Value: Motivation and Knowledge with a Context

An Edgile Practice

I like to find ways to make the topic of study valuable - not to me, but to the students. I actually usually find that value requires a context or integration. If an engineer builds a more efficient transport boat, but the boat regularly sinks when sailing in wind, then the boat has little value despite its newly engineered efficiency. Similarly, student learning proceeds with value.

Generally, I have found students will cultivate their own value when they have a choice in how they approach and apply the learning associated with a subject. In particular, students will find value when they can define their own goal consistent with the class agenda and ideally within a context that is valuable or interesting to others.

To that end, I encourage students to pick their own learning goals within the open guidelines of the class. I generally ask them to choose their own backstory and context for each subject. For many teachers - and possibly for you, the readers - this may sound silly or like a waste of time. However, creating a backstory and context has many beneficial side effects: a) students have a goal that they chose themselves; b) students have their own context - many teenagers seem to enjoy creating a new experimental identity); and c) students research the broad aspects of a topic and to figure out what is most important in the areas that they find attractive. At this point, assuming the students have the feeling that they will be supported and can accomplish their goal, they have acquired their own value and context for the material and the project.

This startup process includes the students learning some background about what they are learning without violating the principle of “cooking from day one.” Teenagers, if not overwhelmed by the idea, enjoy picking their own goals and exercising their indepence. As teachers, it is important to be flexible enough to allow goals that might be outside our teacher expectations, especially if the outcomes are valuable and still fit, perhaps more widely interpreted, with the learning goals of the course.

However, startup with choice is not quite enough. It’s not the whole story.

Students must go deep enough in a subject so that they discover viable, but competing, answers to the problems they are working on, so that they can explain why their solutions are defendable within their chosen context. For example, while collaborating with a biology teacher, we decided to combine biology and robotics and have the students build their own mini-robot gardeners to care for their plants over a three week holiday. A few students chose what they believed was the best watering strategy, but they didn’t anticipate that the cleaning staff would move their equipment during the break. The ensuing jiggling dislodged a few sensors, and some plants were flooded with water and drowned. Upon return they learned that “best” is only best if it includes planning for failures. We could have explained planning for failure to the students, but the natural consequences of a flood was a much better teacher and the real world consequences much more memorable.

Basically, it is important to help ensure that students learn within a context with enough complexity so they learn to choose between multiple possible answers that will each have different strengths and weaknesses.

Many students are not yet accustomed to the expectation of learning enough about a topic so that they understand its complexity and the context for when it is valuable and when it is not. Therefore, initially, it is usually helpful to have them work through small challenges in a supportive, low risk situation where mistakes and exploration is safe and expected. This creates an uplifting environment where learning is enjoyable and self-motivating. Without uplift, the engagement of value and self-motivation is challenging and the need for judgement increases (and starts a vicious cycle).

The depth of knowledge gained when students choose between viable alternatives they have discovered themselves seems surprisingly under-emphasized in schools, since in the professional world this is a basic expectation. We expect our bridges and buildings to do well in earthquakes, high winds, and high water while they also serve our daily needs well. We expect doctors to advise us or pick the best medication, based on our age, sickness, our expectation of quality of life during treatment. We can perhaps leverage value to expect more of our students, too.

Learning value within a context is a very important life skill - not just an important academic skill.

Bill Tihen
Bill Tihen
Developer, Data Enthusiast, Educator and Nature’s Friend

very curious – known to explore knownledge and nature