Lean In

Some rights reserved by Lauren Manning

In our profession, we often create a deficit-based climate because we focus on what we are not doing rather than on what we are doing. We are constantly looking for areas of growth, and it is common to feel inadequate. In fact, in the blog post “Focus on Your Strengths,” the author notes that it is almost impossible to feel successful as an educator because teaching requires three very distinct and different traits. Hence, we may be strong in two of the three, yet constantly focus on our deficit. Instead of comparing our weaknesses to other’s strengths, he suggests we should recognize our own strengths.  

While it is valid to want to learn and grow and to create a culture of continuous improvement, it is also valid to do so while leaning in to our strengths.  

What strengths do you have and what contributions do you make to our profession because of your strengths?

In the same vein, this is a valid strategy to use with students.  In assessment, ask what they are currently doing well and how can they build upon their strengths and successes?  Lean in to their strengths and they will likely be more motivated, more engaged and therefore make greater gains.

It is exhausting to be constantly seeking what isn’t there.  It creates negativity for all parties and strips away joy and passion.  A colleague recently left me a beautiful closing line to a letter: lean in.

Lean in to the work.  Lean in to what you cannot do.  Lean in to your strengths. Whatever the interpretation, lean in.  I promise, you will learn more, grow more and laugh more!

Innovation in the Traditional One-Room Schoolhouse

As a child, I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder and Little House on the Prairie.  Not the TV show, but the books, all of which I have read multiple times. As an educator, I often think about Laura’s teaching days and of her narration of the prairie schools in which she taught, the traditional one-room schoolhouse.

As I reflect on education, I realize that the model of the one-room classroom is really quite innovative by our standards today, characterized by a multi-age model, differentiation and meaningful homework.

Though inspired by necessity, rather than a model of innovation, the multi-age model allowed students to work and achieve standards at their own pace.  Ability, rather than age defined the placement of students and the expectations for learning.

Imagine, planning for all of those ages and lessons.  Multiple subjects, ages, skill levels and learning abilities.  All the while, keeping order and control.  And perhaps we think it was mostly rote learning, but I would argue that there were some very valuable and insightful assignments given.  The lessons were also based on what students needed to know in order to live their daily lives, and though it may sound old school, reading, writing and arithmetic are essential.

Students weren’t assigned elaborate projects or a myriad of problems to complete at home. They were expected to study each night in preparation for a demonstration of learning the next day – sounds a bit like a flipped classroom.

Perhaps the one-room schoolhouse conjures images of stern teachers, silence and rote learning.  However, teachers back then had to build relationships with students, inspire them, and motivate them, just as we do today.  I think we can learn a lot from looking back, as we dream forward.

What if we look at the lessons learned from the one-room schoolhouse as we upgrade the structures in our schools?  Perhaps we create learning centers for research, problem-solving, inquiry and etc. We could develop standards for each, expect students to master standards, but allow them to work through them at their own pace.  This could foster focus and deepen learning.

The one room schoolhouse is really an interesting concept, one that deserves our admiration and our attention.

Questions for the Quest

In my last post, I wrote about upgrading the quest of our education system, which inspired a really nice conversation on LinkedIn – thank you.  As part of my personal quest, I am posing more questions.  Hence, here is a post about learning quests inspired by questions.  I don’t have the answers to any of the questions…they are just meant to inspire thinking and more ideas.  In fact, some questions contradict others…again, they are exploratory.  Questing for answers or simply more questions!

What quest are students currently on in school?  Is it a quest for knowledge?  A quest for grades?  A quest for high test scores?  Who defines the mission?  Universities?  Parents? Teachers?  Something or someone bigger?

What would it look like to redefine the quest?  To upgrade what we value?  In actuality, to quest for what we say we value?  Creativity?  Inquiry?  Collaboration?  Problem-solving?

Who defined the core, and is the core still core?  Who said four years of English mattered more than one year of tech?  Or that World History is mandated while Psychology is optional?  Where do we learn how our minds work?  How to collaborate in relationships?  How to develop the best of ourselves?

How can we create uncommon combinations?  STEM departments to replace Math, Science and IT Departments?  Why is AP Computer Science a tech class in some schools and a math class in others?  Why don’t Visual Arts teachers collaborate more with Digital Arts teachers as part of one department?  Can we embrace Humanities in place of English, Social Science and the Arts?  How many departments do we need?

How do we create more connection in school?  How do we tap into what students need to know and what they love?  Can we replace the five-paragraph essay with blog posts and editorials?  Can students conduct real research connected to real subjects?  What does real life really look like?  Is university real life?  If not, are we preparing students for university or life?  How can we do both?

What is essential?  Is it more important to be able to explain why A – B = 0 is A = B or to be able to solve complex equations?  Matrices?  Non-linear equations?  What matters more – who, what or why?

Can we upgrade the quest?  Can we embrace knowledge AND skill as essential?  What are the Essential Questions and Big Understandings, not just in individual subjects but overall?  Are they the same for everyone?  What matters?

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What if the quest was based on the school mission?  What if we used the content, standards and skills to assess the mission?  What if we designed structures that embraced the whole rather than compartmentalize the pieces?  What if we upgrade the quest?  Build on what we do well, but change it slightly?  Dream with determination?

What should the quest look like?

In Quest of Learning

Traditional Burberry Trenchcoat
Traditional Burberry Trenchcoat

A fellow COETAILer, Matt McGrady, got me thinking about quest based learning in a recent post he wrote, and I started pondering what a quest-based school might look like.  In some ways, students are already on a quest, particularly in a traditional high school, whereby they need to earn X number of credits in A, B and C.  The high-achievers take APs to boost their scores, while the disengaged teens take a host of electives senior year in the hopes of raising their GPAs in a last strike toward their goal.  All this in the quest of attending university.  Thus, our students are already used to quests.  But, are they used to quests in the pursuit of learning?

What if we enhanced our existing system, so that students still had to earn X number of credits in A, B and C.  Except, rather than the traditional ABCs of English, Math, Science, and History, we could replace them with ABCs like Collaboration, Research, Inquiry and etc.  What if classes looked more like learning centers and allowed for problem-based, interdisciplinary learning that was self-paced with the goal of publishing/presenting to a larger audience?

In Uplifting Leadership, Andy Hargreaves advocates “dreaming with determination” and doing so by “forg[ing] powerful and positive connection between the future and the past.”  In American education, we have a great tradition of schooling.  Our credit system allows students to explore interests in a variety of areas so that we can develop well-rounded individuals who are prepared for a variety of majors.  Thus, modernizing the quest to allow for the skills needed in the 21st century is simply an upgrade to our existing system.

The New Burberry
The New Burberry

Just like Burberry reinvented themselves by recommitting to their famous trenchcoat, so could we easily redesign school to provide engaging and interactive learning quests that meet the needs of the 21st century and still keep many of our existing structures.  What does that look like?  The updated quest in schooling?  The ultimate mission-based school!