Thursday, February 18, 2010

Teaching Confidence

Jay Mathews posted a list of 8 "essential life skills" schools should help children develop. They include organization, teamwork, friendship, and thinking critically. I don't disagree with any, and feel attached to at least 5 more. But to avoid crowding the discussion, I'll whittle my must-add "essentials" down to just one: informed confidence.

By informed confidence, I mean a series of beliefs. (These beliefs are frequent topics of conversation in education today, and form cornerstone beliefs of programs including KIPP, Teach for America, and now, DC Public Schools.) The series goes like this: 1) Making an impact on the world is important. 2) Academic skills and knowledge help me make an impact on the world. 3) I can develop skills and knowledge through hard work. Building this investment in the long term and confidence in their own potential is critical for students' success, and often doesn't come organically for students in communities which often haven't succeeded in mainstream America.

A student in my own kindergarten class reminded me of this reality yesterday. Aaliyah (pseudonym) presents herself as one of the most confident students in class -- singing, dancing, and volunteering answers with abandon. So I was surprised when yesterday morning she came up to me with a friend and said, "Whitney's so smart. I'm not smart like her." I embarked on a little-kid explanation of plasticity, the simple and increasingly popular belief that people do not possess abilities in fixed measures, but all have the capacity to better those abilities. Adult view of the situation: Yes, Whitney has reached higher success on some traditional measures of achievement, including reading level. But, Whitney came in with a huge store of background knowledge which most of my students don't. I'm pretty sure that if I compare growth this year, Aaliyah has made even greater gains then Whitney -- indicating she is just as able of reaching those same high levels of achievement -- as long as she spends more time working.

If I could contribute one thing to the Work Hard/ Get Smart rhetoric in schools, it would be this: Agency -- not college -- is the end goal. In our desire to give under served students more agency, we often hit them so hard with the college message that little else gets through. Yes, we need to be talking about college from Day 1 so it becomes a living, breathing, absolutely possible entity in our students' minds. But, if we stop the conversation at college, what will they do when they graduate? In the end, college is a means to having more choices -- the choice to earn a comfortable income, or debate policy, or build a skyscraper.

If we believe informed confidence -- or any other "life skills" are important -- we must assess their development in some way. Social and life skills are vulnerable to crowding out of the curriculum because they are so hard to measure. Although I don't have the answer, some organizations have begun to look. Under the new Teaching and Learning Framework, one ninth of a teacher's Teach score depends on "investing students in their learning," including developing the belief that hard work leads to success -- and is possible for every student. If you're curious about how observers go about measuring this, take a look at the Teach 7 section of the rubric. In the rush to move students to the top, how are we valuing the beliefs that will actually help get them there?

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