What happens when young people are given a chance to make a difference? We’ve seen time and time again students rising to the occasion to change the world for good, working to make a more just and equitable future.
Recently, this global trend towards difference making has manifested in a new podcast, UnTextbooked. This podcast, led by The History Co:Lab (formerly known as got history?), a systems change organization, brought together a group of young people and historians to have conversations that seek to change the way young people engage with history. It’s about a dynamic relationship with history, not a static one that lives inside a textbook and not a narrative largely shaped by a single culture.
The hosts are teenagers from across America, and they interview professional historians to find answers to the big questions of today. Each episode features one teen podcaster, one book, and one historian and is framed around a timely and relevant question chosen by the young podcaster, including “Does America live up to its own ideals?” and “Germany addressed its racist past. Can America do the same?”
Got History’s founder, Fernande Raine, marveled at the talent of the production team: “Grownups have been talking about the need for better history for decades. I’m thrilled to see this podcast unleashing the power of amazing young people to actually get it done.”
“I’ve gotten to meet so many cool people,” said Sydne Clarke during a podcast interview. “In terms of what I’ve learned from the stories of my other producers and the great people who have also been a part of this project, I’ll never forget it […] everyone, at least once in their life, should get involved with different people from different backgrounds and different stories just to gain new perspectives, because truly you do learn a lot.”
Talk about difference making and student voice!
As is the Getting Smart way, we love to ask “What If?” questions about the future of learning. This podcast brought a few to mind:
What if we centered history curriculum around big questions that young people were curious about?
What if young people were engaged with active historians who were sharing new perspectives, findings and learnings from our recent and distant histories?
“The future is going to belong to the people who care about it. Our nation will be what we — and increasingly you — decide it will be, and anything I can do to help you prepare yourselves to decide well is my pleasure and my honor,” said former Joint Special Operations Commander (JSOC) General Stanley McChrystal
UnTextbooked recently won the 2021 Spotify Next Wave Award, an award for student podcasters with outstanding platforms, podcasts and commentary. Together, this diverse group of young learners is not only “making history unboring” but leaving a more accurate, and loving history in their wake.
This is the second in a three-part series on the legacy of Albert Bandura. Read the first one here.
Do you know the story of Swimmy?
Perhaps, like me, you read the 1963 book by Leo Lionni over and over again as a young child. Or, like me, you read it night after night to your own children.
Here’s how it goes.
Swimmy is a little fish who lives happily in the ocean with his many brothers and sisters.
One day, a much larger fish comes darting through the waves and, in one gulp, swallows every fish in the school except Swimmy himself.
Swimmy escapes to wander the seas and, though at first scared and lonely, eventually comes upon another school of fish just like his own family.
“Let’s go and swim and play and SEE things!” Swimmy says happily.
But the fish are hiding in the dark shade of rocks and weeds. If they come out, they explain, a big fish will eat them all.
Swimmy thinks for a long time.
Suddenly, he says, “We are going to swim all together like the biggest fish in the sea!”
And he shows them how, if they swim close together, just so, they will look like one giant fish.
Swimmy and the triumph of these little fish leaped to mind when I read one of the articles Stanford psychologist Al Bandura selected, among the hundreds he’d written, to mail to me months before he died.
The choice was timely because Al was working on a book on collective efficacy, a group’s belief in their combined power to achieve shared goals. The choice was also timely because, as he pointed out in what would be our last phone conversation, a single person alone can’t solve challenges like climate change, social inequality, or the pandemic.
Just as self-efficacy emboldens the individual to chase their dreams, collective efficacy motivates the group to set shared goals, coordinate their actions, and overcome obstacles.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world,” said anthropologist Margaret Mead. “Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Don’t think that solving problems depends on either the individual or social structures. “Personal agency and social structure,” Bandura wrote, “operate interdependently.” It’s not either/or, it’s both/and.
Do share the story of Swimmy with a young person in your life. And remember the legacy of Al Bandura when you read the very last line: And so they swam in the cool morning water and in the midday sun and chased the big fish away.
By: Jesse Kohler, Christine Mason, PhD and Jeff Ikler
“Violence in Schools Seems to Be Increasing. Why?” — EducationWeek, November 1, 2021
“Why So Many Teachers Are Thinking of Quitting” — The Washington Post Magazine, October 18, 2021
“Classroom Time Isn’t the Only Thing Students Have Lost” — The Atlantic, September 7, 2021
“Too Much Focus on ‘Learning Loss’ Will Be a Historic Mistake” — edutopia, April 16, 2021
“Even before COVID-19 pandemic, youth suicide already at record high” — UC Davis Health Newsroom, April 8, 2021
Headlines like these are increasingly common as school personnel and students attempt to adjust to the current stage of the pandemic. But the reality is the pandemic only exacerbated the trauma that many students were already experiencing. Upwards of 40 percent of students in the U.S., according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, have been exposed to some form of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), not to mention those who have been exposed to other potentially traumatic events and stressors.
The impact on student learning is disastrous. To access the part of our brain where cognitive processing takes place, students must feel safe and secure. Environments that produce feelings of stress and anxiety cause the emotional region of a student’s brain to hijack the cognitive processes in unconscious ways. As one neuroscience researcher recently told us, “If students are in a state of high stress or trauma, the part of the brain that facilitates learning is inaccessible. Student academic achievement rests on the shoulders of student wellness.” Thus, contrary to recent criticisms that it’s not the schools’ role to support a students’ emotional wellbeing, neuroscience tells us that educators can play a critical role if traumatized students are to have an equal shot at academic achievement.
Doubling down on academic rigor – however well-intentioned – is not the answer. Our staff and students need a different, long-term approach to schooling, one that balances the traditional intense focus on academics with one that promotes psycho-social-emotional wellbeing. As a middle school principal recently championed during one of our interviews, “The days of us primarily focusing on academics are over.”
And it’s not just students who are in crisis. Staff are burning out at higher levels than ever before. A principal recently informed us that his district had to cancel school for a day because hundreds of teachers called in sick in need of a mental health day. Dysregulated adults cannot help regulate dysregulated children, so it is equally important that we meet the needs of school staff so that our students’ needs are met.
The stress and adversity that everyone is facing is too overwhelming to ignore any longer. Trauma-informed approaches improve outcomes across school environments and create a better place for all people to be. By addressing the needs that students and staff bring with them to school each day, we can help students better engage with their studies, learn, and develop into the contributing members of society that we so desperately need. By understanding how stress impacts brain functions, we can better support regulation, cultivate resilience, and ultimately help people and environments thrive.
To address the overwhelming adversity and chronic stress that so many staff and students face today, we can teach students regulation skills to increase their ability to focus, learn new skills, and problem solve at school. However, it is an insufficient response if we just expect people to work through difficult experiences. We must create environments that prevent adversity and stress in the first place. To reduce the overall impact of trauma, we must transform our school systems to answer two questions:
When students graduate, what do we want them to be able to do with their knowledge and skills as they confront uncertainty in our complex and rapidly evolving world?
How do we help students develop a sense of purpose and meaning, so that they feel they can have a positive impact in life?
Many schools, districts, and states have successfully moved toward trauma-informed approaches to create these types of safe and supportive school environments. Our recently launched podcast series — “Cultivating Resilience: A Whole Community Approach to Alleviating Trauma in Schools” — explores promising practices and ways that we can transform the education system to meet the needs of our staff and students. Academics are important, but they’re not more important than students’ mental health and wellbeing. That equal emphasis sets the stage for optimal learning and academic achievement, positive relationships and, ultimately, an improved quality of life.
Jesse Kohler: Executive Director of the Campaign for Trauma Informed Policy and Practice
Christine Mason, PhD: Assistant Clinical Professor at Yale University’s School of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry, Program for Recovery and Community Health, and the Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Educational Improvement
Jeff Ikler: Director of Quetico Leadership Coaching and co-host of “Getting Unstuck: Educators Leading Change”
“In late 90s, as the world transitioned into a new millennium, a collective of musicians known as the Soulquarians was formed. […]
What made the Soulquarians so special was their ability to synthesize different sounds, genres, and themes together in a way that no one had before. After discovering a shared passion for offbeat rhythms and experimental chords, fused with their mutual love of Motown and classic soul, both a common language and beautiful chemistry were established. Each artist brought their own expertise into the mix […] hours of passionate research mixed with joyful experimentation pushed forward the evolution of each song, with each artist adding their own flavor, completing the “cypher” and giving birth to an end product even more powerful than the sum of its parts.”
– Bad Meccouri. An artist, educator, songwriter, and music producer based in Los Angeles. His work has been featured in numerous media outlets including Billboard, BBC 1xtra, Complex, The Fader, & Soulection.
I remember vividly what it was like listening to D’Angelo’s Voodoo album in its entirety for the first time. I remember the dank UMASS Amherst dorm room as if it was yesterday. These were sounds, rhythms, and musicianship I had never heard before. This was unity personified in notes and melodies. This was a spiritual experience for me. I was listening to a collective of human beings acting on a shared vision and creating a seminal artifact of brilliance. These musicians were learners embarking on a shared journey. So how do we root our educational programs and classrooms in the same purpose and joyfulness that yielded such beautiful and important music? We use the framework of “the collective” as our model. We take a lesson from the Soulquarians.
Building Culture and A Shared Journey
What makes athletic teams and musical productions so impactful in schools and universities is that skill building and collaboration are so vital and relevant to a good performance. They are almost visible. The team understands that each member has a role, a unique skill, that when combined with others yields success. A collective of individuals coming together requires a shared set of livable values and agreements amongst teammates. This creates culture and a shared language. It’s the same for a music collective like the Soulquarians.
Where I have had the most success as an educator is when my classrooms and programs became unified around a shared outcome or purpose. For example in my Digital Journalism course our class became a media studio, combining our skills into storytelling products. Now, students were transformed into members of a collective building something together and sharing it out with the world. This collective formed a shared culture and purpose, leading to a shared journey amongst my students.
The brilliant educator and strategist J Ross Peters, writes, “When a group of people has a shared space to come together and they have permission to uncover and reveal their gifts, the artifacts they leave behind are often astounding. Additionally, what can happen in those communities when the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts, is electric.” The revealing of a learner’s gifts within a collective who understands and celebrates them is transformative for a learner. It builds a sense of confidence and belonging, as well as a realization that they are worthy of partnership and being on a team.
A Diversity of Technical Skill Sets
In the case of the Soulquarians, a collective of musicians came together to co-create each other’s albums. The musical skills of drums, guitar, vocals, songwriting, bass, horns, piano, and production combined to create potent album after potent album. The unique technical skills and capacities of each member yielded a product/artifact. The same can occur in a classroom. Imagine a team composed of a writer, coder, graphic designer, and videographer. By having these students partner together around their diverse technical skills they can accomplish more and gain the real world insights of a high functioning team. Through this they also are shown the importance of their own technical skills. So many times in schools learners dread group work. The motivated student ends up doing all of the work, and students don’t understand the importance of collaboration. However when students partner with others who have a key technical skill they themselves do not, collaboration now has relevance and purpose. They are able to tackle larger problems, make a bigger impact, create something that reaches more people. This is the power of the collective.
The Technical Skills of Working with Other Human Beings
In journalism, convergence is the act of combining multiple forms of media to tell a more effective story. For photography, videography, writing, and audio to live on the same page, amplifying the story and reaching a wider audience. Convergence for the Soulqarians was a like minded group of music historians and innovators combining their skill sets into a tapestry of funk and soul. From ideation to research, from project management to song development, the skills of working with other human beings were honed. This can be the same outcome in the classroom when learners are in a collective, creating a project together. The skills of compromise, communication, empathy, and actually listening when someone else is speaking now have greater importance as they determine the success of a project or venture that has meaning to the learners. The ability to have difficult conversations and to grapple with disagreements and a difference of opinion leads to growth and an understanding of how effective teams work in the world outside of school. Students learn how to thrive even when things fall apart, and can get through the discomfort. So take a lesson from the Soulquarians. Turn your classroom into a collective.
“Creating a space of shared passion, trust, and ultimately joy empowered each individual to not only give their best but also surpass their limitations. That is the power of the collective, regardless of the task, if a group of people can incorporate these principles, great results will be achieved.” – Badi Meccouri.
When you think about math, you probably think of writing equations and answers with a paper and pencil. That’s because math has been stuck in the analog world, especially in the classroom. While other subjects, like writing, have long moved into the digital world, math has mostly stayed untouched by tech.
Over the last 20 years, I’ve seen how education technology can change the classroom.
When I was a teacher, I saw how much time it saved teachers on tasks as simple as grading assignments. As the tools improved, I saw how it gave students freedom in how they were able to show their knowledge.
But it wasn’t until the pandemic that I truly saw teachers using digital math tools on a larger scale. Teachers have now realized the true benefits of using them, some for the first time. I have seen how EdTech tools have made a positive impact on thousands of teachers and students.
Using EdTech Tools to Personalize Learning in Mathematics
Math has remained untouched by tech for several reasons. Math symbols are complex, teachers have large inventories of worksheets, and students need to “show their work”. It has been difficult, if not impossible, to create a digital equivalent. Until now.
Digital math tools are leveling up and changing the game for both in-person and virtual learning. A teacher’s job is to make sure all students reach their learning goals. By giving students the flexibility to choose how they learn, they now have the opportunity to show their knowledge and improve learning outcomes.
If you’re thinking of incorporating a personalized learning strategy into your math curriculum, digital tools are a great place to start. There are many EdTech tools that can help with this learning approach.
When it comes to choosing the right tool, look for one that has been designed with Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles in mind. These principles improve and optimize teaching and learning for everyone. They also reduce barriers and maximize learning opportunities.
By choosing a UDL tool, you’ll make sure that your EdTech supports a wide range of learning styles and preferences. Through these tools, students can engage with math content in the way that best suits their unique needs. This can be through written work, visualizations, audio, collaboration, and more.
Using these types of digital tools, students can show their knowledge in their own way, at their own pace. Similar to how every student learns differently, they may also show their understanding differently. Tools that support UDL allow students to be creative while still reaching their learning outcomes.
Personalization in math can also help to create a more accessible learning environment. For example, some tools allow students to hear math problems read aloud. These tools make it easier and more engaging for those with learning or visual hardships. It can also help students who learn best by hearing. Whichever method a student chooses to use, they should still come to the same result as their peers.
Tools like EquatIO can create different types of math spaces for different types of learners. Teachers can use tools like this to take away any pressure from receiving a different assignment than their peers. This is just one example, but there are many other digital tools that make deploying specialized assignments easier for teachers.
EdTech Tools are the Future of Mathematics in the Classroom
Technology has slowly integrated more and more into the classroom. I have seen the impact it can have on student learning. It can enhance the entire classroom experience for all users. I encourage you to search for a math tool that can support all of your students and their individualized learning approaches.
Digital tools, whether it be for math, reading, or writing, can help teachers rethink the classroom and allow students to express themselves with confidence. We are just scratching the surface.
It’s important that we find opportunities for our students to engage in meaningful and authentic learning experiences. There are many options for us to do this through methods such as genius hour, project-based learning or problem-based learning which give students the chance to drive their learning through the power of choice. With these methods, we promote more independence and student choice in learning while also boosting student engagement as students explore and learn about topics of interest or something that sparks curiosity.
A few years ago we started with project-based learning (PBL) in my Spanish classes and part of our focus was on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. (SDGs) which are 17 goals set forth in 2015 with hopes to meet these goals by 2030. Some of the goals focus on helping to reverse damage done by climate change, work toward the elimination of poverty, facilitate the creation of healthy waterways, develop sustainable cities and communities, to name a few. With the SDGs as a focus, students can engage in meaningful real-world projects where they learn to identify a global problem and act locally.
The importance of giving students opportunities like this is to help them understand how they can effect change in the world that will benefit them and others in the future. I spoke with Steve Sostak, educator and founder of Inspire Citizens about the importance of bringing this type of learning into our classrooms. Steve said: “Education for sustainable development and global citizenship enables learners to build the future-focused cognitive skills and dispositions that shape a healthier self, society, and planet. When we take this transformative learning and combine it with imagining our schools as local community centers, students can purposefully apply interdisciplinary learning to co-create a wiser and more compassionate world together.”
When students truly care about an issue, make decisions about their learning path and reflect on that learning, they develop empathy and it also fosters the development of social-emotional learning (SEL) skills. As students build social awareness by connecting with community members and learning about challenges that impact the people and the world around them, they better understand the world they live in and the importance of working together to help others. As students design and work through their own projects, it helps them to develop SEL skills of self-awareness and self-management. Our students need to have an understanding of the world around them beyond their community and by connecting them with meaningful opportunities to make an impact, it will amplify their learning potential and prepare them for whatever the future holds.
Focusing on the SDGs is a way to help students and educators problem solve, communicate, and collaborate about ways that they can implement a project or take action for the world. Every teacher in any grade level or content area can find a way to bring learning about the SDGs into the classroom for the students. In my experience using project-based learning with my Spanish classes, looking at challenges faced in Spanish-speaking countries and finding those same challenges or similar challenges locally, made a tremendous impact on students. The phrase “Think global, act local” has become quite familiar around the world. When we look at these global issues it helps us to become more aware of the issues being faced by members of our own local community and take action.
We have the means between the technology available to us to do the research to explore ideas and to communicate with one another to bring in these real-world, purposeful learning experiences for our students.. Since we are helping to prepare students for the future, it makes sense that we prepare them to face challenges that exist in the world and come up with solutions for them. To find alternate ways of providing food to avoiding poverty to having sustainable cities for example.
Real-world learning in my school
At the start of this school year, my school, Riverview Junior-Senior High School in Oakmont, PA became involved in something that has been a truly meaningful learning experience that will benefit the community and offer authentic learning for students. A few years ago, we had a small hydroponics unit inside a classroom that students worked with. In 2019, the school applied for and received a grant to install a full hydroponic grow pod system outside of the school. One of our teachers, Mr. Michael MacConnell with the help of several students, works in the pod each day and takes care of the plants, cleaning and maintaining the pod.
With experiences such as these, students learn about sustainability through hands-on work. They learn about science and how what they are doing can impact their community and even the world. They are continuing to build on it and they have plans to grow a few thousand plants each month and potentially partner with a local food bank to donate produce. During this process students are learning about real world application of food production, working together on how to solve problems such as lack of food. Students are developing skills of collaboration, problem-solving, time management, critical thinking and engaging in something that is truly unique and more personalized to them. Principal Eric Hewitt is impressed by the work that students are doing. He adds “Work around sustainability is important to our society in general. Getting experience as a high school student puts young people in a great position to move into these careers.
Impact on learning
Educators may wonder why it is important to get kids involved in SDG projects and what the benefits are. MacConnell says that he “finds it very important that students learn about the food supply system. What they think is local and fresh can be from a different state or even country and has created so many greenhouse gasses to get to where it was located.” Looking at learning about the SDGS, MacConnell believes that the “sustainability goals set forth by the UN are a great guide for teachers to teach globalism.” He asks himself “What can I show my students that can make an impact on the world? It’s the small practices they can do in their everyday lives that will drive consumer spending and ultimately company practices.”
Principal Hewitt adds “When you work on a project in the classroom, you rarely get to see how that work is connected to anything else. The Grow-pod project allows students to see a bigger picture. They are not just growing plants but making connections to ensure that the food is being used—connecting with food service and seeing the fruits of their labor being served in our own cafeteria. That experience expands their vision and helps them see how their work fits in the larger scale of a system.”
So what do students think?
Jacob Bennett, a ninth-grader – “I like working in the pod because I like planting. I like to get my hands dirty”
Caden Smith, an eighth-grader– “I love being in the unit as much as I can. I like working with my hands and am learning so much.”
Wendy Derry (Aide) – “The impact I see is when the students watch the seeds sprout, grow larger, care for the plant’s needs, and then harvest it for the school to use in the cafeteria. The whole process is engaging, exciting, and educational for our students.”
Resources to learn more
MacConnell has some suggestions for schools looking to get started with a similar program. He says “We were excited to get a big project like this funded and implemented. Money is out there to help with sustainable spaces/practices. I think it’s important to start small…this year the ecology club and I will be starting a recycling program for the school that will eventually lead to composting and less waste.”
Sostak shared that for educators beginning to take first steps into understanding and using the SDGs, he highly recommends these resources: Flourish Project: SDGs for the Early Years, the Good Life Goals Pack of Actions and the Inspire Citizens Design Sprint which is an excellent tool to explore in designing learning experiences that embed concepts related to sustainability.
We can help students to look at some of the challenges that are faced in the world today and think about how they can be part of the solution. When we empower students to explore solutions, to think critically, to collaborate, and to engage in learning in which they can apply skills they’re learning from different classes, it promotes authentic, real-world experiences that will best prepare them for the future. It shows that we are all in this together.
United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Could Be Our Standards
Think Global Act Local: How to Embed SDGs in Your School and Community
Green School Infuses Nature-based Learning for Sustainable Education
Great schools foster a sense of safety, belonging and beauty at first sight. Even before entering a building, we can see the elements that foster community and connection–key ingredients in safe, healthy communities of learning.
Jane Jacobs, in her seminal work “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” identified a key element of safe, vital communities as “eyes on the street” — the presence of people with a visual connection to the building entry.
Two problems work against a welcoming presence: one, a tendency to create grandiose, institutional entries rather than human-centered spaces, and two, the need for a strategy to address violent threats.
People don’t tend to congregate in the center of large open spaces–instead, they hug the edges, and look for the small amenities that support human comfort. A canopy with protection from rain and sun, places to sit, views to people learning and socializing inside, and a view to an administrative office are all key elements that create a welcoming entry.
Increasing violence in schools during the late 20th and early 21st centuries has spurred the science of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). Layered access and natural surveillance, an extension of eyes on the street, are core design principles for safe campuses. As the sketch below illustrates, there is always at least one layer of security to public spaces, and two layers of security to Learning Communities.
The sketch below is a conceptual view of the elements of a welcoming entry, strong indoor-outdoor connections, layered access and learning communities working together in harmony.
The campus concepts for a welcoming entry are also illustrated in the photograph below of Texas Tech University Costa Rica on San Jose’s Avenue Escazu, where living, working, and learning are holistically integrated
Good schools inspire, engage, and empower learning–and the International School of Prague is a great example. A couple of virtual visits brought to life a coherent learning model around this mission.
Director of Learning R&D, Teresa Belisle, an international educator with experience in France, Thailand Mexico, as well as her home state of Minnesota, explained the three elements of the mission:
Inspire learners to lead healthy, fulfilling, and purposeful lives, preparing them to adapt and contribute responsibly to our changing world.
Engage a diverse community in an authentic global education, within a nurturing student-centered environment.
Empower learners to think critically and creatively, work cooperatively and independently, listen and communicate effectively, and act with compassion, integrity, respect and intercultural understanding.
Belisle said the last few years of work have focused on nurturing student curiosity, building community, and working on coherence. “The way we approached strategy forced greater system coherence across the sections and helped us become more agile,” said Belisle.
Respected innovator Dr. Chip Kimball, former superintendent of Lake Washington School District and Singapore American School (see case study and podcast), took over leadership at ISP in July.
After a few months of community dialog, the ISP leadership team adopted an updated learner profile focused on developing curious, competent, compassionate changemakers. Faculty teams are bringing the updated learning goals to life across the curriculum.
Seven beautiful design principles guide the work at ISP.
In support of these design principles and to improve K-12 coherence, the leadership team and faculty recently decided to become a contemporary International Baccalaureate continuum school by adopting the Primary Years Programme and Middle Years Programme in support of the long established Diploma Programme in high school.
ISP is hiring an PYP Coordinator, an MYP Coordinator, and an MYP Projects and Advisory Coordinator. Learn more and apply here.
Established shortly after World War II by the US Embassy, the 900 student P-12 English medium school is located just northwest of downtown Prague and next to Divoká Šárka, a nature reserve where ISP students explore, hike and ride bicycles.
Board members most appreciate the intentionally diverse student body with learners of 60 nationalities. They also appreciate a culture of care, thoughtful guidance and rigorous academics.
To develop change makers, ISP teachers help students apply their learning in diverse and challenging contexts. In a recent example, ISP staff and students supported Happy Caravan – two schools established to support Syrian refugee children in Greece. For their support of Happy Caravan, ISP was recognized with the International Impact Award.
Learn more about ISP in the 2021-22 Annual Report. It is great example of a progressive international school that engages diverse learners in work that matters. Its coherent learning framework is one that any school could learn from.
This is the first in a three-part series on the legacy of Albert Bandura.
When Al Bandura died in July, he was 95 years old and among the most eminent psychologists in history.
In the year before his death, Al and I began a lively correspondence—by phone calls, email, and once via U.S. mail.
So much of what Al spent his career studying—and his own life exemplifying—is what all young people need in order to fulfill their dreams and their potential: personal agency.
What is agency? The conviction that you shape your own future.
What is the opposite of agency? Believing that you’re helpless to make your dreams come true. Seeing yourself in life’s passenger seat, likely on a trajectory you don’t like and didn’t choose.
How did Al become so fascinated with agency? Early in his career, Al told me, he was a clinical psychologist working with patients with phobias. He noticed that fear is self-perpetuating. A patient who was afraid of heights, for example, would take pains to avoid skyscrapers, airplanes, or even stairwells—and thus never learn to overcome their fear.
“And it’s not so much the fear and the rumination that is the problem,” Al told me. “It’s believing you’re helpless to change your emotions and thoughts. That’s the real problem.”
In an experiment that would become the foundation of his theory of human behavior, Al showed that snake phobias could be “cured” by what he called guided-mastery treatment. This approach combines two active ingredients. First, the therapist models a desired behavior in response to a challenge (e.g., calmly looking at a photograph of a snake). Second, the therapist progressively ratchets up the level of challenge, ending with actually handling a live snake. The process is collaborative right up until the end when the patient learns to manage challenges entirely on their own.
“And do you know why I knew this was really important?” Al asked me.
“Because months and months later, some of the people in that study came back to see me in my Stanford office,” he said. “Not only were they still freed from their debilitating fear of snakes, they had a sense of resilience and efficacy in other areas of their lives as well. They had a sense of agency they’d never known before.”
For parents and teachers, there’s a profound lesson in this classic psychology research. And it is this: Young people need both challenge and support to develop confidence. We can neither solve all their problems for them nor expect them to grow without scaffolding.
Don’t tell anyone they have complete control of their destiny. That’s not true. And yet each of us, no matter our circumstances, has some control, particularly over our own thoughts and actions.
Do provide training wheels. It may seem paradoxical, but the young person in your life needs your help to develop a sense of personal agency. They need you to nudge them to try things that scare them a little. When still finding their balance, they need your steady hand. And when they’re ready, they need you to let go, so they can pedal on their own.
With grit and gratitude,
Angela Duckworth is the Founder and CEO of Character Lab. She is also the Rosa Lee and Egbert Chang Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, faculty co-director of the Penn-Wharton Behavior Change for Good Initiative, and faculty co-director of Wharton People Analytics.
I met Mary Bixby at a San Diego storefront alternative school 21 years ago. She explained how learners had flexible schedules–some attended in the morning, some in the afternoon–and worked at their own pace through an online curriculum and met with their advisor for goal setting and tutoring.
By 2000, Bixby was already six years into serving high school students not successful in traditional environments through the Charter School of San Diego (CSSD). Since then Bixby has launched two more nonprofits supporting seven more charter schools with 35 locations in southern California. Altus Schools is the unifying network brand–it’s a set of shared design principles, an instructional model, and a beautiful template for learning environments. For its robust and repeatable support systems and use of data to improve, CSSD, the Altus anchor school, won the 2015 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award and became one of the few educational organizations to win the nation’s quality award.
In her 2018 book Charter Storm, Bixby outlines four qualities for new nonprofit public schools:
Purpose: Students and teachers are engaged in goal-oriented work and are passionate about reaching achievable objectives.
Mastery: Students and teachers strive for excellence.
Autonomy: Students and teachers have the freedom to approach curriculum in innovative ways.
Safety and Security: Students and teachers are physically safe and secure.
These values have driven the steady growth of Altus Schools in Southern California.
Altus Learning Model
Jay Garrity, head of instructional services, explains that students enroll in Altus schools for several reasons: they are behind on credits (about 58%), high transiency, bullying or other social issues at a former school, pregnancy or parenting, a special talent that requires a flexible schedule, and/or the freedom to accelerate including early college credit opportunities.
About 60% of Altus learners are LatinX, about 70% are economically disadvantaged, and about 20% have special needs.
The blended learning program, classified as independent study in California, starts with a personalized plan focused on a post-high school goal. Learners take one or two courses at a time and complete a course every three or four weeks. After making progress, some learners return to their residential traditional school, others progress to graduation. Altus schools have served more than 48,000 learners with 15,000 graduates.
While Edgenuity is the core curriculum, it is highly customized and supplemented by teacher-developed resources. The networks use Naviance for guidance and NWEA for interim assessments. Illuminate provides data dashboards.
For the first two decades of operation, learners visited a resource center daily for about three hours. In Spring 2020, the pandemic forced a quick shift to fully remote delivery. This fall, resource centers reopened and about half of the current 3,500 learners visit a resource center on a regular basis.
Most resource centers are open from 7 am to 7 pm with a morning teacher, midday teacher, and evening teacher. Because they support multiple subjects, they are encouraged to gain dual certification.
Resource centers are open 12 months a year with particularly busy summer months as learners enroll to get back on track academically.
Altus University offers professional learning for staff including trauma-informed practices and strategies for promoting youth mental health.
Bixby is proud of high levels of staff satisfaction and retention as a result of clarity of purpose and the support of a scaled organization with strong learning and growth opportunities.
Altus resource centers look like high-tech workspaces with modular Steelcase furniture. There are a variety of spaces for individual work and meetings with teachers. There are conference rooms for small groups, video walls for presentations, science lab stations, and a kitchen.
Laptop and desktop computers are provided at the resource centers. Chromebooks and hotspots are available for home use.
Resource Centers are in highly accessible areas from south San Diego County to San Bernardino and Riverside Counties.
The Altus network includes one elementary center, Audeo Kids, that supports homeschoolers with a hybrid model. Students attend the resource center one a day a week in grade span groups and work at home the other four days learning through synchronous and asynchronous digital resources as well as print materials.
Six teachers support 152 learners with a mix of on-site and virtual lessons. The English and math curriculum is MobyMax. The social studies curriculum is from HMH.
Altus networks benefit from a talented leadership team that executes an 11-step strategic planning process in four phases (approach, development, learning, integration) in annual cycles including a weeklong summer offsite retreat.
The network never relied on private grant funding for growth or sustainability. Every site is managed for quality outcomes and fiscal sustainability.
For 20 years, Bixby has advanced a kids-first mindset, rigorous strategic planning, and quality over quantity. Expansion opportunities for Altus networks are limited in California given the political climate but the robust template could inspire and support education leaders in other states.