The Thrill of It All

Keeping the love of learning alive as students progress through school.

Topics: School Culture and Climate

Among John Hattie’s educational insights is a triumvirate of will, thrill, and skill. When students lose their will to work hard and get no thrill from learning, acquiring a skill becomes a struggle. Conversely, when students’ will to work hard and the thrill of learning can be maintained, skill attainment comes much easier.

Several years ago, I asked 3,000 teachers two questions: What grade level do you teach, and what percentage of your students love school? I assumed that the percentage of elementary school students who loved school would be high.

The following graph—named the “Jenkins Curve” by Hattie—shows the results of my research. It shows the decline of will and thrill among children from kindergarten through 12th grade according to teachers in their respective grade levels, and a quick glance at it tells a disheartening story.

In kindergarten, 95 percent of students love school. Students are excited to start their educational journey and are open to learning new material. Sadly, that love of learning declines steadily, bottoming out around ninth grade.

Rarely is the thrill to learn taken into account when “improvements” are thrust upon teachers. Could this knowledge be used to improve not only the educational system, but also the process of educating and learning overall?

Measuring Enthusiasm

Inspired by Hattie’s triumvirate, I created the “Will & Thrill Matrix,” which allows teachers to determine the level of student will and thrill regularly. Students place a dot anonymously on a grid showing their level of will and thrill at the time of learning.

Values tabulated by students determine if progress is being made, and they offer regular feedback to teachers on students’ enthusiasm in their learning.

A second Hattie triumvirate is surface, deep, and transfer learning. Skills must progress from surface knowledge to deep and transfer learning. When students attain, recall, and apply essential skills from material taught throughout the entire year, they are actually learning.

This is vastly different from the all-too-common method of expecting students to “cram” for tests, only to have them forget what they were tested on the following day. Neither trivia nor memorized-for-the-test surface learning is of any help with deep or transfer learning.

The most significant challenge facing education today is how to maintain the students’ will and thrill, while at the same time creating an environment in which they can learn the skills society demands. This feat can be accomplished if we replace the data we collect on school failures and shortcomings with data that celebrates and tracks improvements.

There are proven strategies that not only maintain students’ will and thrill but also increase skills acquisition exponentially. In order to maintain will and thrill, students, parents, teachers, and principals must recognize that kids are smart, meaning:

  1. Students can explain details surrounding surface-learned key concepts taught throughout the school year.
  2. Students can explain the deep learning process used to solve problems over the course of the school year, utilizing surface-learned knowledge to solve deep-learning problems.
  3. Students identify and transfer key surface concepts plus deep-learning experiences they recognize outside of school or in different subjects within school.

A 180-day school year should include positive, visible data, loud celebrations, and the thrill of feeling smart. Each progression of knowledge will be identified and celebrated, using the following strategies to accomplish visual, auditory, thrilling learning:

  1. Provide students with a numbered list of all the surface-learning concepts they are expected to learn during the school year in the first week of class.
  2. Have students take a nongraded quiz consisting of a random sample of the key concepts from the numbered list multiple times a quarter. Calculate the number of questions using an approximate square root of the total; for example, in a class with 150 key concepts, each random quiz would include 12 questions.
  3. Have students graph the number correct on an individual run chart and highlight the item on their list. Next, using an anonymous process to collect the number correct for each student, teachers can create a graph to represent the entire class. Principals can also choose to collect totals from each classroom to create a schoolwide run chart.

An all-time best (ATB) occurs when students, classes, or the school outperform their prior high score. That’s when educators can use a fun, free, quick, or noisy celebration to reinforce students’ hard work.

  1. Each time students are assigned a deep-learning problem, make the connection between surface-learning lists as the foundational knowledge used in problem-solving.
  2. Give students time regularly to share how either surface-​learning or deep-learning knowledge appeared in other areas of their lives. For example, one first-grade student transferred her knowledge of tangrams to her home.

These five steps accomplish three things: First, at the beginning of the year, students receive the key concepts they will learn, allowing them to focus on foundational information they will use to solidify deep and transfer learning. Second, routine quizzes on random key concepts prevent students from forgetting information by eliminating the cram-and-forget mindset.

Finally, students receive immediate feedback and visuals illustrating how successful they are individually and as a team in learning the key concepts for the entire year. Each time a student, class, or the school achieves an ATB, a celebration breaks out—not for one student, but for all.

Instead of using data to single out where students, teachers, or schools are failing, you can use the data collected to celebrate each individual’s effort. Fixing the American education system can then shift from pointing the finger at others to allowing us to reach new all-time bests for the improvement of every student together. Truly, no student is left behind.

Lee Jenkins is the founder of LtoJ Consulting and the author of five books on improving educational outcomes, including How to Create a Perfect School.