1st Grade Teacher Shows How to Design an Instant Learning Organization

All human organizations need boundaries and consequences. People young and old need to know that there are social rules that will be followed and that those who treat the rules with contempt will be punished. At the same time a human organization needs to have a mission that inspires people to want to show up and do the work. A school in particular needs to organize around its central purpose (learning) and not around its discipline system. A school that focuses children’s attention on a discipline system is a waste of human resources, because all children start school loving to create, make friends and learn.

How first grade teacher Janet starts off the year points the way for all human organizations from classrooms and schools to businesses and homes.

On the first day of a new year, Janet gathers her class of 24 students into a circle on the floor of the classroom. First comes her Mission Statement:

“I am sitting here with you because I love learning. I love teaching, because the more I teach, the more I learn. The more I learn the smarter and happier I get. My hope for you all is that by the end of the year you feel the same way I do.”

Then comes her Strategy Statement:

“Humans tend to learn best in groups. We learn more, and we learn better, when we learn with and from each other. That’s why there’s school.

“How much we learn has a lot to do with how much we enjoy it, and how much we enjoy it has to do with how well organized we are as a learning team. So let’s get organized. Together, we are going to build an awesome learning organization.”

She then leads them in a collective Design of their learning organization

“I personally have one requirement: Be kind,” she says and writes it at the top of a giant Post-it pad on an easel.

Then she says: “How can other people help you learn?” She writes down their answers and the class comes up with a list like this (different every year):

Ask if they can help me

Asks me what the problem is

Listens to me

Doesn’t get mad at me

Shows me how

Asks good questions

Is friendly

Doesn’t talk too much

Asks me to help them, sometimes

Depending on the students, the initial list will be rudimentary. The purpose of the starter list is to get them thinking about what it takes to build a learning community. The initial quality doesn’t matter, because it will grow and improve in the course of the year.

Janet says: “Great start. We have made a starter-list of the disciplines of a learning organization; if we do these things we will all learn a lot. Now, here’s The Plan for building our organization.”

Going to her desk where a bowl of green marbles stands next to a pretty, empty jar labeled “Learning Bank,” she says: “Every time you see someone do something that helps someone else learn, take a marble out of the bowl and put it in the Bank.”

Janet demonstrates by picking up a colored marker, marking “Listens to me,” and saying: “You were listening to me and that helped a lot.”

“If the discipline you saw is not on the list, add it.

“We will review and update our lists at the end of every week as we evaluate our week together.

“Now, we just designed our learning organization. As the year goes on, we will build it together.”

Making learning skills explicit never eliminates the need for boundaries and consequences. “Being kind no matter what” is a requirement for membership in a learning organization, and therefore, of course, “Never be mean” is a rigid law, and appropriate consequences apply.

Usually, there will be some people in the organization who are so habituated to awards and punishments as motivational tools that it may take some time for them to get back in touch with their internal motivation to learn, regain their drive to create, and relearn how rewarding it is to do things for others. However, by focusing the students on educational objectives rather than rules, Janet has made herself the leader of a group of motivated learners. Now her job is helping them with their mission, rather than keeping them in line.  Furthermore, defining a social “situation” as a problem-solving opportunity, focuses energy where it ought to be—becoming smarter.

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Dana and His Mother: Two Agendas

Look who’s going on a journey

Look who isn’t.
For months before his first trip
All eyes and ears, Dana gathered data,
Taking statistics
Like a data vacuum cleaner.
Six weeks ago he tested his new apparatus for the first time.
Now, all systems GO, he’s on his journey.
Let the games begin.

Does this tweak your heart to ponder something?

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What is Genius? Part 3: Tom, Marty and the Meaning of Life

Marty Dutcher, a colleague whose first career was early childhood education, told me about a guy named Tom he used to hang out with in his twenties. Tom especially liked to listen to Marty play the guitar.

On one day when Marty asked him to sing along, he said “I can’t. I’m tone deaf.”

“Who told you that,” asked Marty,

“My first grade teacher,” his friend replied.

“She was wrong. She shouldn’t have said that,” said Marty.

“No, really, I am.”

“No, really you are not. If you were tone deaf, you wouldn’t enjoy my music,” said Marty, who then proved to him that he wasn’t. Continue reading

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Baby Begins to Search the World

A blog post entitled:  “Let’s get that baby moving! Part 2” is an example of parent education one might call “Helicopter Training.”

Watch the last 2 minutes of this seven minute video of a 9-month-old baby. What do you see? Continue reading

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Service Learning Kids Find Buried Treasure.

This spring Susan Porter’s sixth grade class found two bags of treasure in Lake Merritt, a140-acre tidal lagoon in downtown Oakland, California. What surprised the reporters (though not me and Susan) was that the kids were not at all selfish about it. They were happy simply to have made a difference. (Later they were happy to have made it on TV). These students are examples of what kids look like when they are treated as if they are inherently altruistic rather than inherently selfish. Continue reading

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Overparenting: How Not to Get Kids Ready for School

Last school year, I saw a young mother and father in the Decatur Public Library leaning forward over a small table overparenting their three-year-old daughter as she tried to put together the puzzle of an alligator with 26 green pieces A to Z. Continue reading

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What Are the Elements of a Great Educational Moment?

 What does Allan and Elise’s experience tell us about the essential elements of an educational moment?

Shucking Corn with Elise

By Allan Stern

Continue reading

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Kindergarten Readiness: Parent Strategy for Best Results.

A very reliable way of assessing children’s readiness for kindergarten is to bring twelve four-and-a-half-year-olds together for a one-hour mock kindergarten class. A teacher greets parent and child at the door, and the parent says good-bye. Most of the time the children leave their parents happily and launch off into what for them is a super play-date. Continue reading

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Thoughtfulness 2: How to Evaluate Teachers

Last week I told the story of how Helen, age 3, resolved a fight in the sandbox one Saturday afternoon. Her diplomatic skills were dramatically evident leaving one wondering how to get her on some Middle East peacemaking team—or simply how to turn over the job to her. Continue reading

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Thoughtfulness: Engaging Empathy to Build Strong Brains

Helen was playing in the sandbox in the park, when a brawl between a brother and sister broke out near her. Helen looked up from her work to see them arguing over a shovel, knocking each other to the ground. Continue reading

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