Most Likely to Succeed

While authoring my forthcoming book, I have read many professional books. This is the fourth in a series of professional book reviews–possible titles for your summer reading. The reviews are in no particular order.

This book seems the perfect segue from last week’s review of George Couros’s The Innovator’s Mindset. In Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era authors Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith offered me a great deal of food for thought. These were some of their ideas that prompted my thinking.

“The role of education is no longer to teach content, but to help our children learn—in a world that rewards innovation and punishes the formulaic” (197). This quote relates directly to what I think is one of the core beliefs of many (school librarians) who promote future-ready learning.

Wagner and Dintersmith go on to qualify this idea with an acknowledgement that a certain level of knowledge is necessary in order for students to be creative and innovative. “You cannot teach critical thinking without engaging students in rich and challenging academic content. The goal must be to choose the academic content selectively so as to create the required foundation for lifelong learning, without letting the quest for content coverage overwhelm the development of core competencies” (224).

Although I am sure youth need content literacy/knowledge on which to build innovation, students opportunities to explore/innovate during the school day are far too limited. In a recent Future Ready Librarians’ sponsored webinar “Empowering Students as Creators,” middle school librarian Diana Rendina shared her perspective on the importance of play and how her school’s library makerspace supports play as a “legitimate” activity for students. Legitimizing play may be a tough slog, particularly in some secondary schools with a focus on “accountability” rather than “innovation.”

When play becomes part of a “learn by doing” curriculum, educators may have a more successful route to gaining support for “making” and creating the conditions for students to be innovators. Wagner and Dintersmith note: “Our opportunity—and our obligation to youth—is to reimagine our schools, and give all kids an education that will help them thrive in a world that values them for that they can do, not for the facts that they know” (222). (Bold added)

In Most Likely to Succeed, the authors offer a set of pedagogical principles that should inform student learning (and educators’ teaching). Students should:

• Attack meaningful, engaging challenges;
• Have open access to resources;
• Struggle, often for days, and learn how to recover from failure;
• Form their own points of view;
• Engage in frequent debate;
• Learn to ask good questions;
• Collaborate;
• Display accomplishments publicly;
• Work hard because they are intrinsically motivated (205).

All of these relate to my understanding of the goals of inquiry and future-ready learning. The authors recommend that student-curated digital portfolios that show evidence of these principles is an effective way to document student learning.

I agree with Wagner and Dintersmith that educators should also be evaluated using digital portfolios. Educators’ documentation could serve as personalized accountability (232-233). These portfolios could include video-captured lessons and examples of students’ work that shows improvement and the impact of educators’ teaching. They could include focus-group feedback from students with regard to how the educator did or did not achieve the principles cited above.

To relate this to school librarian portfolios, the school library Web site or blog could be one aspect of such a portfolio. Linked learning plans and the resulting student work and feedback from coteachers, administrators, and other library stakeholders could show how school librarians hold themselves accountable for improving learning and teaching in their schools.

With an understanding that internally motivated students will continue to learn new knowledge and skills throughout their lifetimes, Wagner and Dintersmith write this: “So, the first question we must ask ourselves about any proposed change in education is: Will this ‘improvement’ likely increase or diminish student motivation for learning and how will be know? And to be clear, we’re not just talking about the thrill factor of learning. We are talking about the motivations that include grit, perseverance, and self-discipline” (223).

I know this question will continue to stick with me. Without intrinsic motivation, learning simply will not happen.

Tony Wagner, an “expert in residence” at Harvard University’s Innovation Lab, has authored other books, including Creating Innovators and The Global Achievement Gap. Ted Dintersmith is a “partner emeritus” at a venture capital firm. Their collaboration on Most Likely to Succeed makes it a compelling read for those seeking to prepare future-ready students and transforming schools into future-ready learning environments.

Work Cited

Wagner, Tony, and Ted Dintersmith. Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era. New York: Scribner, 2015.

Note: I would like to acknowledge Dr. Wagner for responding to series of emails with my questions. Many authors and speakers invite that kind of follow-up but not all of them follow through. Thank you.

The Innovator’s Mindset

While authoring my forthcoming book, I have read many professional books. This is the third in a series of professional book reviews–possible titles for your summer reading. The reviews are in no particular order.

I don’t remember when I first heard about George Couros. As soon as I did and before I read his book, I began reading his The Principal of Change blog, receiving his daily email blasts, and following him on Twitter (@gcouros).

One thing I especially admire about Couros is that he exemplifies an administrator/educator/leader who has a well-developed growth mindset. He shares his experiences—both his successes and missteps—and reflects on their significance in his learning. Couros is also able to communicate clearly and precisely. His mindset and his communication style pack a double punch…

…as does his book The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity. On the paperback book cover, these keywords appear in red font: “innovator’s” (bold), “learning,” “talent,” and “creativity” (in an artistic font). With bolded and branded #InnovatorsMindset insets through the 232-page book, Couros’s book is a thoughtful, accessible book–one that school leaders will turn to again and again.

Couros makes a strong case for his premise: “There is a clear need for innovation in education” (4). He divides his book into three parts: a discussion of innovation, the foundation for a culture of innovation, and acting in an environment where change is possible. With a nod to Simon Sinek, George Couros clearly states his “why.” He believes “education’s why is to develop learners and leaders who will create a better present and future” (18). Couros goes on to define what he means in using the terms “learners” and “leaders.” All school stakeholders—young or more seasoned, students or educators—must inspire innovation both as learners and as leaders.

I use Couros’s definition for “innovation” in the book I am writing: “Innovation is a way of thinking that creates something new and better.” I especially appreciate his emphasis on innovation as “a way of thinking” rather than a thing, task, or tool. An innovator’s mindset impacts school culture.

I part with Couros a bit on his assessment that “establishing an innovative culture doesn’t require transformation” (20). I do think it may very well take something “dramatic” in many school cultures that seek to “develop and sustain systems that support ‘optimal learning experience’” for all stakeholders. I wonder if small tweaks and nudges are enough to respond to the urgency for change that many educators, students, families, and community members feel.

Couros believes that it is “not that teachers don’t want to change, but they sometimes lack clear guidance and support to make the desired change” (47). I share this belief and it makes a strong connection for me with the book Switch: How to Make Change When Change is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (to be reviewed later this summer on this blog). Educators, like students, require leaders who clear the path and model the change they expect to see.

Couros lists “8 characteristics of the innovator’s mindset” (pp. 48 – 58). He notes these characteristics can apply to everyone involved in education: empathetic, problem finders/solvers, risk takers, networked, observant, creators, resilient, and reflective. He also provides a similar set of characteristics for innovative leaders (pp. 88 – 90).

I am in total agreement with Couros (and Sinek whom he cites). We need to place a higher priority on the caring relationships within our schools/organizations. “The three most important words in education are: relationships, relationships, relationships. Without them, we have nothing” (68). This was also one of my take-aways from Timothy Walker’s book Teach Like Finland. The caring relationships among the people within an organization are everything. (Hence the title of this blog and the title of my forthcoming book.)

Couros discusses creating a vision, using technology as an accelerator, and effective professional development for educators. He includes “8 things to look for in today’s professional learning” and notes that “understanding the learning opportunities that we would like to create for our students begins by immersing ourselves in similar experiences” (185). I could not agree more!

Each chapter in Couros’s book ends with questions for discussion. His book and online resources provide a compelling book study selection for individuals and Professional Learning Communities. As Couros writes in his introduction, “Change is an opportunity to do something amazing” (3).

If you’re someone who is open to change and don’t know where to start, begin by reading this book and then talk about it with your colleagues. It will inspire you!

Work Cited

Couros, George. The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead in a Culture of Creativity. San Diego, CA: Dave Burgess Consulting, 2015.

How Children Succeed

While authoring my forthcoming book, I have read many professional books. This is the second in a series of professional book reviews–possible titles for your summer reading. The reviews are in no particular order.

Helping children and teens develop dispositions is one of the essential aspects of preparing future-ready students for schooling and life. In my research on this topic, I was happy to find Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. (I have not yet read his more recent book Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why.)

Tough frames his perspective as a possible new school of thought that calls the “cognitive hypothesis” into question. The “cognitive hypothesis” of child rearing/development suggests that learning is based on “inputs” and “outputs.”

These are some of the “cognitive hypothesis” examples Tough gives that may speak to BACC blog readers:
1. The fewer words a child hears and speaks before entering school the more likely she is to struggle in schooling.
2. Fewer books in the home puts a child at risk in reading proficiency.
3. More math homework means higher math scores.

These examples (two near and dear to my heart) suggests a linear view of cognitive development.

Tough’s “character hypothesis” adds a different perspective. “What matters most in a child’s development is not how much information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years. What matters, instead, is whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence. Economists refer to these as noncognitive skills, psychologists call them personality traits, and the rest of us sometimes think of them as character” (xv). In the world of school librarianship, we refer to these noncognitive skills, personality traits, or character traits as “dispositions.”

While I disagree with Tough’s use of the word “stuffing” here, I read on and found myself developing a hybrid view of these two apparently opposing hypotheses.

The “character hypothesis” explains a number of children I have met. In over twenty-five years of teaching, I have met and admired those “outlier” kids who seemed to have missed out on literacy enriched upbringings yet have excelled in every school-based measure of achievement. I have also met and wondered about very privileged children who seemed to have had every advantage yet were unable to persevere at tasks (even of their own choosing) and lacked grit. (Tough uses Angela Duckworth’s definition of grit: “self-discipline wedded to a dedicated pursuit of a goal.”)

I agree with Tough that there are many other ways to develop “executive functions” besides growing up with the advantages afforded (most? some?) privileged children. These higher-order mental abilities, such as the ability to deal with confusing and unpredictable situations, can be learned in many ways and at many points during a person’s life. “Executive functions and the ability to handle stress and manage strong emotions can be improved, sometimes dramatically, well into adolescence and even adulthood” (48).

I totally agree with Tough that: “Parents and other caregivers who are able to form close, nurturing bonds with their children can foster resilience in them that protects them from many of the worst effects of a harsh early environment” (28). And in my experience (and in the views of other researchers) when parents and other caregivers talk to and dialogue with their young children and enfold them in their arms while reading to them, children are indeed building the bonds that help children develop resilience. (Hence my objection Tough’s use of the word “stuffing” in relationship to talking to and reading with young children.)

Tough cites research that was new to me. Mary Ainsworth conducted studies in the 1960s/early 1970s. She found that: “Babies whose parents responded readily and fully to their cries in the first few months of life were, at one year, more independent and intrepid babies than babies whose parents had ignored their cries” (cited in Tough 33). This may seem counterintuitive but having been that kind of parent with my own infant daughter, my experience has borne out that finding. She became a VERY intrepid toddler and grew into a VERY independent woman (now in her mid-30s).

My question here is if babies are born into struggling families, does the parent who is working two jobs have the energy to respond “readily and fully” to a baby’s middle of the night cries?

Tough also writes about cognitive-behavior therapy and cites the work of Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism, which I haven’t yet read. According to Seligman, the best time to transform pessimistic children into optimistic ones is “before puberty, but late enough in childhood so they are metacognitive (capable of thinking about thinking)” (91).

For me, this emphasizes the importance of the middle school years. I believe middle school educators benefit from specialized training in adolescent development and empathetic skills in order to effectively support young teens social, emotional, and cognitive development. (I worked with some very “gifted” classroom teachers at Emily Gray Junior High who had what it takes during my one year of middle school librarianship.)

My experience supports the importance of optimism and other positive emotional states when it comes to learning. As researcher David Sousa noted positive emotions affect learning by helping students process information, engage in difficult tasks, develop a deeper understanding of learning experiences, and recall and apply what is taught later on (2016).

Tough analyzes the character education program at  KIPP Schools. In order to prepare KIPP students for college, students are given a college persistence rating in four categories: academic preparedness, financial stability, socio-emotional wellness, and non-cognitive preparedness. This score is monitored regularly and educators/counselors provide support and interventions to keep students on track. The success rate for less-privileged students who attend KIPP schools and go on to succeed in post-secondary education suggests “character” counts.

Tough concludes: “Character can function as a substitute for the social safety net that students at Riverdale (a high school serving privileged students) enjoy – the support from their families and schools and culture that protects them from the consequences of occasional detours and mistakes and bad decisions” (103).

In summary, Tough writes: “Character strengths that matter so much to young people’s success are not innate; they don’t appear in us magically, as a result of good luck or good genes. And they are not simply a choice. They are rooted in brain chemistry, and they are molded, in measurable and predictable ways, by the environment in which children grow up” (196). Agreed. Agreed. Agreed.

I learned a great deal from reading Tough’s book. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in child-adolescent development and education.

Writing this review has helped me further reflect on the complexity of creating an environment in which future-ready children and teens can development the knowledge, competencies, and dispositions they need to succeed. In my hybrid view, the combination of family economic security, the “cognitive hypothesis,” and the “character hypothesis” could all be applied to create a supportive and effective birth through adolescence environment for children to succeed.

Why not imagine and create the best of all possible worlds for our children?

Works Cited
Sousa, David A. 2016. How the Brain Learns. 5th ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Tough, Paul. 2013. How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2012.