Thursday, December 12, 2013

Teaching Kids the Highest Leverage Skill

In our standards-based education system, we are engaged in a never-ending effort to teach every high leverage skill. We focus on skills that are so critical that they are foundational for learning standards far into the future.  If you have ever worked with a student that had gaps in his learning, you can instantly tell where his gaps lie. You can quickly identify the skills that he is missing. Some students close gaps quicker than others and some never do. Why is that?  

It is because few kids possess the highest leverage skill. 

Some people feel that reading comprehension, fluency or numeracy are the highest leverage skills, and they are from an academic perspective.  But without the mindset for learning, these skills struggle to grow. 

So what is the highest leverage skill?

Some people look beyond academics and feel that self-confidence is the highest leverage skill. With it, you can do anything. Without it, growth is minimal. Kids, that make the biggest gains, do so because they have been hard-wired to believe in themselves.  This positive image of one's own abilities generates strength and the desire to take risks. Like it or not, self confidence is not the highest leverage skill. 

Some believe persistence is an invaluable skill. To learn difficult concepts, kids must have resolve. They must keep going when they hit the brick wall. Persistence is what turns practice into progress, but I'm sorry to say that while persistence is valuable, it is not the highest leverage skill. 

Enough Already, What is the Highest Leverage Skill?

Hope.  Eric Jensen sited hope as the difference between students of poverty making it or not. Hope is the eternal belief that life will get better. No matter the obstacle, circumstance or barrier, hope of a brighter future is the only thing between a student's reality and his potential.  In short, self-confidence and persistence can't exist unless there's hope. 

How do we teach hope to our kids?

Educators must transform the role of content-instiller into that of hope-builder. We possess massive potential to turn hopelessness into a viable vision. We build hope in students by doing the following things:

1. Help students create their own meaningful pathway to a better life. 
2.  Set challenging but realistic goals to measure progress along the way. 
3.  Guide students to find short-term wins. 
4.  Facilitate student thinking and problem solving through setbacks and losses. 
5.  Teach kids a never-give-up mentality. 

How do educators become hope builders?

1.  Stop thinking about teaching content and start teaching kids.  Content will come once we focus on teaching kids. 
2.  Connect with kids on a human level. Relationships are the pathway to learning. 
3.  Model hope by expressing personal beliefs in students to everyone we encounter. 
4. Never give up. Never give up. Never give up. 

Hope is the antibiotic to fear and uncertainty. It is the GPS used to navigate the winding road of success. Hope overcomes obstacles and dissipates doubt. Finally, it is accompanied by faith, joy and love. 

Got hope?


  1. I dig it, John. I really do.

    But here's my push back: Educational leaders from the school to the district and state level need to recognize that this is an important part of the work that teachers do.

    It's hard for me to see hope-building as valuable when it plays no role in the judgments that people make about "the value I add" to the lives of the kids in my classroom.

    I want to hear principals take courageous stands and say over and over again in front of audiences -- parents, students, teachers, policymakers -- that we AREN'T content instillers. I want to hear principals celebrate the hope-builders publicly in every forum.

    As a teacher, I get tired of hearing about all the roles that I'm supposed to fill when the only role that anyone ever publicly comments on is my ability to grind content knowledge into the heads of my students.

    Any of this make sense?

    PS: Hope you're well and happy and smiling your way through the holidays!

    1. Bill,

      You're absolutely right. Teachers can't add one more thing to the heaping plate of tasks to do. This post hopefully challenges us to put our plates in perspective in respect to understand what is critical content to be instilled in the minds of children.

      As far as being an advocate, I'm preaching, and I would be glad to join you on the road to spread this message. I'm telling it down here in Texas and plan to continue pushing it through my writing and leadership.

      Keeping the main the main thing means keeping the heart, minds and souls of our kids at the forefront rather than test scores. Keeping kids first will take care of the score issue.

      Enjoy your holidays as well, friend.