By Merrill Harmin, Ph.D.

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1 Inspiring DESCA: A New Context for Active Learning By Merrill Harmin, Ph.D. The key issue facing today s teachers is clear: Compared to years past, fewer students show up ready for responsible, diligent schoolwork. Many more work only carelessly, half-heartedly. And more are blatantly disrespectful, even hostile. What are we to do about this? Some say we should raise our standards, test more, push students to work harder. We can certainly do that, and it s valuable in some cases. But higher standards are not likely to change the attitudes of the careless, disrespectful or disruptive students we increasingly see nowadays. Others bank on the latest technology to motivate better schoolwork. But teachers are finding that most careless, irresponsible students handle the new technology as carelessly and irresponsibly as they handle everything else. So our question remains: Can we do something to get more diligent, responsible work from the many students who now come to us without such constructive work habits? The answer, I am happy to say, is yes. We can indeed do something and, we have found, it is not at all difficult. All we need do is adjust our teaching strategies so daily classwork more fully calls forth the constructive abilities that lie within students. This is essentially the same adjustment gaining ground in industry. Note the current shift to strategies that center on mutual respect, not bossiness. On collaboration, not isolation. On worker commitment to the job, not fear of failure. And on the dignity of all, not praise and rewards for the few. The general aim: To elicit more of workers constructive abilities. How might this apply to schools? Consider these five abilities, abilities that lie within all students, and all of us, too: Dignity. All students carry an ability to live and work with dignity. They contain that ability simply because they are human. We can see that clearly when we observe the diminishment of dignity -- how students can readily feel shame, embarrassment, put down or inadequate among their peers. No student need be taught how to have those feelings. Nor does any student need be taught how to feel the presence of dignity. When conditions are right, the experience of being a self-respected, dignified person can emerge in any student. Moreover, students want to live with dignity. It s naturally painful for students to feel insignificant, put down, inadequate, or unworthy. Energy. Similarly, all students carry the ability to live with energy, to act, to move, to speak. Humans are simply not designed to remain endlessly inactive, immobile, unexpressed. Indeed, humans suffer when forced to remain immobile for long periods. They naturally want to be active, to move about, to express themselves, to do things.

2 Page 2 Self-management. Similarly, all students are inherently self-managing. They naturally want to take care of themselves, chose what to do, what to think about, where to go. Although they can appreciate guidance, they naturally suffer when unduly bossed or controlled. Humans are designed to live their own lives. Community. And humans naturally want to get along with others, at least some others. Humans are made to live in community and they suffer when isolated from all others or when rejected by others. Awareness. Humans are also aware beings. They very naturally receive input from what is around them and what is inside them. Indeed, they want to be aware. They do not want to be left in the dark, not knowing what is going on, or being confused. And they certainly do not want to be bored, to be put in a position where their human awareness cannot comfortably flow. Boredom can be quite painful to people. In short, I would say that all students have the potential to live and with dignity, energy, self-management, community and awareness (DESCA). And, notably, a part of every student wants to live and work that way. Many teachers, of course, bring out those constructive abilities. Take cooperative learning groups, for example. They work so well, we might say, because they allow students to preserve their dignity, to make good use of their energy, to self-manage that work time, to relate as a small community, and to use their awareness productively. Other teaching strategies do that as well, such as the compliments we give students for a job well done, the challenges we offer that students find interesting, those procedures that get students instructing each other, personal learning contracts, inspiring classroom signs, and learning challenges that motivate high student energy. I would say such strategies tend to be inspiring to students. That is, they draw out and activate their positive abilities. They also help students recognize, sometimes for the first time, that they do in fact have many constructive abilities, abilities that they can use comfortably and productively in the classroom. Unfortunately, many teachers also use strategies that are not very inspiring. And many teachers even carry on with strategies from olden days that nowadays have a counter-inspiring effect, that is, that tend to depress students constructive abilities. A teacher might, for example, give lectures or conduct discussions that bore many students, which can terribly frustrate their impulse to remain aware. Or a teacher might give assignments that some students feel they cannot ever complete with dignity. Or a teacher might use procedures that get some students feeling excessively bossed, even childishly controlled, as if they were not at all self-managing beings. Or a teacher might use a reward system that repeatedly tells some students that they are losers, not at all worthy human beings. The good news is that none of us need employ non-inspiring strategies any longer. The profession has developed enough easy-to-use, fully inspiring strategies so that all of us, at whatever grade level we

3 Page 3 teach, regardless of what subject we teach, can do everything we need do -- from starting a class to controlling the rascals -- doing it all in ways that steadily build on and build up what is strong and positive in every student. To demonstrate this point, we gathered an extensive array of such strategies and published a handbook, Strategies to Inspire Active Learning, detailing exactly how teachers can use each of them. Some 200,000 copies of that handbook are already in use, suggesting that many teachers find what our field tests had earlier demonstrated: practical strategies now exist that make teaching today easier, make learning easier and make students more responsible and responsive. Some samples from that handbook: The Attentive discussion. A strategy for conducting class discussions that prevents non-motivated students from feeling left out or bored. Attentive lecture. A method of lecturing that holds all students attention. The Speak-write procedure. A way of lecturing that keeps all students thoughtfully involved and that avoids overwhelming students or confusing them. Calamity procedure. A procedure for handling serious class disturbances that does not diminish or demean any student, but calls up their constructive instincts. The Review test. An easy method of reviewing content that is both highly engaging and inherently dignifying to students. The Action flow lesson plan. A strategy for planning lessons so that classes proceed smoothly, gracefully, with student interest steadily maintained. Grading plan. A strategy for grading that considers both the teacher's grading responsibilities and students' need to learn to become self-critical and self-responsible learners. The Authority statement. A simple, direct, non-derogatory statement of the teacher s authority. The Desca reminder. A tool for maintaining an intention to be inspiring, so all the teacher does (and does not do) is imbued with an affirming spirit of confidence and trust in students. Underexplain and learning pairs. A quick and convenient way to get students to help each master difficult skills or concepts. Outcome sentences. A way to get students to look back on a lesson or reading and then write some sentences showing what they got from the lesson or reading. Sharing pairs. Ways of getting students to pair up to share thoughts or ideas during a lesson.

4 Page 4 Whip around, pass option. A strategy for inviting all students to share thoughts without pressing any student. Choral work. Ways of using flash cards to get a whole class to memorize basic facts or principles. Experience before concepts. An approach to subject matter presentation that holds the abstract discussion until after students have had a direct experience with the concept. Cushioning. A strategy for building student confidence and readiness to do what s necessary to learn. Paper exchange. A simple procedure for having students safely read each other s papers, for the benefit of both the student and teacher. Task and team skill group. A strategy that focuses a group on both a task to be accomplished and a communication skill to be practiced. Motivational question. A method of finding questions that motivate students to work. New or goods. A strategy for using a few class moments for students to report incidents that were either new or good to them, as a means to build a cooperative class climate. Risk reminder. A convenient way to remind students that learning involves risk-taking and assuring them that it is safe to take learning risks. Like/might review. A method of teaching students to become more self-evaluating and selfresponsible for their actions. Thought-feel cards. A strategy that shows students how to distinguish thoughts from feelings and make the best use of both. Learning pairs. A convenient strategy for making use of the power of peer instruction in the midst of whole class lessons. At the outset, we usually recommend that teachers interested in this approach give a test to a few inspiring strategies they do not already use. Pick a few that your colleagues use or pick from among those in our handbook, we say, then adapt them to fit your own style and test them in your classroom. Just notice what happens. Especially notice, we suggest, whether you see changes in how well students work with personal dignity, sustained energy, intelligent self-management, feelings of community and open-minded awareness that is, those Desca abilities. I was burned out, looking for early retirement, writes a Texas high school teacher. Every year my students seemed more unprepared and more disruptive. It was tough getting through a day. Then I started the Desca program. I saw new possibilities the very first day. The more I used the

5 Page 5 approach, the better it got. Now disrespect has virtually vanished from my classrooms and, wow, I am rejuvenated! This from a fourth grade teacher in California: I never had discipline problems but I had many problems reaching my non-motivated students. What I mostly did was a lot of nagging and complaining. The DESCA strategies gave me a way to change things. For the first time in years, all my students now do homework everyday and their test scores show it. Parents report that they too notice the difference. They tell me the children enjoy coming to school. And my best students now reach new levels of learning. An inspiring approach can even assist very accomplished teachers, as suggested by this teacher from Illinois: Just writing to tell you I am one of the twelve people left in the running for State Teacher of the Year. I am so honored! The Desca philosophy runs throughout the application papers I had to write and was in all my interviews. And of course it shows up every day in my teaching. And this observation from a principal: "The inspirational approach goes along with my belief that today's students want strong leadership, but sensitive leadership. I don't think they really want to be allowed to indulge all their impulses. They appreciate limits. But they are quick to rebel against leadership that ignores their feelings or treats them as defective persons. In contrast, as the DESCA program has demonstrated in our school, when we teach with honest respect for students, they go the extra mile for us." There is no magic to this. It is based on well-known research, research that shows that we humans do not have only one way of being. We are different in different circumstances. And some circumstances inspire the best parts of us to come out. Our motivation and performance, in particular, increases markedly when the people around us see us as being very capable, when they treat us with high respect, when they fully expect us to do well, and when doing well only requires abilities within our reach. Our only contribution to this was in pulling together the relevant theory and practices and presenting it in a way that teachers find practical. We also worked out procedures teachers could use to gather and/or create a personal set of inspiring strategies for themselves and to master the art of using those strategies. The goal: Running a classroom that diminishes or discourages no student, but rather nourishes the growth of responsible work habits in all students. We know we are making progress toward that goal when we see our students engaging their lessons at increasingly high levels of dignity, energy, self-management, community and awareness. We even developed a scale for measuring how much of that Desca is being activated in a classroom. See the Desca Scale for Rating a Class, attached to some of the AT&T ENRICH lessons. It is a handy tool for guiding and documenting progress. This is not a quick fix. Teachers unpracticed in inspiring strategies almost always require lots of time and support before they get comfortable with their new habits. That time and support can be provided, however, and we have seen schools do it.

6 Page 6 Nor does this approach lead to a problem-free classroom. It rather creates a new context for teaching, one much more cooperative, dynamic, supportive, and pleasant, a context in which the problems that do appear feel much less severe, much more manageable. It s the context desperately needed by our alienated and angry students, the students most responsible for our failing test scores and school violence. There are, after all, very good reasons for today s young people to feel alienated and angry. So often are their best natures twisted by mass media, by confused and conflictful parents, by a hectic society obsessed with material comfort. So rarely are the students assisted in finding a healthy way through it all, assisted in developing the best parts of themselves, assisted in learning how to proceed through the days of their lives with personal dignity, steady energy, wise selfmanagement, feelings of community, and open-minded awareness. The inspiring approach gives us a practical way of providing this assistance. Simply put, it brings out the best in all our students -- and the best in us too. Questions? Want to review our strategy handbook? We would be delighted to hear from you. Please call us toll free: Or write the Inspiring Strategy Institute, 44 Midchester Avenue, White Plains NY

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