I’ve started a new blog called Hearts Of Their Youth On Flame. The theme of the blog is unclear at this stage but naturally I’ve been writing about education and coaching. Here is my most recent post:
On a recent post, I attached a link to a video entitled Understanding Talent. The video is a short animation that describes how people develop talent in a variety of things. It focused specifically on athletics. However, the message should be applied to any and all skills that a person wants to develop. The science shows that talent is something that is developed through hard work and is in no way intrinsic to certain individuals. Nobody is born to play basketball. There is no gene for basketball talent. Those that make it to the top of the basketball world were able to hone their skills through hard work and not some magical stroke of luck that gave them that talent.
Earlier today, I listened to an episode of This American Life, a WBEZ radio magazine style show hosted by Ira Glass, that focused on a book by Paul Tough called How Children Succeed: Grit, Personality and the Hidden Power of Character. The theme of the episode entitled Back to School examined the age old question about what students should and should not be learning in school. Through a series of stories and interviews directly with Tough, one theme was that schools are not focusing enough on teaching students the “noncognitive skills” also known as social skills that truly help people succeed throughout life.
At the beginning of the episode, Glass features a long term study by Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckmen which compared those that simply that dropped out of high school and those that completed high school in the traditional four year manner. He found that those individuals that achieved high school credit through the GED were not nearly as successful in a variety of ways throughout life including job performance, money earned, college success and quality of marriage when compared with those went through the much longer route of four years of high school. Heckmen discusses that the GED is established to show that a person who passes this test possesses the same amount of cognitive ability(traditional school skills) that everyone must have to pass high school. He concludes that the reason for this difference in so many life outcomes is while in school for the thousands of hours over four years required to graduate from high school, students develop a wide variety of other skills that contribute to success throughout their entire life. These are the qualities that are truly important for someone to learn in high school and not the math or reading skills that we often think are the heart of a child’s education.
After this moment in the show, I was both relieved and troubled. I was relieved because it gave me a sense of satisfaction that school is in some way important in a person’s life, even if it has little to do with the cognitive skills that they learn. There was a moment when I thought that Glass was going to reveal that in fact those that took the much less demanding, in terms of hours, GED would do just as well throughout life. As a teacher, I dedicate my life to the success of children and knowing that there is clear value for students to be in school makes me want to work harder. However, what troubled me was the fact that nowhere in the curriculum of my school district and I’m guess most others is there a focus on the social skills such as grit, self-control or optimism that are clearly crucial for a person’s ability to succeed both in school but throughout his or her entire life.
When students enter high school in my district, they take a class called “Freshmen Seminar.” Though I must admit I’ve never seen a syllabus, I’m guessing that it focuses a lot on how incoming freshmen can achieve and gives strategies to reach graduation in four years. One idea that I know that they talk about is the Growth Mindset. Students learn what a Growth Mindset is and why it is so important. They are shown that with grit and determination, they can learn almost anything that they put their mind to.
My question as a middle school teacher is why are we waiting so long to send this message and what can we do at the younger levels to promote similar ideas? We spend so much time focusing on traditional curriculums such as Reading, Writing, Math, Science, and Social Studies. At what point are noncognitive abilities developed for all of our students? There is AVID, a program for students that help them to develop the academic skills necessary to go to college, but this is not something that is offered to all students. The noncognitive skills, Paul Tough pointed out based on his analysis of current research, are the skills that people have the most potential to improve throughout their life times.
When listening to the This American Life episode, I found myself thinking about so many of my students that struggle to control themselves, have behavior and emotional problems and cannot find success in the classroom. Glass interviewed researchers that discussed what early childhood stress does to a person’s capacity to learn and how that impacts their actions within a traditional classroom setting. Without knowing the details, I am sure that one too many of my students experience the type of hardship every day that would cause their brains to be unable develop naturally. As a school system, we must do more for all of our students to learn how to learn and how to develop the personality traits that help to overcome those hardships. What I am advocating for is more of a focus at the younger levels of a child’s education in developing social skills that will be invaluable throughout a lifetime. Research shows that if a person understands how skill develops and that talent is in no way natural that he or she is more likely to give greater effort because they believe that those skills are indeed possible for them to learn and not some luck of the draw talent distributed at birth. What if every 6th grader took a Growth Seminar when entering middle school? This would be more than just a two week introduction but a class that they went to every single day. What if instead of reading and math intervention classes established to improve scores on standardized tests, we helped students with developing the essential social skills Tough and so many others in the educational research community advocate?
Change is happening in the educational world but like all change, it is slow. First it takes academics to share their research, followed by policy change and then finally it makes its way to down to the school districts and the schools. The road is long and is filled with thorny obstacles much of which unfortunately comes in the form of dollars and private interests. However, sharing this kind of information at the grassroots level is an important part of change. Those in positions of power within school districts must begin to see the value in helping our students develop as complete human beings and not simply focus on one aspect of their development. Once they do, our curriculums will begin to reflect the type of complete education that will help young people in every aspect of their lives and not just on challenges that require academic knowledge. Consider this post part of that grassroots change. Now I just need to gain an audience.