Owning Practice: Two Ways for Students to Feel Invested

Part four of a seven-part series by Robert Sun.

American culture is overflowing with technology. From smartphones and wearable devices to social media and on-demand video, it’s nearly impossible to compete with the trappings of everyday digital life when trying to engage young people.

In such a challenging environment, it’s easy for educators and those who serve the educational community to look to ever more advanced technology as the way to make learning more effective. Write a smarter assessment algorithm, or show up with the latest 3D headset, the thinking goes, and you’ve got the magic solution.

What’s lost in this pursuit, however, is the fact that students are human beings. To be effective, the starting point has to be the individual—not the technology.

In this series covering the seven essential elements to look for in a digital practice program, we’ve discussed the factors that make practice programs effective. We’ve cited the importance of comprehensive content, multiple points of entry, and engagement that generates attention and persistence. While all of these elements can be impacted by technology, none originate there.

And so it is with our next components. The fourth element is a seamless gradient of challenges. As the last article in this series stated, keeping children engaged depends upon them feeling that the next success is just around the corner. A practice program must present a chain of challenges, each of which is just at the outer edge of a child’s abilities. It’s a difficult requirement—yet a very human one.

As math educators, we know a huge amount of learning must occur between one-step addition and complex algebra. Many steps must be mastered. Practice programs need to be granular in their approach, so that students can easily find, identify with, master, and progress from whatever learning place they currently occupy.

One of the keys to a strong program is to not only present a full range of content, but also ensure that the content is well thought through, so that the gradients are automatically built in and all the gaps have bridges. This also helps support students with the fifth element: a sense of control.

It’s no secret that humans love to be in control. Depending on the pursuit, this can be either a positive or negative thing. In skills mastery, however, granting a sense of control is more important than many people realize. I’ve been to school districts where an administrator says to me, “Tell me how I can lock out students from the part of our practice program we don’t want them to access. We don’t want them to work in any area except the one we designate.”

The problem with this approach is that the minute you tell a child where and what they have to learn, it becomes the school’s program—not the child’s. Students will only take ownership if they feel that they have a sense of control.

Children, as it turns out, are superbly equipped to address their own learning gaps once they take ownership of the learning process. In fact, it’s often the children who struggle the most—those who lack confidence or who perform poorly on tests—who are best at sensing the skills they lack. Give that student the opportunity to explore his or her gaps privately and in gradient steps, and rest assured, those gaps will be bridged. The student will put in the time, develop the necessary skill, and move on.

To illustrate this, I like to tell the story of Carl and Lewis Stokes Central Academy in Cleveland. This is a school where, as recently as 2009, the percentage of fifth-grade students scoring proficient and above in standardized tests ranged from a little under 3% to a high of 11% over a five-year period.

Before the school put a practice program into their computer lab, kids would treat the lab as anything but a place to learn. They would bring food in, argue about who sat at which computer, and clutter the room with trash. Using the computers for their intended purpose was merely an afterthought.

However, once a program was put in that gave them a sense of control, the situation changed. Students became invested in the skills they were attaining. Individual and school test scores started rising—and so did the attitude of the students. The computer lab became a revered space; no more sneaking in food, or chaotic work spaces. Upon entering the lab, children immediately went to their assigned seats because they didn’t want to waste any time. They began to look at that computer lab as an important resource to help them achieve a worthy goal—one they themselves had decided they wanted to achieve.

In October 2012, state test scores for the 2011-2012 academic year were released. In the fifth grade, the percentage of students at Stokes Academy who met the minimum standard for math nearly tripled from the 2009 result. In the fourth grade, where three years before only 4.8% of students met the standard, the number jumped to 26.5%.

A gradient of challenges, combined with a sense of control, work jointly to create a sense of ownership that engages students on a very human level—and one that generates results.

The next part in this series will examine another trait very close to the way today’s young people think: a short cycle of play.

Robert Sun

Robert Sun

ROBERT SUN is the CEO of Suntex International and inventor of First In Math, an online program designed for energizing every child to learn, love and live mathematics.