Progressive educators have long been pushing to develop curriculum and teaching methods that will help students build skills that will be useful outside the perimeter of school. President Obama, legislators and dozens of business leaders have noted that the American education system isn’t teaching young people to think critically or solve problems creatively – skills that will be needed for the jobs of the future.
“The gap exists because we are not talking about this skill set with specificity,” said Angela Maiers, a former teacher and author of Classroom Habitudes. “We talk about it in generalities, but that doesn't get us anywhere if we don’t know what that would look like in the classroom.” She explained her method of fostering curiosity, adaptability, courage, and self-awareness among other traits in a recent edWeb webinar.
“Every five-year old that I know has that skill set,” Maiers said. “It’s not about this new agenda that we have to have or adopt or add on. It’s the recognition that you are already in the presence of genius.” Schools should cherish and cultivate the natural passion and curiosity in young children throughout their school careers, Maiers said.
While there are dozens of skills that could be useful to learners, Maiers recommends that teachers focus on specific ones that are most appropriate for the particular learning goals of that class and district. Then all the activities and discussion can focus on cultivating those traits. For Maiers, those important skills are: imagination, curiosity, self-awareness, perseverance, courage, adaptability, and passion. Maiers has developed a three-step process to help kids understand and embody these important, but hard to measure skills.
In order to cultivate learning traits, students have to understand what those traits are. A great way to help them along that path is to demonstrate good habits as teacher and role model. “You are the learner that you wish them to be,” said Maiers. “Your habits and mindset are demonstrated in everything you do.”
She also recommends having two to three discussions each week for several weeks about what the traits mean, how they look in real world contexts and the kind of behaviors that define them. After fleshing out these hard-to-pin-down concepts, students should be able to defend them because they understand them better. Maiers stresses that while her three-step process can be done linearly, it also cycles as students take on new challenges and re-imagine how the skills play out in different contexts.
Once everyone has a working vocabulary for the characteristics of learning they're trying to build, it’s easier for students to identify the learning traits in others. Maiers suggested that students draft a learning "dream team," with each member representing one of the qualities that she is working towards. Then when students run into challenges, they can emulate the qualities of their dream team members.
Maiers put Einstein on her dream team for curiosity, Edison for innovation and Seth Godin for fearlessness. After assembling a dream team and being forced to think about why each of those people symbolize a specific learning trait, students can be asked to identify their own unique genius and label it. Then they can explore that skill by discussing why they need it and in what ways they demonstrate it.
“Very quickly in school we ask students to shut down what makes them special in order to conform,” Maiers said. “But standing out is critical in this world.” Society often teaches people to feel that naming their good qualities is arrogant, but students have to understand their own strengths, said Maiers.
After the naming and claiming stages, teachers need to create lessons to help strengthen each trait. For example, Maiers wanted to create a lesson around one of the traits she thinks is important in learners – courage. She defined courage for the class as “acting in the presence of fear” and included the idea of acting despite challenges, risk and fear of failure. The following discussion revealed that even the five-year-olds she was teaching had a deep, ingrained understanding that failure is bad.
Maiers stood in front of the class and explained all the ways that she had failed that day. She went on to discuss what she’d learned from those failures and how she tried to improve on them the next day. The discussion of courage and acting fearlessly in front of challenging tasks helped redefine failure and risk. The activity helped those students to re-frame the idea of failure from a purely negative one to something with the potential for positive growth.
It’s easy to name qualities that will help students in the future, but much harder to help them identify those traits within themselves.