Tuesday, July 28, 2009

"Rules of Thumb" for Student Success

This is the last installment of my interpretation of Alan Webber's "Rules of Thumb" from his excellent book Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Your self. As I read this business book I quickly realized that it was much more than a business book. The "Rules" are a collection of common sense blueprints for success in almost any field, but strikingly relevant to the field of education. I connected how the rules relate to educational innovation and civic education in my last two blog posts showing how rules for business success can be applied to educational success. My last "Rules" post shows how five of the Rules of Thumb are timeless pieces of advice for students interested in real learning and success.
  • A good question beats a good answer.
  • Words matter.
  • Everything communicates.
  • Failure isn't failing. Failure is failing to try.
  • Stay Alert! There are teachers everywhere.
If we want students to become citizens who understand their role as a citizen then we need to teach them to understand and respect the power of questions. Correct answers may be great at temporarily solving many difficult problems or issues, but circumstances often require new answers to the same old problems. Without the freedom and courage to ask that paradigm shifting question then progress and innovation would cease to exist and we would become slaves to our past and out-dated solutions.

A thought-provoking resource for generating questions is the World Question Center at edge.com. Most of these questions can be used with students as a way to start the thinking process and to demonstrate to students that teachers value the questions as much as the answers. I have found that students love answering these questions and become more reflective and inquisitive as a result.

The power of just one word can totally change the meaning of something as intrinsic as national identity. Prior to the Civil War people referred to the United States as these United States, reflecting the powerful idea of states rights and local identity among the people. It was only after the Civil War that a national identity took hold and people began to refer to the United States as a nation. "The" may be one of the most common words of the english language, but its use is as important in conveying information as any other word.

The more students have an opportunity to read, speak and write the more they are going to understand the power of words. As Webber states in Rules of Thumb, "You don't know what you think until you write it down." That is the power behind blogging. When students blog they refine their ideas by simply writing them down. But blogging takes the written words of the blogger and publishes it to the world for others to comment. The fact that blogs are public is the refiners fire that forces the blogger to reconsider every word prior to hitting the "publish post" button. The moment students craft words meant not just for the teacher and a few other peers, but for the wider world, is the moment students learn that a misplaced, mispronounced, or misspelled word has consequences far beyond a grade. These authentic learning opportunities are crucial to prepare students for the new realities of a more global and transparent world.

In my first year of teaching I attended a parent meeting for a student who often came to school with a faint smell of marijuana. The meeting was called because there was obvious concern the student was using drugs, even though the only evidence we had was the smell. The moment the parent walked in the room and the smell of marijuana reached my nostrils I realized the source of the difficulties. Everything communicates, especially the smell of marijuana from a parent at a parent-teacher conference about their child being on drugs. As it turns out the student wasn't doing the drugs. It's amazing how all of the teachers' impression of the student changed after that meeting.

Students (and teachers) need to understand that everything they do communicates, whether they know what they are communicating or not. Of course, peer pressure exhibits a lot of influence on how students communicate who they are by the choice of clothing they wear to the slang they use to the friends they keep. Once students really figure out who they are and what they stand for then they can more comfortably be themselves. However, an important social skill that many students have difficulty grasping is knowing appropriate social norms in various settings. For example, the clothing some students wear to school may be appropriate when they are at a pool party in the summer, but is not acceptable in a formal learning institution in the middle of winter (or any season for that matter). I seem to have this talk with students every year. Since everything communicates we need to teach students that in face to face interactions their words are just a small part of what they communicate to others. If a student goes to a job interview to impress their prospective employer with their experience, knowledge and skills, but failed to take a bath, or clean their glasses, or pull up their zipper...well, you get the point.

In the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, author and social psychologist Carol Dweck proposes there are two types of mindsets that people use: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. People who exhibit a fixed mindset are afraid of failure, and consequently, fail to try new things. However, people who exhibit the growth mindset see failure as a learning opportunity and are not as afraid to fail. Of course, people with a growth mindset are our great inventors and entrepreneurs; and even our great athletes, novelists and musicians.

How can we create schools in which a growth mindset is cultivated? Or, how do we organize a school where young Lincoln's, Einstein's, and Edison's feel valued and encouraged?

Anyone can be a teacher. Actually, that's not entirely true. Anyone can be a teacher... if you are alert and willing to learn from others. We need to teach students to be alert and willing to learn from sources other than textbooks. We need to teach students how to create and cultivate learning from a personal learning network, in order to extend the traditional capabilities of school from the limited hours of the school day to the unlimited hours beyond the school day. The informal classroom of life offers lessons far more valuable than the classroom if only we are open to learning from each other each and every day.

How do we teach students these important and timeless rules of thumb for success?

It could be that the answer is to have teachers who exhibit a growth mindset. Maybe the best way to teach these rules is through the day to day example of teachers interacting with students who ask more questions then they answer; love to read, write, and discuss; understand that students notice everthing they do; are not afraid to try new technologies or teaching techniques; and understand that learning does not stop outside the school walls.

So what do you think? What other rules of thumb should we teach students?

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