To me, Isabella embodies what all kids want—to be able to live the life they want to live. To be happy, successful, and true to themselves. Like all kids I know, Isabella wanted an opportunity—not someone to save her.
Anyone who has ever been poor knows no one wants to be poor.
One-room schoolhouses led by the most educated member of the town were replaced by a disciplined approach to ensure the basics were covered and students were prepared for factory life. The same subjects were taught the same way and for the same amount of time. Textbooks, a newer invention, were used to standardize knowledge. Bells, inspired by factory life, were meant to keep everyone on schedule, industrial lockers housed all that was personal, tests were given one time and one time only to sort and rank students. Yes, it looked like an assembly line, but most people were graduating to take just that type of job.
The trade-offs were obvious. Conformity trumped individuality. The high-performers and the low-performers on the discrete skills valued in this system didn’t get what they needed from high school, because it wasn’t really designed for them, but rather for the “majority” in the middle. Acculturation superseded cultural history and family values. The parents’ role in all of this was to ensure their child’s compliance: go to school, sit down, and shut up—or else. That child might not have been able to bring his whole self to school, but what he was getting in return—a ticket to the middle class—was worth it. They were counting on him to support the family, and perhaps someday even buy a house. That was the dream. It was real and valuable.
In the 1950s, the top skills employers wanted were: 1) the ability to work rapidly and for long periods of time, 2) memory for details and directions, and 3) arithmetic computation. But according to Forbes, the employees of 2020 need: 1) complex problem solving, 2) critical thinking, 3) creativity, 4) people management, 5) coordinating with others, and 6) emotional intelligence. Employers want innovative thinking, independence, initiative. These were not coveted skills in our grandparents’ time.
Summit Learning, in which other schools could have access to the resources, curriculum, and tools we use, for free.
The journey we have been on for the last sixteen years has been a quest to design a school that can truly prepare our children, all children, for the life they want to live—to be the best versions of themselves, to be successful in the fullest way possible—so they can live a fulfilled life. A life filled with financial security, purposeful work, strong relationships, meaningful community, and personal health. While what we have learned is directly applicable to how to “do” school, I believe it is also incredibly informative for how to parent.
What we have done is take everything we collectively know about what it takes to develop whole, healthy human beings in our society today and put it all together in a coherent approach that actually works. I guess if there is any secret sauce to Summit, that is it.
Well-designed projects are the most effective learning approach to achieving this goal, so this is how we’ve organized everyday learning.
Quality projects can be developed for any age group, and become more advanced with each grade level.
What we don’t end up with is an entire class of students leaving high school with the knowledge they need to move into adulthood but, more important, with the ability to be learners for the rest of their lives. In our rapidly changing world, there is no possible way for a human to know all they need to know for next year, let alone for a lifetime, by the time they turn eighteen.
Daniel Pink’s bestselling Drive was one of the books on our bookshelf, as it shared research pointing to mastery, autonomy, and purpose as the underpinnings of motivation. Simply put, mastery is when you become good at something, autonomy is when you have some measure of control, and purpose is when you’re doing something for a reason that is authentic to you.
Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Timebound. “Make it SMART,”
Less than eight minutes into the hour, every student was off to enact their plan for the hour. Some worked independently, others in small groups, and a few in pairs. Some had earphones on and hoods up. Some sat in chairs, others on the floor, and a few even found space under a table. Every ten minutes a volunteer timekeeper for the day announced the time remaining.
Those five behaviors are strategy-shifting, challenge-seeking, persistence, responding to setbacks, and appropriate help-seeking. Ms. Jones addressed the class again. “What didn’t work well and why?”
So we had to form a culture where they worked together, supported one another, and viewed one another as teammates.
“China has more honor students than the U.S. has students.”
One of the big advantages all of our students felt they had was four years of practice building relationships and friendships with people who weren’t like them.
I love teenagers, but the truth of the matter is their brains are still forming and so biologically speaking they are still developing the neural connections required to make good decisions. But if we really wanted to teach them to collaborate, we had to give them real and meaningful decisions to make.
The complexity of life today means everyone must pitch in and work together.
On the nice-to-have end of the spectrum, friends of ours use family vacation as an opportunity for their family of five to collaborate. The mom and dad felt frustrated after they spent a lot of money on a nice vacation no one enjoyed, and everyone complained about. They wanted to approach vacation planning differently, so they issued a challenge to the whole family: “We have one week of vacation. Our budget is this amount. Where should we go and what should we do?”
Fortunately, this family employed some basic tools, using the STP process—“ identify the status,” “define the target,” and “develop the proposal”—that we used with the mascot selection, the same tool we use all the time at Summit. In the end, not only did they end up with a vacation that was on budget, but every family member felt invested in the itinerary. When they got to parts of the trip that weren’t their first choice, they knew it was important to someone they loved and why, and they focused on enjoying being together or having a new experience, as opposed to just doing what they wanted to do. And they knew that what they really wanted was coming and others would engage in it even though it hadn’t necessarily been their first choice.
So I asked Rett why he wasn’t doing his homework. I know it sounds crazy, but asking why wasn’t something I frequently did, and if I did, I only asked once. This time, every time he gave me an answer, I asked why again. It was hard not to insert my opinions and dispute his facts, but after a bit, we got into a flow. Just like with the kids at Summit, the answer he gave to the first why and the answers he began to give after the fourth, fifth, and sixth whys were very different. The latter answers were much more insightful, honest, and, ultimately, useful.
We so rarely stop to ask what it is we really want our kids to learn.
My friends and I have been told to raise kids with grit, and help nurture a growth mindset. We should want kids to be intrinsically motivated, and to have a sense of autonomy, all within a frame of positive discipline.
What most parents want—is to know that when my son reaches adulthood, he has all of the habits of success he needs to be on his own and live the life he wants to live.
Kids felt respected when we gave them the choice of how to learn.
If Rett is self-directed, curious, and has a sense of purpose—in multiple settings, and without support—I’ll know he is prepared.
A good teacher inspires, captivates, and gets kids to think by sharing profound knowledge and perfectly crafted questions. A bad teacher is boring and so the information she presents seems irrelevant and meaningless.
The message to the teacher is: “To be good at your job, present knowledge—just do it in an entertaining and captivating way.”
So, in week four, we made very clear the classes were optional, like all of the other learning resources, assuring them in specific terms that they would not be penalized if they didn’t attend.
And usually kids volunteer to be a resource about topics they’re interested in. Their natural curiosity is transferred as they engage with their peers—in the same way that when I recommend a book I’ve just read, someone browsing might just decide to buy it.
If we want our kids to be good at valuable skills like critical thinking, they need to know and understand the stuff they are critically thinking about.
But there’s another, better way for kids to acquire knowledge, one that stems from their innate curiosity.
The object of his time invested in maps is not to define a career or even a major, the object is to learn how to learn by following his curiosity, and to figure out who he is and what he’s interested in—the “ings”—along the way.
At Summit we put a lot of thought into exposing students to as many experiences and ideas as possible.
Offer students opportunities to explore.
Most people have to be exposed to a really wide variety of subjects and often explore a multitude of dead ends before they find something they want to pursue. The benefit of this process? They’re learning all along.
Jordan Shapiro’s book The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World
If Shapiro’s kids are watching a horrible YouTube video that celebrates consumerism, he told NPR, “I want to have the conversation about why I find this attitude so weird and problematic, and I want to teach them to think about it that way. So now after having lots of these conversations, the first thing they do with every YouTube video they watch is ask, Who paid for it, what are they trying to sell me?”
Recognizing the evolution and opportunity of technology, the American Academy of Pediatrics revised their recommendations for screen time in 2016, but this change is not well known. They no longer recommend specific limits to the amount of screen time kids six and older should have each day. Rather, they recommend each family create a media-use plan that designates media-free times (such as dinner) and locations (such as bedrooms), as well as defining reasonable limits to use so sleep, exercise, and social activity aren’t replaced by screen time.
“What’s best for kids is we make transparent the universal skills they need to become successful adults. What’s best for kids is for us to spend every minute of every day helping them to develop and grow those skills.”
Everyone has something they do well. And everyone has something they’re working on. When people are solving real problems, answering big questions, and doing real work, it’s never perfect. That’s not the point. It’s always about growth.
We don’t have to choose fulfillment or success for our kids. They can have both, and in fact, the best way to succeed is to seek fulfillment.
Without exception, the vision is consistent: Kids are engaged. They’re interested. They’re doing real work, solving real problems. They work together. They get to know themselves and one another. They are driven by curiosity. Teachers coach, guide, mentor, and facilitate learning in a way that is inspiring, empowering, and sustainable. Of course kids learn to read and do math, but that’s just the beginning. The students see value in the learning and the adults approach the process in a way that works for kids.
What if great meant they were fulfilled? What if they were engaged in purposeful work, community, and meaningful relationships?
Mira had dutifully studied and understood Summit’s 16 Habits of Success (it was a part of her job, after all) and they all swam in her mind. Following all the best research, to be successful, she surmised that her boys ultimately needed to be calm and balanced in stressful situations, they needed to be able to direct and maintain their focus and emotions, understand their impact on others, build strong relationships, stay organized, have confidence in themselves, feel a sense of belonging, know what they were learning and its relevance to their lives, bounce back from challenges, make their own decisions, set goals, and be curious. And that was just the habits. How about the universal skills like being good problem-solvers? Her shoulders dropped in resignation as she recited the long list.
preparedforsuccess.org, a website devoted to supporting parents who want to ready their children for the world they will graduate into.
Teach the five power behaviors of a self-directed learner The cycle is a great guide, as are the behaviors that power it: Strategy-shifting Challenge-seeking Persistence Responding to setbacks Appropriate help-seeking These are ideas you likely parent to anyway, but having a common language and framework to put them in can be helpful. You can call these behaviors out when you see them in your child, and ask your child to point them out in others.
Emphasize effective goal-setting The earlier you start this with your children the better. Every child is capable of setting goals and it’s a process that is invaluable to them as they grow into school and adulthood. Introduce your child to SMART goals: Goals that are Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Timebound.
Remember that skill development is lumpy Don’t get discouraged. Failure is part of the deal.
Mentor; don’t direct.
Focus on the “ings” Instead of asking, “What do you want to be?”, ask questions that get to underlying interests. Ask questions like: “What do you like doing?” “What parts of that do you like most?” Help your child figure out that they like creating, or talking, performing, or problem-solving; “ings” that will go far toward helping them better know themselves.
Asking the right questions: What do you want from this situation? What emotions do you have? What behaviors are you exhibiting? What is working or not working? Why? Put yourself in the other person’s shoes: What do you think their perspective is? What role can you play in getting to your desired outcome? Is there anything you need to do to make the relationship right?