Friday, July 10, 2009

What would a Talent Code school look like?

One of the best books you've never heard of is probably The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle.  He writes about how to "grow" talent and what conditions lead to the development of skill.  I think his book has some interesting implications for the way that we design and administer schools.  Here is what a school might look like if Coyle designed it.

1.  An emphasis on deep learning through authentic practice & feedback--The best kinds of learning and growth occur when learners are in the "sweet spot", that zone where the learning task is just beyond their current abilities.  In this place a learner can attend to mistakes (which Coyle identifies as critical to improvement) and become fully absorbed in learning.  It is learning through these mistakes that a student experiences the greatest amount of growth (think about the student who takes seriously her teachers red-inked comments on the first draft of her essay).  In a Talent Code school, we would find classrooms full of students working on a variety of learning tasks, each suited to the learners needs and abilities.  Gone would be the days of 30 students working on an identical set of worksheets or the same set of math problems.  This, of course, implies the need for smaller class sizes, increased adult guidance, and teachers trained to quickly identify learner needs and respond with appropriately designed learning activities.  

This also means a paradigm shift in the way teachers and students approach learning.  If mistakes make me better, I must embrace struggle.  Far too often teachers and those they teach see mistakes and slip-ups as a sign of stupidity or inability.  A Talent Code school will help students develop a growth mindset, wherein struggle, effort, and hard work are valued and seen as the path to eventual competence and excellence.  In this school, the "smart" kids are the ones who learn from their mistakes, not the ones who never make mistakes.

2.  A focus on "igniting" a passion for learning--As described above, a Talent Code school asks a lot of its students.  There is a great deal of hard work and high levels of commitment required in order to experience the kind of success expected of students.  If students are not passionate about what they are doing, they will never engage in the deep practice and hard work necessary to experience significant growth.  Thus, teachers and administrators at a Talent Code school will spend a great deal of time thinking about how to ignite this passion in learners.  This will probably look different at each school, but some general principles apply

a.  A desire to belong:  KIPP schools (see Chapter 7 of Talent Code) have a very

 concrete and explicit culture; they clearly communicate to students that being a "KIPPster" means doing certain things.  It becomes a learning club of sorts, a club that students long to feel a part of.  This desire for belonging can be tremendously motivating (I think we see this same principle at work in a destructive way among gangs and terrorist groups).

 b.  A vision of what one can become:  When a young student can see what they are working towards (for KIPP students this is enrollment in college) they also see how their efforts are connected to a future goal.  A Talent Code school will use images and language that help to create this picture for its learners.  Keeping alumni connected to the school and inviting them to return to interact with students seems critical here.  When a student sees someone that was once "like them" and became something great, they start to see and believe in what they can become (see Coyle's discussion of the Curacaoan little league teams for an example of this principle at work; Chapter 6). 

 c.  Connection to personal interests and goals:  A Talent Code school will provide students with choice in what and how they learn.  This will be messy, but it is allowed because it leads to better learning.

  

3.  Master Coaches & Teachers:  Talent Code schools will aggressively pursue the best teaching talent available and then continue to develop and evaluate it.  Teachers in Talent Code schools (Coyle might call them "Talent Whisperers"--Chapter 8) listen and watch far more than they talk or lecture (in fact, they might never lecture) and then offer small, targeted, highly specific adjustments and feedback to learners.  They deliver information precisely at the moment that learners need it most and they model effective learning, leaving an image in memory of what good learning or performance looks like.  More than anything, they see and help learners correct errors and they do it in a way that signals to the learner that they are cared for and valued.  Not only are they pedagogical masters, they also possess a deep matrix of understanding within their discipline which allows them to make quick and accurate judgments (similar to the ability described by Malcolm Gladwell in Blink) about students abilities and needs, and then respond in a customized way.  I think that Michelle Rhee, chancellor of Washington DC Public Schools is doing some interesting things along these lines. 


Why would anyone take the effort to create schools like this?  Because they would work.  Students would learn, parents would be engaged in the school community, teachers would value their work and persist at it, and communities would be transformed.  Granted, what I have described here is an ideal; however, working towards ideals is what leads to change.

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