Thursday, August 23, 2018

The Seed and The Soil of Education (New Learning Project Part 1)

(This is my entry for the first part of my project for my New Learning course that I am taking.)


Corn Fields in Illinois
I have lived the majority of my life in the Midwest: mid-state Illinois to be specific. Where I live, farming is everywhere. My grandparents and great-grandparents on both sides of my family were farmers. My dad grew up on a farm and owned farmland, well into my own adulthood. But, even if it wasn’t in the family, I still would have been surrounded by farming. You can’t go more than a mile outside of my city’s limits without encountering miles and miles of fields. Most of our highways, and even interstates, are located between acres of farmland.

You will encounter all variety of crops. Fields upon fields of soybeans, but primarily corn… As far as the eye can see. Along with me and the majority of my friends, our first job was most likely detasseling corn. (Which, if you do not live in an area where there is an abundance of corn, you’ve probably never heard of this and didn’t know it was a job.) Being around all of this has brought me into direct contact with a multitude of farmers… corn farmers, to be specific. And without exception, not a one of them has had the ability to actually grow corn. Now, you might be thinking, “Well, then how do they make it as a farmer?” But notice, that I did not say that corn didn’t grow, what I said was, these farmers can’t actually grow the corn.

Allow me to clarify: Farmers can plan accurately, according to the seasons and the signs of the weather. They can invest in good seed, plow their fields, plant the seed, fertilize the field, and some even purchase and install irrigation systems, to make sure their fields receive plenty of water. But at the end of the day, they don’t actually have the ability to grow the corn. There is no force of will or inner determination that can make the corn grow. And to be honest, I’ve known farmers that do everything right and have a horrible yield and farmers that do almost everything wrong and receive an abundant harvest.

I share these corn-field thoughts, not because the University of Illinois is in the middle of corn fields or because of its excellent agricultural programs, but simply because I believe that the mental picture of a farmer, attempting to grow crops, illustrates the realities of a teacher, attempting to teach students.

Digging Deeper

I have been teaching for 18 years at various schools, both public and private. Most recently I accepted a position as an Instructional Coach at Danville High School, in Danville Illinois. The last few years, leading up to this new job, I have put more and more thought into the methods that teachers use to deliver knowledge to our students. I’ve explored and experimented with various methodologies, strategies, and pedagogies, and have found a common truth:

Students that want to learn, will learn, sometimes in spite of the quality of the teaching and the particular pedagogy that a teacher employs to accomplish their tasks. In my experience, the opposite has also shown itself to be true, there are students who have, regardless of even the most innovative new pedagogical approaches to education, have not learned a thing. And like a batch of seed that won’t germinate or an overly acidic patch of soil in a farmer’s field, there are barren spots that do not produce a harvest, even though the farmer has done the same things, or even more things… above and beyond things… for these barren patches.

Please don’t get me wrong: Any and every good farmer does all that they can to promote crop growth… Just like any and every good teacher does all that they can to promote learning in their students. It would be a horrible idea for a farmer or a teacher to ignore new research and new practices that have revealed themselves to be beneficial for a prosperous increase in either harvest or comprehension and retention. But I have noticed that, in the educational field, there is a growing conversation with increasing volume that addresses the responsibility of the teacher. This growing conversation is coming, not from the teachers who are “in the trenches” from day to day, but from those just outside of the regular, daily classroom teaching: from administrators, coaches, professors, researchers, and other “intellectuals” in the field of education. To put the theme of this conversation bluntly, “... if a student isn’t learning, then the teacher must be doing something wrong.”

There is an element of truth to this idea. If students aren’t learning, then a good teacher would begin to ask this of themselves automatically. Constant, ongoing self-evaluation is an essential element of every good teacher. Stick-in-the-mud teachers, who simply want things to be the way they were when they were in school or when they first started teaching, have failed to realize that our children are changing. The audience, so to speak, has changed over the last 20 to 30 years, so one ought to expect the presentation, explanation, and strategic implementation of teaching strategies to adjust and change in a sort-of hand-in-hand partnership with the flux of our society. But at the end of the day, we cannot actually cause learning to happen. This must be acknowledged, not only by teachers, but also by those who teach teachers, those who evaluate teachers, those policy makers for schools and other educational institutions, and even from the students. Like farmers who begin to delve into the research relating to the genetic nature of the seeds and the chemical composition of the soil, the entire spectrum of educational personnel must recognize and address the realities of the seed: inner workings of students hearts and minds and their soil: their surroundings, their homelife, their neighborhoods, and their friendships to build a full-fledged approach to education.


One aspect of these inner workings has been addressed and researched by Angela Duckworth (, and compiled in her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. A summary statement on her website puts it this way:
“My research focuses on two traits that predict achievement: grit and self-control. Grit is the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals (Duckworth et al., 2007). Self-control is the voluntary regulation of impulses in the presence of momentarily gratifying temptations (Duckworth & Seligman, 2005; Duckworth & Steinberg, 2015).
In this statement we can see these two elements, grit and self-control, that are present within a “seed” or a student. Looking at the first, notice that she defined Grit as “... the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals.” I believe that we can see Grit at work in those students who have developed goals of some sort, whether they are on paper or not, and the quality, excitement, and interesting aspects of the presentation of new teaching from a certain teacher becomes less of a contributing factor to that student’s learning as the gritty nature of that student’s drive to excel in that particular class. So, the pedagogies, whether they be didactic, authentic, or transformative, can potentially, owe their success or failure to the inner workings of a student and their grit, or lack of.

The second thing that she mentioned was self-control. I am convinced that we are all aware of self-control and its relevance to our daily lives, but when considering students in our modern society, it becomes an essential element when dealing with news feeds, recent tweets, a friend’s snapchat, a new trend on pinterest, and anything instagram. She defined self-control as, “... the voluntary regulation of impulses in the presence of momentarily gratifying temptations.” If you are in the modern classroom on a regular basis, you will know that these “momentarily gratifying temptations” are a dominant force in our student’s minds. Seeds must germinate, in order to even begin to grow, so also a student must have some measure of grit and self-control in order to even begin to learn.

There are various factors that can and will contribute to whether or not a seed will germinate.Whether it is soaking in water, encountering other amounts of moisture, or enduring the cold of winter, there are elements that each and every seed requires before the germination process can happen and the seed jumps into life. Failure to meet these varied requirements can result in stunted growth or a complete failure to ever germinate and begin the upward stretch toward the sun. Ultimately, any farmer or gardener knows that they cannot delve into the inner workings of a seed and cause the germination to happen, but they know that they can make all of the conditions right to give that seed its best chance of proper germination. If grit and self-control are the core character traits of a student that is ready to learn, then we must ask the question, “What can we do to develop this in our children?”

Here is a Ted Talk of Angela Duckworth discussing grit:



Angela Duckworth, in considering what we can do to contribute to the development of grit (along with self-control) in a student, states:

“So far, the best idea I've heard about building grit in kids is something called "growth mindset." This is an idea developed at Stanford University by Carol Dweck, and it is the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed, that it can change with your effort. Dr. Dweck has shown that when kids read and learn about the brain and how it changes and grows in response to challenge, they're much more likely to persevere when they fail, because they don't believe that failure is a permanent condition.”

According to Duckworth, grit is something that can be built. I wholeheartedly agree with this: Grit can be developed, it can be nurtured. Good teachers will seek to build grit in their students, not because they are John Wayne fans, but because we understand that grit is what will keep our kids going when they are not going to get an immediate payoff. Grit can see past the age-old, “when are we ever going to use this?” question, and recognize that many of the things that school-age students must accomplish are only rungs on a tall ladder, leading to where they really want to go. Duckworth also stated that “growth mindset” is one of the best ideas when it comes to building grit.

Carol Dweck describes the results of her research in Education Weekly:
We found that students’ mindsets—how they perceive their abilities—played a key role in their motivation and achievement, and we found that if we changed students’ mindsets, we could boost their achievement. More precisely, students who believed their intelligence could be developed (a growth mindset) outperformed those who believed their intelligence was fixed (a fixed mindset). And when students learned through a structured program that they could “grow their brains” and increase their intellectual abilities, they did better. Finally, we found that having children focus on the process that leads to learning (like hard work or trying new strategies) could foster a growth mindset and its benefits.
Here is a Ted Talk by Eduardo Briceno called The Power of Belief: Mindset and Success:

Click here for a transcript of that video.

In that Ted Talk, Briceno discusses the example of Josh Waitzkin, a chess master and the subject of the movie, Searching for Bobby Fischer. Josh Waitzkin has gone on to become a master of several different martial arts, and has attributed his ability to learn to understanding this idea of a growth mindset. In an interview, Waitzkin was asked what was the greatest thing that ever happened to him, his response was that losing his first national chess championship was that greatest thing. This might seem odd, until you understand the importance of failure and losing to the establishment a good growth mindset. Failure for Waitzkin, helped him to avoid some key psychological traps. Briceno puts it this way:

The key trap that Josh avoided was believing that he was special, that he was smarter than other people and that he didn’t have to work hard. He could have thought of himself as a prodigy, but he doesn't think that he has extraordinary intelligence. He says, the moment we believe that success is determined by an ingrained level of ability, we will be brittle in the face of adversity

In Conclusion

Pulling these ideas together, Duckworth states, “Grit is not just having resilience in the face of failure, but also having deep commitments that you remain loyal to over many years.” We regularly ask our students to remain loyal to a commitment to graduate and eventually become a productive member of society, but what they need goes beyond what is typically taught in our schools. There is much being done in terms of enhancing the educational experience and making it more and more relevant to the needs of our society. Many schools are excelling at bringing in new technologies and better teaching practices, but the area of character development has fallen to the wayside. Just as much as our schools need new computer labs, one-to-one technology enhancements, more inclusive collaborative strategies, project based learning opportunities, and even the somewhat tailored educational experiences, our children are also in desperate need of those inner qualities that will cause their seed to germinate, get fertilized, and then eventually grow, through all of our best teaching techniques, to a productive harvest.


  • Carol Dweck Ted Talk The Power of Believing that you can Improve -- (Click Here)
  • Carol Dweck Revisits the 'Growth Mindset' --- As first appeared in Education Week on Sept 23, 2015 By Carol Dweck  --- (Click Here)
  • Journal of International Education Research – First Quarter 2015 Volume 11, Number 1 Copyright by author(s); CC-BY 47 The Clute Institute -- (Click Here)
  • Fixed And Growth Mindset In Education And How Grit Helps Students Persist In The Face Of Adversity Aaron Hochanadel, MBA, Kaplan University, USA Dora Finamore, EdD, Kaplan University, USA
  • Transcript for Power of Belief Ted Talk --- (Click Here)
  • The Power of belief -- mindset and success | Eduardo Briceno --- (Click Here)
  • Grit can be defined as “…passion and perseverance for long-term goals…” (Frontiers In Psychology, 2014).
  • Mindsets in the Classroom --- (Click Here)
  • Growth mindset tempers the effects of poverty on academic achievement --- (Click Here)
  • Even Geniuses Work Hard --- (Click Here)
  • Character Lab ---
  • Angela Duckworth ---

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