A Letter from a Friend

Tom Welch and I became acquainted when we worked together as consultants for the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE). Bill Daggett, the founder of ICLE, once shared with us an observation about a very famous hockey player, Wayne Gretzky. He said that what made Gretzky so successful was that, more than other players, he knew where the puck was going to be… in Bill’s thinking, “seeing the future” was key in helping us adjust learning to meet the needs of kids not just for that time but, more importantly for the future they would encounter.

Over and over, Tom has proven himself to be the Wayne Gretzky of exploring learning opportunities for kids. Tom recently shared a letter he had sent to his daughter. I asked if I could share it with you. While the purpose of the letter was to help his daughter with decisions about the involvement of her son, Hutch, with RTI (Response to Intervention), Tom offers us all some Gretzky-like thoughts about where the “educational puck” could/should be. Enjoy…

My dear daughter,

So when is the conference? Here’s my take on RTI — admirable concept — IF you think that all kids should be responding to instruction in the same way and at the same pace. I just no longer believe that. In fact, the downside is exactly what seems to be going on with Hutch. The worst thing is to send a message to kids (and parents) that the kid is “behind” and needs to “catch up”.

Here’s the way I have been illustrating that lately — Most schools and teachers operate as if kids are “widgets” or “pieces”. The teacher says in effect “This year our goal is to build every kid into a beautiful Lego bonsai tree. We have decided exactly what every child should look like at the end of the year and we even know what pieces are required to build those beautiful Lego trees that we envision. Not only that, but we know how those pieces should be put together and we have figured out a time schedule so that every kid’s tree can be complete and match our vision at the end of the year!” Hooray for us!

Blog Lego 1Image 10-9-20 at 2.02 PM

Well, as it turns out, the purpose of school IMHO should NOT be to turn out identical carefully constructed identical Lego bonzai trees, all built on a common timeline and with a common set of instructions. For one thing, this actually runs counter to what we know about learning and the way the brain organizes learning and information. Learning doesn’t happen from the outside, in. It happens from the inside, out. In other words, for true learning to occur it must start with the individual learner. For the brain to learn things long term, the new information must connect to things that are already within the learner(remember “Mr. Welch’s” motto — Go from what you know to what you don’t know?) If information is presented from “outside” then it will go into short term memory but won’t “stick” unless it finds path to things already there. Remember how Hutch made real progress with reading at the end of the summer? That’s because he was beginning to connect with internal motivations and experiences (the signs he was reading and wanting to understand from HIS world). There have been a number of studies done about this — one I read about last week was from a very exclusive prep school. AT the beginning of the school year (Sept), kids were given the same final exam in science that they had been given at the end of the previous year. Keep in mind, it was the SAME exam. The average at the end of the year had been an A- (these were smart kids, right?) but when they were give the SAME exam just 8 or 9 weeks later, not a single student even passed it! The bonsai tree had no roots to anything in the kids real lives, and as can be predicted, they had not retained the information. I don’t know if they were, but if the teacher/school were using RTI during the previous year, those kids would have been fine, right? All on track (probably, or if not, thanks to RTI,they were “caught up”) and I’m sure the teacher and school and parents were all quite happy with the performances at the end of the year. Mission accomplished. Too bad it wasn’t the right mission ;-(. The goal of learning is learning, not responding correctly and on time to instruction. I’m sure, Marty, that you remember passing plenty of classes just fine, but the material didn’t “stick”. Think of your math experience — passed AP Stats just fine, but when did you REALLY learn math? When you were learning to fly! That was no “bonzai tree” experience — it was rooted in your personal goals and experience. Unfortunately when kids don’t do well in a class they think it’s something wrong with them (Woe is me, I am bad at [math]”) when the real problem was the whole way someone thought you should learn. Thank goodness you had that experience of learning to fly that summer or you might have not understood the depth of your abilities to learn and apply your learning.

So if not bonzai trees made of Legos that can be mass produced and built according to plan and on a timeline, then what? You can probably guess what I might say —

Old growth forest

This is a much better metaphor for learning and individual learners — when you look at all the different plants, pick out the ones that are “behind” or “ahead” of where they should be. Ridiculous to even try, isn’t it? Each is where it should be. Some get more sunlight for a time and grow faster, another just a few yards away may be growing more slowly. Is that a problem? Is either of them behind or ahead? No, each one is growing as it should. And when are any of the trees “done” growing? Another ridiculous concept. That’s why it’s stupid to say “Oh you finished math — you’re done!” No, there’s always more to learn about math or anything else in a natural environment of learning. What a sad message we send to kids when we give them the false idea that they can consider themselves “done” with learning anything. Part of what keeps me going is I keep learning! I’m always curious about things and anxious to know more. I think that was one of the best gifts my folks gave me. I can see Granny scoffing now if I would have ever told her I was “done” learning history, or if I’d told her I had learned everything I needed to in science or French because I’d finished a course. She was much wiser than that. She knew a great deal about learning — not just from her education but from her experience raising 5 VERY different kids who each learned in very different ways and at very individual paces and with very different sets of interests.

So my advice — listen earnestly to what the teacher has to say and take those parts that seem helpful for you and Hutch. Those things that will nurture him and help you nurture him. But DON’T let her try to tell you that he is “behind” or “ahead” with ANYthing. He is where he is! And you know what? That’s exactly the point from which you will continue to work with him and encourage him. And the whole idea of any kid being behind or ahead is one that I hope you will talk to him about over the years. Whether it’s classmates or Hutch who is “struggling” and labeled as “behind” or “slow”or “excelling”. Please tell him about the Legos and the forest ecosystem and tell him never to judge himself or others based on some random set of instructions for constructing a Lego bonzai tree!

Much love and encouragement to you all!

Love,
Dad

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