Notice success, celebrate multiple milestones, level up

Learning intentions are more than just statements to convey to students what the learning is composed of; they are a means for building positive relationships with students. (Hattie, 48 pag.)

It is what I didn’t notice.  The bell rang. As always, I heard a chorus of “Thank you, Ms. Gough. Bye, Ms. Gough.” It was normal practice – and a much appreciated practice – for my students to say thank you and goodbye as they left for their next class.

I thought to myself “what a great class, everything went well, and they are so nice.” I busied myself straightening my desk, organizing paper, and mentally listing off the things I needed to do before my next class rolled in.  Eat lunch was at the top of the list.

Then, I sensed it. I was not alone.  It is what I didn’t notice.  There she sat, so still, except for the river of tears falling out of her beautiful, sad, green eyes. The river ran off the desk and pooled on the floor. “What is wrong?” I asked as I sat down beside her.

As I gently placed my hand on her arm, her shoulders began to shake as she said “I f..f..f..failed!” Whoosh, another flood of tears.

Now, she had not failed from my point of view. Her test score, damp as her test was now, showed a grade of 92 – an A.  And yet, she deeply felt a sense of failure.  As we sat together and looked at her work, we discovered that there was one key essential learning – in fact, a prerequisite skill – that caused her to stubble.

Tears, still streaming down her face, she said “I don’t know where I’m going wrong. I don’t miss this in class, but on the test, I fall apart.”

The point is to get learners ready to learn the new content by giving their brains something to which to connect their new skill or understanding. (Hattie, 44 pag.)

So, of course, the stumbling block for this sweet child is a known pain point for learners who master procedures without conceptual understanding.  Consistently, she expanded a squared binomial by “distributing” the exponent – a known pitfall. #petpeeve

When our learners do not know what to do, how do we respond? What actions can we take – will we take – to deepen learning, empower learners, and to make learning personal?

Kamb’s insight was that, in our lives, we tend to declare goals without intervening levels. We declare that we’re going to “learn to play the guitar.” We take a lesson or two, buy a cheap guitar, futz around with simple chords for a few weeks. Then life gets busy, and seven years later, we find the guitar in the attic and think, I should take up the guitar again. There are no levels. Kamb had always loved Irish music and had fantasized about learning to play the fiddle. So he co-opted gaming strategy and figured out a way to “level up” toward his goal:

Level 1: Commit to one violin lesson per week, and practice 15 minutes per day for six months.

Level 2: Relearn how to read sheet music and complete Celtic Fiddle Tunes by Craig Duncan.

Level 3: Learn to play “Concerning Hobbits” from The Fellowship of the Ring on the violin.

Level 4: Sit and play the fiddle for 30 minutes with other musicians.

Level 5: Learn to play “Promontory” from The Last of the Mohicans on the violin.

BOSS BATTLE: Sit and play the fiddle for 30 minutes in a pub in Ireland.

Isn’t that ingenious? He’s taken an ambiguous goal—learning to play the fiddle—and defined an appealing destination: playing in an Irish pub. Better yet, he invented five milestones en route to the destination, each worthy of celebration. Note that, as with a game, if he stopped the quest after Level 3, he’d still have several moments of pride to remember. (Heath, 163-164 pgs.)

What if I’d made my thinking visible?

What if I’d connected this learning to how 3rd graders are taught multiplication of two digit numbers by decomposing into tens and ones.  What if I’d connected this learning to how 3rd graders are also taught to draw area models to visualize the distributive property?

What if I’d shared my thinking and intentionally connected prior learning in levels?

By using Kamb’s level-up strategy, we multiply the number of motivating milestones we encounter en route to a goal. That’s a forward-looking strategy: We’re anticipating moments of pride ahead. But the opposite is also possible: to surface those milestones you’ve already met but might not have noticed. (Heath, 165 pag.)

How might we help our learners level up, experience success at several motivating milestones, and notice successes that might otherwise go unnoticed?

By multiplying milestones, we transform a long, amorphous race into one with many intermediate “finish lines.” As we push through each one, we experience a burst of pride as well as a jolt of energy to charge toward the next one. (Heath, 176 pag.)

Taken together, these practices make learning visible to students who understand they are under the guidance of a caring and knowledgeable teacher who is invested in their success. (Hattie, 48 pag.)


Hattie, John A. (Allan); Fisher, Douglas B.; Frey, Nancy; Gojak, Linda M.; Moore, Sara Delano; Mellman, William L.. Visible Learning for Mathematics, Grades K-12: What Works Best to Optimize Student Learning (Corwin Mathematics Series). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.

Heath, Chip. The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

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