Outside the Tahoe Classroom: Challenging our children may spark motivation
May 17, 2017
This past week I joined 80 second graders on a field trip to the South Lake Tahoe ice arena. Having grown up near a small farm pond in Maine, I'd skated since before I can remember so chaperoning this trip was really appealing. At first, skates on, I skimmed across ice, lost in the old feeling, wind in my face.
But, of course, I was there to chaperone so I looked up. Kids in helmets were everywhere. Many skated in groups while others zipped around on hockey skates. Oops. There one fell. Another. I skated over to one fallen child. Tears. She'd hurt her knee. I felt the impulse to grab her arm, help her up, console her — and reinforce the idea that she couldn't do this skating thing on her own.
Isn't this one of the pitfalls we face as educators? We think that we need to "help" children, thereby (unconsciously) lowering expectations and micromanaging their will to achieve their own goals?
I caught myself thinking about Angela Duckworth, the former middle school math teacher turned psychology researcher most famous for her work on what she terms "grit," or the perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Based on her experience in the classroom, she found herself fascinated by what makes people successful. Her research took her to Ivy League schools, West Point, to the National Spelling Bee, and to high powered corporate sales organizations where she and her colleagues found that grit — more than talent, IQ, or conscientiousness — predicted successful outcomes.
So as I looked again into this girl's teary eyes, I saw her determination. She scrambled back to standing, flashed me a smile, and took off. Again and again, I watched children fall, watched them cry or slam the ice with their fists, before they were off again. Children have an impressive capacity for getting up from a fall and trying again, especially if they are surrounded with others doing the same thing. And especially when they have a personal goal, a passion for an outcome they know they can attain if they keep at it.
The National Center for Education Statistics recently published the results of the 2014-15 adjusted cohort graduation rate (AGCR), a calculation that looks at the percent of students who graduate with a regular diploma within four years of their starting ninth grade. The good news is that, across the country, the ACGR has increased since it was first reported in 2010-11, up to 83 percent from 79 percent. This means that four out of five students graduate within four years of their starting ninth grade.
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In California, the graduation rates also increased, from 74.7 percent in 2010 to 82.3 percent in 2015. Especially encouraging here was that gaps actually closed some for English learners, rising by a huge 4 percent, and for African American students, rising by over 2 percent. California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson noted this May, "This is encouraging news … since the increase is occurring as we are introducing much more rigorous academic standards."
Forgive the leap here, but I think we may have to acknowledge that having challenging standards that provide real opportunities for children to struggle and get back up again may actually add to motivation, not detract from it, especially when we let them own their own success.
Special education is another place where we can learn lessons about what kids can really do. For example, traditionally, we expected students with significant cognitive disabilities to gain only functional skills — taking care of themselves, walking across the street or balancing a checkbook. As the movement toward inclusion asked that students be instructed in academic subjects in school, we've not only seen how students can perform academically, we have seen how they exceed expectations. On required academic assessments per No Child Left Behind, students have consistently out-performed expectations when taught the content in school, according to numerous research studies.
In 1948, psychologist Robert K. Merton coined the term "self-fulfilling prophecy." As another researcher Herman H. Spitz wrote in 1999, "If we prophesy (expect) that something will happen, we behave (usually unconsciously) in a manner that will make it happen. We will, in other words, do what we can to realize our prophecy."
If we expect our students to get grittier and more successful, if they really display the passion and perseverance that lets their talents blossom, we need to get grittier as educators and parents. Do we have the long-term goals that drive our schools toward ever stronger academic programming? Do we exceed our own expectations by reaching for aspirational values, rather than minimum compliance with district, state or federal policy? Do we adults in the community have the grit to focus our time, talent and money on the things that count most for student success?
I think we can do all these things in South Lake. We need to push for strong curricular and instructional leadership within Lake Tahoe Unified School District if we really care about giving students compelling opportunities to show their stuff, to fall down and get back up, on the road to success.
We can expect student outcomes to reflect a coherent, articulated set of academic expectations only if we have a coordinated approach to academics with strong leadership at the helm.
Annie Davidson, Ed.D., is the parent of two young children in the Lake Tahoe Unified School District. Her work in education has spanned the elementary classroom, testing industry and higher education. She volunteers as much as she can. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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