A recent blog eloquently coupled a perspective written by an athletic champion (Kirk Mango, “Becoming a True Champion: Achieving Athletic Excellence from the Inside Out”) with a suggestion that the principles stated relative to athletic excellence could easily be adopted toward improvement in other areas. Emphasis was placed on academic and personal improvement interventions, and the steps toward such achievement can be easily referenced to already existing, but not used effectively, activities which schools are only just beginning to recognize as keys to success.

Determining strengths and weaknesses, in the world of academia, relies on the gathering of relevant data and subjecting it to keen analysis. Some attempts are being made through the use of standardized testing, often yielding only mediocre information to use in the process, as a search is being made for accurate measures for accountability purposes. Only in recent years have I personally seen this genre being taken down to the individual student level; one valuable development toward this process has been the implementation of the use of rubrics along with traditional subjective data, for students to use in assessing their own strengths and weaknesses. I have seen this happen with children as young as kindergartners, creating “smiley face” rubrics before they can even write! From these assessment activities, each child can then establish goals for improvement and begin a search for interventions to move him/her toward successful achievement.

Identifying fundamentals, skills, and strategies to use in addressing the various identified individual characteristics becomes the starting point toward an active road map for personal improvement. I have recognized for a number of years that there is a need for students to learn how to assess their own skills, establish goals, and then create “a road map” toward achieving those goals. “What do you want to be doing in five years?” Being able to recognize which interventions are relevant, and which are not, is an important step in personal development. We often read, these days, of references to “21st Century Skills” and are generally left to guess at what those are.  Actually, Communication, Cooperation, Collaboration and Creativity headline those skills, along with the ability to Work Independently toward personal growth. By having the student begin to focus on his/her own needs and accomplishments, the education process becomes more personalized and “real”, and not something merely to talk about in class.

When I taught classes on Middle Level Education, I would not ask the students to write the characteristics of a Middle School; rather, I asked them to write down how their own middle/junior high school was the same or different from the idealized middle school concept. In this way, they were relating their own experience to the issue under consideration and lodging the concept into their own mind for thoughtful use. The same principle was used when I was teaching Anthropology; the question used might have been “How are you different from Neanderthal Man?”, again going from their own experience to the new. Both of these examples were a bit farther up Bloom’s Taxonomic Scale then merely Knowledge and Understanding.

Note that I was asking students to express an opinion, and one which they needed to be able to support. When we stop to think about it, it appears that most decisions are based more on opinions than on actual facts; certainly the political campaigns strongly reflect this situation. What I ask of all students is that they will be developing opinions but that they need to be strongly rooted in factual information, not just other person’s speculations. At the same time, they need to be able to evaluate what is being expressed by others, whether it is factual or opinion. This is critical to effective decision making.

Implementation of the chosen interventions is the next step toward improvement; in the world of athletics, as well as in other arenas such as the performing arts, the key words are ‘”practice, practice, and more practice” in order to make the physical movements become a part of the individual’s arsenal of skills. With that practice, movement toward mastery is achieved. We can see how this can be fruitful for educational concerns; students are constantly required to master some basic skills such as Reading with the intent that they may be used as tools toward higher levels of learning. One of the problems with schools has been the passing of students on to the next level before achieving mastery or competence in the early levels. The multi-age grouping concept, and “looping” in which a classroom of elementary level students stays with the same teacher over two or three years, are two approaches to fostering better mastery; however, it has been difficult to overcome “traditional” perspectives regarding organization and use of personnel in order to establish different methods.

A final step in the process is that of evaluation, can the individual effectively assess how far and how well he/she is making progress toward achieving the established goal. Again referring to Bloom, the highest level of learning is that of being able to evaluate what has been done in order to make changes and modifications if necessary toward further improvement. In general, we have not taught students much about how to evaluate.

Many years ago, when I was a Head Teacher for a Model Cities Project in the Inner City of Gary, Indiana, we set up a class for the 7th graders in the project. It was called, “How to Make Mistakes” and the first lesson was to tell the student that you wanted him to get you a can of tomatoes from the nearby stack, and you wanted the bottom can. When the stack fell while the bottom can was being removed, we then discussed how we should have done it, and how could we retrieve our “mistake”. This approach could lead to a whole host of discussion topics; after all, most of the stuff sold at a Home Depot is probably for use in fixing mistakes made in Do-It-Yourself projects! Trial and error is often a worthwhile approach to use in learning; at least, it’s hands-on!

Finally, let’s emphasize that these basic principles are not restricted to athletic achievement or academic success; they should be used in all areas where improvement is a desired outcome. Interpersonal relationships, financial concerns, personal growth—–all are examples at the individual level. But we can see how the same can be applied to large problems involving populations, situations currently being addressed on a national scale such as deficit reduction, entitlement programs, immigration reform, and social prejudice. Identify strengths and weaknesses, generate goals, explore potentially effective interventions, and implement.

An example with which I am personally involved has been a major change in the protocol being used to evaluate schools and school districts for the purpose of accreditation renewal. The guiding forces of the accrediting organization felt that the programs need to be more effective, and that there needed to be a greater component of subjective ratings introduced into the process. Next week I will be having my first experience with using the new protocol as a member of a team going to the smallest school district in our state (Wyoming). All but 8 of the students in the district are in one K-12 building; the others are several miles away in a smaller facility. This should be a good way to introduce us to the new directions we are to follow, before going to larger and more complex organizations. That one building is divided into elementary, junior high, and high school, sharing teachers and facilities in a manner similar to a school I evaluated with a partner last year. We were responsible only for the middle school; in this one, I’m assigned to the high school.

During all this, I hold out hope that the medications I’m currently taking to address some of the issues of my neuropathy will continue to work, as the doctor and I gradually withdraw me to very low levels and perhaps total withdrawal. However, it appears that there is before me a lifetime of dependence upon highly expensive drugs having some nasty side effects. I’ve recently contacted a research project, in Oregon, as a potential volunteer for clinical trials of new directions in treatment. In other words, I’ve assessed my strengths and needs in the arena of health, am exploring possible interventions, and will potentially implement changes and evaluations of new possibilities. Just like the stuff in this blog!

Always Be Happy!

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