If you were educated in the 90's or earlier, think back for a minute to the education you received. If your education was like mine, you were probably always focused on getting things right. I recall memorizing my multiplication tables, the order of major battles in the American Civil War, and the steps in the process of cellular respiration. I remember hoping that on every test I took, I was able to regurgitate enough memorized info to get the prized "A." What I now realize, years later, is that while my education certainly did not put me at any disadvantage when it came to college admissions, getting a job, living a happy life, or whatnot, my educational experience could have been a whole lot more enriching than it was.
What I learned as a student was that there was always a right answer, and that it was important that I learn what that answer was or how to get there as quickly as possible. What I did not learn, really, was how to struggle through something. I have found as a professional that information I have memorized has rarely been especially useful; after all, with access to notes, my computer, and colleagues, I can come up with that information in a couple of minutes, or even in a couple of clicks. Information is easy to come by. What is harder to come by is a plan of attack for solving problems.
This is the challenge of education in the twenty-first century. Too often, schools and their employees see themselves as dispensers of information, giving students things to memorize and spit back out. A “do as I say” tone is set, and competence or mastery of content is judged by a student’s ability to “fill in the blanks” or “repeat after me.” Knowledge becomes a finite entity that fails to see practical application, existing in the vacuum of a Scantron answer sheet. In such scenarios, education becomes strictly a means to an end—a destination rather than a journey.
Looking at the destination for just a minute, it seems a worthy endeavor to consider what employers might ultimately be looking for. After all, part of the goal of education is preparation for "the real world," which is code for "getting a job." In a 2013 article in the New York Times, the author suggests the existence of a veritable gulf between what workplaces need and what the educational system produces. Various national polls conducted beginning at the outset of the twenty-first century list the top ten competencies workplaces are looking for in applicants. Though these lists may vary slightly from one another, they can all be condensed to include the ability to work in teams or groups, an understanding of how academic or theoretical concepts and principles can be applied to real-life scenarios, and creativity and pragmatism in the development of solutions to problems. I can safely assert that much of my own education taught me very little in any of these areas. In the twentieth century, we largely had an education in content. What the twenty-first century requires is an education in skill and experience. To use an analogy, in the twenty-first century, content is a currency, not the item purchased; content is what we use to develop skill.
Therein lies the challenge for schools and teachers. Skill and experience cannot be put on a whiteboard and ingested with the eyes. Skill and experience are never “answer choice C.” Skill and experience have to be acquired by doing, which I will suggest below actually plays to a learning strength that is specific to boys. All of this being said, students do not just “receive” skill and experience. Skill and experience are earned, and skills are not mastered on the first try.
So how do we teach this? What do we have to do to enable boys at Regis to earn the skills and experiences they will need to be successful? The answer is as simple as it may be unpalatable: we need to let students struggle. I know. Struggle sounds like a naughty word. As parents, we try so hard to ensure that our children do not experience difficulty. We try to make things as smooth as possible. And by doing so, we are depriving our children of an important educational opportunity. Parents and skilled educators must partner to provide encouragement to students through times of struggle, all the while stressing the great rewards that come from persistence through difficulty. In order to prepare Regis scholars and gentlemen for the “real world,” teachers and parents should encourage students to recognize struggles for the surmountable obstacles they are.
While I think the benefits of struggle are “equal opportunity,” in my mind struggle and challenge are especially beneficial in the learning process for boys. Author and counselor Michael Gurian and psychologist Leonard Sax suggest that boys are naturally kinesthetic and tactile learners who learn by doing, whereas girls tend to be more auditory and visual learners. What this suggests is that while girls may process knowledge simply by hearing it from a teacher or seeing it on a whiteboard, boys have to experience their learning. I submit myself as an example. When I was a first-year teacher, I will readily admit I knew virtually nothing about how to manage a classroom—but I thought I did. The Principal I worked for at the time (who also happened to train with Gurian and was a proponent of single-gender learning) knew that I had to experience it for myself, and he left me alone for the first semester to struggle. He told me as much just before Christmas that year when he pulled me into his office and said, “Steven, I knew that you needed to figure it out for yourself and do it your way for the first half of the year, and I think we can agree that now it’s time to do it my way.” He was right. Had I not experienced that struggle, I do not know that I would have “learned the hard way” that I needed to adjust my craft, and I certainly would not have known how to adjust it. “Having to do it my way” and struggling through difficulty was something I had to experience as a learner at the age of 22; imagine how important it is for younger learners.
In 2006, Carol Dweck wrote much on the difference between a “fixed mindset” and a “growth mindset.” Though 2006 sounds like a long time ago, Dweck's premise holds true. Encouragement of a fixed mindset suggests to each student that they have a set amount of potential that can be measured, while encouragement of a growth mindset suggests that potential is something that can be grown or expanded. In most schools, students are evaluated based on tests, quizzes, and the like, and the goal is to get as much correct as possible. Working backwards, the focus of instruction is on getting things right. However, brain science suggests that the brain actually grows every time one gets things wrong, while getting things right has no impact on the brain. By encouraging a fixed mindset, placing an emphasis on our students repeating what we have demonstrated and getting things right, we are not putting our best foot forward in developing the true potential of our students.
We have heard this before. There are variants of a quote from Thomas Edison that adorn pretty posters of lightbulbs that go something like this: "I have not failed 1,000 times; I never failed once. I simply found 1,000 ways that do not work." What Edison was saying is that if he had not experienced setbacks, he never would have met with success. He could not memorize a way to create something that had never been created. There was no procedure a teacher could demonstrate for him with the expectation of masterful repetition. This is how problem solving and innovation work: one must fail in order to succeed.
I am sure you might be thinking: "This guy is crazy! How can my kid get ahead, get into high school or college, or get a job if he constantly earns failing grades?" In my view, the grading is a separate issue. I do not think it is important that every bit of work a student does earns a grade. Further, it is certainly possible to grade with an eye towards elements other than simple "correctness." The relatively progressive view of education I espouse above can and should be tempered with a more traditional approach.
Aristotle stresses the importance of seeking the “mean” or the “intermediate,” suggesting that this is where one finds virtue. I believe that for as much as we need to encourage an environment in which it is safe for students to fail, we must provide opportunities for them to meet with success as well. Constant failure does not build confidence in the same way that constant success builds overconfidence. Most independent schools have a mission statement that includes reference to creating competent and empowered students, and it is critical that we as educators work on both true competence and empowerment in equal measure. Why, then, have I focused so much on challenge, struggle, failure, and the like? The answer is simple: this is the harder thing for educators (and parents) to reckon with and accomplish. As noted above, we have been given plenty of examples of fixed-mindset instruction that fails to maximize the full potential of our students. The mean is not always just about seeking a true midpoint; rather, it is about creating equilibrium—an equilibrium I think in this case is only created with considerable emphasis on developing a growth mindset in our students.
As we begin a new school year, it is my hope to see some productive struggle in our students. Tantamount to that hope is my hope that educators and parents alike can let that struggle happen and provide the encouragement necessary to transform toil to triumph.