Multiplying the Talents of Students

Every morning I have about a thirty-minute commute to work from my home in Wheaton.  Most mornings my routine is pretty similar.  After giving Alexandra a big hug and a kiss (sometimes 4 or 5 depending on what mood she’s in), I hop in my car, order my morning coffee and listen to whatever music I happen to be in the mood for.  I let my mind wander to nonsense during this time, but after I get my coffee (Americano, 2 sugars) it’s “Go Time.”

I turn on a podcast, listen to a book on Audible or spend the next twenty minutes reflecting on my practice.  This week has gotten me reflecting about one of the quotes I discussed from my last post about building a strength-based culture in our schools, (Making the Positives so Loud)

“But if people aren’t aware of their genius, they are not in a position to deliberately utilize it. By telling people what you see, you can raise their awareness and confidence, allowing them to provide their capability more fully.” – The Multiplier Effect & Multipliers

Instead of thinking about it in the context of building leader to teacher, I have been reflecting more on the implications within the classroom and how teachers can unleash the talents of their students.  In Chapter 2 of Wiseman’s original book on the same topic: Multipliers:  How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter she discusses a three-step process called, “Name the Genius” that is connected to this same quote. 

Like the title alludes to, “Name the Genius” is the process of finding what individuals are innately good at with the purpose of multiplying the ability.  The first part of this process involves reflecting on an individual’s strengths.  The book offers four questions to help leaders to define the native talents in others:

• What do they do better than anything else they do?
• What do they do better than the people around them?
• What do they do easily (without effort or even awareness)?
• What do they do freely (without being asked or being paid)?

In the context of education I might simplify these questions to the following:

  • What does the student excel in at school? (What comes easy for the student – NOT just academics)
  • What does the student choose to do when he or she is given choice in the classroom?
  • What do the other students tend to come to this student for help with?

Step 2 in the process is literally putting a label on it.  Some examples given are, “synthesizing complex ideas,” or “building bridges.”  I think the labels in school would depend greatly on the age and the different students comprised of the classroom each year, but some of the ideas I have are:

Category Student Description
Natural Leader This is a student who naturally takes the lead when working in partnerships or groups.  The other students tend to look to him or her for leadership in the classroom.
Organizational Ninja This is a student whose desk, locker, all materials are always organized. He or she has a system for everything.  This may transfer over into other subjects like writing.
Idea Generator This is the student who is always coming to you with an idea for something they want to work on in class or out of class.  When you ask questions, this student almost always raises their hand and has a unique answer. They love to talk and share ideas.
Creative Artist This is the student who the other students are always coming to to draw things for them.  They are always drawing or doodling something in class.
Creative Writer This is the student who excels in creativity in writing.  Whether they are designing new worlds or interesting characters their mind thinks creatively when putting pen to paper.
Tech Guru This is the kid who loves working on their computer.  When something breaks down in the classroom this student can usually figure out a way to make it work again.
Voracious Reader This is the student who reads volumes of books in school and out.  He or she has favorite authors or genres and can be found reading whenever freetime is given.
Mathematical Mind This is a student who can find an answer to even the most complex math in the classroom with what appears to be little effort.  Many times the student has different strategies for solving as well or can combine numbers in unique ways.
Kindness Coordinator This is a student whose empathy runs deep.  He or she works well with any student in the classroom and can often be found helping other students to solve problems.
Performance Artist This is a student who when given choice is always creating a play, song or dance related to the topic.  He or she loves to perform in front of any audience.

The final step in the process is the most critical, share with the student what you’ve noticed as their native genius and then look for ways to multiply it or put it to use in the classroom.  

There are a variety of ways I might do this in the classroom.  I would first schedule individual conferences with each student where my conversation might sound like this…

“I’ve been looking for the unique talents of each student in our classroom and I’ve noticed that you are an Idea Generator.  When I ask questions in the classroom your hand is almost always raised.  When you are working with other kids I’ve noticed that you are the one who comes up with unique ideas or are often the first to share.  You frequently come to me with ideas about our classroom or things you’d like to try outside of school.  This is a true talent and gift that will make you very successful both inside and outside of school because you come up with ideas that others may have never thought of before.  I’d like to use your unique talent in our classroom more.  Here are some ideas I have…What do you think?  Do you have more?”  

Just like in a literacy or math conference, name the observation and then give examples to the student of this trait.  By sharing the native genius with the student he or she is more likely to focus on this talent and use it more often in the classroom and beyond.  

The next thing I would do is incorporate ways to enhance students’ native genius into my planning.  If I’ve got a classroom of students who thrive on creativity then I want to plan lessons that are going to give opportunities for that genius to flourish.  Many times the answer will be obvious like offering choice in how students demonstrate mastery with creative options.  Sometimes though the creative answer is not always apparent to us as educators because that may not be our native genius.  This is an opportunity to ask the students how they would incorporate creativity into the lesson.  The more we give students opportunities to contribute, the more not only their talents will grow, but the ideas that we have for future practice will increase as well.

Planning for small groups or partnerships is another way that strategically planning with the students’ native genius is a benefit.  When planning for small group collaboration I might put students together who have very different strengths, but together would create a much better synergy than if they had worked in a homogeneous group.  For example, in a group of four, I’d look to have a leader, an organizer, a creative student and a student who is incredibly kind.  Depending on the type of work I might also put an Idea Generator, a Tech Guru, and a Creative Artist together.  At the end of the collaboration, I would have students reflect on what worked well, what they learned from the other students and what they might want to try to emulate.  I would use this information to plan for future groups.  

The final action I would take is to create something called, “Mastermind Groups” in my classroom.  These groups would be comprised of students with similar talents.  They would meet once a week and get to work on the things they loved most together.  It would kind of be similar to a passion project or genius hour, but with a group of like-minded individuals who could push one another due to their similar strengths.  I might also use this time as a brainstorming session with students to get more of their ideas of how our classroom could be enhanced by posing questions like the following?

  • When is learning best for you in my classroom?  
  • What problems do you see in our classroom or school?  How do you recommend we solve those problems?
  • What suggestions do you have for making learning better in our classroom?

The ideas and feedback could then be incorporated into future planning for learning experiences or classroom procedures.


The actual title of Chapter 2 in Multipliers is The Talent Magnet.  I have relistened to this chapter on my way to and from work probably 3 to 4 times, each time grasping something new.  Essentially, great leaders who are Talent Magnets draw talented people to them because they not only recognize the talent in others, but are able to take that talent and increase it exponentially.  

The longer I am in education the more I realize that it’s not the standards or content that is the most important thing, it’s the relationships I build with students and the way that I help them to grow and become the best possible version of themselves.  The role of the teacher (as well as leaders) is truly one of a Talent Magnet. 

“Multipliers not only access people’s current capability, they stretch it. They get more from people than they knew they had to give. People reported actually getting smarter around Multipliers. The implication is that intelligence itself can grow.” – Liz Wiseman, Greg McKeown

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Making the Positives So Loud

I’ll admit it.

George Couros is one of my favourite (spelling intended) people in education.  Not only is he skilled at telling a captivating story that can cause both tears and inexplicable laughter, but his ideas about education are thought-provoking and real, grounded in his own experience or ideas he has recently read about or seen.

Since being introduced to his work and hearing him speak at a conference last year, I’ve been influenced by not only his book, The Innovator’s Mindset, but also his regular blog posts, podcasts, and tweets.

When I originally encountered his popular quote, “We need to make the positives so loud so that the negatives are almost impossible to hear,” I quickly connected it, as many people do, to the context of making sure that the positive voices are heard so loudly in the school that they outweigh any negativity from the naysayers.  In a year of rapid changes in my district, this quote resonated with me as a great strategy to build a positive school culture.

What I realized recently though is that although that interpretation is completely valid, it actually has a variety of meaningful contexts that relate to not only students and staff, but to education as a whole.  Administrators need to regularly share the strengths of their team and teachers need to do the same with students.

In one of the studies mentioned in Paul Tough’s book, Helping Children Succeed he discusses a strategy that social workers used with parents of toddlers to improve their parenting skills.  Instead of focusing on what they were doing wrong after each visit, the social worker gave feedback explicitly naming what the parents were doing correctly. The impact of this study was profound, elevating not only the overall confidence of the parents, but their parenting skills as well.

At first as an instructional coach, and now an administrator, I have tried a variety of strategies to emulate this philosophy and grow a positive culture.  

  1. Every time I visit a classroom I send an email to the staff member explicitly stating positive observations related to their instruction, interaction with students or even classroom environment.  
  2. “Bite-Sized Feedback” cycles are also an awesome way to highlight great instruction.  First, we talk about something they would like me to observe and then we set up a 15-minute time slot each week for me to come into their classroom. Afterward, we talk for 10-15 minutes about the laundry list of awesome things they are doing followed by me offering a tip for how to enhance one of their strengths.  I have seen more impact on instruction as a result of this practice than any traditional observation.
  3. I regularly tweet out pictures and videos of the amazing instruction I see when I pop into classrooms.  Sometimes it is a student, sometimes a staff, and sometimes me reflecting on what I saw and the impact it had on students. 
  4. This year we have started a podcast at one of my buildings where we interview one of our staff members about their instructional practices.  This helps our staff to get to know one another’s strengths, and also gives us an avenue to share the amazing learning happening in our building.
  5. Involve students in telling the positive story of the school. This year I am working with groups of students in both of my buildings to do this.  At one of my buildings this developed into creating a documentary about our entire school and in the other building, the students have been creating short videos about individual classrooms.  

In the book, The Multiplier Effect:  Tapping The Genius Inside Our Schools, authors Wiseman, Allen & Foster agree with the importance of not only recognizing, but sharing strengths with those whom we serve.

“But if people aren’t aware of their genius, they are not in a position to deliberately utilize it. By telling people what you see, you can raise their awareness and confidence, allowing them to provide their capability more fully.” 

Walking through classrooms or in conversations with students & staff, I am amazed daily in the creative genius that surrounds me.  Telling them their brilliance shines a spotlight on their talents and says, “DO THIS MORE!” This builds not only confidence and a positive school culture, but causes even brighter ideas and more innovation to spread in our school.  

Please know that by saying we should highlight the positive, I am not saying that we should never have reflective conversations about shifts that may need to be made in instructional practice. It has been my experience that when I focus on sharing strengths instead of telling a list of changes to be made, that we end up actually having even more of these types of conversations.  This is because when people know that you see them for their unique strengths and talents as opposed to a project that needs to be fixed a greater trust is built.  Staff members often come to me with ideas asking for feedback or I am able to ask reflective questions resulting in instructional shifts. When change comes from within, it is deeper and more likely to last.  

Educators don’t always see the amazing strengths within themselves.  As leaders, the more we recognize and celebrate the strengths of those we lead, the more we create a positive culture that drowns out negativity and grows the innate talents of our school community.