Skill and Will: The Holes in our Bucket

In the few short years I have been an educator, I have found myself (at first, unwittingly) tilting toward reform. The needs of my students and challenges of teaching have circulated in my mind to form distilled practices and theories of learning. These methods have allowed me to see success beyond my years of experience, as confirmed by evaluations, comments from mentors and a quick ascent into ed leadership. I was fortunate to have been equipped with sufficient background knowledge and schema paved by my teacher prep program and early teaching experiences to sort, evaluate and study the successes and failures of my students, interactions with parents and other staff. I have filled shelves and purses and beach bags and suitcases with educational research and professional texts, spent hundreds of my own dollars to attend conferences and pushed through crowds to connect with other successful, thinking educators.

And every text read, every dismissal bell rung, every conference closed and staff meeting adjourned I have asked myself: What can I do? Students needs are not being met. Teachers are not being adequately supported to facilitate change. What can I do?

As I transitioned from the classroom to coaching and administrating, my library of best practices got lent to teachers, and my iPad began to fill with works by Linda Darling-Hammond, Bob Marzano, Thomas Friedman and Tony Wagner. In the next several posts, I will grapple with the widening gap in education, both socioeconomically and globally speaking. My summaries and considerations are my own and are offered only as a form of self-reflection and a means of soliciting feedback from others asking themselves the same question: What can I do? I’ll be attending the Next New World Forum next month in San Fransisco, primarily to hear Wagner speak (Eeee!!!), but also to connect and network with other reflective, progressive practitioners.

This summary of Wagner’s MassCue Conference ’13, where he discusses his book A Global Achievement Gap, highlights my key take-aways from the works mentioned above. Wagner, more so than others, responds to our shared desire to make change happen.

Three Considerations of the Current Educational Landscape

1. Knowledge is a commodity. “What the world cares about today is not what you know, but what you can DO with what you know.”

2. Careers are changing at an exponential rate. “Students today will need to find or create their own opportunities in the world.”

3. Student motivation is at an all time low. “The internet is the preferred learning provider” since it never dampens students’ innate curiosity and provides a means for them to create, connect, collaborate and create – which students do not find in the classroom.

A Summary of Wagner’s 21st Century Learning Skills

1. Critical Thinking and Problem Solving. Critical thinking as defined by business executives is all about “asking the right questions. Having the right answer is no longer relevant, since the right answer will only be right for a nanosecond.”

2. Collaboration Across Networks and Leading by Influence. “As we know today virtually all work is being done collaboratively, except in education.” It requires a deep appreciation of differences and are lead by peers through influence.

3. Agility and Adaptability. “The pace of change and complexity of problems favors those who are agile and adaptable.”

4. Initiative and Entrepreneurism. Those who take risks, stretch themselves and create opportunities for themselves are the only ones who will succeed. Those who are average, those whose greatest strength is following directions correctly and in a timely manner will not experience success in this “new world.”

5. Effective oral and written communication. “The number one complaint of both college teachers and employers.” “They cannot write because they don’t know how to think – how to reason.” (Dell CEO)

6. Accessing and Analyzing Information. This is the information age – are we equipping them to live in it?

7. Curiosity and Imagination. “The right brain skills will be at least as important as left brain skills.” (Daniel Pink)

Wagner goes on to discuss the need for our country to become a nation of creative problem solvers in order to restore and grow our economy. His work in Creating Innovators explores the patterns and experiences shared by creative and innovative young people. The practices used by the educators that influenced these young people were often the same practices that made them outliers in their field. The practices used by most educators today are “radically at odds with a culture of learning that supports creative problem solving.”

5 Contradictions in the Culture of Schooling

1. The culture of schooling is all about measuring and rewarding individual achievement. Whereas, innovation is a team sport.

2. Culture of schooling is all about compartmentalizing knowledge. Whereas, innovation happens at the boundaries of academic disciplines, not within them.

3. The culture of schooling is a passive, consuming, initializing experience. Whereas, innovation is all about empowering students through effective coaching.

4. Failure is the worse thing that can happen to you in school. Whereas, innovation demands that you take risks, make mistakes and fail.

How many of you have learned more from your mistakes than your successes? Why do we penalize that in school? How can we create a culture where not only is it okay to make mistakes, but that you understand that mistakes are the only way to learn. Where there is no such thing as failure, so long as you have reflected on your mistakes and apply what you learn to your next attempt. – Tony Wagner

5. We rely far too much on extrinsic incentives to motivate learners in our school. Whereas, innovators are far more intrinsically motivated. They do their work not because of a carrot or a stick, but because they want to make a difference.

Play. Passion. Purpose. The three factors that were reinforced by both parents and teachers of the young innovators in this text.

It’s in pursuit of a passion that we best learn the thing we now call grit: perseverance, focus, self-discipline, self-regulation.- Tony Wagner

“Teachers build time into the curriculum where students could ask their own questions, pursue their own interest, understanding that the passion to learn, the curiosity had to be nurtured with opportunities on a regular basis.”

Similarly, the adults in their lives impressed upon them that they have a purpose on this earth and a responsibility to give back.

I encourage you to watch this keynote, read other titles on ed reform and begin to do the messy work of asking difficult questions about the students that we are not yet reaching, and re-examining the desired outcomes for our students as as whole.



Elias hated writing. Baggy t-shirts, messy hair, green eyes like crescent moons above his freckled cheeks; he was just the kind of kid you noticed. He loved nonfiction and could wax poetic on Paleolithic fossils and had a Ph.D. in Lego design. But he hated writing. I knew this because when the class rosters were posted the spring before, Elias’s mom came by to pick up her kindergartener from my class and said, “Elias isn’t like Gayle. He’s not meticulous and over-achieving like her.” She said this in a way that was different than the tone most parents take when comparing their children. She said it to cushion his landing into my classroom – to help me build a realistic expectation of him. I already liked him.

It’s reassuring to know a few faces and names on the first day of third grade. The first day of school is that day where kids and parents and teachers go to school with knots in their stomach. But I knew Elias and a few other older siblings of my kindergarten students the year before.

Knowing my students well is a non-negotiable for me as a teacher. I’ve read books that say: “Know ten things about every student, five of them being non-academic, by the third week of school.” Yeah. But personally, I’ve never really appreciated those jigsaw, find-someone-who social assignments. They suck the social right out of me. I get to know my students because I want to know them. I want to know these people I will be responsible for educating these next ten months.

It’s also true that there is really no distance that I won’t travel to help a child succeed. That’s why, when I look out on my classroom of students, I never really see a “class”… I see twenty-five individual minds and hearts.

As sure as the sky is blue, our yearly writing began with the personal narrative. This is painful. We may as well start with poetry. But not roses-are-red poetry. Vague, teenage angst poetry. The intention is the same: let’s dig around inside with a microscope and see how interesting we can make the minutia of our lives. Don’t get me wrong. Personal narrative is the most powerful genre. It’s the way we learn about ourselves by examining small parts of our own life. But working off that summer-brain takes time, and when students look inside themselves for a story, they often struggle to see one.

Elias dragged behind; while other students wrote about baby brothers and broken arms, he sat and scratched some words down, bored to tears. His writing was boring too, of course. Since I wrote that you’ll know that I’m also not the sort of sunshine-and-rainbows teacher that thinks praise and a sticker cures all. I actually kind of hate stickers. What a pitiful token for actual learning. It’s like – here, you just sorted new information into existing schema, and reformatted a minor misconception, then utilized this new information in a meaningful way – have a shiny smiley face.

But… I do believe in contests.

“Today, I would like to take a break from our personal narratives and give you the opportunity to write about something you know.” This is where the other half of students – the half that thrived with personal narrative – curl their shoulders forward. Even though I didn’t say it, they knew what I meant: research report. (I’m like these kids, actually. I can write about myself all day… but content knowledge evaporates into the furthest reaches of my brain at the least mention of expository.)

“You may write about any topic you choose. You may do additional research using texts from our library and the computer. But here’s the catch: You’re not writing me a report. You’re writing me a script.” Now all my students’ shoulders are slumping forward.

“I’m going to choose five scripts and those students will record a Super Short Science Show.” They viewed a short clip of Bill Nye, caught a little bit of my infectious excitement and went off to the classroom library or their table to write.

I skipped the part where I told you why I decided to hold an expository writing contest in the middle of a too-long personal narrative unit, but you probably already know. It was five weeks into the first quarter and Elias had As in every subject but writing, in which he had a low C.

“Elias is saying that he doesn’t like school. He just wants to stay home. I’m trying to get him into Harry Potter, since I know he needs to actually read fiction at some point, but he’s just not interested.” I really understood Elias’s mom for some reason. It was beyond obvious that Elias was exceedingly bright. The system wasn’t working for him, though. School quashed his spirit.

That’s when I acted on something that I had always known. If the system isn’t working, change the system. It started with the Super Short Science Show.

Elias actually didn’t even turn in a script, and I toiled away throughout the year making short productions of student writing. But other students bloomed.

He eventually caught the Harry Potter fever spreading like wildfire through third grade. And he came to love school again when I added student-run clubs and reading groups, held a week to celebrate our “Inner-Awesome” and learned that his voice and expertise were valued in those four walls.

When you are willing to change your methods for one child, you’ll soon see that many children thrive under those conditions as well. Not to be completely cliché and become the millionth person to compare teaching children to growing a garden, but you may have flowers that bloom just fine where you plant them, while others struggle along. Some seem wilted, so you change the conditions. They brighten up considerably and the others benefit as well from the more sheltered, edifying environment that you’ve provided. But no one looks at a garden and says: I grew those flowers. The flowers grew themselves. The gardener just played a part in providing the optimal conditions for their growth.

So, that’s my manifesto. As a teacher, I am responsible for providing the optimal conditions for student learning. I believe that I am charged with educating the whole child, since their social and emotional well-being are not isolated from their intellect. I also believe that no two students are the same, so while I may hold them to equally-high standards, the support and encouragement I provide to help them get there (or beyond) may look different for each child. I also believe that if I represent myself as the ultimate bearer of knowledge my students will never become viable, independent thinkers that learn from themselves, each other and the world around them. Many times, the best thing I can do as a teacher is set the conditions and step back, watching and waiting for growth.