I observed a teacher this week who was doing a lesson on creating theories and finding evidence to support one’s thinking. She used a text from our curriculum called, The Mary Celeste: An Unsolved Mystery by Jane Yolen. It’s a great text for a variety of reasons, but one of the best things about the book is that it sparks such curiosity in students. The cast and crew mysteriously disappear in the middle of the ocean in the 1800s and no one has ever figured out what happened to them
Besides the fact that this teacher artfully asked questions that got the students thinking deeply, what stood out to me the most was the way the students conversed with one another about their ideas and how, even when they disagreed, they did so in a way that respected the individual they were talking to.
The lesson began with the students sharing their ideas about what the characteristics of a good theory are. During this conversation, students eagerly raised their hands and shared things like, “it has to have evidence,” with others adding on, “the evidence has to be strong.” After this, students were partnered up in two lines and did a sort of “speed dating” with their theories about what they thought actually happened.
It was during this time that I observed students saying things like,
“I respectfully disagree with you because…”
“I respect your opinion, but…”
“I can see why you think that, but have you thought about…”
“I thought the same thing….”
“Tell me more about…”
“Can you give me another example?”
“Can you tell me more so I can understand better?”
The purpose set by the teacher for this time was to get new ideas from their partners, evidence or theory. No one got upset while they were talking. In fact, students eagerly shared their ideas in authentic conversations.
When I asked the teacher for more information about how she developed this skill in her students, she said:
“I noticed a need for this because I was trying to have my students have deep and mature conversations, but for many this was new and they didn’t yet have the social tools to do this respectfully. Even as we get older disagreeing can be a difficult thing, so I tried to find visuals that the students could refer to when they were vocalizing their thoughts. If they agreed, I wanted to give them language to further the conversation.”
Her plan is to continue to have her students practice this skill in literacy and then adapt it for math. She thought this would be particularly useful for student discussions about the reasonableness of answers, which can be tricky for students of all ages.
As I think about her lesson, I wonder if another element of success was the teacher’s use of the word, theory as opposed to argument. Coming from the latin stem, argumentum, argument is literally defined as, “an exchange of diverging or opposite views, typically a heated or angry one.” When we are asked to build an argument and then find support for our idea, the natural tendency is to fight with the person we are speaking with if they disagree until they come to our side.
The connotation of the word theory is quite different, less combative and more collaborative. The word theory usually refers to a hypothesis that a person is formulating and still seeking information in the process to support the thought. When talking to another person about his or her theory, the partner wants to help, to question or to add to the other person’s thoughts because it is not absolute yet.
With the volatile world that we currently live in, it is imperative that we teach students to respectfully disagree. Being able to successfully communicate one’s ideas, as well as perceiving opposing thoughts as an opportunity to learn instead of a personal attack are key skills to success in making our world better.
I liked this post for several reasons, but mostly because it goes against what is frequently heard in education, that there is only one right way to teach children. I’m guessing this has stemmed from the No Child Left Behind era that we are all still suffering PTSD from, but it needs to stop.
I have spent the past seven years working in classrooms, observing teachers or partnering with them on lessons. Not once have I seen highly effective teaching demonstrated in the exact same manner. I cannot tell you how many teachers I have spoken with, in a variety of capacities, who have asked me, “Am I doing this right?” “Is this okay?” When we tell people there is a “right way” and a “wrong way” we are setting up our educators for self-doubt as opposed to empowering them to make instructional decisions based on the needs of their students.
We set up a similar dynamic when we give students limited ways or one way of demonstrating their learning. This cartoon is a great illustration of this idea:
Making kids read a book and fill out the same template after they read, complete a problem set after a math lesson, or write a five-paragraph essay on the same topic are all examples of ways we tell students that there is a right way and wrong way of demonstrating learning. We give students assignments like this because it is an easy way for us to see if students have reached proficiency. However, the unintended consequences of this approach might be:
We create a classroom dynamic where students constantly ask us, “Am I done?” “Did I do this right?” (I don’t know about you, but these type of questions personally drive me crazy.)
We aren’t really getting an accurate gauge of student understanding. When given choice in demonstrating their learning, as opposed to a one-size-fits-all approach, many students will actually show they can go way beyond the target. On the flip side of this, students who struggle with the way we are asking them to demonstrate learning (think elephant, fish, seal above), may show us they don’t know how to do something that they actually do.
Please know I am not advocating for zero expectations or standards in the classroom. I do believe strongly that there are strategies and structures we can use that are more effective than others depending on the learners in front of you. I also know that students are not going to be able to set goals and reflect on their progress if there is never an expectation to be reached even with choice provided.
We need to start thinking more of teaching and learning as a limitless continuum as opposed to an endpoint to be reached. When we provide professional learning experiences we should have educators experience and explore a variety of high leverage instructional practices and then trust them to make the right choices for their learners. We need to have high expectations, but broaden our definition of what this means and recognize this might look different depending on students and the target for learning in the classroom.
At our Late Arrival on Wednesday we focused on microshifts in practice in math workshop. We gave teachers a continuum with three options of what it might look like in the classroom with descriptors. (Thank you to our amazing coach Pia for creating it!) Instead of saying, your goal is to get to the last option, empowering students, we asked teachers to reflect on times when they had been in each of the options. They thought about when it made sense to use each of these types of models and then set a goal for one new strategy they would implement over the next few weeks.
I have already seen the impact of this approach in the classrooms I have visited. I’ve seen examples from the continuum as well as ideas that have far surpassed it. No one has asked me for permission or questioned whether they are doing it right. Each classroom has been uniquely amazing in its own way and I look forward to keeping it that way.
When I go to parties I can’t help myself. As much as I try to avoid it, I inevitably talk about education.
Especially if there’s beer. One good IPA will get me waxing poetic about my vision of education for pretty much the entire night.
I’ve never actually had two in one sitting. I can only imagine the diatribe of fostering students’ passions and deep learning that would result from a double Union Jack or L’il Sumpin’ Sumpin.
Usually, these discussions involve my educator friends (That would be most of them). But on my favorite nights, I’m chatting with a new person, a non-educator person, a person who has a career outside of the classroom who is killin’ it in the “real world.”
At this particular party, it was Anti-Hero, on draught. And an economist. Double Trouble.
The outcome? A completely thought-provoking conversation about more than just education.
So much so that I’m still thinking about it over two weeks later.
Sourdough, A Blog, & Some Calculus
“I’ve been working on mine for days. It’s a delicate process.” Two gentlemen close to me were having a rather intense conversation about something that sounded like it could be food related. I’d heard there was going to be a guy at this party who had recently taken a fairly lengthy sabbatical to create a blog based on the science of food (which of course piqued my interest).
Based on what I had overheard I assumed one of them had to be him. I grabbed my drink and headed over.
“What are you guys talking about?”
“Sourdough??” I responded incredulously prompting one of the men to start telling me about the process. Based on the amount of information he was giving me I was now positive this was the guy I had been hearing about. I was just about to ask him about his blog when my friend Sarah came over. (The birthday girl)
“Oh! So you met S! Did you know he has a food blog?”
And that’s how the epic conversation began. It turns out that S’s company granted him an 18-month sabbatical and he and his wife actually traveled all over the world for it. He even ended up contributing to a few cookbooks during this time. To make the story even more amazing his company actually continued to pay him part of his salary during the entire time he was on leave.
I had to know more. “So, what do you actually do?”
“I work in capital markets. Basically, I help multinationals manage their global foreign currency, commodity and interest rate risk. We help their treasury department to set up a sophisticated and efficient risk management policy and structure.”
“So like an actuary?”
“I use some of the same math, but no, not an actuary.” He then explained to me in more detail what he actually does on a daily basis helping me to understand the difference. It sounded insanely interesting and super mathy (which you know I am obsessed with) and I found myself wishing someone would have explained more math-related career options to me when I was trying to decide what to study in college. But I’ll get into my point about that later.
“So how can I follow your blog?” I asked as I pulled out my phone to open up the WordPress app to find it.
“It’s pretty easy. Just look up my name.” The bar had suddenly gotten louder so I had a hard time hearing which prompted me to move closer.
“I see you have the WordPress app. Do you blog as well?”
And that was that. I explained that yes, I had JUST started blogging and my passion was education. I told him that I am most passionate about creating learning experiences in school that better prepare kids to be successful in the innovative and dynamic world we live in.
So, of course, this led to me asking him about his school experience. How much of what he learned in college and high school did he feel prepared him for what he currently does? (I’m not shy. I have no qualms about asking people fairly personal questions regarding education.)
“A lot actually. I use a ton of calculus in my work. Most of my classes in college were math related. They built on the math I learned in high school. I learned about finance and economics. I wouldn’t say I’m in the majority though. I think the statistic is something like less than 8% of math taught in school is used in jobs and the percentage is even smaller for daily usage. Don’t quote me on that though.” (On a side note, I was curious and looked this one up after our conversation. He was pretty accurate. Check out this article in the Atlantic. I was surprised to read that it’s more prevalent that blue collar jobs that use calculus in their roles.)
We talked more about school and how I thought that we needed to include more opportunities for students to grow curiosity and build creativity. That many students see themselves as poor students or not smart because of the emphasis historically placed on how well they do in traditional subjects. (Not that they aren’t important, but that we need to broaden our definition of intelligence) If we changed schools from a focus on compliance to giving students meaningful learning experiences connected to the world around them, we would empower them to grow their passions, build on their strengths, and leave school already knowing the gifts they have to offer.
We agreed a lot during our conversation, each person adding in a different layer to the conversation. But at the end of our talk, he challenged me on one thing.
One MAJOR thing.
“You know people shouldn’t create a career out of their passion right?”
Huh? This one surprised me. He had just taken an 18-month sabbatical from his career to travel around the world creating a food blog. (which I still think is totally awesome)
“I remember seeing a title of an article about something like that on Medium recently. Tell me more.”
“School can’t be about people following their passions. It’s not economical. It could never work for society. You remember the bread conversation we had earlier?”
“Well, homemade bread will always taste better, but it’s not practical for everyone to make it daily. When mass produced bread was created it allowed people all over the world to start eating it on a daily basis. It solved a problem, especially for poor families.”
“You run into the same issue with careers. Think about the limited amount of jobs out there for people with a specific talent or passion. Mathematically it just doesn’t work out. There’s no way that every job would match up with every individual. Besides the point that most of those types of jobs don’t pay well or the higher salaries only go to a select number of people who become specialized and well known for that area. Take chefs for instance. The ones who are slaving away working in regular or even elite restaurants are making probably…(he listed a figure, but I honestly cannot remember the total)
Even though they are doing something daily that they love they are scraping by most of the time. When I was on my sabbatical if my company hadn’t continued to pay me a percentage of my salary there’s no way I could have gotten by. The entire sabbatical I probably made about $30,000 and that was including money made from contributing to a few cookbooks.
We need students to learn skills in school that will prepare them for jobs that will make them money. If we don’t, we are essentially setting up a greater economic burden.”
Wow. I had to think about that one. I understood his point about the mathematical probability of matching everyone’s career with their ideal passion, but I also know that if there’s a will there’s a way and people who are passionate about something will make something new. That’s how innovation works and the world changes right?
Seeing so many stories in the news lately about the middle-class shrinking and jobs being replaced by technology gave me pause though. Plus, it was midnight, and this party girl was about to turn back into a mommy. So I offered a few ideas and thanked him for the thoughtful dialogue. We both agreed to follow one another’s blogs and I left the bar to drive back to the suburbs.
Preparing Students for Success…in Anything
One of my favorite quotes from AJ Juliani is:
“Our job is not to prepare students for something. Our job is to help students prepare themselves for anything.”
For me, it’s a great anchor for making decisions about school. At some point, I seriously need to get it framed.
So when I was reflecting on the drive home, this quote immediately came to mind. If we are going to prepare students for ANYTHING (or rather empower students to prepare themselves), a definition of what anything constitutes is important to define and explore.
In the context of the conversation I had with S, I wanted to explore more the economic side of that supposition.
If you look at the unemployment trendfrom the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), over the past ten years unemployment peaked in 2009 at 9.9%, but has been on a steady decline annually since and in December 2018 was 3.9%. That being said, according to the BLS Economic Situation Summaryfrom Jan. 2019, there are still 6.3 million adults in the United States who are unemployed.
A few days after my conversation, an article from Fortune magazine titled, The Shrinking Middle Class: How We Can Fix It, ended up in my inbox adding another layer to the economic conversation. According to the article, the middle class in the United States has been steadily shrinking over time due recently in part to the burgeoning “gig economy.” (Many people associate this with jobs like Uber, but it can be any kind of contract work.) People make a wide range of wages in these jobs, but what is causing a greater problem for many of them is that benefits like health insurance or a 401(K) are not included in the position. As a result, many are living paycheck to paycheck, in a constant state of stress. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, as much as 48% of contract employees struggle with poverty.
Besides the gig economy, the author also attributes private equity as another major factor in the decline of the middle class. These private investors often borrow heavily to purchase a company placing them greatly into debt. In order to repay their loans as well as investors, they have to “wring cash from holdings,” leaving little money to pay workers. Sears and Radio Shack are cited as examples of employees who suffered from this practice.
To find solutions to these problems the Fortune staff reached out to a variety of business leaders, economists and politicians to ask their opinion. The responses were mostly related to government-provided solutions such as raising the minimum wage, creating legislation requiring companies to provide benefits regardless of employment status, childcare tax credits, or universal basic income (UBI). The article even recommended emulating the government of Denmark where 98% of households with children under age 15 receive financial assistance from the government.
So what about the other side? The jobs that are out there? What skills do they require? LinkedIn annually analyzes hundreds of thousands of job postings to find out what careers are growing as well as what skills companies are looking for to fill these positions. In their recently published 2019 Report, the most promising jobs are wide ranging from Machine Learning Engineer at number 15 with a projected 96% increase to Data Scientist at number one, projected to have a 4,000+% (wow! is that number even possible???) increase in job openings this year. The other Top 5 positions on this list include Product Owner, Product Designer, Enterprise Account Executive, and Site Reliability Engineer. My favorite on the list was a position called a “Scrum Master.” You would not believe my disappointment when I found out this was not a pirate-related career, but someone who is involved in agile software development and project management. With the exception of Customer Success Manager, all of these jobs had median base salaries of $100,000+.
Additionally, LinkedIn uses this analysis to come up with the Top 5 hard skills as well as soft skills that companies are looking for. Job seekers can use this information to improve their employability by acquiring these skills and listing them on their resumes. For 2019, the hard skills most in demand are cloud computing, artificial intelligence, analytical reasoning, people management and UX design (user experience design). Making my heart (and Sir Ken Robinson’s) do a happy dance was the fact that creativity debuted as the number one soft skill companies are looking for. Time management, adaptability, collaboration and persuasion round out the rest of the list.
Implications for Education
So, what’s the final verdict? Is the purpose of education to build students’ strengths, develop their passions and foster their natural curiosity or is it to give students the skills and strategies so that they are qualified for a successful and high paying job? If we’re using the Juliani Standard (Yes, I made that up, but it should be a thing right?), then the correct answer is YES!
Reviewing and reflecting upon current economic problems as well as needs in the complex world we live in, schools are clearly not adequately preparing many students for the society they are graduating into, much less inspiring them to chase their passions and change the world. I admire the contributors to the Fortune article for brainstorming ideas to help others who are very much struggling in this new economy, but what they are not recognizing (with a few exceptions) is that no matter how much legislation we put into place, if we do not fill the knowledge and skill gaps of the individuals involved then we are just continually perpetuating a cycle of dependence on others.
Despite various government interventions over generations to help lessen the disparity between social classes in the United States we continue to have little growth in closing the gap. According to a 2018 report from the PEW Research Center, median middle-class income increased 6% from $74,015 in 2010 to $78,442 in 2016 with lower-income households (29% of adults) increasing 5%. Although those percentages point to a similar gain, when we look at actual median income dollars, 5% is really only an increase from $24,448 to $25,624 or a little over $1000 in a six-year period. Even worse, the median income was actually higher in the year 2000 ($26,923) indicating a negative growth over the past twenty years for low-income households.
We need to empower students before they enter the workforce not only with the technical skills to be successful, but with the understanding of what it takes to succeed in every aspect of a very dynamic world. We have a moral imperative as well as an incredible opportunity in education to close the gap during this innovative time known as the 4th Industrial Revolution.
In his book What School Could Be, Ted Dintersmith shares stories of amazing schools and educators that are both inspiring students and causing them to thrive in the world beyond school. In an epic journey he took to visit schools in all 50 states in just one year’s time he found these schools incorporated the following elements into learning :
Purpose: Students believe in the importance of their work.
Essential Skills and mindsets: Learning experiences foster competencies that are essential to adults (e.g., creative problem solving, critical analysis, communication, collaboration, citizenship, character).
Agency: Students create their learning experiences, set their goals, manage their progress, and evaluate their work.
Deep, retained Knowledge: Students develop real mastery of the topics they study. They can apply it, ask thoughtful questions about it, and teach others.
When I think about the elements of PEAK, my passion has been in making learning meaningful by incorporating students’ personal interests and building their strengths. They have created projects, set their own goals and reflected on their progress. I have observed this strength in many of the educators I have worked with in the past as well as present trying out a variety of new ideas including passion projects or genius hour, flipped classrooms and in general giving students more input in the classroom and designing learning with individuals in mind as opposed to following a boxed curriculum.
When I reflect on the other parts of PEAK, combined with the findings of the LinkedIn 2019 Jobs Report I realize that I myself have some huge knowledge gaps of what the current and future “real world” constitutes. Although I have played around a bit with coding and have a basic understanding of Artificial Intelligence and the implications it has for our society, I have zero idea what UX design really entails other than what I have read in articles. Many of the jobs listed in the report were fairly foreign to me. So how can I take the abstract concepts I’m teaching to students and give them relevance and meaning when I myself don’t have this knowledge?
Beyond reading about these jobs or taking some online courses to educate ourselves in these skills, the true learning is going to come from actual experiences themselves. What if part of the professional learning we offered our teachers involved spending the day at companies that did the work that our students may be doing one day? This could be an ongoing collaboration and partnership where employees visit the schools as well and mentor kids in the school. In reflecting on the P or Purpose in PEAK, kids would see any subject, but especially math as so much more meaningful when they see how it is incorporated into jobs that people are currently succeeding at. We spend a lot of time telling kids, “you’re going to use this one day,” but very little time giving them experiences in what that actually looks like.
What to Start?
As an educator you may be thinking this is great, but how can I actually do all of this? I have standards to meet and a curriculum to follow and I don’t really have control over much of the professional learning in my building or district.
If you’re not already regularly incorporating student interests and strengths into your lessons start there. It can be as simple as looking at problems you are using in your math lesson and changing the context to include experiences your students have had or topics they are interested in. Even more empowering, have your students help you with this process. In literacy, offer them choice in what they are reading or topics they are writing about. When you are planning and evaluating the work that you will be asking them to do think about whether this work is going to cause them to gain meaningful skills that will prepare them for their future or just an experience that will reinforce the target of the day. I understand that sometimes the necessary answer is the latter, but we need to show students how practicing that one small skill will lead to a much greater purpose.
Approach lesson planning with a broader perspective. Many of the jobs, as well as skills that students need to be successful in these jobs, require students to work across disciplines drawing from a variety of strengths. When you reflect on the standards you want your students to achieve what is the common thread that links them all together? Create a Big Question that students are working to answer during the week. Instead of teaching reading from 9:20-10:20, math from 10:20-11:20 and science from 1:20 to 2:20, approach each day with the lens of that question. This will help students to make more connections, ask deeper questions and see learning as a connected process which is more analogous to the work they will do one day in their career.
Although you may not be able to time shadowing people in their work, talk to your friends who are in a different field. Find out what they do regularly and what skills or attributes they needed to be successful. Start following experts in a variety of areas on Twitter. Expand your PLN to include people who are in a different field or who have a different perspective than you. Look for ways to incorporate how the learning experiences you are providing fit into these fields. Better yet, share the 2019 jobs report with your class and have the students explore what the careers and skills described entail.
Try new things. There are so many free courses out there where you can learn many of the skills that were listed in the LinkedIn Report. This list from the Muse is a great start. Next on my list is their graphic design course. I plan on incorporating what I learn into a student production group I am working with this year.
In the book Deep Learning: Engage the World, Change the World, the authors (Fullan, Quinn, McEachen) discuss something called the Equity Hypothesis which posits that if we give students deep learning experiences (those that incorporate the 6 C’s of creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, character and citizenship) then we will engage all students at high levels essentially closing the economic gap that has existed for generations.
When thinking about the purpose of school in the context of the conversation I had with S, it’s not an either or, it’s a synergy of one thought leading to the other. People can pursue their passions AND make money doing it. It’s up to us as educators to make that happen by making the school experience more readily prepare students for the complex world we live in.
In case you were wondering, S and I are now Facebook friends. We have plans to continue the conversation at a future date. I’m sure it will be equally as thought-provoking and I will share any new thoughts that evolve.
As always, thank you for reading (or listening). I know this was a long one.
Trying to figure out how many times I have been asked this question would be like attempting to count the number of shoes in a Kardashian closet. More than a hypothetical question meant to ward off bad behavior, if you grew up in my house, it was a mantra, an embodiment, the law.
My parents didn’t just preach this question, they lived it. When my mom was a young adult she wanted to see the world, so instead of booking a trip she auditioned for a christian music group, recorded an album and went on a world tour. As I was growing up she was on pretty much every board in town and was constantly in the paper for the innovative work that she did.
One of my favorite stories though is how my mother convinced a large organization to hire her as a prevention specialist with absolutely zero experience after staying home for 10 years. How did she do it? She first decided to call her local state official, arranged a meeting, and got them to recommend her for the position (after only seeing her once). At the actual job interview they told her they would hire her over the other candidates, but she had never written any grants, a large part of the position. So, she left the interview, went immediately to the library, checked out every book she could, wrote a 20 page proposal, sent it to them, and was hired the next day. I could honestly go on for hours about how, throughout my life, my mother has taught me the value of doing things that may be inconceivable to others.
From my dad I learned this same value, but in a different context. A devout christian (we called him Mr. Holy Man growing up), all of his decisions and interactions with people are made based off of the scriptures in the Bible. Instead of spending his life pursuing his greatest dreams, he has dedicated it to supporting others. I have watched him over the years devote his time to connecting with people, giving his time even when he doesn’t have it and living a life of gratitude and reflection regardless what is happening around him. An avid reader of a variety of genres, he believes in his convictions and finds ways in any interaction to teach a lesson, encourage growth or offer support. It is rare that I have met anyone who rivals him in convictions, knowledge and servitude.
A Personal Reflection
This simple family belief has had a profound effect on me throughout my life, but especially as an educator. When I was in the classroom I dreamed big and often altered the curriculum in favor of more meaningful learning experiences for my students. I didn’t do this for the sake of being different, but because I wanted to plan learning activities that would truly engage all of my learners. By my last year in the classroom, this meant more opportunities for students to drive their own learning through goal setting, reflection and feedback. The students held book clubs and blogged about their books, planned out fundraisers, participated in back channel discussions, produced math and reading videos and owned their learning because they chose the activities to meet the weekly goals. (Click here for example)
I welcome risk and crave new experiences. As a result I see change as a positive. In my almost 20 years in education I have accepted tenure only once, not because it wasn’t offered, but because I have always had a desire to learn and grow. Every 3-4 years I have left my current job to work in places that I knew would push my thinking. In 2012, I left THE BEST team I have ever been on to become an instructional coach in Naperville because I was inspired by the amazing work I had heard the teachers were doing with students there.
On the flip side, I truly struggle when I am told that there is only one right way of teaching or I must do something exactly as described. Telling me to “teach with fidelity” is the equivalent of the friendly finger in my book. I am not saying that I don’t believe in following rules or that I don’t follow a policy when it has been agreed upon, but when a stringent approach is being made my gut reaction is to question it first. Simply based on the fact that students are all unique, how on earth could one way be the right way to teach ALL students?
How Our Perceptions Influence Us
According to Ambrose (1987), meaningful change will occur if the following are present.
If any of the components are missing then a variety of negative outcomes will result instead including anxiety, confusion, resistance, frustration, false starts and inertia. I completely agree with this assertion, but I would also argue that considering people’s prior experiences and perceptions is another factor that needs to be a part of the equation.
Perhaps naively, when I became a coach I thought everyone had the same viewpoints as I did. I thought that by simply providing enough background and sharing new ideas with a detailed plan that everyone would want to jump in and start whatever initiative I was introducing. Although there were definitely people who were like me and jumped in right away, there were many others who responded differently. Some people I found just needed more information than I had provided, some needed to “see it” first in action, some implemented slowly and others appeared to be completely uninterested.
The more I got to know my colleagues, the more I saw how people’s prior experiences, backgrounds and beliefs influenced how they would perceive the work we would do together. Combining this with what I learned about their strengths and passions I was able to much better tailor the learning to what my staff needed resulting in greater ownership and meaningful change. For staff members in which change created anxiety, I made sure I incorporated connections to how the new initiative was similar to strategies or approaches they had previously experienced. For educators who valued individuality I looked to include opportunities to personalize the new initiative and tailor it to what made it meaningful to them.
Students come to the classroom with past experiences and dispositions that affect the way they receive new learning as well. Charlotte Danielson advocates seeking out information on students’ “backgrounds, cultures, skills, language proficiency, interests, and special needs” and incorporating this information into planning learning experiences. Many educators interpret this part of Domain 1 as knowing information about the culture or ethnicity of the student. If we are going to reach every child, we have to go further than looking at generic stereotypes of ethnicity or background and delve deeper into the beliefs that a student has developed during their individual upbringing.
Three Little Questions
So how do we learn this critical information about those we teach, lead or work with? For me, it starts with finding out the answers to the following questions:
What does your family believe is most important? (For students, what is a lesson your parents have tried to teach you a lot? OR What do you think your parents think is the most important thing in life?)
What do you value most?
What can I learn from you?
Gaining the answers to these questions can be done in a variety of ways. I personally prefer individual conversations, but I know that is not always realistic. Having teams discuss these questions at a staff meeting or PLC is a great way to build upon a positive culture in the school. It is amazing to see the connections that people make as they share ideas or values that are meaningful to them. When staff members know the strengths of their peers, it grows the dynamic of a collaborative environment where everyone has a chance to shine and learn from one another.
In the classroom structures like genius hour or passion projects are a great way to bring out the interests and values of the kids. Giving students opportunities to be the expert and teach the class is another way to highlight and build upon their strengths. Learners could also create projects answering one or more of these questions or simply journal about them or discuss them in small groups. As with adults, there is also great power in having 1:1 conversations with students about these questions as well.
In his insanely popular book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey addresses perceptions and the impact they have on the way we view the world. His position is that if we acknowledge and analyze them, then we can have a much more open-minded and objective view. I believe that when we know the values and beliefs of those around us, including our own, we can better build upon strengths and create learning experiences that are meaningful and powerful for all stakeholders.
I would love to know your thoughts and what you have done to learn the values, strengths, and passions of others.