Psychological Awareness & Next Gen Education in the Classroom

In order to promote grit in the spirit of next generation inquiry, we as teachers must be psychologically aware.

In her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth points out that being psychologically aware is a huge part of teaching grit (and parenting for grit). The term is a bit tough to grasp, but we might also call it being thinking aware. This means not only being aware of our student's thinking, but of our own as well. We need to know what their words mean and what our words mean, and we need to know how to interact.

This idea can, to some, lack concreteness, so let's make it a little more concrete. Consider a relatively common teacher statement: "It's difficult to teach science, because at the end of the day, students don't want me telling them one more thing."

This may seem like a mundane comment, but it's very telling. This educator does not understand what it means to have full inquiry and to release responsibility to their students. They do not know how to challenge students to develop and use their content and skills in order to solve a problem or answer a question. The teacher sees their role as telling students "things." And from the student's standpoint, there isn't much buy-in. Why would they want to listen to the teacher tell them one more thing? They don't have a purpose for doing so, other than the dubious goals of satisfying the teacher, getting a checkmark for participation, or being lauded for appropriate behavior in class.

The teacher is not thinking about what students' goals might be, nor do they understand why students engage in class. Students are naturally curious, when you think about it: the student wants to execute their curiosity, discover a purpose, and connect with things that matter to them in their lives. K-12 students are just like adults: they seek personal purpose and fulfillment. They are motivated by opportunity, dignity, respect, and reward.

slide11-1.jpgThe main difference between these two images is the role the student plays in relation to the teacher and content. In one, teachers are gatekeepers of content, while in another, students can access it on their own, with the teacher tuning the inquiry environment, adjusting supports, and helping students engage appropriately.

As educators we often fall into traps of thinking that we have to make things entertaining, or bombastic, or fun, because that's what gets students to engage, but that's actually not the case. These are cheap hooks attempting to get kids' attention and, in many cases, ways to try and cause them to learn. But it typically doesn't work, and even when it does, the results are short-lived. If we want to focus on engagement, it's really about students seeing personal relevance and value for others in the work that's at hand, and that actually feeds grit. It feeds purpose, it feeds determination, and it feeds passion. That's how students learn to love things. It's why students invest themselves in situations like you see on the right in the image above.

Traditional vs. Next Generation Models of Education

Traditional model of instruction


This traditional model of instruction is not set up for effective science instruction. It creates dependency on teachers and other authority figures and produces children with a false sense of success and proficiency.

The traditional model of instruction involves the teacher demonstrating material while students watch. That's a traditional model of instruction, and under the National Research Council's definition, it's not set up for effective science instruction under the NGSS model. It also doesn't create space for psychological awareness. As you see in the image above, the teacher is projecting information at students, acting as the sage on the stage. The content flows through the teacher, inaccessible to students except as the teacher chooses to deliver it to them. The student's role is to absorb it—to merely remember what they hear and see.

This traditional model destroys grit, passion, perseverance, and creativity. In their places, it creates dependency and the expectation that proficiency and success stem from recall, repeat, memory, and following along. This couldn't be further from the truth of what students need to truly engage in science and engineering.

Innovation, on the other hand, is all about divergent thinking. It's about thinking differently. If all you think and all you can do as a student or as an adult is recall, repeat, or summarize, then there is no seat at the table for you when it comes to innovation. There is no seat at the table for you when skills are required. If all you can do is spit out facts, you can be replaced by Google. That's why this traditional model of instruction is being retired.

Bringing Three Dimensions to Life in a Meaningful Context

Next gen model of instruction

The experience we create in the classroom has to bring those 3 dimensions to life in a meaningful context and in a way that fully engages students in the practices of science and engineering.

In its place, NGSS is putting forward a new model. This new model focuses on skills (science & engineering practices), content (the disciplinary core ideas), and crosscutting concepts (the system phenomena that link various subject areas and concepts). Each standard is actually a performance expectation, requiring focus on all three dimensions in an inquiry-based, student-centered environment. It takes grit to participate, and we have to develop that grit in our students... but also in our teachers. We need a culture in our classrooms and our schools that supports a next generation inquiry model. We need a culture of grit.

As noted in the caption above, the experience that we create in the science classroom has to bring those three dimensions to life in meaningful context. Meaningful is the keyword here: It means purposeful and done in such a way that students are fully engaged in the practices of science and engineering. The role of the teacher is to strengthen the connection between the students and their skills and to help them understand how to engage as scientists and engineers appropriately, but it is not to act as gatekeepers.

Changing the role of the teacher is the main way we can fix the problem of students having no purpose, no passion, and therefore too little of the grit needed to become true scientists and engineers. That's why the right photo in the first image of this article works where the one on the left doesn't. Students are fumbling with purpose, trying to solve problems using their skills, with the teacher acting as coach.

Note that teachers need to be much more skillful under next generation science standards and in next generation inquiry models than they have to be under the traditional model. Reminding students how the rock cycle works is much easier than enabling them to work directly with the content, the disciplinary core ideas, and crosscutting concepts, and connecting these different standards.

That's also why we teach standards in groups rather than in isolation. We don't try to cover standards anymore. What we try to do is view the standards as performance expectations and help teachers create classrooms in which students have the opportunity to engage those expectations and begin developing proficiency in performing them. They do that by developing and using the content and by using their skills to solve problems and answer questions on a regular basis.

“Growing up, I wanted to be an inventor, solving problems that would help people have better lives. Every day at KnowAtom is an opportunity to invent solutions that give thousands of students and teachers a better experience doing science, engineering, technology, and math (STEM). Providing educators with professional satisfaction and students with the opportunity to understand the world we live in is my way of helping people have better lives.”