Student Well-Being Opinion

‘Who’ and ‘What’ Play Ball for a Winning Combination for Youth Development

By Contributing Blogger — October 31, 2018 4 min read
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This post is by Elliot Washor, co-founder of Big Picture Learning.

In 1936 Bud Abbott and Lou Costello introduced to a national audience one of the greatest comedy routines in vaudeville history, “Who’s on first?” The routine is beloved by many for its well-orchestrated series of hilarious misunderstandings resulting from both men talking right by one another.

Applying this bewildering skit from the world of entertainment to the realities of education, I am reminded that schools and the workplace are also talking by one another, failing to exploit the power of who you know in concert with what you know to achieve success.

What can be gleaned from the message that Bud and Lou were sending out? In Julia Freeland Fisher’s new book, Who You Know, she points out how much who you know matters in the world. Taking things a step further, could it be that What and Who are the dynamic player combo that is presently missing in education?

In the world of education, “What” has been on first for a very long time. Isn’t it time we come to some reconciliation around connecting who and what and measure them together as part of school and how we learn? We need to stop pretending that who you know doesn’t count. Certainly, everyone in the world of at-large thinks who you know or, more importantly, who knows you know what you know is important. Examples abound.

  • The business literature is replete with articles on the power of deep and broad connections and relationships. Organizations invest millions in building learning networks.
  • In academia who you know and who knows you know often lead to pathways to publishing and admissions to graduate schools.
  • In neuroscience, dopamine and oxytocin, those neurotransmitters released by neurons, make quite a potent stew for learning through what you want to get better at and who you want to learn from. As the neurologist and author Frank Wilson points out in a personal communication, “oxytocin and dopamine are now known to partner (to work together chemically), and this partnership is seen by some as the key to understanding why the experience of working together - developing an athletic or musical skill, for example - can be so powerfully motivating for learning and so far-reaching and enduring in its effects.”
  • The anthropologist Étienne Wenger, in his classic, Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, designated social behavior in networks and communities as a major source of learning not just knowing what but also knowing how..
  • Parents play key roles in supporting their children’s interests by getting them coaching, internships, and work. Parents connect their children through their interests to people who can help them get better and whom they want to be around. Just take a look at the legacies in sports, medicine, business, the arts, the trades, and sciences that was highlighted in the research of Benjamin Bloom and Lauren Sosniak in Developing Talent in Young People.

In a world where we are educating all children across race, class, gender, and disability status, isn’t access to who knows you know what you know an equity issue? We can easily see gaining access to who combined around what you are interested in should not be left only to certain families, groups, schools and colleges with powerful access to alums and the job market.

What can be done? Educators continue to focus exclusively on all manner of what--grades, standardized test scores, diplomas, and certifications--as determining access to learning and work opportunities with little attention to the potential combo of what and who.

The data on creating more equitable schools have plateaued. A US News report showed that, “using current data it is estimated that if the achievement gaps continue to close at its current incremental rate, it will take about two and a half centuries before the black-white math gap closes and over one and a half centuries until the reading gap closes.”

Sadly, Julia Freeland Fisher writes:

Traditional schools’ VAP batch-processing models of instruction, by their very design, tend to reward centralized, standardized approaches to the detriment of student-centered and community-based approaches.

Through the practice and research of over two decades of work in many schools, we have found evidence of the what-who connections that reach beyond schools and into the workplace.

Bud and Lou’s skit continues to resonate with me, reminding me how important it is for educators, in their teaching and assessments, to employ the dynamic combination of what and who to provide for all our students the opportunities they need to thrive in their lifelong learning and careers. Who with what provides the currency to get to where they want to go.

Without this reckoning, only the few will continue to benefit from either what or who.

Illustration by Rachel Brian. Used with permission.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply 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.