Getting to Equity Through the Unique Gifts of Learners
This post is by Sarah Luchs, who is Program Officer for Next Generation Learning Challenges and is a contributor to the Next Gen Learning in Action blog on EdWeek.org.
It's a great privilege to work with a national network of more than 100 next gen schools. This community of forward-leaning educators, thought leaders, edupreneurs, and change agents are pioneering a much needed shift to an immersive culture of learning. They're committed first and foremost to kids and to co-creating deep and meaningful learning conditions and experiences designed to advance student well being and the communities to which they are connected. Each school has a unique approach, but the schools share a set of next gen design principles. Next gen learning models honor personalization, social-emotional connections, self-directed learning, student agency, and holistic conditions via mind-body connections. And, they're intentionally iterative--these schools won't look the same next year.
Like salmon swimming upstream, however, next gen schools are struggling against a still strong current of compliance-based policy and traditional performance and achievement mindsets. Standards still shape learning time--the breadth of what must be learned--and the assertion that everything is equally important; so to be equitable, everything should be mastered by everyone. That's one way toward equity, but it ignores the gifts, talents, and challenges that students, as individuals, bring to their learning. In this uncomfortable tension, I reflect on some lessons learned in our network over the past three years, and ask: How might we operationalize equitable learning in ways that honor learners and their inherent strengths?
Resonance not rules. Learners today are wired--mind, body, and spirit--for resonance. What resonates for each of us is as unique and individual as we are, and equally as fluid over time. Resonance is the gateway to developing our personal strengths, and the assets that define and shape our unique contributions. Assets set us apart. But using our assets can also bring us together--to collaborate and create around a collective vision. e3 Civic High in San Diego uses Gallup's StrengthsFinder Assessment and personal profiles to seed students' awareness about their unique abilities and to identify with whom and how they might effectively partner.
Resonance is a feeling as much as it is a knowing. When something resonates with us, our energy increases. We feel excited. Our senses heighten. Our bodies relax, yet remain alert. A relaxed mind-body is receptive, easily makes connections, and thus learns and retains best. In this state of being, resonance works its magnetic magic, pulling us in the direction of our curiosities. To make new discoveries, we follow the breadcrumb trail of interest and wonder. Instructional practices such as purposeful reflection, inquiry, appreciation, and play can assist learners in tapping into their feelings and identifying sources of resonance. Schools like Valor Collegiate Academy embrace social-emotional aspects of relationship and community building as essential to a holistic learning compass. Next gen schools are increasingly enabling greater degrees of autonomy to leverage the research on intrinsic motivation and foster Google-inspired learning cultures, like Genius Hour at Cleveland Elementary School in Washington, D.C.
Next gen schools cultivate an intentional mind-body connection. Counter to prevailing cultural notions about working harder or even working smarter, a first step to cultivating resonance might be to encourage learners to breathe deeply, relax, and employ mindful-based skills such as observation. When learners notice sensations, feelings, and thoughts, they can tune into an expanded awareness, new perceptions, and a variety of sensory data. Spending time outdoors in nature is another increasingly effective avenue to nurturing conditions needed for clarity, balance, and creativity. This kind of intentional slowing down in the classroom runs counter to the time pressures and sense of needing to rush to cover the breadth of standards. Instead, it creates space and a sense of calm to reflect and listen which improves relationships, and learner self-confidence.
Sensory learning and personalization. Learning is intertwined with, if not dependent upon, sensory experience. We all learn through our senses, and yet our sensory experience may be anything but common and uniform. If you've known students who are extra sensitive to sound, taste, or smell, for example, you know their experience is not ordinary. It's easy to discount extreme examples, but the point is the spectrum of sensory experience has a much longer tail than we've been led to believe, recognize or cultivate. Just as Chris Anderson explains in the book, The Long Tail, herein lies an inherent niche to be leveraged. Sensitivities in this context are a gift enabling personalization. Arguably, the richer the sensory experience, the more powerful the learning experience. Inviting students to change their environment, or make place-based learning choices adds to the conditions that support personalization and the development of our unique strengths.
Unity in diversity. While teachers may celebrate the individual gifts of their students, the prevailing school design involves curriculum and instruction tied more to broad-based standards (externally defined learning) than to the gifts of individual learners (internally defined). This notion of providing the same thing to everyone at the same time and in the same way is not actually fair and equitable. In his book The Big Leap, Gay Hendricks asserts that, the key to our success is to work from our personal "zone of genius" and not just our "zone of excellence" (those things we're good at but may not really enjoy). It's our genius that delivers exceptional experience, joy and value whether defined by states of flow or the contributions generated. So, how might our kids recognize, understand and nurture their genius? In what ways are they encouraged to use and develop their unique superpowers or lend them in service to others for collective benefit?
When individual strengths play a central role in collaborative learning, the diversity created strengthens the fabric of the learning community. This can be understood in the same way that monocropping may at first be efficient but inadvertently creates ecological vulnerability with long-term consequences. In contrast, companion planting and native species bolster natural health within an ecosystem. Diversity is a product of diverse experiences, and individual strengths, and the interdependence contributes to a much needed sense of belonging that supports equity. What if our education system nurtured individual differences as a way to contribute to our collective strengths?
Follow your bliss. Joseph Campbell advises us to "follow our bliss," to find what resonates--explore it, trust it and live it. Bliss is an on-ramp to "all in" levels of learner engagement and growth. If resonance helps us learn more deeply, develops our strengths, and builds confidence and community, how might we engage young people to recognize and trust their own experience of resonance? What if our notion of equity provided opportunity for all students to follow their bliss?