While we know that we are responsible for the 3Rs and other curriculum stuff, we also know that teachers have a role to play in shaping students as they grow into healthy and competent adults. I met with a woman this week who is interested in developing a program for schools that teaches kids about skills such as growth mindset, autonomy, resiliency, autonomy, kindness, empathy, persistence, etc. I liked her ideas but it did make me think how do we actually go about doing those things in schools? After all, over the years there have been a number of “programs”. There have been posters and puppets and film clips and blackline masters.
It is important that teachers know the skills we want kids to develop, but I am not convinced that they learn them from a course or a binder of lesson plans. Sometimes when a school adopts a particular program it is useful to have a common language, but if that is all there is, it doesn’t change much. What does work? I suspect that when you are able to shape the teaching in the school to support the development of the skills is when you get the greatness traction. What types of things do we do and how might they help students to develop these important life skills?
When we have multiple opportunities for students to try things in our classrooms without being graded, without needing to get it “right” the first time, and with our trust that they will figure it out, I think that we help them to develop growth mindset, resiliency and persistence. For example, they know in Maker Space that it is not about getting the project to be done, or to be the best, that is important, but understanding the science behind the mistakes that is important. They know in problem solving in math that students will solve the problem in a variety of different ways. They know that they may be asked to share their answer that is incorrect, and that is ok. They know that we will give them immediate feedback on their writing so that they can improve it BEFORE it is graded. When we listen to student groups and do not take the lead, or participate as an equal, or make a small suggestion and walk away, we are saying “I trust you to figure this out”.
Empathy, kindness, and autonomy (being in charge of yourself) are also developed in our classrooms. When our students recognize that different kids get different supports it helps them to develop empathy. When we have them read novels with strong characters or complex issues, they develop kindness and empathy. When we allow them to make choices that are good for them in their work, they develop autonomy. When they have opportunities to redo and retry they develop grit and persistence; they get to know themselves as learners. When they see us treating students with kindness, respect and understanding, even when that student is struggling, they learn about kindness, respect and understanding.
I do not think that students develop all of these social and well-being skills through lessons alone. An anchor chart on growth mindset will not ensure growth mindset if the classroom environment doesn’t support it. A lesson on empathy won’t have any impact when students don’t see their teachers showing empathy and understanding. But when we purposefully shape our classroom instruction and environment so that students have many, many opportunities over the year to experience the effects of these skills, and we, at times, name them and celebrate them, then I do think that students learn them.
Programs may guide us and help us to know the skills but the program alone won’t make the difference we want it to. Students will always be learning social skills and personal skills in the context of the classroom. We can choose which ones we want to develop by how we shape the instruction in our classroom: a room that is about competition, compliance, completion and grades or a classroom that supports problem-solving, multiple attempts, and challenge. A school of rigid and unbending rules or a school where staff model inclusiveness, empathy, understanding and kindness. It may be worthwhile thinking about how we do this in a planned and purposeful way.