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Sunday, September 16, 2012

Never Work Harder Than Your Students (recommended book)

There’s something deliciously subversive about being told not to work harder, isn’t there?  But, as you’ve probably guessed, Dr. Robyn Jackson isn't giving us a license to slack off but a call to refocus our energy so that we and our students are working more effectively.

You do this not by learning yet another technique, but by “match[ing] your instructional approach to the subject matter and the teaching needs of your students.”  In fact, the core of Dr. Jackson’s message is that master teachers may use quite different techniques from one another to motivate their students or teach a particular skill, but they all follow the same seven principles. 

1. Start where your students are
Find out what your students value and show them how the class can help them get what they value.  For example, some students may not be motivated by grades, but may feel motivated by being part of a group of peers working toward a common goal. 

2. Know where your students are going
Distinguish between content goals and process goals; that is, between what students need to know as opposed to what they need to be able to do.  For example, do you want your students to be able to analyze different types of sentences or to use them in their writing?

3. Expect to get your students to their goal
Don’t give up in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.  Shift from thinking “Can I teach these [unmotivated] students [with skills far below grade level]?to “How can I teach these students?”

4. Support your students along the way
“With the right supports, students are capable of doing more than you think they can.”

So how do we provide the right supports?  By doing things like:
  • Anticipating what part of the lesson students might be confused by
  • Moving from the concrete to the abstract
  • Looking for ways to demystify the academic process
  • Gradually removing supports as students become more proficient
And, probably most important, clarifying why students are struggling, which may not be for the reasons we assume.  She gives the example of a math teacher who thought his students didn’t understand how to calculate mean, median, and mode, when they actually didn’t understand how to use Excel spreadsheets.

5. Use Effective Feedback
“Use feedback to show students not just how to work hard, but how to work hard at the right things so that they will not fail in the future.”

6. Focus on quality rather that quantity
“Rather than trying to cover as much as possible… first determine what students absolutely need to know and how well they need to know it… provide students with multiple, targeted opportunities to develop and deepen their understanding of the crucial knowledge and skills of the curriculum.”

And, finally, 7. Never work harder than your students
“Giving work back to the students isn’t just about how to make students work; it’s about how to give the right work to the students.  It’s about getting clarity on what is your work and what is their work, and making sure that you do your work and they do theirs.”
For example, when giving an assignment the teacher’s job is to:
  • Clarify the parameters of the assignment.
  • Define potential pitfalls.  Show students how to avoid these.
  • Establish and communicate how the work will be evaluated and by what standard.
  • Identify and make available the resources students will need to do the work effectively.
  • Establish consequences for not doing the work.
Then it’s up to the students to do their job.

As well as clear, detailed explanations of each strategy, Never Work Harder Than Your Students provides examples of teachers who’ve successfully applied them in different types of courses, as well as quizzes and rubrics to help us apply them to our own classes. 

I think this book would be ideal for a practicum course, or any situation where teachers are actively working in the classroom and also have a context for self-analysis and discussion.  If you aren’t already in that type of context, there are suggestions for working with a partner or a mentor.

You can find a sample chapter at  There are also classroom resources available for free if you choose to register.

related posts:

The Courage to Teach (recommended book)

A Path with Heart: The Inner Journey to Teaching Mastery

Self-Care for Mindful (but Busy!) Teachers

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