We Are All Good Learners, Each and Every One of Us
Voices from the Field 24 March 2016 By Kim Carter
We are all good learners. Each and every one of us. It’s as simple as that. If we weren’t good learners, we’d be dead.
Executive Director, Q.E.D. Foundation
WHEN MY MIDDLE SON ENTERED HIGH SCHOOL, he was having a hard time navigating the expectations of his teachers and the curriculum. As an informed parent, I requested an educational evaluation. At the evaluation meeting, the psychologist said, with my 14-year-old son sitting there, “I can tell you what his problem is. He’s a passive aggressive underachiever.”
Some years ago, a parent contacted me, eager to have her daughter Anna enrolled. At Anna’s transition IEP meeting, the case manager summarized Anna’s status. Having met and talked with Anna, I was stunned when he opened with a brief sentence about her test results, concluding with the words “mental retardation”. His summary was followed by the recommendation that Anna stay in this special classroom where she could be cared for with all due diligence, with attention paid to developing her life skills. Today, I can tell you unequivocally what her mother already knew: Anna absolutely does not have mental retardation.
Anna is a lovely, capable, talented young woman. As much as I love the intent behind the phrase “exceptional children,” I have to say Anna is not exceptional, at least not in the sense of being marginally capable of learning. She is her own unique self, and she is a good learner.
We are all good learners. Each and every one of us. It’s as simple as that. If we weren’t good learners, we’d be dead. As biologist James Zull states, “Learning is simply what the brain does.”
We’re not all good learners in the same way, nor do we need to be. Context is what puts us at advantage or disadvantage. We adults have the ability—response-ability—to create contexts where every learner shines and to intentionally develop agency in learners to select and manage their own contexts.
MC2 is in its second incarnation, having first been a “school of choice” in a somewhat rural school district in southwestern NH from 2002–2010. Now, it is a public charter school with two campuses in two cities, about 60 miles apart. Over the years, the percent of students identified for special education has ranged from as few as 25% to as high as 45%, most commonly in the mid-thirties.
Identifications include ADHD, anxiety, and emotional disturbance, often co-indicated with a learning disability, We have students with autism, Asperger’s, non-verbal learning disorder, dyslexia, high incidence of math, writing, and reading challenges. In fact, they come in with all kinds of labels.
The very first thing we do to begin meeting the needs of our children/young adults is explore with them who they are as learners.
The very first thing we do to begin meeting the needs of our children/young adults is explore with them who they are as learners and begin to build their learning profile. From their enrollment interview—where we ask them to describe their strengths, challenges, interests, and aspirations—into their first learning experience, called MOLO—the MC2 Orientation Learning Opportunity, we dig past labels. We get curious about each learner’s variability; we engage them in activities and games, explore their affinities, and scaffold their first academic inquiry around an area of personal interest.
The Learner Sketch Tool is a foundational element of their learning profile and one that they’ll revisit regularly. The Learner Sketch is based on the QED’s Neurodevelopmental Framework for Learning, organized around the mental processes of learning, such as attention, memory, and language. We call it the Learner Sketch because we continually emphasize how readily they can reshape the picture of themselves, based on strategies, contexts, and motivation, similar to Todd Rose’s three principles of the individuality (The End of Average, 2016).
Each Learner Sketch self-reported composite picture is one piece in a collection of snapshots in each student’s developing Learning Profile. Other snapshots represent multiple perspectives: the sports action shot, the dress-up formal picture, the silly goofing-off quick pic, the family portrait, along with a variety of other contexts, each of which adds another dimension to the entirety of who they are.
Another key structure, developed specifically within and for MC2, is our EOD portal. EOD stands for End of Day, and as part of their English credit, students are expected to write daily, maintaining an 80% or better submission rate. All members of their learning team can read and respond to students’ EODs. At first, we ask them to simply write something. Then, we encourage them to write to communicate about something that matters to them—to complain, to advocate, to negotiate, to challenge, to celebrate. For many of our students this is the first time—ever—that they have written something to say what’s on their mind to an adult, and for almost all, it’s the first time adults have taken seriously what they’ve had to say. This is our north cornerstone for the foundation of pivotal relationships.
Reluctant to say much more than one or two words in person, one of our students with autism used his End of Day reflections to share the myriad things he’s making meaning of every day: from the connections between Hamlet and The Lion King, problem solving to increase his fluency in Italian (“the second I try to open my mouth and speak it, I forget the entire language. I think I’m going to practice speaking it out loud at home”), and ongoing summaries, interpretations, extrapolations, and plain old rants about the daily news, which he follows through a variety of daily news feeds.
There are additional intentional, integral structures and tools. Our Habits and the many ways they are integrated into students’ daily lives and experiences are pivotal. What is typically referred to as Behavior Management (or Discipline) is a priority area for engagement and development, as we explicitly and transparently teach, coach, and assess students’ capacity for assuming increasing agency for goal setting, decision-making, and problem-solving.
Elliot Washor, whom I believe originally coined the phrase, rigor, relevance, and relationships in the 80s, told me he wished he’d said it in reverse order: relationships come first, followed by relevance, and then rigor.
Building trust through relationships is essential, especially for learners and families whose very identity has been compromised and challenged by our insistence on deficit-based labeling and broad-brush generalizations within a very narrowly defined and limited context for learning. When we broaden that context, when we’re curious about the ways someone excels (shifting from how good is that learner to how is that learner good), and when we explore the myriad ways to know and to demonstrate knowing, we create space for all manner of accomplishments.
Chris became interested in sewing and discovered a passion for quilting, which became his means for understanding critical passages of American history, as well as for exploring and demonstrating his understanding and application of geometry constructions.
Tabitha began to excel at algebra once she developed her own mental animation, seeing emotions in the numbers and imagining them as lazy—sitting there getting fat or being silly little creatures that bounced around and made squeaking noises when they moved. Adding color, sound, and subtitles for the numbers, she said, helped her understand and get joy out of math.
What Makes These Examples Possible
a commitment to knowing every learner well—to caring about the success of each child as if he or she were our own;
a commitment to focusing on assets, staying curious, and uncovering, discovering, and recovering the gifts and talents of every individual;
recognizing that habits and dispositions—social emotional skills—live at the heart of learning; they’re not non-cognitive, and they’re not add-ons; they are part and parcel of how learning takes place and many of our most vulnerable learners are vulnerable simply because of our refusal to attend to that reality; and
assessing to understand learners, not simply to measure what we’re looking for.
Significant, Open Questions Still Stand
How do we build more flexible, needs-based response systems for meeting students’ learning needs and reconceptualize who can help address those needs? For example, for some of our students, their mentors have had a significant impact on their ability to strategize, work through, and even overcome learning challenges.
How do we design professional learning programs that catalyze the significant mindset, knowledge, and skill shifts required for educators in this new model of student-centered learning?
First and foremost, before anything else, teachers need to know their learners well. To do that, they need the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to…
Assess to understand learners
Develop learning profiles for each learner
Analyze and operationalize that information in partnership with learners and families
Leverage that information to motivate and empower learners
As for Anna, most recently she completed a research project on animal abuse; she reads fiction books on grade level; and she is interning at a site where she helps serve youth with disabilities. And my son, the “passive-aggressive underachiever”? He is the Director of Success at MC2 Manchester.
Kim Carter is the Executive Director of the Q.E.D. Foundation, an organization of adults and youth working together to create and sustain student-centered learning communities. As 1991 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year and 1996 New Hampshire Media Educator of the Year, Kim has been actively involved in local and national education redesign for over two decades.