Saturday, October 11, 2014

Greater Expectations Post Changing the Odds Conference

     For the past two days I have enjoyed the great privilege of attending the Changing the Odds conference put on by The Momentous Institute. This is a group of over 600 community and business leaders "committed to transforming kids' lives." They now run two schools in Dallas, and their success rate is very high, with their students going on to graduate high school at much higher rates than other public school students (other supporting data here). The key is that Momentous focuses on kids' social-emotional well-being.
     Simply because of the amazing line-up of speakers, I knew the conference would be a treat (even if I had to miss Wendy Mogel at the end). I'd heard some of them before, and I'd read about some of the others. I'll cite several of them as this post proceeds. Pieces of the conference are coming together in a way that speaks loudly and clearly to what whole-child, modern education should be about. This post is my first attempt to weave that tapestry, so forgive the dangling threads. They are all coming together under the idea of expectations.
     Tony Wagner, author of The Global Achievement Gap and Creating Innovators, is always an energetic and dynamic speaker. After pointing out how Google allows people to be the architects of their own learning, he stressed that "it's not about what you know; it's about what you can do." I found myself thinking about this in terms of how schools often assess, even when using more project-based approaches. We say we assess because we want to see what students can do. I agree, and I see how important this is when it comes to certain essential skills. We must, for example, make sure a child is learning to read proficiently. A students must learn basic numeracy. However, too frequently we assess students within a rigid framework based on our preset determinations for their performance. Overly strict guidelines and rubrics are two examples. Some will argue that those help students know what is necessary to experience success. Yes...but within limits. It risks limiting the possibilities of what they can achieve. This coexists with the "single curriculum" that Wagner says he sees across most schools, driven by standardized measures of accountability and notions of success.
     Think about the typical school project, even a relatively open-ended one, and compare it to these two examples shared by Ron Berger, chief program officer of Expeditionary Learning and author of An Ethic of Excellence. He told of the young teens from Springfield, MA, who did energy audits in their school district and saved them over $150,000, and were then asked to expand their work on a larger scale. Even more amazing were some Chicago elementary students who lived in the center of an area riddled with gun violence. They campaigned against it, even approaching gangs to put down their weapons and for there to be a day without any shootings. It worked in their neighborhood. They also produced a beautiful book commemorating neighborhood angels working to lessen the violence.
     Yes, extreme and amazing examples, but also illustrative. When we let them, kids can do amazing things. They epitomize Berger's opinion that "everyone wants to create something original, beautiful, and of value." So why limit that? Why be surprised when they do? That says something about our expectations, and it speaks loudly to those young people hearing the message. Do I believe all kids will go out and do something such as those two wonderful stories? Not necessarily. But I believe each could. I'm not sure I'd want someone who doesn't working with my kids. But too many people don't. Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point, Outliers, David and Goliath) talked about how we have a national fixed mindset, one that causes us to overlook all sorts of talent, which harms us individually and collectively.
      Part of the problem is that teachers are accustomed to pointing out what's wrong with something. Marking points off, if you will. And, as Dr. Rick Hanson explained, the brain is hard-wired to latch on to adversity more readily than other experiences. Since experience leads to cortical thickening, this leads to the type of mind-brain connection that we don't want. It reaffirmed both scinetifically and emotionally why I have concerns with the current, I hope faddish, emphasis on failure in school. Handled correctly, this can build resilience. But the effects can prove devastating, as captured in the riveting story of her life told by Consuelo Castillo Kickbusch, who grew up poor and abused, only to be affirmed in her late teens that she was very bright. Give the encouragement and put in the right environment, she became the first woman commissioned in the Texas ROTC and had a star twenty-year military career. And that brings me back to the Wagner quotation in the third paragraph, Yes, he's right, but per the maxim, no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care. Educators must create the environment in which young people can thrive in all parts of their lives--mind, body, and soul.
     And that comes down to expectations. Expectations not just for academic performance, but expectations for how we are going to treat each other as individuals of worth. As individuals who will do great things. We should never discount the possibilities of what any young person can achieve. After all, I'm writing this just a couple days after seventeen-year-old Malala became the youngest-ever winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

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