Saturday, July 17, 2010

Virtual Conference on Soft Skills:The Other Half of the Battle

Visit the Soft Skills Convention Center

Riley had the very excellent idea for people to post about building soft skills in class. Initially I wasn’t going to do this because I don’t think I’ve got a lot to offer in this area. If you haven’t noticed, I’m a bit of a one trick pony. I succumbed to peer pressure though, so here it is.

This may be the first post I've done about something I'm planning to do instead of something I've actually done. Thus, I have no idea how this is going to work in practice, but this is the first time I have a glimmer of hope in this area.

Here we go.

I grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons. One of them, GI Joe, had these public service announcements at the end of every show and the tagline was "Knowing is half the battle." I learned valuable things like don't run away from home. The dirty secret of GI Joe is the other half of the battle, the doing, is usually the much harder part.

I have been critical before of people who tell their kids what to learn, but not how to learn. That doesn't just apply to academic skills, but non-academic skills as well. I teach 8th graders in a low-performing school with a high poverty and ELL rate. It’s not that my kids don’t want to be good students. It’s that they have no idea how to become one.1

My good students do certain things automatically. If you ask another student to describe a good student, eventually it will come out that this is just "how they are." What I've struggled with for years is to help students see that these behaviors are learned. They can become a part of everyone.

There are two things I’m synthesizing: Positive Deviants and Don’t Break the Chain.

Postive Deviants: I first came across this idea from Atul Gawande in the book Better. Subsequently, I’ve read a Fast Company article and a passage in Switch2.

The quick overview: Telling is not enough. If it was, I could pull off a Socratic seminar and my former college roommate could quit smoking. Positive deviants are those people who thrive in the same environment. Showing people positive deviants gives both a message that it's possible and a model to follow. Click on the Fast Company link and read the story or better yet buy the books. How do I know that examining positive deviants works? Check out all those blogs over there on the right side. My positive deviants. I can count on one hand the number of time I've taken and used something from a formal professional development workshop, but I'm ripping stuff off wholesale from my blogging friends.

Don't Break the Chain: This one comes courtesy of Lifehacker. The story is that Jerry Seinfeld needed to work on writing every day, so he put a big calendar up on his wall. From the article:
He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. "After a few days you'll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You'll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain."

"Don't break the chain," he said again for emphasis.

The overview: Identify the positive deviants in class. Create a list of specific behaviors these students engage in. You don't need to make a spectacle of it. I took some pictures of my students from last year both as I'm lecturing and when they're working in groups or individually. For whatever reason, my students are always fine with being examples for next year's kids. This can also be a pure brain storming activity as well.

Have each student pick ONE of those actions to do. Distribute calendars to the students. Each day they complete their specific action, they get to mark a big X on their calendar. If they break the chain, they write down their streak, pick another goal (or the same one) and start over. There's no prize and it's not a competition with others.

By combining a specific, doable task with a very gentle motivator, daily actions become habits.

Details: The list of actions should be highly specific and observable. “Pay attention” is not going to work. You’ve got to dig and find out what those students are doing to pay attention. How can you tell a student is paying attention? They track the teacher. They sit up straight.

Good actions to choose can be academic “Raise my hand to ask a question.” “Bring a sharpened pencil to class” or non-academic “Pick up a piece of garbage from the ground” or "Have my things ready before the bell rings."

I can't stress this enough. It has to be something that's really specific. Either they did it or they didn't. If you get into, "Well I did it most of the time," or "I think I did it but I'm not sure," you're doomed. In the Vietnam example, switching from two big meals to four smaller meals is specific. Eating healthier foods is not.

You should also make sure this is something that needs to occur every single day. As a teacher, I'm really tempted to put stuff like, "Complete all the notes in class" but I don't ask them to take notes everyday. The chain part only works if it's everyday. You'll be surprised how motivating it is not to break the chain.

Time limits help. I hate folding laundry and if I set a goal of folding all my laundry every day, it's not going to happen. Folding laundry for ten minutes every day I can do.

Last, you'll need to make the calendar really visible. The chain is the reminder. You've got to set it up so they see it every day at the beginning of the period. My kids are sticking the calendars in the portfolios where they track their progress.

After a certain number of days (10? 15?), students pick another behavior and add on. So in order to continue their chain, not only do they need to raise their hand at least once a day, but they also need to bring a pencil each day.

Isn't this just behaviorism? Well...yeah, I guess. I've been critical of behaviorism in other places, but that doesn't mean I think it's all bad all the time. I just don't think it should be your guiding principal. I lean heavily on reflective discourse and you've certainly got to integrate that here. However, reflection without action doesn't lead to change. As the positive deviants example shows, knowing what to do isn't enough. If you're looking for another psych idea, self-efficacy is what's coming into play here. A student, who's been expelled from two schools and has a 0.33 GPA, knows they need to "work harder and start behaving." They just don't know where to start and probably don't even think that's possible. You give them something they can do, something that the best students do, and it starts to build. Something you do every day becomes a habit. Habits becomes attitudes and eventually it just becomes "how they are."

If you don't believe in the motivation of the chain give it a try. Get a big wall calendar, or go to, pick a goal, and start. I guarantee you once you get a few big red Xs going you'll want to continue. Then life will intervene and your chain will break.You'll be depressed for about 30 seconds and then you'll want to start the chain again.

I don't know how many times I've yelled at a kid and told them to Pay Attention, Work Harder, or Listen. I might as well be telling them to write their answers in French.

Start with one thing. Let them do it every day. Attitudes will follow actions.

1: This applies to everyone. I remember my first year listening to a presenter. He showed some writing samples that were tangential to his talk. I asked how he got his kids writing at such a high level. He replied, "Oh you just have to scaffold that really well." Thanks highly paid presenter. I just need to scaffold. Well that solves everything.

2: I have no idea how to reference a book in Kindle, but the Heath brothers call them “bright spots” instead of positive deviants. I don’t know why. The section on solutions-focused therapists is also relevant here, starting in what looks like Location 500 on my Kindle. 

Postscript: I'm about halfway done with Switch and the entire book seems to be based around the idea of taking small actions to solve big problems.They would call the behavior list "scripting the critical moves."


  1. I really like the idea of not breaking the chain. I put Switch on my wish list at Amazon. I may have to get it now!

  2. Thanks Kate. And now I'm done writing about things not directly related to assessment....

  3. I think you do well on non-assessments posts-- Gawande and the Heath brothers have written some of my favorite books, and I love them on a "duh, this makes so much sense" level. Thanks for taking those great ideas and bringing them to a "so here's what it looks like in real life" level and doing exactly what the books suggest: demystifying good intentions and making them concrete.

  4. Your post caused a light bulb to go off! Duh! I've been thinking all summer about how improve my classroom management. I get so frustrated because the students just don't seem to get what they're suppose to do (my student taking Algebra 1 as a Pre-AP class). They are just doing what has worked for them in past math classes. Now they aren't always the brightest kid in the class - they have to work at it. I am definitely stealing -- I mean using your idea. I'll let you know how it goes. Thanks!

  5. Thanks Grace. I think "duh, this makes so much sense" sums it up nicely. That actually sums up my journey through improving as a teacher. I complicate things and someone will say or post something and I'll be like..duh....

    @Mrs. G - Steal away. I'm sure I stole it from someone somewhere. Btw, I tried to leave a welcome to blogging note on your blog Mathematically Perturbed but I think you have to enable comments.

  6. Interesting and well-articulated. I really responded to the notion that kids want to do better, but they just don't know how. I had never really thought about that before. Looking forward to hearing how this works out for you.

  7. Love it...solid ideas worth stealing. Thanks! BTW, you should consider a follow-up piece once the school year starts (no really!).

  8. I like this idea, because it reinforces the idea that everyday, we make a series of small choices that will positively or negatively impact our chances of success.

    Logistically, when do your kids complete their checkmarks? Do you build in time into your schedule daily for them to do this? What if their goal involves weekends?

  9. @Mimi daily goal. So they are "reminded" of it by having their calendars visible each day when they get their portfolios. At the end of the day, as part of the closing procedure they X off or not. Normally I have them write a daily summary in their notebooks (we have a standard format that the AVID teacher has us all do) so I figure that's just an add on.

  10. @Mimi sorry, forgot to answer this. Part of the lure of the chain is that it is a visual, unbroken string of Xs. You can't really have a "just a weekend" chain. Although if it's something you think they can do 7 days a week I'm sure it's not a big deal to just have them X it off on Monday.

  11. these behavior/psychology posts (like the diet one) are great. it's almost like an iwillteachyoutoberich for teaching. (that's my fave personal finance blog... it's got a large basis on behavioral psychology)