“The Soul Moves First” Inspire Students to Take Charge of their Own Learning

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My friend’s high school-aged daughter volunteers every week in Chicago at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab.  There she gains invaluable experience working with individuals who suffer from physical limitations brought upon by a spinal cord injury, stroke, amputation or some sort of traumatic brain injury. She will play card and board games, for instance, to help patients work on memory and fine motor skills. These tasks, once routine, now require intense mental effort and energy.

This trademark phrase which appears to patients and visitors when they walk in the front door serves as a reminder that physical health is impossible without a mental commitment to be healthy. A positive mindset acts as the unstoppable force leading to recovery.

The Soul Moves First

What an empowering message for people struggling with debilitating physical conditions.

And what a beautifully gentle reminder to us as teachers that, ultimately, the road to student success begins in a student’s mind.classroom

It’s easy to miss this and to think that student success is wholly dependent on what we do. We stress ourselves out trying to figure out the best lesson plans and behavioral management strategies to help kids. We are judged on their responses (or lack thereof) to our interventions. Sometimes it’s exhausting to be held accountable for what other people should be doing for themselves. But we do it because we know the power of adult role modeling and love helping others. It’s our job.

At Shirley Ryan the expectation is that the patient commits to his/her own self improvement first. The trainers and volunteers then step in and clear a path for recovery. It’s a partnership guided by clear responsibilities and infused with love and support.

Maybe the teaching profession could mirror the Shirley Ryan philosophy of human development and expect a little more from the students at the outset.

But wait…

At Shirley Ryan patients have a more tangible idea of where they are headed:  physical recovery from an injury. With students working through a system of education, the endgame is fuzzier and therefore teachers must make a different sort of argument to them that their belief in themselves will pay off. And many students aren’t old enough or mature enough to shoulder the responsibility for their own self-improvement.

So, in light of these obstacles, is it even possible to get our students’ souls to move first?  Or is that our responsibility? It seems like that’s something very hard, if not impossible to do for another person.

For some students, the task for us seems painfully easy. They walk into class caring on day one. For others with troubled backgrounds, bad study habits and confrontational demeanors, they seem resistant to the bitter end regardless of our attempts to help them. For so many students, though, there are opportunities to effectuate a shift of mindset over time using just the right mixture of prodding, patience and understanding. I think there are boundless opportunities to get it done.Mindset Mindfulness Self-awareness Meditation Brain

I’m not thinking about direct self-esteem training here. I’m thinking about setting a different tone and message in the classroom and acting in ways that shift the responsibility for belief onto the students. Notice, I said “belief” and that’s because learning doesn’t happen without it. The challenge is to create environments which inspire students to make their own mental commitment to succeed– and then be there as a guide to help them flourish. Seen in this way, maybe it’s the teacher’s responsibility to make the subtle first move and then have the student quickly take over.

It’s really about being more intentional about getting students to care about their education– for themselves, not for us.

Encouraging kids to care is always a moving target which shifts from year to year, class to class, and is always a function of the mix of student personalities which land in our classrooms. There is no magical answer here, so I’m not going to pretend I know of one. The big questions approach works well for me because it motivates students to think critically and promotes a human-centered classroom where cultivation of virtue is the end goal. Through these questions I’m constantly trying to help students believe in the power of their own minds. My career gamble is that over time constant exposure to deep thinking will plants seeds of self motivation to last a lifetime.

But there are a myriad of different ways to achieve success on this front.

What strategies do you use to inspire students to take charge of their own learning?

We need some solutions. August is right around the corner!


(Social studies teachers– remember to check out Socrates and the Battle for the Soul of America , an online course on big questions offered through NCSS )

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Let Big Questions Drive Your Human-Centered Classroom.

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How many times have you heard or felt that your classroom should be more “student-centered?”

I’ve lost count.

I know, I know. We are supposed to say “student-centered” and then we’re supposed to follow that up quickly and say that “teacher-centered” classrooms are a relic of the past and don’t meet the needs of the modern learner.

Here’s where we need to just stop, smile, step back and gain some perspective:

Teachers want students to feel a sense of agency over what they are learning; they want student interest to drive the curriculum. They want every student to feel that his/her needs are met at every point in the learning process. These are ideals to which all classrooms should aspire. Sometimes teachers fail; sometimes they succeed. It’s a work in progress.

But there are other things teachers want.

They want to bring their interests and passions into the classroom; they want to feel some sense of ownership over what is taught. They want these things not because they want to marginalize student interests but because they want to experience the joy of learning with their students– and the only way to do that is to feel as though they are meaningful contributors. After all, teachers really are just students too, only a little older, and therefore are uniquely situated to bring value to the classroom experience.

So since teachers and students want such similar and interconnected things, maybe we should stop making artificial distinctions and make a good faith attempt to promote Human-Centered Classrooms in which all people’s needs are met, all of the time.


The good news is that a Big Questions classroom already does this.

In a Big Questions classroom the teacher can contribute by offering questions to drive the classroom experience (as we saw in this post), and at the same time allow for student control in answering those questions. The questions themselves are constructed in such a way as to motivate students to join in to ask their own questions throughout the process, thereby giving them agency over what they are learning. And since we are dealing with Big Questions (not little ones), the answers are incredibly elusive and, as a result, the teacher must become a student again and model the virtues of curiosity and humility needed to find the answers. Everybody feels valued and everybody’s needs are being met, together.

Now THAT is a human-centered classroom.

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