School for Superheroes
I have an idea to prevent the dystopian future predicted by Eli Horowitz and Scott Teplin in The Classroom is Dead. I’m building a school that can adapt to an unpredictable future by putting “All About Me” day at the center.
Do you remember All About Me day? That was the day, usually in kindergarten, usually on her birthday, when Suzy got to wear a construction paper crown with her name written on it in colorful marker. Her parents visited her classroom and Suzy stood in front of her peers to show off her All About Me poster. Maybe the poster revealed some things about Suzy’s background, showed pictures of her relatives, and reflected some things about her family’s heritage and religious culture. It was the best day of the year for Suzy. She was a shining star, wrapped in the rich heritage of her family’s traditions and values.
What happened after the celebration? Her parents kissed her goodbye and Suzy returned to her seat among her peers. The focus on her was a break in the action. She probably got to wear the crown for the rest of the day but the trumpet trill of her specialness soon faded into the buzz of the school day. Everyone got back to work.
At the School for Superheroes, this would not be a once-a-year occurrence. This would be the foundation for each student’s educational plan.
If you look through any student’s school career, you can find at least one moment of pride. You could freeze frame the exact moment when Suzy felt that sense of pride, when the corners of her mouth rose up in a private grin. If you look closely, I guarantee you will find that she was exercising one of her character strengths. It could have been humor, when she fulfilled the role of class clown, or humility, when she played a quiet but critical role on the winning team. Her classmate Carlos could have been using his perseverance, when he finally completed that big project, or the jolt he got from appreciating the beauty of nature. It could have been courage, when she finally raised her hand and asked the one question that was on everyone’s mind. It could have been a private moment of flow that put Carlos in touch with his love of learning.
I work in schools as a school psychologist. That means that I do a lot of educational testing. My two greatest responsibilities are to decide if a student has a learning disability and to decide whether a child is gifted and talented. In the first case, I recommend an IEP (Individualized Education Program), a plan to accommodate the child’s disability. In the second case, I recommend a GIEP (Gifted Individualized Education Program), a plan to expand on the child’s gifted abilities.
My wife and I are fortunate. We have only been on the parent side of the school psychologist’s desk to talk about GIEP’s, instead of having to confront learning difficulties. But I have never left one of those GIEP meetings satisfied that my child’s giftedness was actually being addressed, not to mention expanded upon or enriched. In fact, there have been few enriching experiences in over 20 years of my kids’ public school education. I can probably count them on my fingers.
All parents hope to hear that their child is gifted. But in fact, the IQ score that we use to determine whether a child “qualifies” for gifted support doesn’t carry the same weight as it once did. Several decades of research cracked the notion of the “bell curve,” a two-dimensional shape that the IQ scores in a normal population would create, if you piled them up. There are more kinds of intelligence than we measure with IQ tests: logical-mathematical analysis, musical thinking, spatial relations, using our body to solve problems or make things, understanding others, and understanding ourselves.
So now let’s go back to my kid’s GIEP meeting. What is special about my kid? Why isn’t every kid treated to a GIEP? If your answer is that not every kid is gifted and talented, I would challenge you there. Are you sure?
At School for Superheroes, we plan to do a GIEP meeting for every child. The future has no use for people who are paid to hold meetings and complete paperwork. This time I want you to imagine a room packed with people who are eager to know about Suzy’s superpowers. Not just educators, parents, and peers, but leaders in the business, nonprofit, and higher education sectors are crowded around the table to consider the relevance of the student’s goals. This group is buzzing with curiosity. Real-world people can guide real-world results, helping to prepare the student for leadership, entrepreneurship, and parenting. Let’s call this the “Conference.”
The Conference would combine the insights from outstanding models for creating conversation like Restorative Practices, SpeakUp!, Appreciative Inquiry, and #EdCamp. Using these approaches, the Conference would be the rarest thing: an educational model that starts from the ground up, side-stepping the ways that top-down hierarchies resist change. With the Conference at the center of the educational program, the school can truly pivot around to keep meeting each student’s needs as they evolve.
Less bound by a rigid curriculum, students will be free to follow their intuition and exercise their curiosity. The most powerful learning experiences currently occur in settings that are self-directed, that employ the Maker Space movement, Unschooling, Project-Based Learning, Montessori methods, Genius Hour, Democratic Schools, and Open Classroom design. Many of these methods have been road-tested to deliver powerful learning experiences for decades but remain on the margins. We don’t have to invent self-directed learning, just place these methods as central to our mission to help Carlos embrace, extend, and practice his core character strengths.
School for Superheroes can provide the training ground for our future leaders like Carlos and Suzy to make their impact on the world. Every day, every child would know that their peers and all the adults in their school are present for one purpose: to listen to them and help them achieve their dreams. Imagine a school where it isn’t necessary to tell Carlos that he is a natural genius. It would be redundant. He already knows.
We need to stop designing curricula that will be outdated in five years. If we want a different result, we need a different approach. We need to flip the script. We need a model that taps into superpowers. Suzy and Carlos will make a difference in the world through connection, innovation, and original thought. Let’s listen to each of our future leaders, find out what they want and then help them create a program to accomplish it. Imagine a team eager to learn a student’s goals and dedicated to help her reach them.
This is not just an idea; this is a plan for a real school. We are seeking applications to join our design team. We have a few slots open for people with diverse talents — architecture/design, finance, and knowledge of zero net energy/energy-plus building. We will be seeking funding soon for the School for Superheroes but a balanced team of leaders is the most important foundation. If you want to join our team, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.