Shifts, Grit, and Adaptive Expertise

In recent years, I have noticed a trend in my research pursuits that when I am captivated by a topic, idea, or concept, I pursue the study of it with great vigor.  Ultimately, as those who read my blog might notice, I also end up writing about my synthesis of the ideas and how they apply in my world, either personally or professionally.  This process is one that I enjoy tremendously as it makes me feel alive, growing, and eternally learning, thus enriching my life, while also setting a good example for my children, my colleagues, and those to whom I am entrusted as en locos parentis.

In the course of these journeys, it always serendipitously excites me that I find a circumference of sorts in that literature on one idea references another that I then pursue to better understand the initial idea.  This cycle continues during my odyssey, and oftentimes I find myself revisiting ideas from over the years, finding connections to long-cherished philosophies, and seeing references to people who I have previously studied.  Invariably of late, I find that the journey takes me back to the initial idea of study.  This is a very exciting process.

In the past month or so, I have been exploring Angela Duckworth’s work on Grit.  I have also been “turned on” to Giyoo Hatano’s Adaptive Expertise.  I recall a time last year, during my weekly session with the 6th grade and 7th grade respectively, these two ideas were married together by the Jose Esteves’ updated version of Shift Happens 2013.  I shared with each group the Esteves video, and asked them to think about how it is relevant to their world. Then I showed the Duckworth TedTalk to which I have referred in previous posts (The Gritty Jester).  The responses were very astute.  Nearly every student across the two grade levels was fascinated by the data about the world.  They are adolescents, so the blinders blocking out the world around them are to be expected.  But many of the students also noticed that they will need grit to succeed, lead, and contribute in the world they will inherit.

Aside from the staggering numbers about the world and technology, a few savvy kids noticed the following key pieces of information as having tremendous relevance to the Duckworth video:

  • Today’s learner will have 10-14 jobs by age 38
  • Top 10 jobs in 2010 did not exist in 2004
    • Jobs that don’t exist
    • Technology that doesn’t exist
    • To solve problems that don’t exist
    • New information every 2 years making half of what freshman learn obsolete by junior year.

Those students who pointed these three particular notes out of the Esteves video commented that grit will be integral to their ability to resolve through the shifts to lead and contribute in their world.

That weekend, I reflected on the process, while also continuing to read on some new topics. One topic rounded the idea out for me.  Hatano’s Adaptive Expertise states that we must “go beyond procedural efficiency…to invent new procedures derived from our expert knowledge”  because adaptive experts “1) comprehend why those procedures they know work; 2) modify those procedures flexibly when needed; and 3) invent new procedures when none of the known procedures are effective” (Hatano).

By looking at the coming shifts, we need to teach our students to be gritty in developing an adaptive expertise as they will need these two traits to excel in the rapidly changing world of their future.

As Duckworth states, we really don’t know how to teach and train grit, but we are exploring it- just like the answer to how to develop adaptive expertise is constantly being explored.

As educators, we need to be creative in our process- for instance, we need to ask ourselves as we design curriculum and instruction: Will this process and content help develop grit and adaptive expertise in our students? If so how? If not, how can we add these two components?

I recall a time when a 7 teacher asked me about how to help the reflective process outlined in our science curriculum be less “boring and repetitive” (kids’ words).  I suggested that rather than have the kids determine how to make the circuit work and then watch them sit and think, I encouraged him to instruct them to discover three ways that don’t work first, explain why they don’t work, then present a way the circuit will work (perhaps to find multiple ways it could work).  Grit and Adaptive Expertise. We can add these to the ever-growing list of integral 21st Century Skills.

Esteves, Jose.  “Shift Happens: 2013”

Duckworth, Angela. “Grit”

Hatano, Giyoo. “Adaptive Expertise”


Balance and Boundaries

I was recently asked how I help teachers understand the proper balance between appropriate boundaries and building important relationships in the classrooms.  Having worked in the classroom as a new, young teacher, and now as an administrator with some young faculty, I had these perspectives to share.

I have long been a proponent that what makes a great school, classroom, or learning experience is strong relationships.  A teacher’s ability to initiate, nurture, and maintain positive relationships  with his or her students is as integral to the educational process as having strong content knowledge and a collection of effective instructional strategies.

Oftentimes, especially for new or young teachers, learning about the proper balance between appropriate boundaries and building these integral relationships can be an ambiguously sticky and somewhat confusing process.  Further, determining such a balance will vary from person to person, school to school, and age group to age group.

In particular, the rapport teachers build with the ever-changing middle school-aged student requires a nimbleness that comes with tremendous emotional intelligence, targeted mentorship, or good old fashioned experience (which sometimes means making mistakes in the process and learning from them).

Making this dynamic more ambiguous is the ever-changing needs and desires of adolescent students.  Invariably, they are starting to break away from parents and seeking adult interactions that have them feeling more adult. The adults they have the most exposure to and the opportunity to bond with are their teachers.

And herein lies the conflict for the teacher.  We want to build strong bonds with our students, because that is the primary catalyst to good learning experiences, but the type of relationship that our students want with us may be on the wrong side of the appropriate boundary lines.

Here are some things to think about and basic rules of thumb:

•         You don’t need to get personal to have a good relationship. Let the tool of your rapport be through the content and activities of the class.

•         You don’t need to be the class clown to have a good relationship with the students. Avoid sarcasm as it is often misunderstood by students and can easily be hurtful. Remember, they are kids, and the message you send may not be the message they receive.

•         Build bonds through extra-curricular connections. Go to their games and their performances, but be sure to set and maintain boundaries outside the classroom.

•         Don’t try to get students to like you by romanticizing your own life in an effort to become the exciting hero of their real-life novel.  Be authentic, not a fictional character in a movie.

•         Share your passion for common interests and let that serve as a foundation for your connections with your students. Talk about a popular book you may be reading, such as Hunger Games, or a movie you saw.

•         Building a strong, positive, and appropriate relationship with students does not require a friendship, but rather a sharing of passions, a group excitement for process, a unified appreciation and pride in the product, and the magic of sharing all three with the group.

Parents want their children to have a good school experience, to genuinely like their teachers. After all, a positive classroom environment promotes student achievement. However, a teacher who shares too much about his or her adult life breaches the trust that parents have when they send their child to school. It’s not good for the student and it’s not good for the teacher.

As I have always said, strong relationships are at the core of a great school,   but we must be cognizant of building those relationships on a positive, appropriate and respectful foundation.   Ultimately, as a community that strives for 360 degree support for the student experience, consideration of our role at school as en loco parentis renders the relationship between the teacher and student to be clearly one of adult and adolescent.  Such a rapport will foster the necessary trust and respect between teacher and student, and school and family.

The Gritty Jester

Anyone who has ever been in my office knows that I sport a typical English teacher’s bookshelf cluttered with tattered copies of classics, anthologies, and professional texts.  But only one book is set face out and standing on the top shelf in full regalia- The Jester Has Lost His Jingle, by David Saltzman.  While A Separate Peace (Knowles) was my first favorite book, and Song of Solomon (Morrison) my favorite book as a young adult, this seemingly children’s book represents the most transcendent of stories that I have read- and I continue to share it periodically not only as a guest reader in a Pre-K class, but also during my weekly conversations with the 6th, 7th,and 8th grade classes.  It is certainly an important book for all ages.

In recent weeks, I have been exploring Angela Lee Duckworth, which has led me on a cookie crumb trail through Debbie Silver’s Fall Down Seven Times, Get Up Eight, through Ericcson’s 10, 000 hours and other nuggets that discuss grit and resilience as integral human traits for success.

On my morning run today,  Duckworth met the Jester, and I realized just how much they have in common.

If you have not seen Duckworth’s TedTalk, here is the link:

Satlzman’s book follows the adventure of a court jester who one morning is suddenly faced with a kingdom of rulers and disciples that just no longer find him funny, nor do they find anything funny, hence the Jester “loses” his jingle and is banished.

At this point, the Jester, who has undoubtedly put in the Ericcsonian requisite 10,000 hours to become expert in his field, likewise shows tremendous grit in not giving up, but rather going on a journey to “find laughter”.  Accompanied by his best friend, Pharley (a talking stick- a nice commentary on inclusivity and embracing differences in others), he travels the world seeking “laughter”.  Ultimately, he arrives at a bridge that crosses to a huge city (undoubtedly Saltzman’s hometown of New York City of the 80’s).

Resolving through the first the banishment, then the inability to find his grail all over the world, he is then rejected rather harshly by multiple stereotypes: the smoking, ornery businessman, the homeless man on the street, and ultimately, he ends up at a hospital trying to cheer up a little girl with a tumor.

Showing grit, resilience, and a commitment to helping others through laughter, he starts small with the little girl, which ultimately leads the whole city into laughter and happiness.

The story ends with the Jester racing back to the king and reporting his experience, and sharing the laughter he “found” with the kingdom.

The story reflects so many ideas that educators and researchers in recent years have proposed as integral.  A growth-mindset, resilience, embracing differences in others, a global community and cultural literacy (he goes between a medieval kingdom and contemporary New York city), collaboration (with Pharley- who at one point encourages the Jester to keep moving in his pursuit), and grit.

It is always refreshing to make such connections as these and to once again realize that my children are getting through their experiences the opportunity to develop these important traits, while also knowing that we are never too old to learn from a children’s book.


Side Note: I always feel compelled to share the story of David Saltzman- one of true grit, resilience, courage, and positive thinking.  I encourage anyone interested in the powerful addition to the reading experience to read about David.