Let me start with a confession. I am a terrible “solutionist.” If you have read this blog before, I think you already know this. I obsess about problem-solving for myself and others. I spend sleepless nights dreaming up the ultimate package of solutions I might hand to a school with a fancy bow on top, at which point their classrooms turn into a dream-like places of loveliness. Like a butterfly, I flutter from “this will solve all your problems” to “that will solve all your problems.” In true hypocritical fashion, I proclaim my dislike for one-size-fits-all education as I announce my next single solution to “cure” all schools.
An alternative solution
Being a solutionist might be my biggest weakness overall, and I’m aware I’m unlikely to find my ‘golden educational egg’, but it has kept me moving forward. For at least 3 years, I have learned to calm my excitement down and acknowledge that any current obsession I might have, like all the others, will not be a complete solution for education. My challenge is to find where the idea sits in the bigger picture. This made me think about recent conversations I’ve had about how cultural, environmental, and particularly technological changes are challenging what schools have always understood to be important skills. So I decided to have fun questioning if conventional reading, writing, and arithmetic were still key components to success or even the primary building blocks to learning.
A 4th grader as Deputy Principal?
Like most 40-year-olds, I only possess elementary level math skills. I failed high school English and have never had any interest in being able to manually spell any word longer and six letters. People are often shocked that after four decades I have only read six complete books. In fact, I got through all 13 years of schooling without reading a book longer than 20 pages (I did read a small number of scenes from Macbeth). So, as a conventional failure but the only published author in my school and after attaining a position of deputy principal, I enjoy questioning what makes success and how much is it linked to these conventional core skills? I look at how I have turned severe weaknesses in these apparently important core skills into confidence-boosting workarounds. My personally-developed alternatives empower and encourage me to take on new challenges more than many teachers I have worked with who were and are considerably more equipped in the skills that schools value as the most important.
“17 times tables … why?” – Dr. Sugata Mitra
Adaptation makes you stronger
Not being strong in the conventional basics has lead me to my heightened power-user status in technology as a way to fill the void. Has this made me less successful? I read more than many people do because it’s more relaxing to have a device read the website/news to me. I write more the most people, because I find it relaxing to dictate to my devices. I don’t have to think about spelling much at all, as the 1000s of words I fail to spell first time when typing, appear correctly on the screen … as long as I speak clearly. Here’s a strange thought: it is fully acceptable for a visually-impaired professional to use these accessibility options but teachers flinch if a student with normal vision suggests using them. My writing approach is more successful than conventional typing or handwriting because of the speed I can iterate from dictating the text and having the device read it back for review and editing. This more rapid iteration is recommended by multiple industries as a far more successful approach to creative and problem-solving scenarios.
What’s important in a curriculum? Video (8 mins)
Accepting new norms
My point here is to explain that by proudly displaying my weaknesses in conventional skills and showcasing my workarounds, I make it clear to all students that there’s always a way. If teachers and students can get over the stigma of academia’s historic ideas about what ‘normal’ people should be able to do manually, far more young people will build confidence that they can achieve success in any venture, regardless of how they get there. One student asked me “If my Math teacher hands me a calculator, why do I have to manually spell?”
So in true hypocritical fashion, here is my “one-size-fits-all, this-will-solve-all-your-problems, top-of-the-list, number one focus for all teachers:
“To build a successful learning environment, showcase all your weaknesses.”
With a big smile on your face, try every day to ask your entire class how to do something, how to spell something, for a faster solution, for a better way. Demonstrate the act of learning, coping and finding strategies. Ask genuinely of your class “how can we do this?” Indicate that this openness to finding any solution is what makes you successful. Boost the confidence of all your students as they see you trying, failing, and asking for assistance from anyone and anything to get through your day.
It is knowing I have an audience that makes me want to write, not spelling, grammar, or books I’ve read.
Note: I “wrote” this post in a noisy cafe playing music, quietly dictating into the mic on my iPhone’s headphones. I checked and the lady next to me assumed I was Face-Timing. 🙂