The Difference Between “Doing Something” and “Doing Something Well”

Academic Dean Andy Shaw returns to our blog with another in-depth look at academics at Bay. In this post, Andy shares how Bay students learn to reflect on their work in meaningful ways, beginning in their 9th-grade year.

When talking about Bay’s notion of “rigor with purpose,” I see a lot of nodding heads when I report that Bay students learn the difference between “doing something” and “doing something well.” This is a crucial piece of a contemporary definition of rigor, for just as the 19th- and 20th-century mode of education was modeled after the assembly line, where tasks were completed, repeated and forgotten hundreds of times over, a 21st-century education must align with the reality of our world, Collaborative Bay Studentswhere success comes from innovating, making meaning and adding value. Education ought to be about helping students be able to conceptualize quality, identify areas for improvement and hone a product until it is exceptional.

At Bay, we believe deeply in building these skills in adolescents. It starts with mindful reflection. When our students meditate in Morning Meeting or at the start of classes, they are strengthening the “muscle” that allows them to pay attention and observe; we then ask them to use this muscle in building a habit of academic reflection. It doesn’t take 9th-graders very long to realize that they are going to be asked to do a lot of reflection as part of their academic classes, usually in writing: about how a major assessment went for them, about how their collaborative work is going in class, about the process of learning a new writing technique and so on. While seniors joke about having to write reflections about their reflections, they simultaneously realize that it’s this process of paying attention to their work and their learning that opens the door to a new way of thinking about the quality of their work.

Students also have to be invited into the conversation about what counts as quality. This doesn’t mean that students are the arbiters of what makes work “good,” but if as adults they are going to be confidently and independently judging the quality of their work, they need early practice engaging meaningfully with others to find out how quality is defined. This conversation takes many forms. Throughout Bay’s curriculum, students and teachers co-create rubrics for major assessments. Peer critique occurs not only in art classes but also in math, science and humanities classes, among others, where students practice giving not only praise but also making suggestions: “I Bay Students Critiquing Each Other's Workwonder if the work would be stronger if you _____.”   By the time they are seniors, students are expected to create their own rubric for their senior project deliverable, spelling out at the beginning of the year what a successful outcome will look like many months later.

Finally, helping students internalize a commitment to quality demands that we reorient learning experiences around mastery rather than days on a calendar. One of the most upsetting things I can hear a student say is, “Well, I did terribly on that test, but we’re moving on to the next unit tomorrow, so it doesn’t matter.” When we teach to mastery, we give students opportunities to make another attempt, after additional practice or revision, to demonstrate that they have learned the core skills and content. By allowing (or requiring) them to resubmit improved drafts or retake a test, we send the message that it’s more important to eventually get it right and learn the skills than it is to mindlessly move on from a mediocre result. As in all things there is a balance here, since life doesn’t come with unlimited second chances. By intentionally scaling back these retake/revision opportunities as students get older, we teach them the importance of revision, persistence and improvement while also slowly and gently raising the stakes and encouraging success on the first time through.

The best moments at Bay are when mindfulness and academia intersect in powerful ways; I think one of these beautiful intersections occurs in our process of teaching students to define quality, reflect on their work and persist until they know their work is exceptional. I know it’s working when a student says to me (more often than you’d think), “I didn’t have to turn in another draft of that paper, but I knew it wasn’t my best work so I wanted to try one more time.”

– Andy Shaw, Academic Dean

Read Andy’s second post, “Big Questions with No Easy Answers,” here.