A few weeks ago, a teacher leader shared: “I never dreamed that the day would come when social emotional learning (SEL) would take its rightful place on the educational landscape and be treated with the importance it deserves.” Recently, another educator said that the national focus on child/teen mental health is both “long overdue and just in time.” It is clear from conversations like these and the work represented in schools and districts across our country that we are now attuned to the reality that the brain can’t learn, the mind can’t engage and the person can’t reach her full potential without conditions in place to promote optimal, or at least reasonable, functioning. That is the journey we are on in our self-regulation work (see www.self-regulation.ca) and it is reflected in the following note (edited for brevity) about the factors in play that support the development of professional skill/efficacy. Those factors include:
- the essential role of post-secondary institutions that train, shape and credential the teachers of tomorrow;
- the importance of our teacher “apprenticeship” model, the series of practicum assignments in our K-12 schools; and,
- the school house “norms” and the lived mandate regarding what’s important, what’s valued, what matters.
My correspondent wrote (with a few of my edits for style & brevity):
“…many of our programmes for teachers have been inadequate in preparation for the real classroom they will enter as new professionals. I always thought it was because the programmes/courses of study were focused on curriculum, but now I think it is because pre-service education has not been fully attentive to considering the importance of ‘emotional functioning’ in a world where the teacher’s role far exceeds curriculum expert and classroom manager. Today’s effective educator is attentive to and skilled at shaping and navigating the climate, culture and health of the individual learner and the group of children assembled together in a class. In order to achieve this relatively new expectation, we also need to pay attention to the teacher’s emotional awareness and functioning. Today, our work as reflective practitioners involves so much more than reviewing the achievement results and responding to academic/learning deficits. Teachers consider the emotional climate – each child’s, the class’s and the teacher’s own social/emotional health. We have to encourage each teacher to view/reflect and honour the ‘whole teacher’, including their personal development of emotional, social, cognitive, communication style and their physical and general well-being. It is difficult to be a guide without having walked the trail first. If we are concerned about the holistic development of the individual child , let’s also be attuned to awareness and holistic development of the individual teacher. Self-reflection and attention to monitoring one’s own SEL will enable all of us in the profession to then make the time, take the time, notice and recognise the individual child within their classroom as a person and not just part of the group. Through our self-regulation work and deeper study of this field, more and more professionals feel they have permission to ‘nurture the person within the teacher’ resulting in a transformation of individual teachers that has been quite remarkable…”
Interesting and important perspective. As I read this teacher’s views, I was reminded that this isn’t a linear/sequenced series of steps (first, reframe the teacher training programs, then renovate practicum experiences, then reculture professional focus in schools…); rather it is a call for integrated action so that the educated citizen becomes such a person through scaffolded and supportive interactions and experiences that transcend the mastery of curricular outcomes. Today’s learner is someone who has the confidence, skills, resilience, grit and adaptability to take on new challenges and succeed and fail gracefully, thoughtfully and productively. All of that is much more likely to happen on a learning journey attuned to what individuals need in order to be successful. It’s another way personalized learning comes to life.
Image credit: neuson / 123RF Stock Photo
In late July, I attended the showcase finale for a new summer learning program in our district. It is called “L.E.A.D.” (Learn, Experiment, Advance, Demonstrate). This initiative was sparked by several BC educators’ visit to High Tech High, and then modeled on an initiative started in a neighbouring school district. In brief, it gives students an engaging and very active opportunity to earn credit for learning they did not successfully complete during the regular school year. Students who failed or minimally met requirements in two of their core subjects (English, Social Studies, Science or Math) during their Grade 8 or 9 year, were able to enrol in L.E.A.D. as an alternative to the regular remedial summer school option, one where the core outcomes of the curriculum are typically retaught in a concentrated/intensive block of time throughout most of July. The L.E.A.D. program promised students the chance to engage in project-based learning in a way that would require them to master the same core outcomes but to do so via meaningful project work and teamwork, which would be presented as a culminating assessment activity.
For me, the late July visit was fascinating and inspiring. I had high expectations, knowing the amount of planning and teamwork by the teachers responsible for this first roll out of the new program. However, the showcase far exceeded anything I might have imagined. In fact, I had to remind myself several times that I was seeing and engaging in discussions about projects developed by kids who had failed core courses. The experience felt more like a symposium for gifted learners – and of course it was. These kids activated their gifts: those skills and talents that emerged as a result of an environment infused with high expectations and relevance, resulting in engagement, accountability and a sense of pride.
So what? Project-based learning has such positive traction and is being activated in so many places because it promotes and accelerates the learner’s evolution as a reflective thinker. In doing so, it engages the learner as a co-developer and constant refiner of an increasingly complex framework of understanding. These kids are involved in a dynamic approach to learning: they explore real-world problems and challenges and produce something that is very public. They take risks. Their synapses are firing! They invite comment, including rebuttal and affirmation, leading to modification or enhancement and further collaboration. Being active and engaged owners of their learning pathways requires and generates energy…the sweet spot for real learning to take place.
That’s what I saw in July and what I know is going on in many classrooms every day as we work to build learning journeys that are filled with engagement, relevance, challenge and collaboration. Quality project-based learning gets results: kids working hard, learning well and being able to adapt what they have learned – including the content and the processes – to new situations…very much like the ones they will face every day in the world they will be inheriting.
…I wish I had read a long time ago (it’s never too late) is The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle. I am a parent, a grandparent, a teacher, a coach…and, like all of us, a participant in and observer of life writ large. For all those reasons and more, what Coyle shares as a result of his research into talent is illuminating and powerful.
We are in a golden age of learning about learning. There are more and more very accessible, readable and engaging resources out there today giving us a tremendous insight into how our brains work and how we can increase life quality by the way we promote optimal functioning. Books like The Talent Code engage and inform. They give the “non-neuroscientist” (that’s most of us) rich perspectives on learning in such a way that we can remember, retain, reflect and adjust. Such resources allow us to juxtapose our emerging understanding of our brains against old/dated beliefs and norms, enabling adjustments in real time. It’s another example of knowing what we know and then doing something about it.
I read Coyle’s book on an e-reader. It has a highlighter function which I didn’t use but if I had, the whole book would have had a yellow hue. A hard copy would have had page corners turned throughout the book. Suffice to say that there are countless gems of understanding and application throughout. I found that the examples he gives and the science and logic he provides were personally and professionally engaging – they resonated deeply. Essentially, his core message is that talent isn’t born, it is developed. That’s great news for all of us in the business of enhancing human potential. Coyle shares that talent is grown, and talented behaviours result from brain connections being wrapped/insulated in myelin to promote quick and skilful access to those behaviours when they are needed again. He further shares through a combination of stories and science that there are things we can do that increase our myelin wrapping; talented people do those things. We can all do those things.
Equally important for those of us working with and influencing the life chances of kids, there is a sequence of events evident when we study talented individuals and talent hotbeds – those places that develop a disproportionate number of talented people. That sequence is ignition, master coaching, deep practice, and the author goes extensively into the components of each of those three elements. We might reframe ignition as engagement. Master coaching involves the modelling, feedback and critique associated with specific, deconstructed, elemental and scaffolded learning. It goes from the big picture to all of the parts that are required to develop the big picture. Deep practice is what it says it is. Not simply 10,000 hours of repetition, not even 10,000 hours of anything. Rather, it speaks to focused, intense experiences: failure/adjust/retry/refail (but better) bursts of practice. From great musicians to athletes to writers and mathematicians, Coyle describes the carefully constructed, challenging and disciplined learning environments that allow them to flourish. They don’t practice longer, they practice better. They don’t avoid failure, they engage in it, consider what happened and re-engage with determination. Their focus is never routinized. It is in the moment and very much alive, deep and fully engaging. It’s how great learning happens and how great teachers and coaches develop excellence.
Is Coyle’s research relevant for our work with kids like our own, at school and on teams? Without a doubt. The Talent Code can’t be adequately captured in 650 words. For now, suffice to say that talented behaviours, success and brilliant achievements are very much a result of a series of events that are too important to be considered accidental or random. What we know about developing talent – in ourselves and in others – should cause us to better understand why our best strategies work and why others don’t. As learning detectives (every educator is one) Coyle’s book helps us to enhance the best of what we do and replace other practices that are based on old patterns that don’t stand the test of time or science. Read away. A good investment. See what you think.
Our district recently hosted a self-regulation summer institute (see www.self-regulation.ca) with Dr. Stuart Shanker’s keynote followed by a number of breakout sessions presented by teachers, education assistants, occupational therapists and administrators who have “caught the wave.” The institute attracted about 800 people, on a warm summer day a week before the start of school. Why? What brought such a crowd indoors and why are so many educators finding meaning in Stuart’s self-regulation framework?
In a post-session chat with a colleague, he asked, then answered that question. First, he shared that he was struck by the spectacular growth of interest and engagement with self-reg and the passion with which people are joining this learning journey. Then he described his own interest and the motivation behind it. His application of learning in this area started with the “self” in self-regulation, that self including his spouse and children. That’s not an unusual driver. Most of us are curious about who we are and how we survive, adapt and thrive across the complex and interrelated biological, emotional, cognitive and social domains. With our own kids, it provokes even more curiosity as we observe and influence (and are influenced by) their capacities moment by moment. We want to know/we need to know what factors contribute to or limit their well-being.
That’s what is happening with self-regulation: for many people, interest in learning about self-regulation starts with one’s relationship with self, then with the environment and then with others. Our introduction to the self-regulation framework gives us an access point to the science behind who we are, why we do what we do, and feel what we feel. Pretty quickly, we start to make meaning by engaging in the fascinating detective work of analyzing cause and effect relationships and why certain automatic and voluntary responses seem to emerge in specific situations in our own experience.
For ourselves and for our loved ones, this connection is a powerful motivator: what we know starts to influence how we feel and what we do in response to internal and external stressors. The lament Why is this always happening to me? can turn into an informal but deeply engaging personal research question – you are both researcher and subject: Why is this always happening to me? Same question, very different potential outcomes. That can be the initial appeal of self-regulation and the energizer that causes so many people to catch the wave. After starting with the self, it is a relatively quick and almost unconscious transition to apply our emerging understanding beyond our personal circle of care and influence. We quite naturally become learning detectives as teachers and coaches. That work may start with one student or team member and it goes from there. As positive results emerge, as relationships and environments change, there is renewed energy to learn and apply more. A teacher at the summer institute shared her self-reg journey as follows: “I am more aware of my needs, my students’ needs, my colleagues’ needs, and my perspective on the school environment has shifted.”
The self-regulation/CSRI wave – it’s catching!
Summer musing on moving educational transformation from words to action.
Our typical dialogue tends to limit rather than enable – more Yes But than What If or Why Not - too often culminating in a soliloquy on the limitations and frustrations associated with our current change initiatives: what we can actually accomplish given the restrictions of the system frameworks within which we operate.
If you doubt that, consider the number of school organization changes that have died on the drawing board thanks to the tyranny of the bus schedule or the sanctity of the 5X8 school timetable. So, just for now – in mid-summer when anything is possible – let’s imagine what can happen when we take what we know and turn it into what we do. Let’s more fully act on our understanding of learning theory and neuroscience, and of the key role played by the social/emotional elements of the learning relationship. Let’s also recognize that the current sets of rules were not necessarily created to allow best practice, or enable the proliferation of great, creative new ways to teach and learn.
Now let’s identify the resources that can inform us in building the future our kids deserve and a globally educated citizenry needs. These resources have to be more than individual anecdotes about a neat program or a gifted teacher or a breakthrough learning experience. Those points of light are inspiring and illustrative and their core, they likely have the essential elements of the art and science of teaching and learning. Strategic and deliberate replication of those essential elements is what is needed and that effort has to be seeded by something greater than stand alone exemplars.
To get where we need to be regarding system transformation, the resources I would want a design team to have include:
- The collected writings of Sir Ken Robinson, and what I perceive to be the equally thoughtful and provocative findings of Tony Wagner. Both authors shine a light on engagement, relevance, meaningful rigour, the remarkable range of learners’ giftedness and how our current system was never designed to respond to those needs. They so clearly remind us that schools were invented for a different purpose based on what is now very dated and inaccurate understandings about learning and very different social and cultural norms. With Robinson and Wagner informing us, what would it look like for a learning organization to respond to what activates learners’ minds and hearts? How do we explore and replicate those eduspheres that are already meeting the challenge of greater activation of human potential? These thought leaders identify elements of what is needed across our entire system. They shine a light by through examples of the best and of the rest. These thought leaders should inform our future design work.
- Alongside Robinson and Wagner would be Stuart Shanker‘s enlightened research on self-regulation. Stuart’s teaching and the clarity of his self-regulation framework help us to understand the importance of unshackling from old rituals and routines, many of which are associated with system norms built on power and control/reward and punishment/compliance to authority… All of that was part of a school system that had a pre-set culture that we now know was flawed. But knowing what isn’t right doesn’t remedy anything; long-established habits flourish unless they are replaced with new and better ways of being and of interacting. Understanding self-regulation gives us a working reference to the neuroscience of the learner, the teacher, the adult and the child. Armed with that knowledge, we can design a learning environment that more appropriately achieves what our mission statements profess.
- The next guiding text would be David Kessler’s remarkable expose The End of Overeating. This book is more than simply about our relationship with food and the epidemic of obesity. It describes the human relationship with eating and the addiction being fed and managed by a food industry that has everything to gain while we have so much to lose. Why would a book about eating help to inform education system design? Kessler’s clear and compelling case for attention to the overeating epidemic calls for us to help learners advance along the continuum from awareness to engagement to responsibility. Currently, we are more likely to be slaves to the cravings that have been carefully designed by the food industry than we are to be knowledgeable, aware and in control of our nutrition decisions. Our schools need to play a role in countering the current trajectory, one that has a younger generation with declining health indicators, impacted by a combination of 5+ hours per day of sedentary classroom life, plus the well-chronicled screen time that happens outside of school. Can we create learning structures and activities for the future while ignoring the dire warnings that this generation will be the first to have a shorter life span than its parents? As an added incentive to bring Kessler’s book into your reference library, it also provides insights far beyond our relationship with food. It, like Shanker’s work, helps us to better understand that fundamentals underlying cause and effect relationships that are part of the framework for our learning and our survival.
- The penultimate resource to take into a design exercise would be Dr. Leonard Sax’s book Boys Adrift. Sax identifies five factors that he posits are at the core of the disengagement and underperformance of boys and young men today. It is a fascinating read and one of the five factors he identifies is the structure of school and how it doesn’t fit the physiology, psychology and neurology of many, many boys. His research and the stories he shares sound a clear call to those of us responsible for learning design to make dramatic adjustments rather than simply keep wondering why we are failing our boys in such large numbers.
- The next set of resources that can and should impact our quest for a preferred future is provided by one or more thought leaders on the environment. We have plenty to choose from and can usefully pick up on the themes articulated by Al Gore, David Suzuki and other global leaders who have sounded the alarm bell about the plight of our planet. We can go into our own schools and see the initiative being shown by young people to rally around environmental causes. This work is often not for credit and it too often happens around the edges of the school structure, but it is occurring with greater and greater intensity and frequency. Young people are attuned to messages about environmental degradation and are searching out ways to have an impact and make a difference. Can we continue to shunt that focus off to the margins? Shouldn’t the 21st century curriculum be predominantly about the environment? That sounds like a curriculum refocus paralleling the urgent global refocus that is going on around us every day.
Summer musings. So what? Maybe our design team – that’s you, me and all of us together – can gain greater traction on the transformation journey by immersing ourselves in the forward thinking of people like Robinson, Wagner, Shanker, Kessler, Sax, Gore and Suzuki et al rather than by limiting ourselves to trying to fit tomorrow’s compelling needs into yesterday’s framework.
Actually, these are four “critical friends” who suddenly appear at your place of work: your classroom, school, or district office with a well-meaning but unsolicited guarantee to provide you with an authentic sense of what you and your organization do and what you stand for in your commitment to learning. Each one of these people professes to have a specific skill in zeroing in on the most important evidence and each is confident in their precision and accuracy. (more…)