I recently discovered Eugene Matusov’s writings on motivation and agency. He is a professor at the University of Delaware and he is also dyslexic.
I found it interesting that he ended up choosing a career teaching other teachers and yet his early years seem to be fairly traumatic in school. He had some very bad learning experiences, but also good ones, and it’s clear that today, he remembers the good teachers that impacted his life and that the choices he made in his own career were influenced as much by the negative experiences as the positives.
One negative experience that was shared involved a writing assignment that many of us are all-too-familiar with – “What I Did Over Summer Vacation.” Listen to Eugene tell it (after 15 min mark in the audio recording or video), but the thing is – that it was a charming story – actually reminded me of one of Chekhov’s story vignettes – but the teacher found so many spelling mistakes that he graded the story as a zero.
Eugene contrasts what his early education was like compared to his son’s. Eugene’s son was born in the then USSR, then moved to the US. His first elementary education was in Utah, where he was happily surprised by how patient and understanding his teachers were. After they moved to Palo Alto, again they found supportive teachers and a helpful principal who would come up with innovative approaches to problems that might arise.
He also recalled that working with a para-educator was very helpful for his son; a para-educator was authorized because English was a Second Language, but Eugene said, actually at that time his son’s English was better than his Russian. Just being able to regularly clarify text that was read in class helped tremendously.
Eugene has called for a change in education whereby teacher-student relationships are not largely one way, but rather two-way exchanges in which students are seen as the authors of their guidance, learning, and education.
Here is a start to one of his chapters about authorial learning:
“Playwright William Shakespeare came up to his desk, picked up his feather pen, dropped it in an inkwell, and wrote “Performance Objective: By the end of this play, the audience will experience catharsis of love without borders, will pour tears about killed young lovers, and will shame meaningless family feuds. The Kingdom Reign Performance Standards: 3.1.2. promoting catharsis, 4.7 appreciation of love, and 2.5.1. critique of antisocial behavior.” This is how the genius Shakespeare started his famous masterpiece Romeo and Juliet…”
Or maybe not.
I understand that schools are required to meet objectives and follow guidelines, but with this administrative emphasis, it is also possible to lose sight of ultimate goals.
When I think about books that I loved as a kid, I can’t remember getting tested on every chapter, writing a book report, or some other project. I do remember my teacher read the first part of Charlotte’s Web in class and I do remember enjoying reading Miss Bianca several times (a mouse that goes on adventures) and enjoying those wonderful drawings by Garth Williams.
What Eugene brings up in authorial learning is the need for students to be able to become authors of their own learning. Everything should not be laid out for them – they should act purposefully to direct their own learning.
Interestingly, a few years ago Brock and I visited a school that was often referred to as an “interest” school because students choose what they learn based on their interest. It was profiled in Dan Pink’s, Drive book and on one level, it was inspiring to see kids studying ideas above their typical age, and creatively pursuing a variety of subjects. There was one boy there, I wasn’t certain about, though. He was maybe 15 years old, and the entire time we were there – he elected to do what seemed to be a first person shooter game in a room to himself. That may have been an exception, but that’s not what a lot of their parents would like to choose for their kids. Some students pose greater challenges in motivation and turnaround times may take a lot longer as well.
There are also many subjects that students may only truly love after they have learned foundational skills. It may be that for reading and writing, but also things like learning music or a foreign language. What about required subjects for a particular career?
I do like some of the examples that Eugene shared about finding ways to develop the desire in students to do particular things. When Eugene’s son was struggling with developing legible handwriting, Eugene and his wife talked to his teacher about what they could do. A breakthrough came when his teacher thought about creating a project where the class would make a book about a comet for a younger grade.
Eugene’s son was excited about the project and he liked to teach younger children. When the book was given to the younger grades he could see that the children had trouble reading his handwriting. They looked at his pictures, but didn’t read what he had written. As a result, their son sought out his teacher and asked to learn how to make his writing more legible. Thoughtful teaching and guiding require improvisation and thinking out of the box.