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‘To Triumph in This Country’

By Justin Minkel — September 17, 2013 4 min read
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Marco moved from Cuba to Houston two days before summer school started. I asked the 7th graders to write about their goals for the summer program, expecting general statements about getting better at math or reading. Instead Marco wrote one line: “Yo quiero triunfar en este país.” (“I want to triumph in this country.”)

Twelve years later, Marco’s line continues to remind me how often we underestimate our students’ vision for their future. His phrase “to triumph in this country” departs dramatically from the NCLB-era focus on “pick the right bubble” basic skills that a reasonably well-trained monkey could do.

What will it take to shift the focus in every classroom in America to ingenuity, higher-order thinking, and applied problem solving? How do we make sure our students truly triumph—not just subsist—in this country?

The answer to that question is massive and complex, and the purpose of this blog is not just to write my own thoughts, but to hear yours. How do you teach your students and your own children the abilities that matter most? How do you help teachers learn to impart those “21st-century skills?” How have you developed those skills yourself?

First Steps

Here are three ways we might begin to make the shift:

1. Pose problems with millions of “right answers” instead of just one.

Think about a recent real-life problem you had to solve—a complicated project at work, a complex decision you had to make. There were probably myriad possible courses of action, not four options neatly labeled A, B, C, and D. There wasn’t a single “right answer,” either—each possible choice had an intricate tangle of possible benefits and potential pitfalls.

My daughter’s school has a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) focus, and right now she’s working with the other five-year olds in her table group to draw a design for the “Humpty Dumpty Egg Drop.” The kindergartners will build a cradle for a raw egg dropped from an increasing height. There are millions of possible designs, and thousands of them could succeed.

Think about what’s going on in her brain as she approaches this challenge—analyzing the materials the group has at their disposal, visualizing a design comprised of many working parts, building a model from the blueprint the group develops, then testing and modifying the model. Add to that mental work all the complexities of collaboration—explaining your own ideas, listening to the ideas of others, handling compromise and conflict.

This kind of project does a lot more to prepare kids for college, careers, and the general messiness of life than a worksheet or a multiple choice quiz. It’s a lot more fun, too.

2. Teach non-cognitive skills like perseverance, goal-setting, and collaboration.

A story on NPR last November compared the focus on innate ability in the U.S. to the focus on persistence in many Asian countries including Japan. Researchers gave a complicated math problem, which was actually impossible to solve, to kindergartners in both countries. The American kids worked on the problem for an average of 30 seconds before giving up. The Japanese kids? Researchers had to call the experiment after an hour because the students were still working.

Habits of mind like perseverance can be taught, developed, and nurtured. Our job as teachers is not just to teach a year’s worth of facts. It’s to help students become inquisitive thinkers who will continue to seek out knowledge long after they have left our classrooms.

3. Create assessments that measure what matters.

As a teacher and parent, I’d rather have an approximate measure of a really important skill, like ingenuity or collaboration, than a precise measure of a skill that doesn’t matter much anymore, like how many addition problems my daughter can do in one minute.

Rubrics are a practical way to get at complex skills that can’t be measured to a decimal point by a Scantron machine. Rubrics are already used in everything from scoring student essays to National Board certification for teachers---the most highly respected credential that exists in the teaching profession.

Maybe two teachers will disagree on whether a child scored a 3.5 or a 3.75 for ‘ingenuity’ on a particular engineering challenge, but I’ll take the average of those two scores over a more precise score on a multiple choice quiz any day.

True, it’s harder to develop assessments that measure complex skills. It’s hard to send astronauts to the moon, too, or land a rover on Mars. Hard, not impossible. We have the brainpower and technology to do it.

Not a Cup to be Filled, but a Flame to be Lit

My $30 iPod Shuffle is better at storing and retrieving information than any 2nd grader I will ever teach. We don’t need to turn brilliant, curious, innovative students into third-rate computers. We need to teach them to do all those things my $30 iPod Shuffle can’t do—ask insightful questions, make unexpected connections, wrestle with complexity, test out a design or hypothesis and then reflect on the results.

Carl Sagan said, “Second graders make the best scientists.” Let’s build on students’ curiosity, creativity, and ingenuity, instead of relegating it to backyard bug hunts, after-school clubs, or G.T. programs.

Let’s give our kids plenty of chances to brainstorm together, to build things, to apply what they know to projects where success and failure are a lot more tangible than a B+ or a D-. Let’s stop telling them all the things we know. Instead, let’s ask them to solve the problems we haven’t figured out yet.

Let’s teach our students to triumph in this country. They’re ready. Are we?

The opinions expressed in Teaching for Triumph: Reflections of a 21st-Century ELL Teacher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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