I have shared the “8 Characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset” for several years, and the one characteristic that seems to get the least attention and is the least “flashy” for many people is the ability to be “observant.” The more I think about it; this ability is becoming more critical in our world than ever.
Observant – Great ideas often spark other great ideas. The notion of “Genius Hour,” which is an idea that has spread throughout schools all over the world, came about because educators noticed what was going on outside of schools and modified those ideas to meet their students’ needs. The power of the Internet is that we have access to so much information from schools and other organizations. Although an idea observed in the business world might not necessarily work “as is” for a school, if we learn to connect ideas and reshape them, it could become something pretty amazing.
So why do I believe the ability to be observant is becoming more valuable than ever?
As more and more information is thrown our way, and the “noise” becomes louder, the ability to slow down, listen, find great information, and make deep connections is becoming much more essential.
For example, if you are new to Twitter, finding relevant and meaningful information when you first start is the equivalent of finding a needle in a needle stack. It seems impossible and overwhelming. But developing the ability to find those nuggets of wisdom and powerful links to information is a skill that is developed over time.
Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information
Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts
I can not find the link, but I was listening to a Tony Robbins video during a morning workout, and he shared that when you have a focus on something, you notice that ideas connected to that seem to pop out of thin air. The reality is that you are just getting better at observing. The ideas and connections were always there.
Think of this analogy. You get a new car and then all of a sudden, you notice the same make and model of your vehicle seemingly everywhere. This isn’t a “Truman Show” stunt being played on you. It is that you are paying more attention.
When I started to focus more on innovation in education, I began to see it everywhere. Whether it was how a person ran a business, watching a YouTube video, or even listening to music, ideas on “innovation” started popping up everywhere because I wanted to make a connection. Here are a few things that I noticed that I was doing when I saw these connections more:
Taking the time to write and process my reflections.(the last one will seem weird)
Cutting out as much unnecessary negativity in my life as possible.
What does the last point have to do with becoming more “observant.” I noticed that when negative thoughts (and sometimes people) crept into my thoughts, I would lose focus on what was important. For running, the longer I run and the more tired I get I notice that negative self-talk creeps into my head and can often sabotage my goals for the day, week, year, and life. A trick that I was taught by a student-teacher was to say the word “PACE” in my head over and over again until I regained my focus. PACE standing for “Positive Attitude Changes Everything.” It seemed cheesy at first, but then I started using it, and it has helped tremendously and has helped me to stay focus on the task at hand.
There seems to be more noise and negativity in the world. There is also more good stuff. I know that where, as Tony Robbins says, my “focus goes, energy flows.”
Being observant is a characteristic, like all of the others, that is not natural but can be developed and harnessed in a way where we can create something better for ourselves and for those we serve.
In my presentations, I often use a hashtag for people to share their thoughts during the time I am speaking, and also asking them to use my twitter handle (@gcouros) if they have any questions. This is a great way to be able to keep up with the audience while I speak, and to encourage them to connect with me after if they need help. Any time I show a video during my presentation, I usually go to the hashtag and see what the audience is sharing, and it gives me an insight into what they are thinking, or what they are challenging. Sometimes it helps me to decide to re-emphasize a point or clarify something when I am speaking. This is an incredible opportunity as a speaker to not only work with the audience during the conversation, but also for them to learn from one another. I really believe that if you are only learning from me when I am speaking, that you are missing a great opportunity.
The one thing that I do mention when I speak is that if you don’t know what a “hashtag” or a “handle” is, in this world today, you are becoming illiterate. It is a statement that is meant to challenge more than anything, but it does raise some eyebrows. Some people disagree, and some people adamantly agree, but it is more to push thinking and start conversation than anything. I do however go on to say that in the room, everyone at one point had no idea how to use the Internet, and then figured it out, as well as email. These are things that were not the norm in our world, yet they became extremely important in our work.
So what is literacy? The “traditional definition” is the ability to read and write, but you will see that definition is a little different according to some sources. The definition of literacy has changed over time, and there are many different perspectives on the topic. In this article on the “Definitions of Literacy”, the author shares some differing perspectives that go beyond simply “reading and writing:
“…we acknowledge that the word literacy itself has come to mean competence, knowledge and skills (Dubin). Take, for example, common expressions such as ‘computer literacy,’ “civic literacy,’ ‘health literacy,’ and a score of other usages in which literacy stands for know-how and awareness of the first word in the expression.” Dubin and Kuhlman (1992)
Or this thinking from Langer in 1991:
“It is the culturally appropriate way of thinking, not the act of reading or writing, that is most important in the development of literacy. Literacy thinking manifests itself in different ways in oral and written language in different societies, and educators need to understand these ways of thinking if they are to build bridges and facilitate transitions among ways of thinking.”
Develop proficiency and fluency with the tools of technology;
Build intentional cross-cultural connections and relationships with others so to pose and solve problems collaboratively and strengthen independent thought;
Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes;
Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information;
Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts;
Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments.
What would our “scores” be in this area for our students and for ourselves? There are areas that I would be considered “illiterate”, but I do know that I could learn them. This is crucial to this mindset.
When I think about literacy in the traditional sense of “reading and writing”, I think that we would lose out on a ton in our world if we couldn’t do either. Yong Zhao once said, “reading and writing should be the floor, not the ceiling.” This is a minimum. But the less we know (from anything to coding or hashtags), the more opportunity we lose, and that could lead to more opportunities being lost by our students.
Do we have to know everything in our world today? Absolutely not. But we also can’t just dismiss things as “insignificant” because of our lack of knowledge when we know they provide opportunity for others in our world, especially when those “others” are our students. Literacy is more about the ability to comprehend and create today in many different faces of learning, than it is simply about reading and writing. As our understanding of literacy develops, so should our understanding and practice of teaching and learning.
A few years ago, I wrote a post about cursive handwriting, and it brought out several different viewpoints on the topic. The one thing that I have learned is that many people are VERY passionate about this topic and are willing to talk about it for hours on end. Because of the article, I was asked to talk about my viewpoints on a very short segment on Canada AM this morning. I was extremely nervous since it was my first time on TV, but the opportunity was great because it actually pushed me to revisit the topic and my thought process a few years later from my original post.
My basic argument on the show was that we do not necessarily need to get rid of cursive in schools (it is still in the Alberta curriculum) but that teachers have to be very cognizant of how they spend their time with students. Time is always scarce, yet more things are coming our way. Would I be comfortable that schools produced a student did not know cursive but could effectively communicate using a computer or mobile device? Probably. Would I be comfortable if a student knew cursive but had no idea how to communicate over a computer? Nope. Would I prefer they could do both? Absolutely.
As I thought more about cursive, it lead me to really think more deeply about reading and writing, how we learn, and how we can learn. I thought that it was interesting that many people adamant about cursive being taught in schools used Twitter to communicate in real time with the show, host, and myself. Do we take for granted the opportunities that we have to learn from one another? Do we give these same opportunities to our students? Sometimes we talk about school being the same for our kids, but ultimately, I want it to be better for our students as I think that we all would. That is why we have to take a hard look at what we teach, and more importantly, how we (everybody) can now learn.
So from my research, I think that I focused more on literacy, learning, and creativity, than cursive specifically.
Traditional literacy is the foundation of learning
When I use the term “traditional” literacy, I am talking about how many people think of literacy which would be basic reading and writing (and talking as well). Basically if someone cannot read and write, they are going to have trouble in all other areas of school. Many people have the notion that if students aren’t cursive writing, they are not writing at all as displayed in a comment I read in this blog making a case for cursive:
“Writing is important and the less we start teaching our kids the more illiterate and lazy we will become.”
Although the tone is a bit much, I do agree that writing is important, but not necessarily cursive. If I can get a student to write more that is better, and as David Crystal states, kids are reading and writing more than ever, just maybe not with the same tools that we used as kids. One teacher I talked to this morning said she did not want to “torture” her kids with cursive and if they hate it, I wonder if it is really necessary if there are other ways to encourage reading and writing? I remember having to read novels over and over again when I did not enjoy them at all. I would sneak off to the library and read Sports Illustrated whenever possible but never allowed to read that in class. Was the teacher trying to instill a love of fiction, or promote reading and writing? If I didn’t have access to sports magazines as a child, I am not sure that I would have developed the same love of reading.
What if instead of having a student write in a “traditional journal” with cursive, they wrote in a blog? Instead of the student writing in their book once, and the teacher responding, you ask the student to write a post and respond to five others? Instead of writing once, you have them learning from each other and writing a minimum of six times (if they choose not to respond to the comments they receive on their blog). I hated writing as a child because cursive was hard and was physically exhausting yet I love writing in my blog (over 500 posts in less than three years).
Kids can still be writing (more), maybe just not always using cursive.
Literacy is continuously changing
As a colleague pointed me to a thought by Paulo Freire, he shared that (paraphrased) literate means better able to read the ‘world’ rather than the ‘word’ and that we must spend a great deal of time on developing literacies. The National Council of Teachers of English states:
As society and technology change, so does literacy. Because technology has increased the intensity and complexity of literate environments, the twenty-first century demands that a literate person possess a wide range of abilities and competencies, many literacies.
I think of my niece Raine being able to create videos at a young age, yet not ever hearing that she is doing anything of the sort in school. Isn’t she missing out on a huge component of literacy right there?
If literacy didn’t develop, we would still all be using hieroglyphics right?
We need to spend more time on creative pursuits
One argument that many “pro-cursive” people talk about in using cursive in schools are the fine motor skills that are developed, along with the connection between the left and right brain. I always find this interesting since this was a discovery after we have been using cursive in schools for years, yet it is still a very relevant argument.
So when I asked on Twitter, are there other ideas that we can still develop fine motor skills and connect brain hemispheres, there were many different suggestions on how this could be done, mostly in an art setting (making bead bracelets, clay, etc.). I believe that art is something we do not do enough of in schools and that it can actually promote creativity in our students. As Daniel Pink discusses in his book, “A Whole New Mind” (here is a great summary of the book), the future will belong to the creators and artists (along with empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers) and that products will need to be “physically beautiful and emotionally compelling.” Design is an important element in our future so we need to be spending more time in classes giving students the opportunity to be creative.
“My contention is that creativity is now as important in education as literacy and we should treat it with the same status.” Sir Ken Robinson
I know that many organizations are looking for creativity in new hires, not neat cursive. I think the big question is though, would writing cursive help to promote creativity?
Learning needs to be personalized
As I stated this morning, it is not about getting rid of cursive, but about what is right for each student. It is not good enough to say “we love teaching cursive to our kids”; you have to be able to justify why it is important. With that being said, if I had a student that would benefit from using cursive to promote their writing, help them identify letters, and promote fine motor skills, I would be okay with that. It is not an “either/or”, but about using whatever it takes to promote continuous learning for our kids. Just as I hated writing in cursive as a kid, some kids might hate writing in a blog. I am okay with that. What we need to do as educators is not assume a standard solution works in a personalized world, and really help to develop kids as learners. Teachers should know their kids first, and help them develop their learning, not focus on the curriculum first and help fit the kid into that space.
Many will take this as an “anti-cursive” stance which it really isn’t. Whatever helps a student become not only literate, but fluent is great. The major difference in our world now is that teachers have to prepare kids with so many aspects of literacy that they are going to have to choose their time wisely in the classroom. I see many new teachers still write their notes in a book and then transfer it to a computer. Do they do that because it is a better practice or because they have been conditioned to do that due to a lack of access to technology from when they were in school. With devices becoming a lot cheaper and more prevalent in schools, is the best practice writing something on a piece of paper and then rewriting it on a computer? Learning does not necessarily happen when I recopy my own stuff to another platform, but when I connect my learning and it becomes meaningful. In a system where time is scarce, teachers will have to make some decisions about what is nice and necessary, which is probably why cursive often comes up in discussion.
Finally, host Marci Len talked about how sad it would be if there were no more handwritten cards, as they are extremely personal. I get that and I always wrote cards to my staff when I was a principal. Part of it was because I thought it was a nice gesture, but part of it was people knew that I did not enjoy cursive writing (I love sharing how great I thought they were!) and I wanted to show them that I was willing to go out of my way to do something for them that I struggled with. That being said, it is not the only option for a kind gesture in our world today. My brother Alec had a “birthday card” created for him on his 40th birthday, and although I have never seen him brag about any card that he has received, he has shared the video with others several times. How many kids can create a video like that? (below)
As in life, we often focus too much on what we have lost, and not necessarily what we have gained. Instead of lamenting on what we may be losing from our past, I will continue to look at all of the opportunities that our kids will have for school and learning to be better for now and their future.