Friday, March 20, 2009

The Power of Strength

I recently finished reading The Element by Ken Robinson (he's on Twitter) who is one of the world's leading thinkers on creativity and innovation. Ken defines The Element as the meeting point between natural aptitude and personal passion, or the place where what you love and what you are good at meet.

I was particularly intrigued by the book because of the direct challenge it presents to our current education system. Ken argues that many, if not most, people do not find their element in formal education and it is only when they leave school and begin their "recovery" that they figure out what they are good at and pursue their passions. As an educator, a parent, and a person who cares deeply about the quality of life of others, the idea that our schools are systemically designed not to nurture and develop the strengths of young people is a tragedy.

In a back to basics approach we have marginalized subjects outside of math, reading, and science and in so doing reduced the likelihood of powerful learning for all students. I wonder what my life would have been like if the central core subject of school was music. I am tone deaf. I cannot sing on key. My ability to read music is extremely limited. I do not feel joy or passion in the making of music although I can certainly appreciate the quality work of others and respect their talent. However, I suspect that in a place filled with talented musicians my confidence would have withered. I would have known implicitly that I was not as good nor as talented as others and would have struggled throughout my school career never measuring up to the talent and skills of those around me, all the while wondering what was wrong with me.

When I think about the students in our current schools whose learning style involves movement, music, rich visualization, social input, reflection, and tactile stimulation is it any wonder that we have so many students who struggle and so many people who do not discover their worth and capacity until after they leave school and are "recovering" from the experience. Despite loads of research on brain-based learning, effective instruction, and curriculum design low level coverage of disjointed facts in a predominantly auditory format remains the standard practice of most schools.

I say this as educator and a person who has committed his life to public schools. As I say it, there is no question in my mind that we can and must do better. I believe that part of our primary mission as educators is to nurture the natural aptitude and personal passion of the students who come to us. How quickly students are labeled unmotivated, lazy, and stupid when their capacity in particular areas is not up to par. Yet how quickly we forget that all of us have areas where those same words describe us precisely, regardless of how talented, motivated, and passionate we may be in our current arena.

I wonder what would happen if every educator, parent, coach, and daycare provider was actively observing the young people that they have contact with the intent of facilitating their natural aptitude and personal passion. For that matter I wonder what would happen to the productivity in the workplace if every manager, team leader, VP, and CEO was looking to unleash the potential of the element in every employee.

There is tremendous power in strengths-based organizations. If we are willing to reframe the remediation of weakness into the cultivation of strength we unleash the potential in ourselves and those around us. Right now in traditional schools strengths are not even a whisper. Listen to the words that surround our schools: remediation, tutoring, deficiency, re-teach, failing. We teach things in the same way to the same child who did not understand the first time a second and third time and then we wonder why they continue not to succeed despite our efforts to help. This is very different from the educator who asks, what assets and strengths to you bring to this learning endeavor? How can I build on those strengths to help you achieve a rich understanding of the most essential content? How can I create learning activities that will tap into your aptitude and passion? How can I build confidence in your identity as a learner so that you will have the skills to pursue your creative possibilities in the future?

I do not believe that we learn the same way. I do not believe that we learn things at the same time. I do not believe that the value of our children should ever be diminished because they don't learn in the same way or at the same time as others. I do believe that each of us has the responsibility to nurture the natural aptitude and personal passion of ourselves and those we have influence.

As a school leader I believe that part of my mission (reason for journeying) is to help others discover their element and create systemic conditions that will discover, support, and unleash the personal passion and natural aptitude of the students, staff, parents, and community members that are connected to the school.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Reflection- A Personal Commitment to Thinking Out Loud

For 35 years I have spent a tremendous amount of time thinking, reading, and learning. Most of those thoughts have occurred in private with some of my favorite books whether they be books about leadership, systems change, quantum mechanics, chaos, living-systems, string-theory , self-help, personal-improvement, brain-based learning, positive psychology or any number of other topics that I find fascinating. With that said, I realize that the world has changed and the incredible tools of Web 2.0 have created a space for all of our thinking to be public and shared with the world. The quality of thinking is not a prerequisite for publication which means that all of us have equal footing in expressing ourselves. I have decided that this blog will serve as the repository for my thinking, and as I continue to read and learn I will discuss the implications of what I am learning and reading as it relates to the educational futures of young people and what might be done to incorporate this learning into practice.

I believe that we limit the thinking of our children when we do not engage in deep reflective thinking ourselves. As educators the quality of our thinking should mirror the quality of thinking we hope that our students achieve. In the 21st century the requirements for thinking at extremely high levels are a demanded of the world, no longer the luxury of an elite educated class. For a fabulous book on the subject of the thinking required in the 21st century I recommend A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink. If you are like me and one book is simply not enough I also recommend Five Minds for the Future by Howard Gardner of multiple intelligence fame. These books provide fabulous insight into both why this type of thinking is a requirement in the 21st century as well as what this thinking is.

With the knowledge that I will be assuming the role of principal at Cross Middle School on July 1, 2009 I recognize that I must become a participant in this globally connected world and subject my thinking to the scrutiny of the public. I cannot be a bystander while I benefit from the incredible insights and knowledge that I gain from others by reading their blogs, books, and posts while I give nothing back to this vast digital resource.

So this blog is my personal commitment to the reflective thinking that I think all people must engage in if they are to achieve high levels of personal learning and take on the most vexing problems of his/her personal and professional life. When we write reflectively we crystallize our thinking, we make manifest the most salient components of our values, and we clarify our identity, mission, and vision. There is no question in my mind that there are few things a leader could engage in that would have a greater impact on the organizations they serve. Beyond that, I know that when students reflect, question, consider, and ponder, the beginnings of deep transformational learning are engaged and the possibility for profound positive change is unleashed.

It is my hope that my thinking may be of benefit to others and spark their learning as so many others have ignited my passion for thinking, and if I am the only one who ever reads this I trust that writing for the purpose of clarifying my thinking will yield positive actions aligned with new insights. My commitment is to post at least once per week and to create a pattern of reflective writing in my life as opposed to just reflective thinking. I hope others will join me on this journey.