Before September school bells rang, many educators were engaged in a complex and productive dialogue about THE WHAT/THE PURPOSE of public education. That narrative continues; it revolves around curriculum revisions that go far beyond updating learning outcomes and changing resource materials. It is about the commitment to deep transformational learning rather than tired efforts to sustain the status quo by cycling through minor tweaks and calling them significant/game changers.
Why is this so crucial? There is a “real-time” global context in today’s classrooms, courtesy of social media, 24/7 news cycles, increased social conscience, and competing pressures and priorities. That should compel us to design learning pathways that maximize engagement by addressing those complexities. We live in an “Ethical Dilemmas Are Us” society, so currency and relevance are essential. Simply put, it’s not a black and white world, so we can’t have a black and white curriculum with the answer key at the end of the chapter.
Today’s learner acquires and demonstrates knowledge, skills and attitudes in very different ways than when the schoolhouse foundations were laid more than a century ago. The 19th and 20th century framework was built to accommodate yesterday’s certainties, social norms, communication capacities and beliefs about learning. Compliance and memorization were highly valued. But yesteryear doesn’t equip young people to deal with tomorrow, and a simple binary construct of right and wrong answers laid out in old school print resources doesn’t cut it. Real learning doesn’t link to worksheets, quizzes & tests and rewarding out-of-context retrieval of facts is so “Pre-Google…”
A key condition for transformation to take hold is our acceptance that we (the system) can no longer “sanitize” the school experience to keep John and Jane insulated from controversial, values-laden, politically or culturally sensitive issues. If they don’t grapple with those matters at school, in a scaffolded, skillfully supported environment, where and when will they confront what really matters.
While our approach to a curriculum/learning framework is transformational, it’s not all new. The difference today is that skilled teachers are encouraged to keep doing what they have always done, but now with system support. They need that as they build from the what of the core competencies to the how those skills are applied in ways that are light years beyond answering the questions at the end of the chapter. The problems or challenges students engage with are far more real and important than the old standbys. Remember this one?:
A train traveling on the track from Toronto to Vancouver departs at the same time as a train heading from Vancouver to Toronto. At what point will the trains pass each other, moving at an average speed of 95 km/hr?
Challenging problem? Maybe. Interesting/engaging? Not so much. There better more relevant and topical ways to demonstrate core skills.
Today’s newscrawl can lead to tomorrow’s lesson and followup problem-based activity. It’s not a stretch to see how we can teach and reinforce all of the CORE areas through artful navigation of real-world themes like these:
Of course, bringing real world issues into the classroom requires sensitivity and skill. It’s not without risk, but inertia is an even greater risk if we want to change the perspective shared by students quoted in John Abbott’s Battling for the Soul of Education. In Abbott’s call to action, he cites a forum where students commented to their teachers:
“You treat education like a TV dinner. You tell us to go to the freezer, pull out a box, read the instructions carefully, take off the wrapping, puncture the cellophane, then set the microwave for the right time. If we’ve followed the instructions carefully, we’ll get full marks.” Full marks for honest perspective, anyway!
We know better. We have to do better. That’s at the core of transformation. Quite a journey.
…but it never did make the grade as a call to action for an education system needing something more authentic, substantial and current. It contaminated a progressive concept of accountability, one that we are still refining to support real progress.
First, let’s acknowledge that no caring/compassionate society would tolerate the notion of throw away kidsor abandoned cohort groups. Communities of integrity don’t ignore, punish or marginalize struggling populations under the flawed assumption that “motivators” like sanctions and scarcity will promote redoubled effort and a greater likelihood of success. It just doesn’t work. Never did.
We should also recognize that educators today more fully understand, value and nurture human potential in all its forms as we hold ourselves to the highest standard: every child, every chance, every day. It is tremendously challenging work, but that is the professional commitment educators make. Not for the faint of heart; absolutely for the big of heart. Never simple to measure; always important to track.
Moving from the individual educator’s beliefs and passions to the systems level, it’s fair to say that 21stcentury learning organizations are becoming more nimble and flexible in designing, monitoring and adjusting the multiple pathways needed to activate, engage and extend kids’ unique intelligences and gifts. It’s a big task. It’s what we do. The discard pile is out of bounds.
While we are at it, operating as we do in a results-driven world, let’s finally get to a place where accountability isn’t a bad word, in spite of the angry reaction it still attracts from some people. Yes, there’s more work to be done in moving beyond some stale understandings around it. But we are making progress: taking it far from the blame and shame, high praise/high punishment regime that was born in less enlightened times. Accountability today adds value as it has us declare our most important/highest priorities, share how we develop and activate plans to address those highest priority needs, and ensure that we monitor, adjust and inform about our progress. Those three simple declarations are at the foundation of accountability going forward:
In refreshing our approach to accountability, let’s make the first port of call our most vulnerable learners, those kids who are the outliers in a system that delivers many overall successes and positive trends. In the “old” accountability process, we aggregated individual and cohort group stories into larger data fields, obscuring lack of success with the kids who need us most. Accountability for progress with at risk learnerseliminates any ambiguity about our priority commitment to their life chances. Attention to those youngsters’ learning leads to us to activate research-based practices that are successful in changing learning trajectories. Monitoring and adjusting at the classroom, school and system levels helps us to refine our approaches so the environment fits the kid rather than the other way around. It’s a pretty clear three-step approach, far more progressive and less convoluted than the myriad compliance-type accountability processes that have tied schools and districts in knots for too many years.
To those who are inclined to rally in support of making a first priority of “all the other kids” who aren’t in the at risk cohort, we have some good news. Just as a rising tide lifts all boats, it is equally true that application of quality practice, addressing individual needs and attention to learning science benefits all kids. Good learning design works across subjects, learning styles and abilities/challenges. No one suffers. Everyone thrives.
Focus…clear priorities…alignment of resources and efforts… adjusting practice in response to evidence: that’s how we activate human potential, one child at a time. It’s where we need to be and it’s happening.
What do Screen Time, Sitting Time and Adolescent Marijuana Use have in common? And how does it all connect with self-regulation and youth mental health?
I often bump into my When will what we know change what we do query. It has had a fair bit of play over time and yes, it’s easier to say than to activate. Sometimes it’s not that important when we know something and choose not to act on that knowledge (this cookie is too tempting to resist even though I know it isn’t good for the body’s chemistry…) But there are other times when it’s far more important to act on knowledge, even when it means challenging routines, beliefs and comfortable norms.
Here are three areas to explore because action on them can and should make a difference. Stuart Shanker says “There is not a single kid whose trajectory we cannot change,” but that change can’t just be founded on hope and optimism. It has to involve us individually and as a society making different decisions, establishing new norms and acting on current science and research. Then, it really does become possible to increase healthy brain function, good mental health and a capacity to self-regulate for that kid and that kid and that kid…
1) The Screen: In a world where TVs, tablets and laptop computers have become part of the standard furnishing in bedrooms, helping us to “relax and unwind,” we now know more about their impact on our brain function than we did when they first moved beyond the living room. Screen time and the absorbed light rays – more intense in a darkened room – play havoc with our brain patterns and our ability to go into a deep and healthy sleep. Experts suggest that it takes up to 90 minutes after the screen is shut off and your head hits the pillow for the brain to “quiet down.” That’s 90 minutes subtracted from an already too brief sleep time. It’s 90 minutes when the brain doesn’t get into its repair and growth cycle that happens during restorative sleep. What is that doing to the developing brain of a young child? Is the iPad as a toddler’s bedtime companion a good idea? For older brother or sister, the impact is equally significant. Think about an already late, frequently re-negotiated bedtime. Add in screen time resulting in shallow sleep, interrupted by an alarm clock that jolts the adolescent up for a too early school day. For good measure, throw in a “no breakfast scramble” to get out the door. Think about the cumulative impact on a kid’s brain health and growth. And then the school day begins.
We know that healthy brain development is the most precious down payment we can make in a youngster’s trajectory. We now know more about what screen time – its amount and timing – does to brain development. I wonder how many screens will come out of bedrooms and how many bedtime routines will be adjusted when what we know collides with what we do. Need more evidence? Read this: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mental-wealth/201402/gray-matters-too-much-screen-time-damages-the-brain
2) The Seat: You have seen the brain scans of kids who are active versus those who are sedentary. It’s a pretty remarkable contrast and the areas of the brain that are firing during physical activity include those that light up during learning. Knowing that, let’s think about what the school day typically looks like. We take the most energetic and kinesthetic segment of our human population (our kids) and put them in seats for 5+ hours/day, with occasional, standardized breaks. We sustain a social reward system, represented in report card comments that laud kids for sitting still and paying attention and call out those kids who are otherwise disposed. If children “misbehave” (perhaps acting out because of the prolonged lack of physical action??), a traditional penalty has been to keep them inside and sedentary during recess or lunch time when energy expended and restored could help bring a more balanced state of self-regulation and calm.
Eric Jensen’s Teaching With the Brain in Mind (yes please), does a wonderful job of making the case for physical activity and sounding a call to action: http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/104013/chapters/Movement-and-Learning.aspx
We are now also seeing research that gives adults some bad news about our own sedentary habits. If you spend an hour in the gym or on the track every morning, the good outcomes of that commitment are more than undone by hours of sitting – as many of us do for much of our day. Take a look: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/prolonged-sitting-may-increase-risk-of-certain-cancers/
With that new knowledge, are we making serious attempts to restructure our learning day, our work day and the routines and furnishings that enable healthier environments? Have purchase standards changed for schools and for office spaces to allow for standing desks and more mobile work stations and classroom layouts? Is the stand up or walking meeting just a fad in a few “out of the box” organizations? Such options aren’t neat and tidy, but if health trumps uniformity, it seems like a pretty good investment.
3) Adolescent Marijuana Use: Another in the Knowing/Doing connection. No comment here. Just an opportunity to think about this current science, laid out in a series of Globe and Mail articles with the attention-grabbing headline Your Kid’s Brain on Pot. It’s an interesting read and a good survey of the issues related with the intersection of drug use and brain development. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health-and-fitness/health/your-kids-brain-on-pot-the-real-effects-of-marijuana-on-teens/article21127612/
Knowing…Doing. It’s hard work to stay current and to implement change, but surely we owe it to our kids at home, at school, and on the playing field. They are our future.
For an interesting read, try these two Angela Hanscom Washington Post blog articles linked below. They do a thought-provoking job of highlighting one of the key issues in our self-regulation learning journey. Too often, the adult world, including its schools, expects kids to exhibit what is often referred to as “self-control” – a label that puts too many eggs in one basket, believing that willpower and effort can and should trump neurophysiology and evolution. For youngsters, sitting still, compliant and attentive in school for 5+ hours/day isn’t anywhere close to being connected to human development and how we are hard-wired. We are all built to move, especially children whose overall development depends on the constant feedback that comes from physical action. Juxtapose that reality with the shape of the school day and then add to that our increasing willingness to allow those same kids to lock into “screen time” once they get home. For many children, the dominant state during their waking hours is one of physical inactivity. Many parks are empty but the household bandwidth is crowded. It is no wonder that in an increasingly sedentary population, “Diagnosis ADHD” gallops on.
The Washington Post blogs present another of those “when will what we know change what we do?” moments. Thankfully, more and more people are asking that question, becoming engaged at the awareness level, then building (through curiosity and reflection) into understanding, eventually getting to a place where we are able to take on responsibility for change. It is a long and non-linear path, one step at a time and it requires us to discard some old certainties and embrace curiosity combined with a good dose of non-conformity to system norms and expectations.
While you’re in curiosity mode, here’s a video clip featuring a school in Australia that has begun to address the sedentary/sitting challenge by introducing a stand up classroom. http://www.jump-in.com.au/show/60minutes/stories/2014/september/stand-up-australia/
It’s a good reminder for all of us as we fold ourselves into cars, desks/workstations and then back home to recline on the living room couch. Just like the kids, we’re wired to move.
Earlier this year, I had the privilege of working with a group of parents of young people with mental health issues. They are part of an organization called F.O.R.C.E. and I was honoured to speak at their spring conference and share the self-regulation framework and its potential application to their children and the challenges they face. The session went well; people were engaged with the self-reg story, saw the links to their lived experiences, appreciated the neuroscience research behind self-regulation and its application at the individual, family, classroom, and community levels. It was clear that the conditions that promote or inhibit good mental health are equally evident at home, school and in the community and that a tie-in to the self-regulation framework is helpful.
Since that event, I have thought a great deal about what I learned from those parents and the stories they shared: the challenges, the necessary courage and the unwavering love and commitment they have for their children. Subsequent discussions with resource people from F.O.R.C.E. have deepened my awareness of the journey these kids and their parents are engaged in, sometimes with and sometimes without the system alignment, support and understanding they need. Think about a highly anxious and “dysregulated” child whose parents have worked hard to establish the best possible conditions at home. They have been tireless in their efforts to create a place where the child feels safe and nurtured, where she feels confident and competent to take risks, move out of a comfort zone and then activate strategies to return* to a “set point” of calmness and focus. *Remember that self-regulation is the capacity to expend energy in dealing with stressors and then replenish/restore energy to be ready for the next of life’s daily challenges. For that child, think about what happens when that she ventures out to the neighbourhood school and its community. When things go well, it is often because of the school staff’s professional capacity, founded in a culture of kindness and understanding, and a non-judgmental commitment that supports the young person’s journey. We don’t blame the dysregulated and overstressed/overwhelmed child; we get curious as to the conditions that led to such a state and we work with the child and family to alter some of the variables. Together, we are learning detectives. Thanks to teamwork and a positive home-school connection, we develop strategies to support self-regulation and, as necessary particularly for younger and more dependent children, to encourage co-regulation. That’s a good news story about highly committed supportive systems.
On the other hand, there can be a troubling version of the same story, one where the system rolls on, overwhelming the child with inflexible approaches, using louder and harder exhortations and increasingly anxiety-inducing reward and punishment. That approach is from a different era and we now know that overwhelming a child who is already anxious and off-balance doesn’t make things better. Which approach works? Ask the parent, the child and the teacher – there’s no doubt that building understanding, compassion and greater sophistication in strategies (in a post-behaviourist world), changes that youngster’s life chances dramatically.
The query “When will what we know change what we do?” is not the same as “When will what is known change what is done.” The former exhorts us to engage, to learn and to apply that learning. It requires new curiosity over old certainty. The latter gives us a free pass; we can wait for someone else to take charge and create an answer.
There are no free passes and there is no time to wait for someone else to solve this issue. Every day, we see and hear about examples of youth mental health crises and we know the range of stressors visiting themselves upon kids is exponentially greater than what was experienced in past generations. Kids with extreme anxiety, depression, social disconnection and other vulnerabilities are here now, in numbers greater than ever before. As our systems are asked to adapt to the emerging realities of the people they serve – especially the most vulnerable – the voices I heard at the F.O.R.C.E. session said “Thank you” to those who are on this journey with them, and “Please Hurry” to all of us as we turn our attention to their children’s needs. There is great work being done by experts in this field, and their discoveries have to become our promising practices. It is a powerful calling, with no time like the present.
It is fascinating to be immersed in another culture and to have begun to understand its education and human services systems. We see our own realities with fresh eyes and learn from colleagues on the same journey as they seek out promising practices to build capacity…one child at a time.
Stuart Shanker and I were in Perth, Western Australia for two weeks engaging with school and early childhood educators, social service agencies, Aboriginal and other community leaders. We were there at the invitation of a remarkable organization, Western Australia Council of Social Service (WACOSS). Their work is to develop an aligned, sustainable and coherent voice and action plan for the many agencies whose mission is to support those who have the greatest needs and whose voices are often most distant from places of influence. WACOSS is in the early stages of activating self-regulation theory (see www.self-regulation.ca) as a common framework for their programs and initiatives. Our visit involved teaching, learning and hearing others’ stories, many of which are remarkably similar to our own in BC and across Canada. Here are three compass points in our common ground:
1) The better the start, the better the trajectory…Western Australia is increasingly paying attention to how they construct their early childhood initiatives, parent support programs and effective transition from home to school. In some of the places we visited, accessibility and flow of programs and services was beautifully clear to the clients. That’s the key and we can learn from the best of what our Australian friends are doing. They have gone beyond the fairly typical program design, one that makes most sense to those who built it. In WA, it was encouraging to see the goodness of fit for the parent and the child, especially those who already deal with multiple barriers as they navigate systems. In BC, our StrongStart Centres are a big step in the right direction, but there is more to achieve. Every step we take to be warm and welcoming, caring and compassionate is another support for the anxious family toward feeling safe and secure and beginning to see hope;
2) Smarter together rather than harder alone…In the human services sector in Western Australia, various agencies are aligning efforts to maximize the cumulative impact of their resources, ensuring a positive difference for their most vulnerable populations. That was apparent in many meetings and presentations where was excitement about activating self-regulation theory as a common touchstone for their programs. It was clear that this wasn’t the first time these people had played well together in the same sandbox. They are embracing emerging science around the human condition as they strive to make the biggest possible difference to the people and communities they serve. An essential element of their commitment is the voice of the Aboriginal community in the collaborative planning. There is a clear understanding that reconciliation includes acknowledging the past and building a shared future; and,
3) Evidence over ideology…In difficult times for social agency resourcing (both government and non-government), staff are engaged in reviews around the currency and research-based validity of their programs. They are taking another look at “old school” reward and punishment norms that used to be part of institutional culture. Caring, quality programs don’t extinguish hope by excluding those who struggle. There are better ways to support individual growth, hence the WA interest in self-regulation.
Our experience in Western Australia was tremendously engaging, every day filled with exciting learning and great promise. There are so many people doing fine work there, as is true of their contemporaries at home. North and south, these professionals are more curious than certain. They work scientifically, artfully and always with good heart to understand the human condition and to reframe individual and system responses to dysregulated kids and families. Shame and blame don’t build capacity. There is a better way.
As part of my role in support of various self-regulation projects, I often receive notes and updates from places where the initiative is developing. Almost always, those notes reinforce for me an essential truth about education: it is not the elegance, complexity or perfection of any innovation’s design that leads to its success; rather, it is the spirit of collaboration, flexibility and hopefulness that moves the dial. It is curiosity over certainty, and it embraces the notion that lifelong learning is for the adults too. Whether we are talking about self-regulation, project-based learning, quality classroom assessment practices, incorporating the arts across the curriculum, addressing youth mental health…or any of the other complex and vital work being done in schools everywhere, the secret sauce of successful innovation is teamwork, trust and willingness to take risks.
Following is an example celebrating the work of collaborative, hopeful and flexible people, those curious and determined educators who commit to doing the right thing and doing it well. The writer shares her comments (edited for brevity) in an update on the expansion of her district’s self-regulation work over the past 18 months from a small initial elementary school “First Wave” to an expansion that includes more elementary schools and the launch of a secondary school initiative. She wrote:
The secondary cohort met last week. The buzz in the room grows stronger each time this group comes together. Collectively, they continue to be highly reflective, connecting the principles of self-regulation to the needs of their students, the kids they see every day. One of the district staff’s Helping Teachers has become a “regular” at the sessions, linking research, highlighting classroom applications, providing rich learning experiences for all. It is clear that S-R has become an essential part of who they are as educators. There is no turning back for this group.
The original group (which started their project last year) is meeting next week. I am not sure that any of the participants have experienced a professional learning journey that could rival the self-regulation odyssey. As expected, they continue to take the lead in building capacity at their respective sites. Several have received requests from neighbouring schools and a couple have been asked to provide in-service at schools that have not been involved in self-reg to date. These teacher-leaders are powerful, authentic voices.
The new cohort will be attending the fourth session of the year within the next couple of weeks. In the interim, they continue to receive support through regular site visits and informal networking opportunities. The feedback, insights and themes that have emerged from these site visits will most certainly frame the work moving forward. We have learned (and reminded ourselves) that differentiation is key. Some schools are flying; in those places the school-based S-R group continues to grow and there is a comprehensive understanding of the principles, a recognition that direct teaching is essential, deep reflection of practice, and intentional exploration of data collection. At these schools the principal is actively involved in the work, group members self-identified and teachers are leading the charge. We also recognize that there are some situations where more time is needed to develop the understandings and apply the principles to classroom practice. These schools are well on their way. Regardless of where schools fall along this continuum, it is universally understood that the work is more than simply “doing self-reg”, using some of the tools, some of the strategies and some of the language. In the absence of a deeper understanding, any implementation would appear to be the pursuit of the quick fix.
An appreciation for the self-regulation framework and way of thinking never leaves you…I was at an in-service on differentiated instruction and the facilitator showed a clip of Captain Sully, the pilot who landed in the Hudson River. He was being interviewed by Katie Couric (CBS at the time). Take a look…it is all about the power and importance of self-regulation. While the presenters were making a case for differentiated learning opportunities within a classroom, they were also highlighting the imperative around S-R. Talk about calm, focused and alert!!
Good people doing good work…together. It’s life long learning any way you look at it.
Over the past few years and more and more frequently now, I have been fortunate to work with Dr. Stuart Shanker on a national and international self-regulation initiative (see www.self-regulation.ca). In sessions across various jurisdictions, we engage with groups in a learning journey that takes people and school systems to new understandings of how people function – from surviving to thriving – all based on the neuroscience foundations of self-regulation. In exploring and engaging in self-regulation learning (a post-behaviourist construct), we begin to challenge long-held assumptions about learning, teaching and interacting, allowing us to apply what we have begun to understand in new ways, both personal and professional. Of course, none of this process is linear. It’s the same for all kinds of significant learning. Think of it as a spiral of discovery.
Stuart and I were recently working with a group on a large, system-wide self-regulation project. We were discussing the self-reg framework we use to explain the 5 domains that make up our personal architecture and the six levels of energy/arousal that describe the expenditure and replenishment of energy.
I won’t unpack the framework in this blog post. It has been referenced in previous blog posts and you can check on the self-reg website for a range of resources that will help with understanding both its complexity and its simplicity.
During the recent presentation, I began to think about the science of self-regulation as it applies to system health as well as to individuals. The framework isn’t new to me. I know it well as one of the key resources as Stuart and I use and we often reference specific cases to illustrate various states, their causes and impacts. But I had always considered it in the context of our individual neurophysiology. What became apparent to me was that this same framework can be equally descriptive and helpful to us in considering organizational health and efficacy. Think about it.
System architecture has the same 5 domains we use to describe individual human make up: “Biological, Emotional, Cognitive, Social and Pro-Social.” In systems work, we might think about labels like Human Resources/Talent, Culture, Skill, Teamwork, and Social Responsibility as equivalent (not perfect but adequate) to the five individual domains. There is even a better match between individuals and systems when we look along the vertical axis at the self-regulation energy levels: Asleep, Drowsy, Hypo-alert, Calm/Focused/Alert, Hyper-alert and Flooded.
Systems behave in many of the same ways individuals do when it comes to the ability to “self-regulate.” That is, they have a range of capacities allowing them to respond to and recover from stressors. Like individuals who are dysregulated, there are consequences and costs to system functionality and health as a result of dysregulation. And just like individuals, it is possible to get stuck in an unhealthy state – an unproductive and unsustainable “set point” – one is more and more difficult from which to recover.
In successful systems, appropriate resources are activated in response to stressors. This occurs multiple times per day, to allow the system/organization to return to a healthier and more productive state; one that is calm, focused and alert. Success in dealing with stressors begets further success. Conversely, organizations that are routinely over-stressed (hyper-alert or flooded) or under-energized (hypo-alert or drowsy) find it difficult to return to a balanced state in expending and restoring energy to function positively and productively. Just as success begets success, it is equally true that “dysfunction begets dysfunction” and systems can end up stuck in that self-fulfilling reality.
Self-regulation for individuals and for systems: it’s an interesting parallel and when we raised it briefly with session participants, there were a number of people for whom the connection made a great deal of sense. They talked about having worked in systems that were “flooded” and therefore unable to deal thoughtfully, rationally, calmly and productively with emergent issues. Those places were constantly in crisis and basic survival became the priority. There was no energy for much else. Others referenced experiences where there was an “under-response” to matters of significance. Their workplace/organization was sluggish and poorly attuned to signals requiring attention and action. Those places have a feeling of lassitude and sense of resignation and hopelessness. Of course, many others validated their workplace as an environment where there was skilful activation of strategies to promote a return to a positive set point in a timely manner.
None of us can avoid stressors and the related energy expenditure, either personally or in our organizations. The good news is that we do have the potential and the knowledge (what we know influencing what we do) to respond to those stressors effectively. Take another look at the self-regulation framework. It makes sense from many angles.
In the weeks leading up to this Christmas season, I enjoyed several last visits to schools prior to my retirement at the end of December. I was looking for something and, as often happens, we find what we are looking for… In this case, it was gratifying to engage in positive dialogue that highlighted the remarkable work of teachers, administrators, education assistants and other school staff – all the professionals who make the difference for kids every day. These people reminded me how fully we now “get” what the secret sauce is for great schools: they are the places that manage to create the right mix of hope and skill, both of which are essential and neither of which is sufficient on its own.
In those school visits – and in your schools and mine – hope was evident in the clearly shared belief that each of our kids has the necessary curiosity, abilities and talents, either active or latent, to allow him or her to engage, to learn and to be successful. It wasn’t generalized or unfocused hope, though. Colleagues shared stories of their efforts several layers beyond the obvious and the relentless positive energy and skill they commit to connecting with their most resistant students. Our conversation included attention to establishing and maintaining social/emotional learning environments that are productive for kids and for adults. We all work better in positive, safe and hopeful places and we know that where cynicism, anxiety or defeatism reign, failure isn’t far behind. The people I talked to aren’t willing to allow that toxin to invade their space. They understand the life-changing role that education has for every student: for some it supports a move from good to great; for others it reinforces the importance of hard work/resilience/grit as crucial for success; and for another cohort, quality education takes a youngster from surviving to thriving. These professionals “hope” for a better future for all children and they work together to deliver it.
Skill was also front and center as a theme in the visits. It is the other ingredient in the secret sauce. Within a framework of hope and a positive school culture, educators are embracing and adopting the evolving art and science of good teaching, individualized learning and appropriate scaffolding of experiences so kids experience the right blend of high expectations and specific support. A growing interest in neuroscience and all of the uptake of the self-regulation framework are indicators of professional practice that is constantly being refined. Engagement in thoughtful dialogue around the EdPlan indicates that we are now well along the transition from a time when facts and factoids formed curricular essentials and memorization ruled the day. Developing key competencies for life keeps learners (we are all learners) nimble. Essential in combination with the curriculum transformation is our quest for better and more authentic ways to assess learning – light years beyond the old report card reward & punishment retrospective that served to archive for what was rather than to influence what could be. Skilful educators are like professionals everywhere, constantly reviewing and refining their work and connecting with others to share emerging quality practice.
As I left the last of those schools, it was reassuring and energizing to see the best of our education communities and to anticipate what lies ahead for learning and for learners. We get it right when hope and skill mix, resulting in the activation of all the art and science that are foundational to our profession. Exciting times ahead! Wonderful places to be.
Part way through the season of shorter days and longer nights, I am creating space to tidy up some blog topics that have been rattling around. It’s kind of a neural spring cleaning of thoughts that form most clearly in the hour or so just ahead of dawn, not yet at full wakefulness, and before the grip of the daily schedule and the tyranny of the urgent. These thoughts assemble into themes, sometimes emerging from books recently read and from dialogue and debate played out over time about educational challenges to be navigated, especially the ones that appear to be elegantly simple and remarkably complex all at once. As educators, we know the joy of lifelong learning. It’s in our nature, our DNA and our job description and now, more and more of us write about it to express our wonder, our curiosity and our journey of exploration of teaching, learning and success.
For me, that journey was enhanced by reading The Talent Code, a book that has so many applications to our work. Among the many engaging stories that author Daniel Coyle uses to underscore the pivotal role of quality practice, there is one about Shaquille O’Neal and free throws and why his efforts in that part of his game were spectacularly flawed. He would practice, and practice and practice, standing at the free throw line for hours on end, day and night, hoping for the breakthrough that never came. His free throw history is legendary and his percentage was so woeful that opponents fouled him relentlessly, confident that they would get the ball back without surrendering many points. There’s no doubt that O’Neal wanted to be successful and was willing to put in all the necessary effort to fix his faulty technique. A career’s worth of score sheets bear witness to the fact that he never cracked the code.
So what does this have to do with learning and with efforts to accomplish more significant tasks? Coyle explains that the science behind Shaquille O’Neal’s quest can inform our practice beyond the gym and the foul line. His other examples, for the non-sports fans, are engaging and illustrative as well. Whichever of Coyle’s stories attract us, it might cause reflection on some of our classroom and homework norms, many of which – just like free throw shooting practice – have long histories that might need a fresh look. What was happening for Shaq was endless rote repetition. It is similar to what can occur when learners are slavishly completing work sheets (paper version or electronic) or other routinized tasks. They fill up time and space, they feel like hard work, one might even have a sense of accomplishment or triumph in completing them all. But the 50th worksheet question isn’t 10 times better than 5 questions at the same task level. It might be worse. And the 50th free throw doesn’t promote greater success either, not if we are trying to develop skill and the ability to replicate that skill, in context and in the moment.
The Big Aristotle, as he was known, would have been far better served to work on his free throw form by setting up from various places on the floor. Free throws from 14, 16 and 18 feet, maybe from 12 feet and at the edge of the lane… Needing to be thoughtful and deliberate requires the brain to be engaged, to practice far more deeply, and therefore to embed and myelin–wrap the neural connections that lead to successful completion of the task. That’s a far better recipe for success than repeating the same thing over and over without any changes in variables (including stressors) and without much new or fresh thought. 50 varied shots would have been better than 5000 of the regular routine. I find this interesting albeit far too late for Shaq’s free throw percentage or for mine. But it’s not too late for us to assess how we can “make it real” for kids in their learning. Homework, or classwork to embed concepts has a much greater chance of sticking (myelin wrapping) if the neural processing provides a range of variables and challenges to take the learner deeper.
The concept of deep practice is one of the reasons that project–based learning and problem–based learning are attracting so much positive attention, student engagement and good results. You can’t “rote” your way through novel and energizing challenges because your brain – the universe’s most complex computer – is busily activating and strengthening its current competencies and while also making new synaptic connections. Even more, when one brain has authentic opportunities to connect with other brains through teamwork on real, engaging and important problems and projects, the depth and quality of new learning is further enhanced. Add the right mix of pressure and support that is part of the public nature of sharing learning and we have a greater likelihood of a successful mix.
What we understand about the brain, as we explore the rich nexus between neuroscience and education, is helping to revolutionize practice. It also tells us why the best of current practice works. It is evident when we watch expert coaches in the classroom, in the gym and in the studio. They achieve success by going in a very different direction from the drill and repetition exercises that are based on volume rather than quality. Skilled coaches activate and energize learners; they give them right-sized challenges that allow them to construct, deconstruct and reconstruct, starting with prior capacities in order to develop new ones. They create appropriate stressors and provide in the moment feedback to help neural pathways build. They know that 50 questions on the worksheet and 50 free throws at the end of practice are much about drill and not so much about skill. Great teachers/great coaches make it real: Animated, Authentic and Active. Good brain food.