I learned, and practiced, a an old organizing adage during my nineteen year community organizing career. It went like this:
“A good evaluation can save a lousy action.”
We typically defined an action as any kind of activity that involved more than one person — it could be an individual meeting, a small group negotiating with a public official, a planning meeting, a public negotiation involving thousands. The evaluation that took place immediately afterward was key to “digesting” and learning from the action.
I was reminded of this concept, and how and why I apply it in the classroom, when I was watching a recent TED Talk by Daniel Kahneman, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work in behavioral economics (whatever that is).
In his talk (which has some great points, but is also a bit meandering), Kahneman talks about the importance of endings. He begins by telling the story of a friend who listened to twenty minutes of wonderful classical music that ended with a terrible screech on the recording. His friend said that the ending ruined it all for him.
Kahneman uses that story to frame how he says we think — we have an “experiencing self” and a “remembering self.” The experiencing self is when a doctor asks if it hurts when he touches a certain place, while the remembering self responds to a question about how you have been feeling lately.
The remembering self is key because we use those memories, and the stories we turn them into, we make future decisions.
He tells about an experiment done in the 1990’s when two groups of patients were given colonoscopies. One group “finished” when the procedure was completed, while the other stayed a short while believing the procedure was continuing but in fact it had ended — so the pain was gone or reduced dramatically. The second group described the procedure afterward as much less painful than the first one, even though both groups had recorded similar levels of pain during the procedure…except for the extra time for the second group.
I think this lesson is an important one for teachers to keep in mind, which is why I devote a full chapter in my upcoming book on teaching English Language Learners to using reflection in the classroom.
I try to orchestrate my lesson plans (though I’m not always successful) so that students have an opportunity near the end to see how much they’ve learned and how much they’ve gotten better at something. And if it’s been a hard day classroom management wise, or if students (or I) are not in the greatest mood, I at least try to figure out a way to end on a positive note — even a short sentence scramble game (see Have You Ever Felt Like You & Your Students Are “Enduring” Class Instead of Enjoying It?).
I try to apply this when there is tension with a student, too. Another old organizing adage is after you polarize, always depolarize. If a student and I have had tension during class, I try to “depolarize,” if possible, before the end of class.
I want the “experiencing selves” of my students to feel like they’ve had a good experience in my class. And I definitely want their “remembering selves” to have a good story about it, too.