July 5

Never Judge

Never judge. I was recently talking to a friend whose family is struggling financially. Her husband was laid off from his job, and is having difficulty finding another one that combines his skills and interests. This friend is (by choice) not working, so I asked her why she doesn’t look for a job, to help ends meet. The answer she gave me was not at all what I expected.

She explained that at a job she had a few years ago, she felt undervalued. That experience dealt a long-term blow to her confidence. She often thinks of seeking out a job, but then backs away, because of her lack of confidence. She rattled off a long list of skills and experience she has, in a variety of work environments. While she understands on a logical level that she is “marketable,” the emotional impact of one experience in a negative work environment has paralyzed her.

This woman is in middle life. She raised a daughter as a single mother, while holding down a full-time job. Not only did she provide for her daughter materially, she instilled a positive attitude and confidence. That daughter is a grown woman who has a successful career and family life of her own, so the positive outcomes of my friend’s parenting are apparent. She has every right to feel accomplished. But, she doesn’t.

Given that the unkind or thoughtless words and actions of a manager have created this handicap in a mature adult’s life, just imagine what we  have the power to do in the lives of the children we work with. Every time we speak harshly, or diminish, or demean, we are creating negative effects that last well beyond the immediate situation.

Similarly, when we have students who have an attitude, or are trouble-makers, or any other negative adjective we can assign, we need to never judge. What has their life experience been to-date? How many times have other adults told them they are incapable, or worthless, or similar? Our job, as educators, is to develop all students’ abilities, regardless of the baggage they have arrived with.

We need to provide them with opportunities to grow. Regardless of how small and wilted they are when they arrive, we need to send them on to their next experience taller, straighter, and more vigorous. What are some ways we can do this?

Within the #PBL model, there are ample opportunities to demonstrate to students that we value them and their contributions.  The first, and perhaps most important aspect, is authenticity. As Sam Seidel says, “keep it real.” When we ask students  to investigate driving questions they can relate to, they become more engaged. At the same time, we send the message that we believe in their ability to find solutions to complex, messy, open-ended problems. Dayna Laur’s book Authentic Learning Experiences has specific ideas on how to develop projects that have real-world connections that are meaningful to students.

To underscore our confidence in students’ abilities, we need to offer “voice and choice,” giving the students a significant say in the kinds of products they will develop; in other words, the method they will use to demonstrate their understanding . This is a grand, and liberating, departure from the assignment of yore, “write a 500-word essay,” or “on a tri-fold board…”. This flexibility in product choice often results in students developing 21st-Century media and technology skills, such as website design, or video editing, and most certainly deeper research skills.

Project development is an iterative process. This is true in PBL, and equally true in the work world. No project is complete from A-Z without some revisions along the way. This is often challenging for students (and educators) to accept. In traditional education, there are “rights” and “wrongs,” and making a mistake is a negative. PBL assumes that the first iteration will have flaws, and challenges students to improve their work, often multiple times. Peer and teacher (facilitator) assessments identify what a student has done well, and what areas of his/her work could be improved. My hero in this area remains Ron Berger, the master facilitator who inspires students to create “beautiful work.”

Many students arrive at a point during their education where they have a fixed mindset, wherein they “believe that their traits are just givens. They have a certain amount of brains and talent and nothing can change that. If they have a lot, they’re all set, but if they don’t… So people in this mindset worry about their traits and how adequate they are. They have something to prove to themselves and others.”  As students work through the iterative process of PBL, however, they begin to develop a growth mindset, where they “see their qualities as things that can be developed through their dedication and effort. Sure they’re happy if they’re brainy or talented, but that’s just the starting point. They understand that no one has ever accomplished great things—not Mozart, Darwin, or Michael Jordan—without years of passionate practice and learning.”

As a final reinforcement to students about the meaningfulness of their work, we need to seek a public audience. This audience serves a two-fold purpose. Firstly, many community members have a keen interest in fostering interest in the work they do. They are happy to act as consultants during the project development process. Secondly, community experts are enthused about attending a presentation of the work students have done, and often have insightful questions and feedback that further strengthen the point that students and their work are valuable.

The next time you have a “problem” student, never judge. Instead, use PBL to nurture that wilted plant into a strong, robust one that is prepared for the next challenge.

 

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