INSIDE OUR SCHOOLS: Science of teaching must not forget art of being successful human

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDNovember 29, 2013 

Joe Wooding teaches social studies at Kulshan Middle School.

BELLINGHAM PUBLIC SCHOOLS — COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

School reforms are a lot like fads; they come and they go. Nevertheless, each iteration sounds a similar alarm: "We are nation at risk... Our children are being left behind... Other countries are rising to the top... Lions, tigers, and bears - oh my!!!" If only we had a pair of magical ruby red slippers. We could click our heels together and flee toward an imaginary past, to the way things never were, or skip ahead to a more perfect future where we can enjoy progress without the struggle.

Well, nap time is over. It's time to wake up and recognize we are not in Kansas anymore. The challenges confronting our kids are truly complex and confounding. However, the defining problem of the 21st Century is not political paralysis, economic insecurity or even climate change. It's the zombie apocalypse.

Do I have your attention now? OK, let's get serious.

We want to bequeath better lives to our children, and we often look to schools as the solution to making our dreams reality. At the same time, schools are often seen as the problem. Hence the emphasis on accountability. This eternal tension manifests itself in how we approach teaching and learning. Should we focus on the art or science of educating our kids? In the age of accountability, it's safe to say the pendulum of reform has swung towards the scientific, with standards serving as the controlled variable, instruction as the manipulated variable, and student learning as the responding variable. If only life was this elegant.

To some extent, life's essential questions are elegant. The enduring dilemma is there are no simplistic solutions. What principles do I stand for? What issues do I care about? What can I do to make a difference? How will I make the world more awesome? If we could look up the answers to these questions, there would be no reason to read great works of antiquity. Yet we still read Shakespeare because we recognize he was on to something when he claimed, "To be or not to be, that is the question."

My response: To be human, that is the answer.

While I readily admit the intentions of school reform are good, I often wonder if the impact of our efforts will dehumanize kids in the long run. While it is hyperbolic to suggest schools are turning our kids into zombies, it is not unreasonable to question whether our attention has been distracted away from what is important in order to concentrate on what seems urgent.

We all know test scores are urgent, so what's important? New research suggests something seemingly intangible, ineffable and invisible is at play. In his book "How Children Succeed," Paul Tough chronicles the stories of students who were not the best or brightest among their cohort yet managed to achieve more success than their more intelligent and talented peers. His book references the work of scholars who are studying the mysterious properties of character and its relationship to achieving success.

At the forefront of this new psychology of success are Carol Dweck from Stanford University and Angela Duckworth from the University of Pennsylvania. After years of researching achievement, Dweck developed the idea of mindset as a concept for understanding what makes people successful. The idea is rather straightforward: people who have a "growth mindset" tend to consider talent and intelligence as traits that can be developed with effort. In other words, with deliberate practice comes improvement. On the other hand, people who have a "fixed mindset" tend to consider talent and intelligence as unchangeable. Simply put, some of us are born smart and talented; the rest of us are unlucky. With this attitude, practice is a waste of time no matter how hard we try. Duckworth's research builds upon the idea of mindset by contributing the concept of "grit," or the ability to pursue a long-term goal, sustain interest and effort over time and persist despite challenges confronted along the way.

If taken seriously, the concepts of mindset and grit might mean being human has less to do with academic proficiency and more to do with personal mettle. With this in mind, my goal as a teacher is to not simply coach students to become critical thinkers who produce quality work, but to become quality people who create meaningful lives for themselves and make a difference in the lives of others.

Life is a work-in-progress. Someday our children will have to pull back the curtain and confront this reality. When they do they will discover there is no panacea, utopia or omnipotent wizard. Just us. The question is will they possess the mindset, the heart, and the courage to be the change they wish to see. If so, they must get gritty. After all, change is inevitable, but progress is not. Without struggle there is no progress.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

This is one in a series of columns by area teachers exploring education today. Joe Wooding teaches at Kulshan Middle School in Bellingham.

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