The Myth of Average

Todd Rose’s brilliant talk at TEDxSonoma expands on a startlingly simple point:

When you design for the average, you design for no-one. He suggests instead we to need design for the extremes.

For anyone who has worked with students, it is an intuitive enough concept, in theory. Yet in application, it has proven challenging, especially in a climate fixated on norm reference test scores, where average is king (or queen). How do we design and deliver for the wide variability of students’ learning profiles when there is so much pressure to get all students to the same level in all subjects?  The default has become education policies that claim to race to the top, but instead stagger for the middle, effectively limiting the extremes.

As Rose so eloquently demonstrates with a story from military history, in trying to target the average, we invariably isolate everyone.

What makes him an expert in this topic? He was a high school dropout with a 0.9 GPA who is now an author of “Square Peg” and a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education.

He says,

I’ve been to the very bottom of our educational system. I’ve been to the very top. I’m here to tell you that we are wasting so much talent at every single level. And the thing is, because for every single person like me, there are millions who worked as hard, who had the ability, but who were unable to overcome the drag of a educational environment designed on average. And their talent is forever lost to us.

Watch his talk above for more. We guarantee you will be even more inspired to cultivate that which makes your students unique, wonderful, and valuable to the well being of our communities.

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One Story About Embracing Diversity and Empowering Students

In this powerful and inspiring TEDxManhattan talk, teacher Stephen Ritz shares a program he started with his students called Green Bronx Machine. More important than the program itself, though, is how the experiences have transformed and empowered his students — their present and their future.

Jackie Gerstein describes his work in her post “Learners as Entrepreneurs,”

Stephen Ritz’s Bronx classroom features the first indoor edible wall in NYC DOE which routinely generates enough produce to feed 450 students healthy meals and trains the youngest nationally certified workforce in America. His students, traveling from Boston to Rockefeller Center to the Hamptons, earn living wage en route to graduation.

One of the things that makes his talk so incredible, besides the breakneck pace of it and his constant stream of witticisms, is how the program embraces the diversity — of mind, body, class, and culture — of his students. The student variation becomes a proof point for the validity and integrity of the program. Take a look and see for yourself.

What other projects / programs do you know of that support diverse student profiles and bring about good in a community? Share in the comments.

Words that Ignite Learning

Below is a guest post by Kevin Washburn, Ed.D., author of “Architecture of Learning” and Executive Director of Clerestory Learning. His most recent recording at a Learning and Brain Conference can be found here

3184815166_1b775d1817It seems like a ridiculous question: Can a teacher’s words influence student learning?  Of course, we’d respond, how well a teacher explains new ideas naturally influences student learning.

But what about the words that are less planned, the comments teachers make in response to students’ ideas, efforts, and results? Can they make much of a difference?

Research suggests they can and do, probably to degrees we’d be surprised to discover.

Words reinforce beliefs, and beliefs, especially those about intelligence, influence learning. Students can hold or lean toward either believing intelligence is something you’re born with (or without), or intelligence is something you gain through effort. A student who believes you’re born smart—or not—is less likely to put forth effort to learn. This student seeks to convince those around him that he is one of the chosen who were given the gift of smart at birth. Either that, or the student may believe he is not among the chosen so effort is futile. The same belief interpreted differently yields the same result: a student who is unlikely to work to learn when learning does not come instantly or easily.

This mostly erroneous belief can be slippery. A student may believe it is true in one discipline but not another. For example, the same student can believe that you are/aren’t born smart in mathematics, but that you get better at reading through effort.

Where do these beliefs originate? Many times in the home. We’ve probably all heard a student say something like, “My dad said that I’m probably not good at math because when he was my age, he wasn’t good at math either.” The father’s words conveyed, confirmed, and/or introduced the wrong belief. When adopted by the child, the erroneous belief becomes an obstacle to learning.

However, communicating the wrong idea about intelligence is not usually so overt. In fact, it can show up in a statement intended to encourage learning: “Wow, Sam, you’re really good at math.” Such a statement emphasizes a belief that intelligence is something you are/aren’t born with because it suggests innate ability rather than drawing attention to the effort-result relationship. “Wow, Sam, you worked hard on this and look at these results!” is better because it reinforces the idea that we get smart through effort.

Just how much of a difference can this make?

In one study, some teachers used comments that suggested intelligence as inherited (“You’re smart at this!”) while others phrased comments that emphasized effort-result relationships (“You worked hard and look at the results!” or “We didn’t work very hard at this and the results show it. How can we make this better?”)

The results reveal the power of words that suggest both the right and the wrong beliefs. Students praised for innate ability put forth less effort, avoided challenge and feedback, and lost 20% of their achievement between pre- and post-testing. Not only did they not learn much, they seemed to lose ⅕ of what they knew prior to instruction.

In contrast, the students praised for their efforts sought challenge, desired feedback, and had a 30% gain between pre- and post-testing. Think about that—a 50% difference existed between the two groups at the study’s conclusion, and the defining factor was the teacher’s words.1

Neurobiology plays a role in this effect. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that influences emotion, provides a sense of pleasure when what we anticipate happening matches reality, but when our expectations are not met—when our actions do not produce the desired result—we feel disappointment. Jonah Lehrer explains, “The problem with praising kids for their innate intelligence—the ‘smart’ compliment—is that it misrepresents the neural reality of education. It encourages kids to avoid the most useful kind of learning activities, which is learning from mistakes. Unless you experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong, your brain will never revise its models.”2

Through disappointment, we gain an opportunity to literally rewire neuronal connections, to learn, but only if we attend to our mistake. The student who believes intelligence is genetic loses this opportunity because he generally refuses to attend to his mistakes.

Our words can influence the belief students hold about intelligence, and that belief influences the effort students apply to learning. We need to pause and think, “How can I phrase this feedback so that it emphasizes an effort-result relationship?” Our students may have to wait a moment for our comments, but what they receive may actually make them better learners.

A wise writer once warned that words can be so destructive they burn down entire forests. But fire can also ignite rockets.

Let’s intentionally use our words to ignite learning.

References

  1. Mangels, J. A., Motivating Minds: How Student Beliefs Impact Learning and Academic Achievement. Presented at Learning and the Brain: Using Brain Research to Enhance Cognitive Abilities and Achievement (Nov. 2007).
  2. Lehrer, J., How We Decide (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2009), 53-54.

This post was originally published at Ecology of Education

Photo Credit: DailyPic via Compfight cc

Tipping the Balance in Students’ Favor

By AKOM Guest Blogger Sally Hunter

 

I am struck by the reality that schools today require teachers to become skilled performers in an increasingly complex and critical balancing act.  In more and more public classrooms, elementary teachers are asked to spend the bulk of their day following impersonal lesson plans, preparing students for mandated tests, and completing layers of benchmarks and reports to document their efforts.  Schools are overwhelmed with well-intentioned but imperfect government mandates, liability inspired paperwork, over-emphasis on high stakes testing, and the bureaucratic tendency to jump on new ideas and methods simply because they are new.  Evaluating schools, teachers, and students has become a checklist of what is easiest to test, rather than what will prepare individual students to become confident, active, productive citizens.

Successful teachers must strive to balance their instruction by finding time and energy to focus on each individual student and help every learner develop crucial connections:

  • connections to their own minds, learning profiles, and potential passions
  • connections to their own creativity, talents, and personal strengths
  • connections to the power each individual has to bond and collaborate with others
  • connections to the future through their own dreams and actions today

Without these essential connections, students will never reach their full potential or have truly successful and satisfying adult lives, no matter how skilled they become in reading, math, and science.

My hope for the New Year is that all students would have teachers who tip the instructional scales in students’ favor by creating learning environments in which these connections are inevitable; naturally integrated throughout a curriculum that includes character education, social studies, and the arts.  Teachers who provide the structure and flexibility for students to explore the world and apply their discoveries in creative and meaningful ways.  Teachers who train students to work together, build on one another’s ideas, respectfully disagree with one another, and provide supporting evidence for their ideas and perspectives.  Teachers who encourage students to set and pursue their own goals while helping them develop strategies to achieve those goals.  Students must understand themselves and their place in the world before they can begin to understand the rich and amazing possibilities the world has to offer them.

Sally Hunter, a 4th grade teacher at Highland Park Elementary in the Austin Independent School District, was named 2010 National Council for the Social Studies Elementary Teacher of the Year. In addition to teaching and writing curriculum, she is a Schools Attuned facilitator for The Learning Center of North Texas.

One School’s Faculty-wide Exploration of Schools for All Kinds of Minds

By Mary Mannix, Guest Blogger

Last spring, administrators at Indian Creek School, an All Kinds of Minds School of Distinction, searched for a book for summer reading for the faculty that would be meaningful and relevant to teachers across all three divisions of the school, from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade.

Why Schools for All Kinds of Minds?

Administrators chose Schools for All Kinds of Minds because they believed it would serve as a platform for the faculty to review, reflect upon, and discuss Indian Creek’s ongoing commitment to using the All Kinds of Minds approach to teaching and learning. Group discussions would also provide the opportunity to learn how teachers in each division are using the All Kinds of Minds philosophy and framework in their instructional practice.

All faculty members were given a copy of the book on the last day of school and asked to prepare for small group discussions to be held at the start of the school year.

Framing the Book Study

Ten faculty members, designated as small-group facilitators, developed guiding questions to frame the group discussions. Throughout the summer, they shared their thoughts and reflections on their own blog. As their discussion unfolded, several questions emerged:

  • How are teachers nurturing and using students’ strengths and affinities to support learners and learning?
  • How has the teacher’s role changed with the All Kinds of Minds approach?
  • How do we help students develop metacognition and insight into how they learn best?

The facilitators agreed that the goal of the discussions would be to determine how reading the book would affect our teaching and our students’ learning this school year.

Faculty “Aha’s”

Over 80 faculty members gathered in small groups on the first day of school. A major “aha” for many was the book’s shift away from a focus on students’ weaknesses and the emphasis on using students’ strengths and affinities to support and leverage learning. Teachers perceived this to be an important change in perspective which would allow a broader implementation of the All Kinds of Minds framework and would ultimately improve the learning experience of all students.

“To build a mind requires that you understand it” was an idea that resonated for many teachers.

Teachers also felt that the book validated the importance of investing time and effort into understanding the unique minds in our classrooms. During discussions, it became obvious that while the details of how teachers achieved this goal differed according to the grade level of the students, teachers shared a belief that getting to know students is the best way to support them. “To build a mind requires that you understand it” was an idea that resonated for many teachers.  

Book Study Takeaways

Reading Schools for All Kinds of Minds as a faculty allowed us to see clearly that the All Kinds of Minds approach is a thread that weaves itself throughout all three divisions of our school. This way of thinking about teaching and learning allows us to realize the goal set forth in our mission statement: “to provide an academically challenging education in a warm, nurturing environment to a group of students with a wide range of talents and skills.”

Discussing Schools for All Kinds of Minds reenergized our teachers, deepened their understanding, and renewed our commitment as an All Kinds of Minds School of Distinction. It provided a meeting ground in which elementary, middle, and upper school teachers could learn from each other and share insights and ideas. For us, it was the right book for building bridges across three divisions.

What’s next at Indian Creek?

The book discussion was so successful that another has been planned for mid year so teachers can share how they are implementing the ideas they took away from the book. We are focusing on “small-wins” – a concept highlighted throughout the book – and sharing our success stories regularly at faculty meetings. Administrators are also giving teachers an opportunity to visit classrooms across divisions to observe the implementation of All Kinds of Minds strategies and practices.

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Mary Mannix is the Lower School Learning Specialist and All Kinds of Minds Coordinator at Indian Creek School in Crownsville, Maryland.  She is also a long-time All Kinds of Minds facilitator.

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Have any other schools out there engaged in a book study using Schools for All Kinds of Minds?  If so, tell us about it!  What were your faculty’s “aha’s”?  How will you continue to use the book throughout the school year?  Questions for Mary?  Leave a comment … we’d love to hear from you!

Note from All Kinds of Minds:  Did you hear about our free book giveaway?  We’ve already given away several books, and this is the last week of our giveaway!  Here’s how it works: Each week that we feature a blog post related to Schools for All Kinds of Minds, we’ll be giving away a free, signed copy of the book!  To be entered to win this week, you must (1) subscribe to our blog, and (2) share your thoughts about this blog entry by posting a comment.  Remember: Non-subscribers are not eligible to win!  Subscribing is easy: just look for the “Email Subscription” box to the right.  We look forward to hearing from you!

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Embrace What’s Going Right to Pave a Better Road to Learning

By Michele Robinson, Director of Special Projects at All Kinds of Minds and co-author of Schools for All Kinds of Minds

Grab a pen or pencil.

Off the top of your head, list 3-4 of your strengths – those things you do well with relative ease.

Now list 3-4 affinities – those activities or topics you love to do or learn about. (You don’t have to be good at it, you just have to have a passion for it.)

Look back at your lists. To what extent do your strengths and affinities influence your choices as an adult … your career decisions, your hobbies, how you spend your time?

Tapping into our Strengths and Affinities

As adults, we often find ourselves drawn to tasks or activities that play to our strengths. Perhaps you chose to pursue a career in physical education because you excelled in sports and are passionate about helping students understand the value of physical activity throughout life. Or maybe you’re involved in civic organizations because you enjoy the relationships you develop with others and are good at organizing events.

Certainly some aspects of our work and life require us to engage in tasks that aren’t an area of strength, but chances are you generally choose to spend time doing things that play to your strengths, and likely your affinities.

How Leveraging Students’ Assets Improves Learning

What about your students? Within the context of a typical school day, where do opportunities exist for them to develop and leverage their strengths and affinities?  A foundational cornerstone of All Kinds of Minds is a focus on assets – those strengths and affinities that are part of each person’s unique profile and that influence choices we make and how we learn.

A foundational cornerstone of All Kinds of Minds is a focus on assets – those strengths and affinities that are part of each person’s unique profile and that influence choices we make and how we learn.

As we discuss in Chapter 5 of Schools for All Kinds of Minds, “Building on Student Assets,” we believe that educators have a responsibility to continually search for what is going right for students (strengths) and to help student discover their natural passions or interests (affinities). Sometimes these strengths and affinities become evident over time, like when a student realizes that information is easier to understand when it is presented graphically (like in a concept map) and that she is really good at reading maps (both of which are evidence of strengths in spatial ordering).

Discovering your Students’ Assets – The 60-Second Challenge

Teachers can also initiate intentional conversations with students about strengths and affinities, using activities like the 60-Second Challenge:

Give every student one minute of your attention each week just to explore their strengths and affinities. Here are some questions to get you started: 

  • If you were to design the perfect day, what would you be doing?
  • What parts of school are easiest for you? Why?
  • If you could choose the topic of our lesson tomorrow, what would it be?
  • For a class project, you have a choice of writing a book report, building a model, or acting out a skit. Which do you prefer?

Paying attention to strengths and affinities can make a difference in how students feel about school and their ability to learn. So, once you have a sense of a student’s strengths and affinities, what do you do with that information?

Incorporating Student Strengths into Instructional Decisions

Knowing a student’s strengths can inform instructional decisions. Take, for example, a student with strengths in spatial ordering and fine motor function who creates wonderful drawings but is struggling to sequence the events of a narrative story. One strategy to help him with sequencing more effectively (and reduce his frustration!) might be to have him first develop storyboards of the events before writing the paragraphs.

Why Using Student Interests to Personalize Instruction Can Make a World of Difference

Knowledge of a student’s affinities provides a vehicle for personalizing her educational experience and increasing her motivation to learn. For example, when assessing a skill (vs. assessing content knowledge), allowing students to choose their own topic for a report or project based on an affinity can make the task more engaging.

These are just a few examples of ways you can tap into your students’ strengths and affinities to help promote their success in school.  The book includes many more examples of how teachers can – and are – discovering student assets and incorporating them into their instructional approach.

How are you nurturing and leveraging your students’ strengths and affinities? How do your students respond? Share your ideas and experiences!

To learn more about Schools for All Kinds of Minds, read book excerpts, purchase the book, download book extras, and more, visit the Schools for All Kinds of Minds website.

 

Note from All Kinds of Minds:  Did you hear about our free book giveaway?  We’ve already given away several books!  Here’s how it works: Each week that we feature a blog post related to Schools for All Kinds of Minds, we’ll be giving away a free, signed copy of the book.  To be entered to win this week, you must (1) subscribe to our blog, and (2) share your thoughts about this blog entry by posting a comment.  Remember: Non-subscribers are not eligible to win!  Subscribing is easy: just look for the “Email Subscription” box to the right.  We look forward to hearing from you!

Seeing – and Nurturing – the Genius in our Students

By Rick Ackerly, Guest Blogger

In the foreword to Schools for All Kinds of Minds, Paul Orfalea, founder of Kinko’s, writes:

More than ever, America needs the kinds of minds that generate new perspectives, seek solutions, and discover emerging opportunities. Those are the minds of many of the students in your schools today who, at first glance, look a lot like the struggling student I was in school. I invite you to take a second look at the individuals who walk through your school doors. Join us in helping as many kids as possible become more aware of their unique talents and more confident in their learning abilities—and help us rescue the wonderful potential that may otherwise be lost.

 

Slow it down. He said a mouthful, and it is critical that we get all the pieces of this:

  1. The world needs graduates who generate new perspectives, seek solutions, and discover emerging opportunities.
  2. We need all kinds of minds fully functioning and geared into the real world in productive ways.
  3. We need all kinds of minds to be good at different points of view, good problem solvers, curious about and capable of doing something with new opportunities.
  4. Visit any number of schools across the country and it won’t be obvious that the teachers and students are working on this need. It seems they are about other business. If they are struggling, let them be struggling toward the most important outcome. What was that? “Generate new perspectives, seek solutions, and discover emerging opportunities.”
  5. Take a second look at each student. See the genius in them. Notice them in their uniqueness. See that each one has a brain that activates when curious.
  6. Each of us is more powerful when we are aware of, appreciate, and see the power in our unique learning abilities—our unique approach to the world. That is a good definition of “confidence.”
  7. We must stop squandering an enormous amount of human potential.

And speaking of mouthfuls, Schools for All Kinds of Minds is one well worth reading for those of you aspiring to be leaders of learning.

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Rick Ackerly is a nationally recognized educator and speaker with 44 years of experience working in and for schools.  He recently published his first book, The Genius in Children: Bringing Out the Best in Your Child.  Rick’s articles about education and diversity have appeared in Education Week, The New York Times, The Independent School, and Multicultural Education. You can read his short weekly essays on his website.

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Note from All Kinds of Minds:  Did you hear about our free book giveaway?  We’ve already given away two books!  Here’s how it works: Each week that we feature a blog post related to Schools for All Kinds of Minds, we’ll be giving away a free, signed copy of the book!  To be entered to win this week, you must (1) subscribe to our blog, and (2) share your thoughts about this blog entry by posting a comment.  Remember: Non-subscribers are not eligible to win!  Subscribing is easy: just look for the “Email Subscription” box to the right.  We look forward to hearing from you!

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