Teaching Begins with the Learner

Attendees learned better teaching practices at the recent Leadership in the 21st Century Conference.

The David O. McKay School of Education and the Brigham Young University–Public School Partnership presented the ninth biennial conference of Instructional Leadership in the 21st Century. The conference was held March 23–24, 2017, where attendees learned more about non-cognitive skills, reimagining curriculum, and reaching potential. 

 

Three keynote speakers and eight additional presenters spoke at the conference, covering a variety of topics centered around better teaching practices. 

 

“How Children Succeed” (Paul Tough)

 

In his latest book, Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why, Paul Tough discusses solutions to the problems in our education system.

 

“The central idea of my book is that the way we have been talking about skills and success is fundamentally wrong,” Tough declared. “We share this idea that the one quality that matters most is a child’s IQ score; that success is all about this narrow test of cognitive skills demonstrated on standardized tests. This idea is behind our nationwide obsession with test scores.” 

 

Tough described six non-cognitive skills, or character strengths, that he believes are just as important, if not more so, than IQ scores in children. These character strengths are grit, perseverance, resilience, self-control, curiosity, and confidence. Even though scientists and educators support this data, according to Tough, no one quite knows the best way to teach these skills in the classroom.  

 

“Some of the best character teachers, the ones who are teaching this the best, are often not talking about character strengths at all,” Tough said. “Instead, they created an environment around their students where those character strengths could naturally grow.” 

 

Tough also stressed the importance of adversity in a child’s life to help develop character strengths. 

 

“I think we have an adversity gap in this country. We have some kids, especially those growing up in poverty, who simply have too much adversity in their lives. What they need from most of us is some protection from that adversity,” Tough said. “And then we have other kids, especially those growing up in affluence, who don’t have enough experience [with] adversity.”

 

Tough believes that people with disadvantaged backgrounds who achieve success all have two things in common: character and help. 

 

“Be the person in the lives of our young people who reaches out,” Tough encouraged. “If we can create a society where we’re thinking about kids all the way along, then we can have a country where success stories are not so rare and random, but happening all around us all the time.” 

 

“Focusing on What Matters” (Sarah Martin)

 

Sarah Martin is the foundation principal at Stonefields School in New Zealand, where she has helped create initiatives to change the traditional school system. 

 

“Our biggest challenge has been to stay edgy, be courageous, and have the determination to think about why New Zealand schools have always been the way [they’ve] been,” Martin explained. “We didn’t want to be different for different’s sake, but we had this amazing opportunity to really ask the question of how it’s always been. We wanted our curriculum to be current in 20 or 30 years' time.” 

 

One of the biggest challenges Stonefields School has tackled is making sure what they are teaching their students will matter for their futures. 

 

“What we know has changed. We know that many jobs will be no longer. What the world cares about now is not what you know, but what you do with what you know,” Martin said. “We want to see young people coming into the workplace as good communicators, problem solvers, collaborators, and critical thinkers.” 

 

At Stonefields School, they started asking themselves questions to identify ways to improve their education system, such as, “What might we do less of? What might we do more of?” They decided to come up with a new vision for their teachers.

 

“[We] have four vision principles,” Martin explained. “First, [building] learning schedules so students know what to do when they don’t know what to do. Second, collaborating. We want our learners to accept and appreciate diversity and cultural differences. Third, making meaning. What are universal understandings, the important concepts, and ideas we want our kids to take away from Stonefields School to be great meaning makers in the world? The last vision is, so what? We want our young people to wake up and have the sense of purpose, fulfillment, and happiness in learning that goes beyond what happens in school.” 

 

Stonefields School also emphasizes the importance of students knowing how to get “unstuck” in their learning when they encounter difficulties. 

 

“When our children are stuck in a pit, it’s important to equip our students with strategies, so they can know what to do when they don’t know what to do,” Martin said. “When they’re in a pit, they extend, they stretch, and they learn it’s okay not to know.” 

 

Martin has worked hard over the years to get Stonefields School to where it’s at today. Stonefields School is constantly looking for opportunities to improve, while always keeping their students in mind. 

 

“We want our learners to be comfortable being uncomfortable, having strategies for getting out of those stuck situations, making sure the learning is social, and as much as possible, making sure the learning is really real,” Martin shared. 

 

“Helping Your Students and Yourself Reach Your Highest Potential” (Richard P. Evans)

 

Richard P. Evans is a bestselling author most known for his popular books The Christmas Box and the Michael Vey series. He shared the three key principles he believes are necessary to succeed. 

 

First is to believe there is a reason you are here and why you were born. Teachers have a tremendous responsibility in shaping the lives of their students. They can help their students realize for themselves the reason they are here. 

 

“I believe that most people live far beneath their potential for joy and happiness. None of us will ever achieve great things until we learn to listen to that inner whisper. Faith can actually accomplish more than knowledge,” Evans stated. 

 

The second principle is to release yourself from “cages” that will halt your progression. Evans listed two specific cages that hold people back: paradigms and victimhood. 

 

Evans illustrated the paradigm cage by sharing an analogy: 

 

“Imagine coming home from school or work. You see that a new restaurant has opened up. It has a big sign that says, ‘All you can eat buffet—$5.’ You walk in and the sign says, ‘Seat yourself.’ You look at the back and see that’s where everyone seems to be. 

 

“You sit down. The waitress comes over and asks, ‘What would you like?’ 

 

“‘I’ll have the special. I’ll have what everyone else is having.’ 

 

“You go through the buffet and quickly see why it’s five dollars. Everything looks a little dodgy. You pick out what you want to eat, sit down, and think, You get what you pay for, and finish your five-dollar meal. As you go to leave and pay, the same waitress is there. You realize there is another door there and you look in and see there’s a whole other restaurant. It’s gorgeous. There are tapestries, glass chandeliers, and tables are filled with amazing food. 

 

“You ask the waitress, ‘How much is this buffet?’ 

 

“She replies, ‘It’s five dollars.’ 

 

“[You then ask,] 'Why didn’t you tell me about this restaurant before I ate?’ 

 

“The waitress says, ‘Because you said you wanted what everyone else was having.’” 

 

Through his analogy, Evans illustrated his belief that many people live far beneath their potential for joy and happiness because people don’t realize the possibility of what’s really there. They don’t look beyond what they already have. 

 

The second cage he described is the cage of victimhood. Having a victim mentality creates two major problems. The first problem is the very nature of it. People claim this mentality when they say, “I can’t succeed because [blank] happened to me.” The second problem is the ignored reality that the greatest lessons in life come through adversity. 

 

The third key to success is to magnify your life. 

 

“People are so afraid of failure that they don’t take chances because they’re afraid that they’ll fail,” Evans said. “The greatest shackles we wear in our lives are our fears. If you’re not going to fight for your dreams, then who will?” 

 

Resources from the conference can be found here

 

Writer: Janine Swart

Contact: Cindy Glad, (801) 422-1922

Photo Credit: McKay Creative