Meeting and Matching Moments of Hope

Adopted from a paper I wrote last summer for my Adolescent Development Class

Another view of the theory I’m about to describe…

Summary of Theory:

Donald Winnicott says that the role of the educator is “a going to meet and match the moment of hope” (class notes, 2012). That phrase comes to my mind so frequently now when I teach. There are many such moments, but they are easy to miss. Or, even when I see them, it is difficult to know how to “meet and match” them.

Winnicot’s words are a beautiful way to describe the huge challenge of exploring how the human brain develops in order to find the best ways to facilitate student learning.

Jean Piaget (1896-1980). I like his expression.

Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget presented a genetic epistemology that sought to describe this human “moment” as really a series of moments—an ongoing creation of organized structures of knowledge into which new information is integrated over time (Wadsworth,1989). For Piaget, intelligence is an activity rather than a capacity (class notes, 2012). Think about that for a moment — your intelligence, which popular culture so often envisions in terms of IQ, a static number or given ability — is actually something fluid and changeable. This idea has transformed the way I think about my students. Intelligence is an activity they engage in, not some sort of limitation to their activities.

The implications of Piaget’s theory thereby inform more recent constructivist and cognitive-mediational theories of learning.  These approaches stress the role of learners as active problem-solvers (Anderson, 1989a; Lemov 2010), decision-making builders of their own knowledge (Chi 2009; Albert & Steinberg 2011) and adaptors to their environment (Sternberg 1998).

Thus, educators are called to be “great observers” of their students like Piaget was of his children (class notes 2012)—observers who seek to understand the ways in which students assimilate, accommodate, and construct their own knowledge schemata (Wadsworth 1989, Lapsley lecture 2012). Piaget has helped me to see that how you teach is really only important insofar as it tries to respond to the more important question of how students learn.  This is how you “meet and match” every “moment of hope” (Winnicott 1956).

Analysis of My Own Teaching:

Sternberg (1998) explains how in education there is “often a large gap between theory and practice,” and so learning theories need to be presented in simpler, more accessible formats. That is definitely true. Maybe even my explication above confused you.

So here is one such accessible format, a book that helped me put these ideas into practice this past year:

Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov

Doug Lemov’s response is all about practice–never mind our theories and ideologies, what actually works in the classroom? Yet I think his methods are a great example of teaching practices that directly respond to how students learn. He provides teachers with forty-nine specific and carefully described techniques to use, and has given me concrete ways to recognize and respond to moments of hope with my students.

One such frequent moment is when a student gives an answer to a question in front of the whole class. My inclination (and behavior this past year) was to always find a way to praise that student and find something good about his or her answer, even if it was not exactly quite right. There is a lot of good in this. When I taught martial arts as a high schooler, my boss and instructor always taught us to “praise, correct, then praise.” This is the way I was taught to teach, and it is the way I have always taught. I would make the correction, but gently.

Exteriorly, it may have looked like I was encouraging my students’ thinking, but in retrospect I see that I was missing  “the potential underlying cognitive processes” (Chi, 2009, p. 85) that were going on. Lemov’s second and third techniques in his book, “Right is Right” and “Stretch It,” challenged my approach:

[Teachers] will affirm the student’s answer and repeat it, adding some detail of their own to make it more fully correct […] [not realizing that they are ] crowd[ing] out the student’s own thinking, doing cognitive work that students should do themselves. (pp. 35-36)

According to constructivist theory, students learn by constructing their own knowledge—or, in Piagetian terms, assimilating information into schemata and accommodating schemata to receive new information (Wadsworth 1989 and Anderson 1989a). However, when I prioritize affirming students answers over holding them to a high standard of thinking and challenging them to improve their responses, I am inadvertently impeding their own construction of knowledge (Anderson 1989b).

This is really fascinating: in order to promote the development of thought, instruction needs to cause “students to feel some disequilibrium or dissatisfaction with their current ideas” (Anderson 1989a, p. 90).


My easy affirmations of student answers prevent them from feeling this “disequilibrium.” My kids will not be able to identify their mistakes in analysis if I fail to identify them as well.

Therefore, even though I pride myself upon being a very encouraging leader of group discussions, I am going to change my focus on giving much more specific praise and holding my students accountable for complete and thoughtful answers. I will refrain from using phrases like “Right! Exactly!” that might stop their thinking—and instead I will push them with affirming but demanding responses like “that’s a great start, but please provide us evidence for your answer” or “how can we build upon that insight?” These interactions with my students are brief but they are indeed “moments of hope”—occasions in which doors to learning can be closed with easy praise or opened with affirming challenges.

As Lemov insists, “great teachers praise students for their effort but never confuse effort with mastery” (p. 37).

Not only do I want to approach my time with my students as moments of hope—I want them to see that they themselves are able to “meet and match” these moments too.



Albert, D. & Steinberg, L. (2011). Judgment and decision-making in adolescence. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 21, (pp. 211-224).

Anderson, L. M. (1989a). Learners and learning. In M. C. Reynolds (Ed.), Knowledge base for the beginning teacher (pp. 85-99). Oxford: Pergamon Press

Anderson, L. M. (1989b). Classroom instruction. In M. C. Reynolds (Ed.) Knowledge base for the beginning teacher (pp. 101-115). Oxford: Pergamon Press

Brandenberger, Jay. (2012) Class Notes for EDU60455: Development and Moral Education in Adolescence.

Chi, M. T. H. (2009). Active-Constructive-Interactive: A Conceptual framework for differentiating learning activities. Topics in Cognitive Science, 73-105.

Lapsley, D. K. (2012) Lecture Notes for EDU60455: Development and Moral Education in Adolescence.

Lemov, D. (2010), Teach Like a Champion: Chapters 1-4 (pp. 1-144). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sternberg, R. J. Raising the achievement of all students: Teaching for successful intelligence. Educational Psychology Review, 14, (pp. 383-393)

Wadsworth, B. J. (1989) Chapters 1 and 2 from Piaget’s theory of cognitive and affective development, 4th Ed. (pp. 9-32). New York: Longman