Today I had the honor of speaking to Breakthrough students on Newman’s campus for Career Day. I was struck with the passion and vision these young men and women have for their futures. To make a difference is their goal and it is through serving as educators and educational leaders that they hope to do so. They clearly understand that the path to a bright future is through education. They were actively seeking answers and challenging the status-quo with thoughtful and engaging questions.
One student asked how you know you are making the right decision as an educator-what a global question and important thought to ponder. I shared that I am not always certain that mine is the “right” answer; however, I shared that I have the luxury considering the individual student and our community of learners, parents, educators, and staff members in all that we do at Newman. Oftentimes the outcome is a tough decision that is best for the larger community and sometimes, it is what is best for the individual person. There is no play book for much of what we do when we interact with people for a career.
Obviously, not all school settings are like Newman’s; however, I charged these future change agents with building community and supporting the layers of players in the lives of the children of tomorrow. For it is not just the student we consider, but their entire support system within and beyond our school environment. I believe it is through the relationships and conversations we have that our community is best able to serve the minds and hearts of our learners and therefore, our greater world.
It is wonderful to know that as technology buds and skills other than human interactions are honed for careers of tomorrow, that so many want to press flesh and interact on a more “old fashioned scale” in our modern world. Certainly, or future will involve team work with those from varying backgrounds and with the advent of technology we are able to connect with folks in so many ways. Therefore, teaching how to connect, converse, and understand each other is a skill that we as educators will continue to instill and focus upon for our students. Whether Breakthrough students or Newman’s school year students, it is a privilege and opportunity to instill values and carry on conversations with tomorrow’s leaders.
I just returned from the ten year celebration of the beginning of the University of Pennsylvania Mid Career Doctoral Program. Catching up with colleagues and professors was invigorating, and I am so impressed with the attention to quality of this program. We speak often about 21st Century skills, and when I think about this program and how rigorous, diverse, and collaborative it is, I am convinced that this type of education will become more typical.
In addition to breakout sessions on data driven schools and developing leadership capacity through distributing leadership, I was also able to hear from Pedro Noguera. He shared his views on the current state of education and that he hoped the national debate would shift from a simplistic, polarized view to a more nuanced and complex view of the issues. The main piece of advice he gave is that we as educators need to learn from each other. As I looked around the room at folks from public schools, charter schools, private schools, independent schools as well as from various departments of education, I felt truly privileged to be able to debate and discuss key educational issues with my colleagues. I enjoyed sharing Newman’s story and the good work we are doing. I think we will have many visitors soon.
With the mapping of the human genome, scientists find themselves in the middle of a revolution in genetics. Before these new understandings, the classic question was why there is so much variability in nature. In early explanations, for instance, biologists used to speak about dominant and recessive genes; now we know that there are at least fifteen forms of some dominant genes and various forms of recessive genes. This helps explain the enormous variability in species expression. The recent human genome mapping process also created turmoil in the field around the discovery that about 98.5% of human DNA is not made up of genes. Scientists first called this “extra” DNA “junk DNA,” but clearly there is important function in this misnamed “junk.”
We are moving toward a clearer understanding of the dynamics of genetics, which generally involve “nature via nurture.” Our genes are actually altered by context: a learning experience leads to changes in the particular genes activated in neural tissue. Genes and environment work together, not separately. For instance, cognitive ability and height are both highly heritable but do not have individual genes that contribute much to their inheritance. The key seems to be that the environment contributes to genetic expression.
Educators are working to understand the impact these new ideas have on our work. Scientists, for example, suggest that common learning disabilities are highly heritable, one of the highest for human traits. They are, actually, not really “specific” disabilities, but the extremes of normal variation. An even more interesting approach is the notion that what we call “disability” is only viewed as such because of context. A “disability” in one context is a talent in another. It turns out that dyslexics are over-represented in art schools by a factor of two. Also, astrophysicists who are dyslexic have a talent for holistic integration across the visual field and, thus, they are much better able to find black holes than are astrophysicists who are not dyslexic. These discoveries help educators to understand better the basic truth that variability is the norm and that we should be careful about labeling students who have different strengths and weakness. It is best to see each learner as unique. Our job is to help the learner understand and develop his appetites, talents, and aptitudes so that he can find the context for those strengths where they can be realized and celebrated. Our job is to create an educational environment that will best foster the educational realization of our students’ aspirations.
While I attended the Mind Brain and Education Institute at Harvard last week, they shared a study with us that looked at a sampling of astrophysicists. The findings were that those scientists with dyslexia we far more effective in finding black holes than those without dyslexia. Just as interesting, the scientists without dyslexia would have gladly traded their ability to read more easily for this special ability. It is an interesting juxtaposition on who has the learning disability.