Recently, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Adam Mendler, host of the popular leadership podcast Thirty Minute Mentors. Adam has spoken with hundreds of Fortune 500 leaders, four-star generals, professional athletes, and Olympic Gold Medalists for their lessons in leadership. In talking with him for my own podcast on NetSupport Radio, I asked if he could relate the insights he’s gleaned from his long list of impressive guests to something that K-12 education leaders might appreciate.
Without skipping a beat, Adam dove right in and said that the common advice from nearly all his guests was being dedicated to lifelong learning. “If you are the smartest person in the room,” he said, “you are sitting in the wrong room.” His point was that leaders understand they cannot be the expert in everything, and they may need help sometimes – either through education, through hiring people with expertise, or by finding a mentor – in order to succeed.
We then launched into a discussion about leadership skills and if those could be taught in the years before college. I’ve always been a proponent of teaching leadership skills early on, but I wanted to explore this further with him. His thoughts were similar to mine, that building positive self-esteem and resiliency – AKA the “soft skills” – are what make school more relevant, interesting, and valuable.
I touched on this topic in an opinion piece that was published by Education Week last June. I took issue with our focus on the NAEP as the benchmark for establishing policy and funding allocations. My argument then and now has always been that using exam scores taken from a small window of time, even compared year-over-year, should not drive education policy. For one, there are too many factors influencing how a student performs on any particular exam on any given day.
The larger issue with high-stakes exams like the NAEP, however, is what those exams miss or what they cannot measure and, consequently, what they force us to value and not value. These exams force us to value the core subject areas, which are essential, however, they are not the single determining factor of lifetime success or personal and professional satisfaction. Personal satisfaction with life and the ability to cope falls into the category of “social-emotional learning” or SEL, which is how humans develop self-worth and confidence. SEL, however, is not measured by the NAEP or any other exam that is tied to our funding and how we govern schools.
In fairness, there are valid arguments for the school’s job being to educate on the core curriculum, areas that most families would not or could not teach at home. At home is where a child’s sense of worth, resiliency, and positive contribution to society is fostered. I argue, however, that these SEL characteristics should be taught and nurtured in school alongside the core curricular areas.
When Adam writes about and talks about mentorship, one of his key points is about having a safety net, a champion who can cheer you on when you fail. Teachers are our children’s champions and mentors. They are the people guiding their learning journey which is often fraught with failed experiments, projects, and exam questions. Every day our teachers are models of curiosity and the idea that it is okay to fail at something because we grow and learn from failure.
Adam says we should give teachers the freedom to spend more time teaching about resiliency, inquisitiveness, and self-worth. If we support the growth of these traits in school when children are most impressionable and already in learning mode, then we help them as adults. Finding out early that one doesn’t need all the answers makes a person better equipped to deal with failure in the future, because mistakes are significantly more high-stakes as we age.
Let’s embrace that concept. Project-based learning is a terrific example of learning through failure. Teaching the scientific method is a time to make mistakes and accidents that lead to discovery. My worry is that we don’t go far enough to tie down deep in a child’s psyche that failure is a good thing. Then we confuse them further by putting pressure on to do well on exams where a limited subset of students are primed to excel.
Adam added another thought to the most important leadership skill: finding and nurturing that one thing a student is good at. Knowing this “thing” and celebrating it helps a student feel stronger in the moments when they are not so good at something. We need more time to find what these brilliancies are. When a child – or an adult – is anchored in confidence, reaching out for help is not so daunting. Rather, reaching out and asking for help is an act of strength. When they come together, growth occurs and children flourish.
In 2022 a UNESCO working group published a report on flourishing in schools. The entire document is worth reading but the foreword is particularly relevant here:
Education for human flourishing needs to foster a range of human capacities. Three relationship levels are emphasized:1) relationships with other people; 2) relationships with ourselves; and 3) relationships to knowledge or subject matter. …These relational capacities support the capacity to make ethically informed decisions and actions that improve individual and collective flourishing, and include being able to: tune in to one’s own emotions, thoughts and feelings; understand others’ perspectives; develop compassion for self and others; resolve conflicts peacefully; and engage critically with subject matter. - Source: Reimagining Education: The International Science and Evidence-based Assessment
“No single approach holds all the answers,” write the authors. However, a child’s sense of self-worth, how they value themselves and their role in the world is equally as important as math skills, historical facts, and the mechanics of grammar. Let’s give it equal weight.
About the author
Al Kingsley is an author, podcaster, chair of Multi Academy Trust cluster of schools in the UK, Apprenticeship Ambassador and is chair of his regional Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Board. He is also a 30-year veteran of the edtech industry as CEO of NetSupport. He writes about servant leadership models that school leaders can engage in their schools. He has written about this topic in his most recent book, My School Governance Handbook and upcoming book “My School & Multi Academy Trust #Growth Guide