do nothing is a simple calculation of risk versus reward.  The risk of participating is they are uncomfortable working and learning, they suffer by having to do something.  And, in their mind, for what reward?

It is so often that teachers set up a series of rules with punishments, sometimes delivered in a draconian fashion, that motivate students to participate appropriately.  But, they’re going through the motions, like a runner who is logging time for cross country at half of the effort required.  The result is less than optimal because rewards for compliance aren’t enticing to most people.

If students can understand that the purpose of your class provides something of value to them, they’ll be far more willing to participate and do so with great fidelity.  This will help with development, performance, and even classroom management, especially if the second point is rock solid.

Industrial versus Liberal Education

Ultimately, the purpose of your class will likely reflect your beliefs on the purpose of education.  That is a massive topic that deserves a lot of attention.  For now, please consider that people can roughly be separated into two camps when it comes to the purpose of education.  Many people believe the purpose of taking an Algebra class is because it is required for graduation and graduation is required for college admission.  In other words, the reason school exists is to secure employment. 

Others believe that education is all about expanding your horizons, understanding different perspectives, and learning about yourself. 

I’m in the liberal definition of education camp.  I believe the purpose of all classes at all ages is ultimately about helping a kid develop into an adult.  They should learn what they have to offer, how their make-up can be a benefit to themselves and others, or have a negative impact, depending on how they manage themselves.  An educated person should know how they operate and how to contribute, should know their strengths and weaknesses, and should have developed confidence, compassion, communication skills, resourcefulness, a willingness to take smart risks, and have the patience and understanding to work through the confusion when problem-solving.  If a student asks, “When am I going to use this in my real life,” the answer is ALWAYS and EVERYDAY, if liberal education is the purpose.

That said, some courses are skill-based where the skill itself is of utmost importance.  For example, in a nursing program students are focused on earning a certificate that will make them employable.  As is the case with probably everything, balance is key.  If your purpose is too impractical, or too measurable (outcome-based), you’ll likely have trouble defining a purpose that will resonate with the majority of students.  Maybe I’m completely washed up on this account, it wouldn’t be the first time.  But, the purpose of this is not to have an infallible playbook, written from the words of God on High, but to provide a direction to start, to provoke thought, and through these things arrive at a place where we are better teachers because of our efforts.

Aligning Actions with Purpose

I firmly believe that the second-best way to secure failure is to have your actions misaligned with your purpose (or goal).  How does showing up on time align with the purpose of the class?  I’m willing to bet that if you can explain that to a student who finds value in the purpose of the class they will be on time. 

On the surface, this alignment of activities, like homework, with the class’s purpose might seem easy.  However, how actions are carried out is what defines their purpose.  Let’s take a look at homework as an example.

If the purpose of your class is to prepare students to be successful in college mathematics, which would be an appropriate purpose for a class like Pre-Calculus, then obviously homework will have students practicing topics they’ll see in the future.  A couple of points of consideration will help determine if the homework serves the purpose.

  1. Is the level of complexity appropriate?
    1. Most likely, high school students aren’t equipped with the student skills required for college.  As such, the preparation will stretch their abilities and demand of them things they’ve never done and are likely insufficient at completing.  For example, studying, improved engagement in class, resourcefulness, and so on.  If the homework doesn’t, at least in part, challenge the student’s student-skillset, then the homework might not be aligned with the class’s purpose.
  2. What happens in review?
    1. If the homework is simply collected or graded without review of thoughts, mistakes, observations, and perhaps even a little content remediation, does it help students prepare for college?
  3. Is quality homework performance required for successful outcomes on assessments?
    1. If the homework doesn’t help students develop with the content, it does not align with the purpose of the course.  If an average student can use PhotoMath, or cheat, or simply avoid the homework and still score high on quizzes and tests, something is off! 

It takes a lot of courage, especially in today’s educational climate, to have standards and demand student development.  Many well-meaning teachers, parents, administrators, and counselors believe children are fragile and that they cannot handle the stress of academic rigor.  The reality is, growth is always hard and learning to cope with stress is only accomplished by practicing handling stressful situations!  But, that line of discussion deserves far more credit than we can serve in this conversation.

You might be wondering, well, how do I make the time to review homework appropriately with students, how do I get them to develop those elusive student skills?  Well, first off, the time spent serving the purpose of the class is worth it.  After all, by serving the purpose of the class you’re securing likely success.  As for the second question, it is important students understand the nature of the task and how it fits in with their purpose.

Suppose you’re teaching an AP class and that the test for your class has a particularly difficult portion, a gate-keeper.  To pass the test, you most likely have to perform well on that difficult portion.  If the purpose of the class is to prepare students to pass that test, then it is well worth the effort to expose students to those problems.

By simply adding that difficult style of questioning to homework and tests is insufficient.  Students will avoid it because it confuses them, or is difficult.  By simply making it required nothing changes.  Some students will be motivated by the effect on their grades, but that is insufficient to create the type of commitment required to tackle those really difficult academic components on AP tests.

Students must be coached on the purpose of those questions.  The value of working on them and learning to be successful with them is something they must be taught.  That’s is more important than showing them how to do the problem.  If students don’t understand the value of the lesson and explanation, then they’ll inappropriately dismiss things as too difficult for their efforts.

By coaching them ahead of time on the nature of the task, how it will be graded in alignment with the AP test, and how over time with practice, reflection, and rehearsal, they’ll be fully capable of successfully engaging with that difficult component, students will be willing participants.  They’ll attempt the tasks with the fidelity required for growth.  They’ll be willing to work hard enough to get sore!

Let’s wrap this up.  If students understand the purpose of the class, and their role in it (fulfilling the expectations), they’ll be far more willing to tackle difficult tasks and even more compliant.  Your role will change from a manager to a leader and, without any other adjustments, positive outcomes will be realized. 

Or, maybe we’re washed up!  What do you think?  Where have I missed the mark?  What beliefs or practices that you hold were challenged today?  Let’s talk about it.  Leave me a comment, send me an email, reach out.  I want to hear the good, the bad, and the ugly.  The purpose of this entire endeavor is growth and improved educational outcomes.  I do not hold the answers or solutions.  But, perhaps this will initiate some change in another direction that ultimately proves to be of great value!  Let’s talk about it!