Monday, December 31, 2012

12/31: Discussion Facilitation Skills Support Learning

Our focus should be not just on seeing possibilities, but creating opportunity; and not just on creating opportunities, but on creating an environment that leads at least the most malleable people on our campus--the students--to seize opportunities.
~ Louis Schmier, in email 12.11.12 on the Professional and Organizational Development listserv

To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved
~ George MacDonald (Scottish author/poet d 1905)

The business of life is not to succeed, but to fail in good spirits.
~ Robert Louis Stevenson

We are privileged to learn something of value in . . . every interaction. Our teachers are all around us.
~ Karen Casey, A Life of My Own

Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.
~Spoken by the Countess of Rousillon in All’s Well that Ends Well, (Act I, Scene 1) William Shakespeare

Happy New Year!  (image borrowed from newsletter of Dunn Gardens, Seattle, WA)

Executive Summary:  At 19 and a college junior, I helped in a freshman biology lab.  My supervisor, Betty Gilbert, offered me an opportunity to speak about cell division in a pre-lab talk.  I “prepared” a week ahead for the 5-minute task:  a snap, I thought. Two minutes in, a stumper question and an important lesson:   knowing-to-teach is getting it at a very different, deeper level that knowing-to-test.  Test questions about mitosis were simple for me—understanding was different.  Betty trusted me and walked away.  I never forgot.  (That was in 1963: now Professor Gilbert is in her 80s, lives in a family homestead in Vermont, drives on long bird-watching trips from time to time, and regularly commutes to Dartmouth’s library in Hanover, NH. ) Although the focus here is on skills for discussion, we build trust through all our behavior with students and with each other.   This post offers resources to expand your repertoire of skills for leading rich discussions.

What is discussion?  In an early part of my career, I might have described discussion as a loosely-structured  question-and-answer session.  It is far from that:  healthy discussion requires careful advance thought about outcomes and skillful management of direction and student responses.  Like any skill, competence with facilitating discussion expands with practice and mistakes.  In return, it offers (1) students a rich window into their own thinking, and (2) teachers an unparalleled assessment opportunity.  It also gives students a chance to utilize concepts and to deepen their thinking through articulation and exchanges with you and with fellow learners, and provides an opportunity to build confidence and trust:  trust of your students in themselves, trust of your students in you and trust of students in classmates.  Some issues:   How can I get a discussion started?  How can I keep it going?  What can I do if it falls apart?  How can I avoid lapsing into lecture?  How can I encourage involvement from quiet students, prevent a few from dominating exchanges?  How can I deal with inappropriate responses?  Should I grade discussions or participation?

Here are five bottom-line keys:  (1) Enter a discussion, as you would any activity in any class, with a clear view of academic and skill outcomes: What do you want to happen?   (2) Have a clear picture of your role as a facilitator.  (3) Pack a toolkit of skills for what-to-do-when unexpected things happen or the discussion or tone takes an unwanted direction.  (4) Have central questions ready, and plan to encourage student preparation as needed.   (5) Plan or script responses that you can use when students answer badly, incompletely, incorrectly; or when incivility springs forth.  There are many discussion-planning resources available, in print and online.  A few of the best and most complete are listed below; it’s worth looking at several, because-- though many sources mention similar issues--counsel about challenge management differs in interesting ways and you’ll learn a lot from comparing them and deciding what fits for you.  Each includes a wide variety of additional links, including some how-to video.

Princeton:  This is a wonderfully organized piece that covers planning, structuring questions, and dealing with problems.  A roadmap opens the show, making it easy to navigate rich content: Tips for Discussion Facilitation

Bok Center, Harvard:   This is a compact, printable document with brief tips and a bibliography leading to other resources: Harvard Bok Center Discussion Tips and Resources

Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching:   This user-friendly web page neatly capsules basic principles, then moves to specific tools, strategies and models, leading the reader to expanded resources by using additional annotated links:  Vanderbilt University Teaching Resources:  Discussion Tips   

Indiana University:  This nicely-organized page that includes counsel about the usual variables but also a significant component on whether to and how to grade discussions:  Indiana University:  DIscussion Tips    Also see Leading Discussion of Sensitive Issues.  From any IU page, search “discussion” for more resources.

University of Washington:  While constructed for teaching assistants, advice here will support all faculty:

MIT:  We can manage student responses, even poor ones, in gentle ways that encourage everyone, build trust and model civility.  This is a neat page about how to respond to students in a discussion:  MIT:  Responding Efffectively to Student Questions .  Another counsels question-building:  “What Makes a Good Question?” at  MIT:  What Makes a Good Question?  

Yale:  A three-page bullet-point, neatly-organized list of hints for discussion leaders:

University of North Carolina:  This is a big, useful document that explores many aspects of guided discussions, dating back to 1992.  Likely intended for graduate teaching assistants, it nevertheless contains much useful advice for faculty: University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill:  Guiding Discussion

Warm wishes always,

Mike Dabney

Write me:
702 Wake Robin Drive, Shelburne, VT 05482

Call me: 802-985-0088 (Vermont) 808-781-3294 (nationwide cell, does not work well at home)

Travel schedule includes New York (January), Seattle (February, March, April, June), San Diego (June), Los Angeles (early February and late June), San Francisco (March and April).

TEACHER TRAINING has been much in the news, much under scrutiny.  Highlights:   What makes a Great Teacher?   Building a Better Teacher, from the New York Times (March 2, 2010):

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


We find that people's beliefs about their efficacy affect the sorts of choices they make in very significant ways. In particular, it affects their levels of motivation and perseverance in the face of obstacles. Most success requires persistent effort, so low self-efficacy becomes a self-limiting process. In order to succeed, people need a sense of self-efficacy, strung together with resilience to meet the inevitable obstacles and inequities of life.
~ Albert Bandura (1925-  Stanford psychologist)
I tell students:  “Don’t just tell me what it is.  What can you do with it?”  In just three months, they learn this method of thinking. They may have lived in a black and white world, but now they see there are lots of gray areas—and how to evaluate them.
~ Michael Lange, Champlain College (VT), teaches undergraduate core courses
Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.
~ Helen Keller
When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That's the message he is sending
~ Thich Nhat Hanh (81-year-old Zen Buddhist monk)
If you truly want to make a difference in a student's life, if you want always to make each student feel appreciated and noticed and invaluable, if you want each of them to achieve, be careful to not demean or diminish her or him; if you want each of them to succeed you have to see intently in each of them the potential that they so often don't know or believe is there.
~ Louis Schmier (in email 8-27-08)

I have a success autopilot!

Executive Summary   The dandelion begins life as vulnerable as any organism, but with a pre-set plan and the genetic means and determination to survive-and-thrive.  Our students arrive with a mixed bag of strengths and deficits, not only in academic skills but in beliefs about self-efficacy that underpin basic happiness and success.  It may be that optimism and resilience—the belief that in persistence one will prevail—is partly hard-wired.  Even so, I believe there is much we can do to set the stage for better student self-understanding of strengths and robust growth of the belief that personal success is possible and likely, as well as to build the capacity to cope successfully and hopefully with confusion, chaos, and setbacks, common at some point in every life.  In this message, I explore a few strategies to do these things.  As you discover others, please share.   

Students arrive with diverse skills and attitudes, sometimes dragging a negative self-image and a doomsday prophesy of their ability to cope with academic challenges.   This phenomenon, which afflicts higher education at every level, has spawned a movement called developmental education, of special prominence in community colleges, and some controversy about whether bringing students up to skill-speed is the responsibility of special courses/curricula or can be embedded in content teaching.  There’s a National Center for Developmental Education, part of the education school at Appalachian State University (  The director, Hunter Boylan, writes:

  Students fail to do well in college for a variety of reasons, and only one of them is lack of academic preparedness. Factors such as personal autonomy, self-confidence, ability to deal with racism, study behaviors, or social competence have as much or more to do with grades, retention, and graduation than how well a student writes or how competent a student is in mathematics.

Programs that focus on skill development across the curriculum, such as OnCourse ( have identified choices of successful students and make web-based materials available to anyone.

What is resilience?   One dictionary describes it as the ability to recover quickly from misfortune or adversity:  bounce-back.  We might extend that to the positive capacity of people to cope with stress or catastrophe, sustained optimism, competence and productivity in the face of challenge, or accomplishment beyond what might be expected based on inherent or imposed limitations.  My mother was widowed in 1974, without money management skills.  No math whiz, mom rolled up her sleeves and, with the help of a brokerage firm, took charge of her investments for thirty years.  My own life offers an example:   In 2003, life challenges brought me near a break-point.  I was in Vermont helping my mother, by then disabled and unable to travel alone but addicted to spending part of each spring in the chilly, muddy, icy wilderness steps from Canada.   In a pristine spot, we were both miserable.  My mom was a prisoner of emphysema, unable to walk out without help.  One cottage away, I was broke, underemployed and imprisoned by crushing debt.  I lay awake night after night, nursing a bad attitude.  Then one night I recalled a lesson from a friend with a life-threatening illness:  I consider my challenge a gift.   I stilled negative thinking and began a mental gratitude list, hoping to discover the gift inside my challenge.   Every night thereafter, the gratitude list grew and a plan began to form.  Something in me was saying, if not shouting: You can face and resolve this!   I did, without bankruptcy—but that’s another story.

ASCD (the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, an educational leadership organization) in 2005 published Resilient School Leaders: Strategies for Turning Adversity Into Achievement by Jerry L. Patterson and Paul Kelleher.  Chapter 1 portrays the development of resilience as a continuous building process; the full, illustrated chapter is available online at

How do we help nurture resilience?       Many authors believe schools can support students, particularly those at risk, through resilience-building experiences that focus on five themes: (a)  competency (feeling successful), (b) belonging (feeling valued), (c) usefulness (feeling needed), (d) potency (feeling empowered) and (e) optimism (feeling encouraged, hopeful).   Experiences that relate to these five factors are likely to enhance student motivation and self-esteem — and consequently, achievement.1    Some ways:

1.  Offer challenge coupled with support   Learners engage best in tasks that provide challenges they perceive as do-able, and opt out when the task is perceived as too difficult or too easy.  You may have students whose pre-college experience predisposes them to demand spoon-feeding; don’t pander to them.  Provide reasonable challenge and supports for those who perceive themselves not quite up to the challenge.  Workplace reality:  employers  want problem-solvers, not information-consumers.

2.  Model effective coping when setback and failure occur.  Share your own stories; solicit stories from students; encourage community-building around the telling of experiences that make us stronger.

3.  Prompt self-awareness of performance goals    Success and failure both instruct powerfully.   You can enhance student awareness of performance criteria, and prompt goal-setting by asking students to help build performance rubrics.  For a rubrics primer, see    and The best introduction to rubrics I’ve ever seen is the ASCD article linked early in the latter item.

4.  Provide opportunities for belonging and usefulness    How we respond in classroom and office exchanges, can support or exclude . . . and students can be taught inclusive responses.  Later in 2013, I’ll devote an entire post to these skills.  Meanwhile, a good start is at

5.  In assignments, create experiences that build competence from many levels and are planned to provide the experience of small, integrated successes.   My first year teaching at HPU I required students to conclude projects with a class presentation.  Most of them had no idea how to design or deliver a quality piece and there was much visible anxiety, reading-in-a-whisper-voice from prompt cards, many yawns.  When I began to teach the elements of presentation-building, including how to build audience outcomes and engagement strategies, things improved.  Similarly, complex assignments (such as papers or presentations) or complex ideas, often can be broken into components, a useful technique called scaffolding.  Assignment scaffolding reduces the cost of errors and enhances risk-taking.  For an introduction to some scaffolding ideas, see  

6.  Express confidence that all students will exit your class at a level of competence and navigational skill higher than when they entered as well as more knowledgeable about content.  Carl Farrell, a colleague at Hawaii Pacific Univesity, taught me this point of view.    

7.  Teach that criticism and failure need not be taken personally   Some might call this attitude adjustment.  P.M. Forni, a John's Hopkins professor of Italian literature, has written two charming books on commonplace civility.  Fundamentally, both concern emotional-energy-conserving shifts in response to negative environmental events.  In The Civility Solution, Forni offers an approach to rudeness.  In essence he suggests we not mentally tag events as "unacceptable" and thus spare expenditure of emotional energy on imagining unnecessary "solutions." He suggests practicing acceptance of everyday irritants, stripping them of the emotional baggage, the “fight-back” we usually attach. Could this strengthening tactic be taught to students?  Forni’s books can be found at Forni Civility Books  

8. Intentionally build community for students with resilient peer and instructor mentors.  Individual resilience often grows out of the experience of adversity, through which individuals learn to navigate adverse circumstances and then to capitalize on those experiences in future adversity.  In classes, create opportunities for community-building and experience-sharing, drawing on experiences of major and minor adversity and the strengths that emerged from those challenges.

9.  Solicit office visits by students, opening conversations that help you know them better.

10.  Finally:  Linda Meccouri, formerly at Springfield Technical Community College, published an article describing a classroom exercise she uses to prompt student self-awareness of strengths:  Promoting Resilience in First Generation College Students.  Though this article is no longer available online, a PowerPoint slide series related to it is at
Also see

1 Pikes, T., Burrell, B. and Holliday, C.   (1998) Using Academic Strategies to Build Resilience.   Reaching Today's Youth Vol. 2 Issue 3. pp 44-47. Online at

∞   ∞   ∞   ∞   ∞   ∞   ∞   ∞   ∞   ∞   ∞   ∞

This post is part of a series published monthly and intended for college and community-college level educators.  Readers should feel free to use parts of any post in their own newsletters, with appropriate attribution, and to contact me with questions or suggestions at

An immensely rewarding part of my retirement life is helping individuals or groups, playing a part in their growth.   Often the issues are simple, involving classroom irritants.  Sometimes it’s about locating a resource, suggesting a fresh approach to a classroom challenge.  It’s sometimes about thinking ahead to a challenge, such as a re-appointment portfolio.  Sometimes it involves a broader or more complex matter, such as ways to improve end-of-term evaluations (and to eliminate the “bombs” that often come attached), or dealing with challenging dynamics in a class or in a faculty group.   In such conversations, I learn and  thrive.  You can engage full and confidential attention from me by using email:   Telephone or Skype conversations can be arranged.   I travel often to west and east coast cities.

Michael W. Dabney
702 Wake Robin Drive
Shelburne, VT  05482

Friday, November 2, 2012

Preventing and Responding to Uncivil Classroom Behavior

I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.

It is helpful to talk about these problems and hear what strategies other instructors use.
[Then] you don’t feel like you’re the only one.

Executive Summary:  This message offers resources about classroom incivility and support for preventing and dealing with disruptive classroom behavior.   It is meant to prompt reflection.   

Behavior Problems in College?  In forty years of teaching, I never had a student refuse to talk outside class—until October 2004.  On a student paper (inside other comments) I asked (politely and privately) for a brief meeting.  In return, I got an angry explosion—and very public, in-my-face—challenge:  All you need to know is in what I wrote.  I don’t need to meet with you, I’m busy and I’m not about to do it.  (I’ve omitted expletives.)  Another student responded to a benign, private expression of concern (about attendance, in e-mail) by advising me to butt out of her business.  Whoa!  Judging from behavior I’ve seen in classroom visits (and an increasing number of anecdotal reports from colleagues) out-of-bounds behavior is unhappily common if not openly discussed.   It’s happening at universities everywhere, and not only in freshman classes.  

We work hard to create a healthy atmosphere for teaching and learning.  A single disaffected, disengaged (or downright nasty) student can disrupt a carefully crafted climate of trust and collegiality and push us off balance.  Some issues (e.g. cell phones and side talk) are trivial but irritating.  Verbal assault and other disruptive behaviors can be much more serious.  All deserve attention, and how we respond to these things is noticed by students.  Solutions are suggested by twenty years of scholarship, and we begin to address the problem by acknowledging it is real.  The problems vary; there is no fits-all solution.  An excellent, compact review and strategies that prompt preventive reflection on your teaching practice, can be found at
Combatting Classroom Misconduct (Incivility) with Bills of Rights
(Linda Nilson and Susan Jackson, Clemson University)  
(Temple University)
(University of South Carolina)

My personal suggestions     I began to write about incivility in 2004, for my own faculty colleagues at Hawaii Pacific University.  My goal was to open conversation, for the culture then was one of silence.  They began to talk, first to each other and then to me.  Over a year or two, the culture shifted dramatically.   Here are some key ideas:

Keep your balance.    With few exceptions, most student behavior problems—even verbal attacks—are not about you.  This can be hard to believe when someone is attacking you verbally.  Don’t take it personally, keep your perspective intact, and delay response so you have time to reflect and consult others.

Collect feedback from your classes early and often.   Unvoiced concerns can be a major spoiler of class culture, and they can fester into attack mode on end-of-term evaluations.   Early feedback gives you an opportunity to re-shape instruction or approach when practical.  Perhaps more than any other behavior, simple self-assessment of teaching (such as Start-Stop-Continue) communicates your caring about the student experience.  This strategy also helps students understand they and their peers have different but complementary strengths in their methods of learning.  Getting started is easy, and the results deeply satisfying:   How-to strategies are here:  Assessment of Teaching   Don’t wait until the end of a term to do this.  Start early, and be certain to act constructively on the feedback when circumstances make change appropriate.

Co-create expectations with your classes.  Doing this is a major departure from rules-in-the syllabus, and while not for everyone it does generate major commitment to civil behavior from your students.  Read about this, and about how-to-do-it,  in the Nilson/Jackson article linked above, or at  

Model positivity in conflict; be careful about language   You will be seen as direct, but accessible and positive when you use appropriate language.  Avoid  language that might be interpreted, even when you didn’t intend so, as public demeaning or shaming.   When possible, set boundaries in private.  When student behavior sets off anger, frustration or shock, you may feel like striking out, but avoid reactive behavior.  But do tell the student, as privately as possible:  I’m excited by your passion and intensity about this, but expressing it in public is not appropriate, and harms my relationship with other students, who look to me for leadership.  We need to continue this conversation in private.  Then invite a decision:  When and where would this work best for you?  Even when a question could have been answered by consulting your syllabus, restrain negative comments.  Doing so will pay off in long term trust.

Develop knowledge of your institution’s referral resources.   There are times when students need direction to campus mental health resources.  (1) Find out what those resources are, and (2) make proactive contact with them to learn the best ways of referral.  (3) Carry a campus security contact number and learn from your supervisor when to make such a contact.  (4) Build a relationship with your supervisor or department chair; support is important when you find yourself in trouble.   File a proactive written report with this person for documentation when you get unusual student behavior in class.

Consult more experienced colleagues, or your teaching-center personnel.  For behavior or other challenges, other faculty members are a rich source of support.     Where I worked in Hawaii, faculty were reluctant to discuss student behavior for fear of being seen as wimpy or witless.  But veterans usually welcome requests for support and have long ago solved what seems intractable to newer instructors.

The internet is rich with resources, many of them at other teaching center sites.  For instance:
Classroom Management Tips
Student Behavior Problems
Collaborative Syllabus 
University of Texas
Discipline Pitfalls in the College Classroom  

Contact me for help:   I am retired and live in Vermont,  but am easily contacted by email:   Explain your problem in brief, and if possible provide a telephone number and hours when you can be reached.   In email, alternatively, we can arrange for you to call me, or to connect via Skype.  There is no cost for this; I enjoy being helpful.  On occasion I do two-hour interactive workshops on classroom management;  for this work there is a modest honorarium (plus travel and lodging if I am not near your area, which can be waived if I am traveling there anyway).

Michael W. Dabney (retired teaching center director, Hawaii Pacific University, Honolulu)
702 Wake Robin Drive Shelburne VT 05482 (best contact)
cell: 808-781-3294 home: 802-985-0088

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Motivation September 29, 2012

September 29, 2012, near Milton, VT.  I am celebrating about a month of retirement living in Shelburne, VT near the college town of Burlington, adjacent to Lake Champlain.  I drive each fall to visit extreme northern Vermont, where foliage is now at its colorful peak.  As temperatures fall, the synthesis of chlorophyll slows and then stops.  As the green breaks down, other pigments become prominent.  (iPhone)


People with high assurance in their capabilities approach difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered rather than as threats to be avoided.
~ Albert Bandura (1925-  Stanford psychologist)
Whether you believe you can or believe you can’t, you’re probably right.
~ Henry Ford (founder of Ford Motor Company, d 1947)
Any activity that prompts self-assessment and goal-setting, and leads students to a clearer vision of what they want from life as well as from education, will likely sharpen motivation and achievement.
~ “Motivation” from Hawaii Pacific University’s Knowledge Base and

Hardly anything important happens that doesn't have to do with relationships . . . It's getting to know people, being interested in them. … Life is built on genuine relationships, where trust and integrity are without question. When that is there, there are no limits.
~ G. T. Buck, president of Davis and Elkins College (rural WV, enrollment 710), on the roots of motivation

Kari Brunson, who I met in 2009 when I began following ballet dancers on Twitter, had been in 2009 a professional dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet for nine years.  She broke her contract with PNB in August 2009 to become a professional chef in two Seattle restaurants.  Now, in 2012,  she is a private chef and operates a fresh juice bar at several Seattle locations.   What motivates this kind of decision?   The story of the photo-in-a-pot is at

Executive Summary   Dual hopes drive most teachers: to support student engagement in learning, and to deepen student investment in the process.   The key questions for an educator:  How do I create conditions in which my students make responsible choices about engagement and investment, choices which in turn are based on an authentic understanding of their own needs?  How do I help them discover those needs and How do I establish my content as helpful? In this message, revised from one I wrote for Hawaii Pacific University faculty in 2009, we examine the concept of motivation and a few ways of answering these questions.  You’ll have many added ideas of your own.
Links were tested and active when this message was sent.  If you find otherwise please notify

Choices can be driven from within, or from out   An impetus to action can arise extrinsically, from sources outside an individual, to gain a reward or avoid a punishment.  Or it can arise from within (intrinsically), related to (a) authentic needs (from the learner’s self-understanding of goals) or as (b) reaction to imposed control.  An attempt to impose control from outside may work for a time but later backfire when the reward or punishment is no longer supplied.  We all might wish for authentically self-motivated students, but many--perhaps most students come to our care without a clear view of their goals or the skill to establish authentic targets.

Understanding the motives of others is often very challenging   From Africa, Maria arrived in a Fall 2004 general biology class in the 4th week of a class that met only 11 Saturday mornings.   The late arrival—related to travel and visa issues—was beyond her control.   Well-mannered and articulate, she met me after  class to collect handout materials and to discuss catch-up plans.  She seemed clear about the catch-up challenge.  She skipped the 5th class, and was unresponsive when I contacted her.  A suggestion to drop was ignored.   In my mind, her absence from class was irresponsible.  She refused to discuss the matter, not recognizing (I believed) this would produce failure.  However, I had missed a key element of her motivation.  Maria, soon after she entered my class, already viewed its completion as impossible.  But she saw the drop option also as impossible:  loss of the credits would have caused her country to withdraw its support.  Failure was the better of two bad options.  Perhaps the felt shame and illogic of this dilemma made it impossible to explain; I later learned of her reasons from a counselor.    Motivation is a complex fabric, and reality is often less than clear.  

Motivation:  Is it something we are, or something we do?   Motivation is often regarded by teachers, parents and supervisors (Edward Deci calls them “one-ups,” people in authority positions) as situations or rules we set up, tools to control students, children or employees (“one-downs”). The tool is often a reward (a carrot) or a punishment (a stick).  Anyone who has used carrots or sticks knows they often work satisfyingly well, for a while.  But two big problems lurk:  (1) When a one-up stops supplying the carrot or stick, the one-down loses interest; and (2) an attempt to control may cause the one-down to respond by counter-attack:  I’ll show you that you can’t control me.  In Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards (Mariner Books, 1999) you can find a research-based analysis of the problems inherent in carrot-or-stick strategies.

Edward Deci,  a humanistic psychologist whose work is quoted in Kohn, makes a strong case that self-determination trumps control when teachers, parents or managers are trying to promote responsible decision-making.   The most authentic power driving choices, he believes, arises when a decider understands his/her own needs and acts in ways that serve those needs.   Find details in his compact, accessible book Why We Do What We Do:  Understanding Self-Motivation (Penguin Books, 1996)

Carol Dweck, in Mindset – The New Psychology of Success (Random House, 2006 and available in paperback) is an research-based but popularly-written look at powerful internal beliefs (what she calls “fixed” and “growth” mindsets).  Dweck describes an individual with fixed mindset as driven by self-judgment:  this person sees both failure and praise as validation of self-perceived insufficiency, ineptitude—or superiority.  This person may be a high performer, but gives up easily in the face of challenge.  Someone with a growth mindset, on the other hand, may feel disappointed by setback but sees failure as an energizing opportunity.  Dweck believes that such internal beliefs (a) are largely responsible for success and drive; (b) emerge through childhood experiences; and most important:  (c) can be revised. For teachers, parents and supervisors, Dweck’s work has immense and practical implications.  It means we have important choices that can influence an attitude of success in those we parent, teach or supervise.  Let us look at a few possibilities, from which you can extrapolate many more examples and applications to your own practice.:

Successful teachers model a growth mindset   One friend at Hawaii Pacific University, someone I regard as a master teacher, tells students:  Some of you will find my class materials and topics more difficult than others.  Indeed, some of you will struggle deeply.  But know this:  it is my job to support that struggle; and every one of you will exit my class with more knowledge of the content, better able to navigate it, and a more competent navigator of academics in general, than when you began the class.  [Contrast this with the UH professor—for whom, in 1969, I was a TA--who sternly warned his class of pre-med students:  Look to the left, look to the right; two out of three will be gone from this class in three weeks.]  

Connect students to their own goals, motives, targets and needs   What does education mean?  What will be your investment in it?  Discuss and dissect student investment in education, and weave that thinking into your in-class and out-of-class discussions with students.  Take a peek at Skip Downing’s Oncourse materials here:

Build students’ awareness of their most important skill sets, learning preferences, assumptions and skill development needs: = When you are pressed with questions like What will be on the test?   Ask students what they think employers want.  A guest speaker who hires nurses, for example, will validate that many of the facts students learn will be outdated when they graduate, and that employers most value self-motivated learners and problem-solvers who can work with others in teams.

Scaffolding – building assignments in small steps—helps focus students on specific skill-sets, focuses learners on process and skills rather than solely on final product.  When I lived in Honolulu, it was common to be helped in the Apple Store by a grateful HPU student who spoke of his teacher as demanding presentations but generous with energy helping students understand the elements of successful presentation.  How different, and more highly valued, is the experience of writing as a process of improving thinking, when students come to understand the value of drafts and peer comment.  The why and how of scaffolding is elaboated here:

Use Performance Rubrics to help focus students on elements of performance and on continuous improvement, and off from grades and final products.  Get started with rubrics at  Find a compact introduction to rubrics, and examples, in Using Rubrics to Promote Thinking and Learning in 2000, available online at .

Offer hope, any way you can.  Keep classroom discourse civil and safe.  Make mistakes possible and productive.  In Education for Judgment (1991), C. Roland Christensen offers this:  It would be hard to name a more valuable pedagogical accomplishment than the mastery of questioning, listening, and response: three teaching skills as linked, though distinct, as the panels of a triptych.  One of the most information-rich documents I’ve ever seen at one spot on the web is called “Questions for Class Discussion” at a Harvard teaching ccenter page:


No doubt a small percentage of our students have been blessed with supreme self-confidence. But I believe they are the exception. Most students, like most human beings, need help in learning to believe in themselves. Teachers can provide that help. We do it in the ways in which we talk to students; in the praise we give them even when they have failed. We do it by helping them understand that success — in some shape or form — is possible.
Here’s wishing you a peaceful holiday season, one that encourages
 spiritual regeneration and deepens connections with the people you love.

Image of maple leaves and Hydrangea blossoms from Dunn Gardens, Seattle, WA

Forthcoming . . .

October:   Preventing and Coping with Uncivil Classroom Behavior
November:  Building Skill in Leading Student Discussion
December:  Building Persistence in Students

If you are attending the POD Conference in Seattle late in October, please look me up there!

Michael W. Dabney
702 Wake Robin Drive
Shelburne, VT  05482

Phone:  (cell) 808-781-3294   (home) 802-985-0088

Forthcoming travel:  

Seattle--October 23-30
Honolulu--October 30-November 8
New York--November 9-13
New Jersey-Washington DC   November 21-27
Silver Spring--December 18-28
Seattle:  February, March, April, June