I’m reminded over and over again these days of just how amazing each of us is. I like to talk about my belief that we are each capable of much more than we think we can do, so some of you have heard this from me before. Every once in awhile, the circumstances allow us to be surprised by our own capacity—we run farther and faster than we have, we find the right words to reach a given audience, something we do has a bigger impact than we ever envisioned. But all too often, we miss out on reaching our full potential, and instead of creating in new and awesome ways, we settle for less.
In my own reading and social media perusal of late, I’ve seen countless references to what it is that makes us tick and leads to high levels of success and satisfaction. We are looking for ways to get out of the predictable patterns that we often fall into without even noticing. The book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg focuses on keystone habits—the things we can change that cause ripple effects in our other actions, producing desirable results. When we’re looking to make changes in our lives and work toward a goal, it’s a keystone habit that will set the course for success. Many are talking about the work of Carol Dweck in Mindset regarding the difference between the growth and the fixed mindset. Those who are able to persevere when tasks are difficult and avoid frustration while solving complex problems have the growth mindset—a core belief that they have power and can learn and grow through failure and adversity. They have grit. And speaking of grit, have you seen all the talk about grit and resilience lately? Here’s a list from Edutopia that will give you a few things to read.
The best news from Dweck’s work is that the growth mindset is something that can be learned and cultivated. People don’t need to be stuck with a fixed mindset, but can develop a growth mindset. But what is it that makes us get out there, step outside of ourselves, and as Kid President says, “Be More Awesome”? All of us in the education field grapple with intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. I’m an Alfie Kohn fan, and as a teacher, I tried for the ideal of kids going above and beyond in the classroom based on their own interest and drive. However, I can still relate to getting goose bumps about how amazing my content is and the engaging lesson I have planned, while still wondering if a game and some candy bars would get my students to buy in more. Just as Alfie Kohn (Punished by Rewards) maintains that carrots and sticks do not cause us to perform better, Daniel Pink reiterates this concept in his book, Drive, and in this cool little video that sums it up. Unless we’re talking about rudimentary tasks that require little to no cognitive engagement, we don’t perform at higher levels based on receiving more reward. Even more startling is that we actually perform worse on tasks when they have even the slightest bit of complexity and a higher reward is promised for stronger performance. Pink maintains that the three things that motivate us to work hard and actually perform at higher levels are autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
This makes sense. People want a say in what they do and how they do it, they want to attain high levels of expertise in areas of interest, and they want their work to contribute to something greater. We, the teachers and leaders in our schools, know this. We know that kids are all capable of learning at high levels and doing great things. We look for opportunities to push our students, recognize and take pride in their successes, and incorporate their interests in their learning. What if students take the helm? Teachers have great ability to guide students in designing how they learn and demonstrate their learning. What would students create, what connections would they make, and how would they change their community (close by and afar) if they were empowered and encouraged to realize their potential, particularly in ways that interest them? In our schools, one of our goals through our strategic plan is to nurture students’ spark. When we find the intersection of their interests, learning, and meaningful application, they will do great things. This is the basis for the new student group I’m starting called Spark!, where students will have a place to come together solely to work on projects that interest them and see what they can accomplish when they learn by pursuing their interests in a purposeful context of their choosing. If I can help our students to recognize how unique, amazing, and powerful they are, my efforts are more than worthwhile. It’s time to get out there, embrace opportunity and excellence, and Be More Dog!