In the introduction to Tribe of Mentors: Short Life Advice from the Best in the World, author Tim Ferriss describes a time in his life when, in a fit of overwhelm, he asked himself a clarifying question: “What would this look like if it were easy?” He goes on,
What would this look like if it were easy? is such a lovely and deceptively leveraged question. It's easy to convince yourself that things need to be hard, that if you're not redlining, you're not trying hard enough. This leads us to look for paths of most resistance, often creating unnecessary hardship in the process.
I think Tim is right — it's a question that can clear the fog, especially when it comes to improving our schools or supporting our teachers. Too often, our answers to school improvement questions come out of committees with so many bells and whistles and goals and strategies as to make them incomprehensible to every stakeholder — even the people who wrote them. Or consider the mythology that we're all familiar with, of that One Great Teacher who comes in, works in isolation with kids, sacrifices everything (like health, or family), and in the end transforms the lives of students.
Our schools can't depend on things like this.
What if, instead of complex plans or superhuman expectations, we let teachers become great at six things:
- Cultivating student motivation, specifically through encouraging five key beliefs in all of our kids
- Meaningful and robust knowledge-building, as extensively as possible
- Earnest, amicable, and evidence-based arguing
- Reading purposefully and often in ways that support mastery in a given subject
- Writing purposefully and often, again in ways that make the most sense for a given subject
- Speaking/listening purposefully and often — and here we can't forget to teach our kids how to speak and listen better
It would take time and support — these things are simple enough to say and remember, and they're pretty easy to get started on. But like the best kinds of hard candies, they reward those who patiently work at them, year in and year out. When schools are filled with people with permission and support for mastering all six of those things at deeper and deeper levels all the time, you see less stress and better outcomes.
I'm no school improvement expert, but I have been after that Tim Ferriss question — If this were simple, what would it look like? — for years.
[These 6 Things is out later this month — you can pre-order it here. I'll have more on that soon, including the first few chapters free and an epic summer book club for those who pre-order. Save your receipts!]