Updated: Jul 22, 2020
I was introduced to the work of the Schlechty Center as a participant in the Teacher Academy of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators (PAGE). The Schlechty Center’s philosophy on teaching and learning, primarily embodied in Working on the Work (WOW), as well as their philosophy on schools and school systems, speaks to me on a deep level in a way that no other course has. It connects my academic learning to professional experience so that I can see a broad view of my role as a teacher. In addition to the primary implications it has had on my work in the classroom, it has opened my eyes to my work in the world, and thereby extended the role of my students ‘from students in my room’ to ‘my students in the world.’ It is liberating, it is powerful, and it is visionary.
Whereas other teacher resources may promote research data as the answer to a classroom issue, or instructional methodology for achieving certain results, the philosophy of design focuses on the student’s interaction with work as the key to learning. Student success relies on the teacher’s understanding of individual learners’ needs and preferences.
The teacher’s role becomes much more nurturing in this sense, designing situations for learning which motivate students to pursue content. The teacher’s role as source and assessor of standards is minimized in favor of that of a facilitator who cultivates learning opportunities of inherent value to students. While our systems dictate local, state, or federal standards for which teachers and students must demonstrate compliance and mastery, reality dictates that individuals pursue learning experiences which have personal meaning. By designing engaging work tailored to students’ lives, but which still results in content mastery, we create conditions for students to personally connect with language learning.
The premise underlying the Schlechty Center’s philosophy on work is that qualities built into design affect a person’s engagement in their work. Within the context of the classroom, these design qualities, coupled with measures of engagement and effective assessment, constitute what the Center calls the “Classroom Standards.” In their statement Schlechty Center on Engagement, a student is considered engaged when:
The student sees the activity as personally meaningful;
The student’s level of interest is sufficiently high that he persists in the face of difficulty;
The student finds the task sufficiently challenging that she believes she will accomplish something of worth by doing it; and
The student’s emphasis is on optimum performance and on ‘getting it right’.
You can dive deeper into engagement in this video by Jon Spencer:
As a teacher and student of modern language, this philosophy of engagement is true to my own experiences. As a high school student, I was motivated to study Spanish because of the large number of Spanish-speaking students with whom I attended school. Despite any difficulty I may have had in the classroom, and the difficulty I remember having trying to communicate with my Spanish-speaking friends, I persisted, year after year, so that I could master the language. The benefits I stood to gain by doing so included being a better friend, traveling the world, and getting a competitive edge in the job market.
Now, after more than a decade in the classroom, as I strive to design in a way that engages my students in learning and results in mastery of language, I find myself digging into those very same factors that affected my own engagement. I have to get to know my students and design language tasks with results they value. I have to minimize the level of risk and difficulty my students will inevitably face as novices trying to function in real-time and real-life communication, so that they will persist even though they realize their lack of competence. I have to organize learning and present clear standards so that my students can set and reach goals for success.
The biggest job of a world language teacher is to empower her students to see themselves as players and participants in our global economy. Teachers must design work for their students which has inherent, tangible, and unquestionable value. The study of world language must cultivate an awareness in our students that knowing people, interacting with people, and being a good communicator are equally as valuable, if not more valuable, than technical skills like nursing, engineering, or farming. The work that we design must build our students’ learning from the inside out, with its foundation lying in the needs, experiences, and goals that our students already have. If we truly want to engage our students and to launch them into a world that already understands the importance of being able to work with global vision, we must bring the content to them in personally meaningful ways.
In my book, Designing the Modern World Language Classroom (scheduled for publication in fall of 2020), we take a fresh look at foreign language education through the lens of the Schlechty Center’s Classroom Standards. My goals are for you to:
understand the work you design as a reflection of the design qualities that affect your students;
measure your students’ engagement and implement systems for reflection and redesign;
craft work - formative and summative assessments - that has personal meaning to each of your students, and which also result in language mastery; and
develop a hunger within you and your students to find power in language.
This book is organized according to the design qualities and standards. Because they are interrelated, you will inevitably notice common ground between them. Beyond developing your understanding of Working on the Work, I will give you practical examples, tools, and resources to get you started on design!