A few weeks back I was in a Grade 9 class that was working on Lit Circles. The conversation progressed to the teacher asking, “So why do we do lit circles?”

The first student to answer said, “To get an ‘A’.”

I know the student well enough that I was able to interject and say, “That’s a horrible answer!”

Some teachers like to say that, “All answers are good answers,” and in a way this was a good answer in that it brought up a really good discussion. However, I believe that when a student gives a really weak or ‘easy’ answer to a big question, there’s nothing wrong with calling them on it and telling them, ‘that’s a really bad answer’!

To explain my response, I asked a few questions:

“You have all learned about photosynthesis in Science, right?”

“What is the purpose of photosynthesis?”

A few answers later we got consensus that it was to create sugars, or ‘food’ for the plant. Then I asked, “What is a byproduct of photosynthesis?” To which the first response was ‘Oxygen’, a very useful byproduct of this process.

I then explained that like photosynthesis, “Getting an ‘A’,” is the byproduct, not the purpose of learning. An ‘A’ is a positive byproduct that can come from hard work, understanding, and a passion for what you are doing, (and hopefully a mixture of all three of these things!) “So what is the purpose of a lit circle?”

The following conversation was pretty rich. My Grade 9 teacher, only in his second year, is very skillful in using “Talk to your neighbour, then talk to me” as a strategy. He has built high expectations that when he says that, students are expected to take the ideas being discussed and meaningfully share them in pairs or table groups. He maximizes the depth of conversation using this strategy to help students develop their ideas before sharing them with the class. He broke down the conversation to “What are the qualities of a good lit circle?” on route to answering the bigger question of ‘purpose’.

On my way out the door a student asked me, “So what do you think is the purpose of a lit circle?”

I shared a story about one of my favourite books, The Alchemist. I bought and read this book, and did something I don’t usually do, but that a friend of mine often does when he reads books. I wrote page numbers and references down on a blank page at the back of the book, I took small notes on interesting things. After reading it I lent it to a friend and I requested that he do the same thing. Then I lent it to another friend and asked her to repeat the process.

When I got the book back I read their notes and something really neat happened. A few of their notes reminded me of things I read and passed up taking notes on. Today, years later, one of my favourite parts of the book is something that one of my friends ‘reminded’ me of in the back-of-the-book notes… not something I had originally noted to remember.

This wasn’t a lit circle in the same sense that was happening in the class, but it shared the same purpose: a greater understanding and appreciation for the book (and for reading).


Related post: Chasing the ‘A’


Marks seem to take our attention away from what matters. I find it funny that we can assess young kids without grades and then around Grade 3 we suddenly start indoctrinating students into the paradigm of good marks = success…. and the really important things we learn in Kindergarten about sharing, respecting and loving one another, as well as communicating how we feel and getting along with each other, suddenly takes a back seat to achieving some sort of success beyond these things that really matter.


Also see George Couros’: What Makes a Master Teacher


6. Focuses on learning goals as opposed to performance goals – Reading “Drive” by Dan Pink, he talks about the difference between performance and learning goals.  A performance goal would be similar to having students wanting to receive an “A” in french where a learning goal would be a student wanting to become fluent in the language.  Many students are smart enough that they know how to meet the objectives of a rubric and still not grow much in their learning.  A master teacher sets the goals based on learning not on receiving a grade.  This type of assessment is not about understanding what a students knows and reporting on it, but it is a tool used for learning.

3 comments on “Photosynthesis and Learning: a learning metaphor

  1. I love this post. Today I worked with students who have a great idea on inspiring others to be physically active. I asked them what their goal was for this project, at which time they shared they wanted kids to start developing healthy habits. The problem was that they had a gigantic reward at the end for the best class in the school. When asked if that will work them towards their long term goal, or focus others on the short term goal of “winning the prize” they acknowledged that it will not create everlasting change. Still, they were worried that others would not be motivated to work if there was not a prize at the end of the month.

    This is obviously a learned behaviour and ultimately the students decided to go another route with how they recognized others’ success, but sometimes as educators we have taught them bad habits. Fortunately there are many of us that are working to help them unlearn some of these habits that we taught them in the first place.

    Thanks for your thoughtful post.
    .-= George Couros´s last blog ..Professional (Leader) Development =-.

  2. A great story that adds value to the post, thanks George!

    What I like most about what you did was that you helped your students by asking them questions!

    Whether chasing an ‘A’ or another reward at the end, the intrinsic motivation is not being promoted. Here is an interesting, related post on the idea of praise and motivation: http://pairadimes.davidtruss.com/the-power-and-peril-of-praise/
    My reflection at the end related to my (at the time) 7 year-old daughter… we don’t just teach these habits, we teach them at a very young age!

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