Practice Makes Perfect

Student experience, not outcomes, matter most for school design.

There is a huge push around the country to define the student outcomes we want schools to achieve. Pretty consistently, these have become an array of “graduate profiles” by schools, districts, and education reform organizations alike.

The question being asked is, “Who do we want children to be when they graduate from school?”.

This is great — I love that we’re creating positive visions. We do want to know our aims. We do hope our children are creative, competent, curious, empathetic, lifelong learners, and complex problem solvers, and we should understand the kinds of capacities, character, and beliefs we hope our children will develop during school.

However, defining outcomes is only the very, very first step. It’s an important step, but it says nothing about how those outcomes might be achieved. Just as necessary as defining outcomes is understanding the connection between the kinds of experiences students and teachers have in school and the outcomes we hope for. This is a huge missing link. We need to move from thinking about outcomes to thinking about experiences.

Right now, we adopt a manufacturing metaphor for this. We’ll take our input, “X” child and with some Y interventions, and Z teaching strategies, we test their proficiency, and voila, they become our ideal graduate. This fundamentally misunderstands how people learn and grow. Here’s the truth:

Our future possible selves are developed out of the habits, actions, beliefs, and values we live and practice today.

How we live our lives today is a good indicator of who we will become. Work with youth cannot be about acquiring some “good” for future use[i], but rather it must be about practicing capacities daily. It’s through the daily practice of our capacities, character, and beliefs that our future selves are formed.

It’s not enough to know the outcomes — we need to know how to create environments and design experiences (practices) that lead to the outcomes.

When we focus on outcomes, we measure on outcomes. We seek increasingly precise ways of measuring and holding educators accountable for the outcomes, while ignoring the fact that it’s students actual experiences, not the metrics, that matter. [[Check out Tye Ripma’s blog post for a more specific story about one of his students, Emma, and how a focus on outcomes can lead to ignoring the human experience in front of us.]]

Educators have, at best, indirect influence on the outcomes — but direct influence on the school environment, pedagogy, and experiences students are exposed to.

To borrow from my last piece (which argues we have to change our metaphor from manufacturing to gardening), let’s say we want to grow a healthy garden tomato. Yes, it’s important to define what it means to be a healthy tomato — color, size, taste, and to assess whether we’ve achieved that. However, perhaps even more important is knowing how to create the kind of environment and ‘experience’ a tomato plant needs to thrive — what kind of sunlight, water, soil, fertilizer, and TLC are needed?

While students aren’t plants (obviously), the same basic idea applies — their core needs must be met and they must have opportunities to practice the capacities, character, and beliefs we hope they will develop.

Let’s take creativity and empathy as examples. Currently, while we say we want these outcomes, our schools are often set up to quickly dampen and depress these natural instincts in children. While asking “How do we make sure every child is taught creativity?” or, “How do we make students be more empathetic?”, is certainly more important than simply saying, “All of our graduates should be creative,” it still ignores the importance of daily lived experience in the development of healthy humans. Instead, we should be asking,

“How might we design for the daily practice of creativity in our classrooms?” and, “How might we treat students empathically and help them practice and reflect on empathy daily?”

Sharing experiences ❤

If students do not practice creativity and empathy daily, they are unlikely to become creative and empathetic adults. Similarly, if they are not given the chance to solve complex problems with other students and adults while in school, then they are unlikely to be prepared to address complex problems when they encounter them as adults.

For a second example, think about the disjuncture between the goal of helping students become adults who have a particularly well-developed set of interpersonal and socio-emotional skills and the increasing pressure to “personalize learning” online, and/or online charter schools. You learn empathy by being treated with empathy and experiencing the benefits of treating others with empathy. You learn conflict resolution skills by encountering conflicts and trying out different ways of trying to resolve them.

If students mostly practice sitting in front of computers, it’s a good bet they won’t be practicing their interpersonal and socio-emotional skills as frequently, and thus will not develop these skills as fully — regardless of whether or not the school has a social emotional learning (SEL) curriculum.

Hugs & Empathy ❤

We spend over 14,000 hours in school between K-12. This makes it an incredibly important place for habit formation. Think of the 10,000 hours of practice rule Malcolm Gladwell popularized from Ericsson’s research[ii]: Those 14,000 hours make us experts in who we practice being.

This means that how we do school, and who we practice being in school greatly influences who we ultimately become. As Aristotle notes, “It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference”[iii]. In other words: old habits die hard.

Who are students practicing being today? What kinds of daily habits are they practicing while in the classroom? This is who they will become.

When we focus on (and measure) only the outcomes of what we want from school, we lose sight of the fact that it is the daily experience of schooling itself — the environment, pedagogy, and culture — that ultimately lead us either toward or away from what we care about. To make a real positive difference, this means we have to move from thinking about and measuring outcomes, to thinking about and measuring the environments and experiences of school.

How we “do” school is what matters for our future — the experiences and practice and environment of students and educators. It’s not enough to say we want our children to be creative or competent or courageous or connected or curious or complex problem-solvers — we have to create schools that facilitate the daily practice of being these kinds of people today.

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[i] Dewey’s thoughts from Experience and Education capture this idea well: “When preparation is made the controlling end, then the potentialities of the present are sacrificed to a suppositious future. When this happens, the actual preparation for the future is missed or distorted” (p. 49).

[ii] Gladwell talks about the “10,000 hour rule” in Outliers; Ericsson did the original research in 1998, captured in this study.

[iii] Aristotle. Nicomachean ethics.

All of these ideas are explored in much more depth, and connected to a full theory of change, in “Why School: A System’s Perspective on Creating Schooling for Human Flourishing & a Thriving Democracy.”