What Educational Innovations Will Help us Develop the Potential of Each Learner?

In a recent question from Hanoi, Vietnam, David E. tweeted:

David started his Tweet with recognition of an important value that many of us hold in education toady. We are not just teaching groups of students. We are teaching classes of individuals. We are not just trying to throw some content out to a group with the hope that sume will sink and others will swim. School is not like fishing for the best and brightest minds and throwing the others back. From the earliest days, we’ve used metaphors for education that are associated with growth and nurture, and many of us today believe that the dignity and worth of the individual calls for us to invest in an education system, an education ecosystem that truly celebrates and nurtures each individual. Our celebration of statistics about an 80% pass rate, a 75% retention rate, or some other statistics descriptive of a group can be useful; but we don’t wan to forget the individual. How do we nurture and encourage the individuals in that 20% who did not pass and that 25% that did not retain?

This value for the potential of each individual is approached differently by people, but at the core, most of us believe that individual lives matter, not just lives packaged up in some sort of group or cohort. Guy Dowd, the 1986 National Teacher of the Year once told the story of how he started each day as a public elementary school teacher. Guy is a person of faith and this informed his beliefs about the inherent value of each student, and this moved him to establish a daily habit. Early morning, before the school day would start, before his official workday began, and before and anyone was around, Guy would go through his entire classroom, sitting in the desk of each student. As he sat in each desk, he thought specifically and only about that student, and he said a special prayer for that student. He thought about each student’s strengths, challenges, distinct gifts and abilities. I have no doubt that this ritual put a heightened value for the uniqueness of each student in his room. Whether this notion of faith and prayer resonates with you, one thing that I appreciate about this story is the tender care and attention that he gave to each person in the room.

For Guy, teaching constituted more than covering the curriculum, helping a few students, teaching to the middle, or other things of the sort. Guy wanted to help every student recognize and develop a distinct or unique set of gifts and abilities. He wanted to prepare each student for a myriad of future callings, challenges, and opportunities.

Thinking about developing the unique potential of each individual, we turn to the second part of Dave’s Tweet. “What are the commonalities of educational innovation to achieve that goal?

I thought about this question for quite a bit before writing this. As with many questions, we can read it in a few ways. It depends upon how we define educational innovation. Nonetheless, I’m going to give it a try and perhaps David will let me know if I was on the right track. If we are seeking educational innovations that help us achieve the goal of developing the potential of each learner, is there some core set of educational innovations that will help us do that?

It is a great question, one that is not without its challenges, however. I state this because I see educational innovations as fluid and contextual. What works today may not work tomorrow. What fits the philosophy and context of one school might not resonate in another. Nonetheless, I do think that we can talk about commonalities, and I’ll offer five in this article, each represented as a separate question.

What will help learners focus upon personal growth and development?

Some innovations of the past put the attention upon ranking and rating, and these innovations quickly distract learners (not to mention parents, teachers, administrators, and policymakers) from the actual learning and personal development. Yet, among those of us who belief it is important to emphasize nurturing the potential of each learner, that calls for investing in assessment and feedback innovations that align with this goal. If we hold firm to past feedback and assessment innovations that place the emphasis upon rating and ranking, then we will find ourselves engaging in a battle against ourselves, holding two competing values that cancel each other out, or where the traditional value eats the other one for breakfast. I suspect that this is why many individualized learning efforts fail.

What will emphasize personal formation over coverage?

This is still a challenge in many learning organizations. Plenty of teachers still find themselves driven to cover the material, reach the end of the book or curriculum, or something that parallels this. I don’t want to dismiss the real and valid reasons that inform such approaches, but if we are going to use educational innovation to develop the potential of each learner, then we must invest in those technologies, methods, and models that focus upon personal formation of the learner; not covering the content.

Covering the content is nothing. In itself, it achieves nothing, not unless that content is forming and transforming someone. Imagine trying to keep a plant alive with the content coverage mindset. You have a set amount of water that you have to pour and you just do it every day on your pre-established schedule. You don’t check the soil of each plant first. You don’t consider which plants need more or less water. You don’t take into account other factors that influence what is needed. Your job is just to do the watering. It is up to the plans to grow. Some die. Some live. That is beyond your responsibility. If we want to celebrate and develop the unique potential of individuals, then we must invest in technologies, methods, models, contexts, and mindsets that emphasize growth and development of learners, not just coverage of content.

What nurtures reflection?

We are not just producing certain kinds of students as if school were some sort of factory. You can have a group of wonderfully high-performing students (on standardized tests) who still lack the ability to think for themselves, to reflect on their goals, strengths, challenges, and possible ways to overcome them. Achieving one’s potential depends upon learning to reflect and own one’s goals and aspirations. This doesn’t mean that a 9-year-old needs to know what she wants to be when she grows up. It does mean, however, that she learns how to set goals and achieve them, how to reflect on her successes and failures in positive ways, and that she learns how to reflect on her life, learning, and experiences in ways that benefit her and others. That is a core skill for personal growth and development, and any innovation that nurtures this is going to push us in the right direction.

What nurtures purpose?

Without a sense of purpose, we either do nothing or just do it out of compulsion. That isn’t enough to help people truly achieve their potential. They might survive, but they don’t thrive. People set out on the path of thriving when they see and value a purpose and they have the confidence to go for it. Any innovation that helps students discover purpose in what they are doing and why they are doing (along with the confidence to live it out) is going to be our friend in the effort to people achieve their potential.

What nurtures both curiosity and personal mastery?

Finding ways to tap into the curiosity of each student is essential for great learning environments. In the ideal, the learner discovers how to do this for himself or herself. A culture of curiosity can cover over a multitude of other educational flaws in a school. We can’t dismiss student comments about boredom. We also don’t just try to entertain them out of it. We want to embrace innovations, methods, models, and mindsets that help students learn and want to be deeply curious, and I contend that this aim is more important than many of our traditional priorities as educators.

At the same time, a deeply curious person who fails to discover the art and science of personal mastery will often find himself or herself falling short of true personal development and transformation. Some practice is better than other practice. Certain character traits and virtues help people thrive and learn. There are methods and there is research that can help us learn how to learn, learn how to progress toward mastery and excellence in anything from snowboarding to coding, building positive relationships to starting a successful business, being a social change agent to developing skill for a trade or profession. I suppose that some might just put this into the popular “learn how to learn” group that so many talk about today, but sometimes that conversation falls short by not investing enough time and attention to how you learn with the goal of achieving mastery or increasing levels of excellence. How do you get better and better at something that interests you or something that does not interest you but you understand it to be important?

I realize that these questions don’t list specific educational innovations, but they do represent commonalities about educational innovations that move us in the direction of better developing the potential of individuals.