The Habit of Excellence



“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.” – Aristotle

Our first challenge is to define excellence. The next thought is, what do I want to be excellent in? When I was a young girl I wanted to be excellent at basketball and I worked every spare moment I had at various drills and strategies. I was motivated because I choose the activity, how I wanted to learn it (well, for the most part!) and when I wanted to practice. Later in life, as a young married person, I decided I should be able to cook a little. Again, I decided what kind of cooking or recipes I wanted to learn, what tools I wanted to cook with and when I wanted to cook.

How would school change if we first ask learners what they want to be excellent in? Then we gave them opportunities and resources to choose how they want to learn when they want to learn and what tools or strategies they want to use to learn it? How would that change the curriculum, courses, and experiences we engage that learner with? This is what Bea McGarvey and Chuck Schwann call, “Mass Customized Learning,” going one giant step past personalized learning. As Tom Butler from Pennsylvania Intermediate Unit 8 often says Mass Customized Learning (MCL) is much more than “personalization,” “differentiation” or “performance-based.” Dr. Butler goes on to describe MCL has two premises:

  1. Dislodge the industrial age model of schooling
  2. Become radically learner-centered

In today’s industrialized schools we really don’t ask that question to students, “what do you want to be excellent at?” We say, you are a high performing students, so let’s put you in honors or AP track and here are the courses you have to take. But, what if that very same honors student wanted to be an excellent music composer or an auto mechanic? How would that change their path? Should that change the path?

Edward Deci, a psychologist from Carnegie Mellon, found through his research that rewards like bonus pay can deliver a short-term boost but the effect wears off and can reduce a person’s longer-term motivation to continue the task. So, if we think about students, the currency in schools is most often grades. Do we still think that students are motivated by a grade? A select group of learners are motivated by grades, but for most, it is just an obligation or an act of compliance. Applying what Deci learned about motivation, what should the motivating for our learner be? Daniel Pink explains Deci’s findings this way in his book, Drive, “Human beings, Deci said, have an ‘inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise their capacities, to explore, and to learn’.”

Motivation theory tells us exactly what McGarvey, Schwann, and Butler are telling us, radically student-centered learning should customize where, when, what and how learners learn! This allows the learner to use their intrinsic motivation to strive for excellence through the lens of what the challenges they want to explore. Learning geometry to solve an environmental problem or reading a non-fiction text to gain information that helps the learner solve that problem, this is mass customized learning.

Take a look at how a young learner, Lori, plans her learning with the assistance of a learning guide:

In order for our learners to strive for excellence, we must give them the opportunity to choose and create habits that align with what THEY want to be excellent in, not what the curriculum prescribes

How can we expect less than a habit of excellence for our students?

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