The Progress Principle Comes to School (or Not)

kidsworkingIt is sad, but perhaps not unexpected, that since I recently wrote about discouraged educators, I’ve spent a lot of time coaching a young teacher friend. She’s trying to find her way through an interaction with an administrator that has her questioning whether she belongs in public education at all. The specifics don’t matter because the overall pattern is so familiar. The teacher invested much time and creative energy in X. When told about X, the principal’s only concern was that it might take time away from his priority, Y. It’s unclear whether he listened carefully enough to actually understand the situation. Where a simple affirmation of X and some flexible thinking about Y could have resulted in two successes, instead the principal felt it necessary to (attempt to) issue orders in a “my way or the highway” style of administration. Now both parties are unhappy and neither X nor Y benefitted. Sad. Depressing. Whatever the opposite of The Progress Principle is, this is a fine illustration. This is “stop progress in its tracks.” Maybe even derail the train.

tracksIt made me think about how easily we can act in parallel ways with students. Can we, in our hyper task focus, be guilty of train derailment ourselves?

If you remember, the Progress Principle is a term coined by Teresa Amabile and colleagues to describe the power of small successes. While the quotation refers to business environments, can you envision classrooms here?

Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run. Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service, everyday progress—even a small win—can make all the difference in how they feel and perform.

If we want students to be successful, particularly if we want them to think creatively, solve problems, and engage in challenging tasks, they must make progress in meaningful work. I’ve written previously about shaping curriculum around ideas that matter—helping the work become meaningful. But we also have to help students see their own progress. And understand that their progress matters.

There’s been a lot written on formative assessment, and how helping students see their progress—or even their lack of progress—toward curricular goals can be helpful, if done in informative ways. If we show students their growth and the path toward further success, they are much more likely to continue. Of course it must be real progress. Students know the difference between real success and hollow praise. And all that is important.

bigballBut today, given my experience with my young friend, I want to suggest that we also need to find ways to acknowledge progress toward goals we may not have chosen. Students who are thinking creatively may come up with ideas that take the discussion off our planned track, complete projects in ways we hadn’t anticipated, or be so focused on their latest original video game or robotic prom float that they have a hard time concentrating on math or English. Of course we have to help them focus but if, first, we take a minute to acknowledge the creative response as original and wonderful, look carefully at all the ways the unique project may have met our requirements, or listen a moment to excited stories about the prom float, it may change the classroom environment in important ways. Feeling successful makes everyone want to work harder. Feeling seen and valued makes students feel safe enough to try a new idea, take a risk, solve a problem. The small moments of recognition and support, are not, in fact, small stuff. They are not unfocused or less important than rigor or grit. They are the real stuff of human relationships that make classrooms—and schools—work. They are all part of the principle behind the progress. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!

Amabile, T. & Kramer, S. J. (May, 2011). The power of small wins. Harvard Business Review.

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