In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, he lays out the idea that “greatness” and success are primarily the result of context. People aren’t great by themselves so much as the products of perfect conditions coming together in the right way for the right amount of time. He presents a number of anecdotal success cases from sports and business that exemplify his thesis, explaining that while these people obviously have done great things, top-tier Canadian hockey stars and business execs like Bill Gates have all benefitted from their context more so than their genetics. In fact, he goes on to say that things like IQ and physical stature reach a plateau, beyond which they lose their sense of influence to the person’s life experiences.
I had the most parking-lot moments with Gladwell - I listened to an exceptionally enjoyable version of him reading the book via my audible account while I was commuting to work - while he discussed how this idea manifests when people become aware of it, buy into, and ultimately - in our modern way - try to manipulate it to our advantage. What he was talking about was the modern breed of parents who are trying to raise children to reach the pinnacle of a self-actualized, socially adored, culturally groundbreaking life through what sociologist Annette Lareau termed “Concerted Cultivation.” It’s the idea that child raising shouldn’t be left up to chance; if we know what works and what goals we have in mind, let’s put it all together and create the sort of environment and set of experiences that will foster such greatness in our children.
What this looks like are the lives of children whom we now read so much about these days, those who have pottery classes, sports, music lessons, museum tours, and historical site visits packed between access bottomless technology, stacks of books everywhere they turn, afternoons spent cooking elaborate recipes with their family, international vacations, professionally connected mentors and the philosophical and functional awareness of why it’s important to buy local and organic foods. These aren’t at all bad things to have, of course, but if this were an old-school textbook, I’d have to have a special boxes on the side of each page with colors an alternate font. 1) This can be taken to extremes with such items as Baby Einstein, activities like toddler beauty pageants, birthday parties on the fields of major-league stadiums and the gentrified and safe trophies-for-all world of helicopter parenting. We should note that these extremes all have their damaging sides that range from mind-numbing screen time and a warped sense of beauty and self-importance to a generation of children who haven’t had the benefits of working through and reflecting on struggling and losing. 2)This is the foundation for the achievement gap. It shouldn’t be a shock to know that not all parents have the know-how, the means, the time, the money, the connections, or the backgrounds to put these pieces in place for their children. It’s why there’s a connection between parents’ careers and children’s vocabulary, between life experiences and reading comprehension, and between family income level and students’ success rate.
It’s why families who have yet to experience success in American schools are less likely to have children who find that success.
It’s why American schools need to be sure to step up and be amazingly purposeful on behalf of our students. “They’ll do fine” isn’t good enough, and succumbing to statistics and low expectations is unacceptable. There are just too many students who are “school dependent,” needing us to fill in the spots where their experiences and families’ capacities create a deficit of one sort or another. It does, after all, take a village to best raise a child. Let me, then, speak to a few fixes in our work that need to happen k12, structures and belief systems that I’ve seen become damaging to kids by the time they hit 9-12 and are in our purview to move beyond.
1) Start with a “Growth Mindset.” If you aren’t aware of this idea, Carol Dweck is its champion. Simply put, it means that all children - and people - have the capacity to grow beyond where they currently are. It says that everyone has the capacity to produce high quality work and struggle with big ideas, even if some students need more support, time, or scaffolding to get there. For my own kids, it means that we talk about “still trying” or “haven’t yet been able to” instead “I can’t” or “I’m no good at.” There’s nothing new in saying that people do best when they’re motivated over time to work at something with the necessary supports in place, but we still - for many reasons, I assume but won’t get into here - believe that some can and some can’t and that some deserve and some don’t. There has to be a culture in our schools that helps students and families know how happy we are to have them there and how important it is for us all to work together at becoming better. One of my favorite Twitter chats is hosted by Michele Corbat and other great educators on Monday nights at 9est. It’s called #COLchat and focuses on creating a “culture of learning.” Click here for my Diigo library page for resources on Dweck and growth mindset.
2) Turn the idea of “failure” into the reality of “struggling.” We should only be doing work in school that’s worth doing, and if it’s worth doing, it’s probably not easy and probably can’t be finished quickly. If we force students to work under time constraints, we’re really only assessing what they can do within that amount of time, not what they can do. If we couple that by saying that we’re going to grade you and move on at that point in time, we’re saying that we’re okay with our students having only done 65% of this or having done all of it with 65% accuracy. If it’s important, that shouldn’t be acceptable. If we, instead, pushed students to finish all work, to always improve and reflect upon their initial attempts and to not expect things to happen quickly and easily, they’ll be better off for it. This is what researcher Angela Duckworth calls “grit.” It’s the willing to buckle down, accept a mandate, and work hard to successfully finish a task. Click here for my Diigo library page for resources on Duckworth and grit. Jessica Lahey has written a lot about parenting and children’s failure as well. Finally, you can read my blog post on it.
3) Students’ learning is about them, not about us. If you haven’t yet read Daniel Pink’s book Drive or at least seen the RSA video and/or the TED talk about it, do so. His research pushes us to lose our extrinsic motivators and help students realize that the learning they’re doing in school will make their lives better. Extrinsic rewards such as praise, money, prizes, etc. diminish the value of and respect for any task that’s beyond generic and menial. They need to driven by their own interests and sense of purpose. This is a big one, so I’ll break up the amount of places we detrimentally steal the scene from the stars of our show, the students:
- Grades - I will get into it a bit in my final point (4), but anytime we have students working for a score or a grade, we are most like doing short-term damage to the quality of work and long-term damage to the level of investment a student has in school work. This, by the way, fully includes standardized test scores. Make a goal around improving vocabulary, skill around variety of sentence structures and poetry analysis, not raising test scores. Alphie Kohn has been spot on about this psychology for decades now.
- Avoid approving or giving praise to work until after the student(s) has self-assessed and spoken to next steps. It’s better to agree with students who like their work or further support those who don’t than it is to become the arbiter of good and bad, right and wrong.
- Allow for as much student agency as possible when it comes to class. What processes, products, structures, etc. can you be flexible with? In today’s world of technology and well-researched place for artistic/creative expression, it’s more possible than ever for students to put a personalized spin on the learning they need from our classes. Try using a project-based, essential-question driven approach to curriculum design. If you’re going to draw lines in the sand, be sure they’re important and be clear with the students regarding why they have to do something a certain way. Remember Mark Twain here: “Sacred cows make the best hamburgers.” ELA gurus Nancie Atwell and Kelly Gallagher have written extensively about the power of choice in curriculum.
4) Personally, I think the engine behind all of this is the move to standards based learning and grading. You may have also heard it called competency based learning, mastery learning or achievement grading, but it’s all the same. If educators can identify what we want students know and be able to do (cliche by now), we can help them understand how these standards have become pivotal to a desirable future (read: Career and College Ready) and work with them to unpack experiences that will help them “know,” “comprehend,” “apply,” and “create” as a path to show mastery. I don’t want this to sound easy to implement, but it’s a pretty quick and logical jump away from the traditional system in which teachers use relatively esoteric codes (grades) as a form of feedback that isn’t comparable across teachers or helpful for the students’ actual growth. It’s champions include Rick Wormeli and Ken O’Conner. I’ll also add in that I’ve been a part of an amazingly informative Twitter chat that’s full of resources about Standards Based Grading. Every Wednesday night, at 9est, Darin Jolly and a host of other really reflective and insightful educators get on to #sbgchat.
The bottom line is that we need to - in the best, most positive way possible - jump on board with accepting the mission to concertedly cultivate our students’ experience for their best interests. Knowing that this sort of affective education - the one that brings hearts, minds and actions on board - takes a long time, we have to start with our K or pre-K students and work relentlessly with our students through high-school graduation if we are to succeed. It’s about the right messaging in little moments equally as much as wholesale systemic changes. So, get connected and work with as many educators as you can. Our schools can be better. Our students need them to be.