Monday, January 24, 2011

The Environment of Achievement, Part 1

Three words grabbed my attention. Ideas that can make the difference between a t-ball novice and A-Rod, between nephew Johnny’s string recital performance and a Yo-Yo Ma concert, between the weekend jogger and Paula Radcliffe.

No, not age, not time, nor even practice. (Though all these play a role.)

For decades, researchers have pitched their tents in one of two camps: either nature (i.e., genetics) makes us who we are, or nurture (i.e., environment) does. For every study claiming to capture the flag for one camp, a counter study contends that it retains the banner.

In The Genius in All of Us, David Shenk argues that the interaction of genes and environment produces the individuals we become. Environment, contends Shenk, plays a leading role in how genes are “expressed.” But let’s set the science and the debate aside for now and simply consider what allows ability to reach its fullest potential.

This brings us back to those three words. They appear in the opening of David Shenk’s book, and they should play a leading role in education: hope, humility, and determination.

Word #1: hope. Of the three words, this one gets the most negative press. Cynics point out that hoping never made something happen nor brought anything into existence. Some even suggest hope is damaging, viewing it as wishful thinking that prevents the action needed to generate change.

Such arguments fail to look behind results; they fail to consider the causes of observable effects. They’re akin to arguing that the pleasure of a warm fire on a cold night is unrelated to, and certainly not dependent on, the match used to ignite the flame.

But hope is not disconnected from action or result; it is the drive that propels action and result. It is not an ungrounded feeling but a belief that action can bring about change. No great change has ever been attempted without hope, even if the belief was never voiced.

The dictionary associates several concepts with hope: expectation, belief, desire, good. I’d add another: resilience. Here’s why:

Resilience involves maintaining hope despite failure. Set-backs in life are inevitable, whether one is trying to strut across a narrow balance beam or learn to balance lopsided equations. Response to setbacks makes the difference between progress and stagnation, and hope motivates forward movement. Students need to learn to remain positive, believing that hard work can eventually overcome most setbacks and that the effort can yield beneficial and satisfying results. Relatedly…

Resilience involves embracing failure as an element of learning and progress.Hope can endure difficulties when the difficulties are seen as revealers of weaknesses that can be targeted and tweaked. Once recognized, weaknesses can become the focus of the efforts that lead to eventual success. (If students are not failing—encountering challenges—in your classroom, their learning may be minimal or even non-existent.)

David Shenk shares a compelling illustration. Basketball great

Michael Jordan would use

informal, pick-up games to work on

skills he knew were his weakest. While others in these games relied on doing what they already knew they could, Jordan

analyzed his setbacks, identified their causes, and then worked to correct them. The hope of eventual success made failure something to seek rather than avoid.

As teachers, we have a critical role to play in helping students perceive failure correctly. The feedback we give students can make the difference between failure that focuses effort and failure that is fatal to further attempts.

Finally, resilience involves being able to change direction. Failure is easy to repeat. You simply do the exact same thing you did previously while expecting the result to be different. (I believe this was Einstein’s definition of insanity.) It takes effort to consider alternative approaches and to maintain the hope that making such changes can yield better results.

To help students grow into individuals who do not view failure as fatal, we must nurture their spirits, helping them maintain hope, especially when learning is challenging.

Some questions I’ve been pondering lately include:

  • How resilient is my hope in the face of challenge?
  • How do I convey hope when my students face challenges and obstacles?
  • Is my classroom/school/district a place characterized by hope and its accompanying momentum?
  • How am I modeling resilient hope?

What questions would you add?


Shape of a hoper



Robyn McMaster, PhD said...

Great post Kevin and see the wisdom in what you share. Thanks for the opportunity to share a question.

I would ask this question that Dr. Ellen Weber has shared with me... What if I were to treat each student as a genius?" She taught in an inner city school in Canada where she started a debate team with her students. She was able to guide their way to new heights because they began to believe they had it within. It makes a great difference.

Abner Oakes said...

Yes, great post, Kevin, and I like to think about what you wrote related to effective teachers - that effective teachers are highly resilient. They possess great hope in the face of failure and are relentless in devising solutions to those lessons that miss the mark or those kids that they're just not reaching. I'd just ask: As the teacher helps the student, who helps the teacher? The building leader? Someone at the district level?

Sean said...

It's ridiculous how much we're on the same page. I blog about resilience in people and organizations and totally agree with your perspective. Hope is indeed an action word. If you're interested check out the archived, Hope is an action word at Would appreciate your feedback.

Also want to point you in the direction of #EduKare via Twitter. This is a grassroots dialog surrounding EduKare the concept of systemic and positive ed reform.

Looking forward to hearing more from you, and added your blog to my reader.
Have a great day!

Kevin D. Washburn, Ed.D. said...

First, my apologies for the delay in replying. I forget to check Blogger to see when comments have been submitted, and for some reason I don't receive an email when comments have been submitted.

Robyn, I love that comment from Ellen. It does help redirect perspective.

Abner, I think anyone in educational leadership has the responsibility for keeping hope central in the organization's thinking. I know this can be a constant struggle, especially in a system where little attention has been paid to the faculty's emotional health (which is far too many schools!).

Sean, thanks for the info. I will check out your blog and the EduKare movement. Thanks for adding the blog to your reader. Nice to know there are some readers out there!