How to Raise Successful People: Preparing Competent Kids For A Life Of Performance

This is the third post of a four-part series on making curriculum relevant, meaningful, and adaptable (link to the first post and second post). This article focuses on transfer as a goal of curriculum and learning experiences. A special thanks to Esther Wojcicki for sharing her insights on this (and much more) in our recent podcast conversation. I also start off this article by sharing that the definition of “successful” is different for everyone and an individual pursuit, that and much more is discussed on the podcast. 

The first time I met Esther Wojcicki (affectionately called “Woj” by almost everyone that knows her) we started talking about a serious issue that is common across all levels of education.

Esther, who had been teaching for well over 30 years at this point, said, “Most classes tell you exactly what you need to learn, how to learn it, and then ask you to share what you’ve remembered (or memorized) only to spit it back on a test the exact way it was laid out previously in a lecture.”

“However”, she went on to say, “most jobs don’t work that way. Most of life doesn’t work that way. We are constantly asked to problem solve, work with others to find solutions, and create rather than memorize.”

Yes, I thought. I had seen this too as a teacher. What we did in many of my teaching and learning experiences didn’t quite match up to the reality of work and life.

It wasn’t until later in the conversation that I found out why Esther was so passionate about this topic, and consequently I was asking her to take my own kids for a “Camp Esther” at some point.

It turns out Esther Wojcicki is famous for three things:

  • Teaching a high school class that has changed the lives of thousands of students

  • Raising three daughters who have each become famously successful as, the CEO of YouTube, the Founder and CEO of 23andMe, and a top medical researcher

  • Inspiring many others in Silicon Valley and around the world

Woj’s methods are the opposite of helicopter parenting. Her work as a teacher and parent are the result of TRICK, Woj’s secret to raising successful people: Trust, Respect, Independence, Collaboration, and Kindness. Enable teenagers to pick projects that relate to their own passions and to the real world, and provide them with the independence to discover the steps to complete them. Above all, let your child lead, whilst remaining a guide on the side.

Our first conversation was seven years before she authored, How to Raise Successful Peoplebut our discussions since then have been as much about my own kids growing up, as they have about our students’ experience in schools around the world.

Esther is also the founder of the Media Arts program at Palo Alto High School, where she built a journalism program from a small group of 20 students in 1984 to one of the largest in the nation including 600 students, five additional journalism teachers, and nine award-winning journalism publications. Wojcicki serves as Vice Chair of Creative Commons and has previously worked as a professional journalist for multiple publications

In the latest episode of The Backwards Podcast, we chat with Esther about her new book, why “successful” looks different for everyone, and some lessons for preparing our children and our students to be competent in and out of school.

Listen to this episode of The Backwards Podcast on Apple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle Podcasts, or directly on Libsyn.

Competence As A Goal of Independence

One of the areas I struggle with as a parent (and as a teacher) is when and how to give independence to my kids. Whether this is in class or having my kids playing with friends, there is so much control and compliance that is assumed in the roles of parent/child or teacher/student.

I asked Esther about the “I” in TRICK which stands for Independence, and why it was so important. She said that independence is important when it leads to competence. That should be the goal of independence. If you are allowing your child to cook and make food by themselves, the goal is that at some point in time they will feel competent to do this in a situation without the parent present. If you are encouraging your child to go to the store or walk to a friend’s house without you, then you are hoping that this will lead to a sense of competence.

Throughout life we all have moments, Esther said, that require us to feel competent at figuring something out, even though we don’t have the exact steps or plan laid out for us. 

This too should be a goal in school.

In fact, when we look at the beginning stage of writing curriculum, and why standards exist, it is for this very reason of “transfer” that we seek as parents.

Understanding is revealed when students can transfer their learning to new and “messy” situations.

This is life. In and out of school. Taking what we have experienced and learned, and transferring that to new situations.

If Transfer Is The Goal, How Do We Prepare For It?

Jay McTighe (on Episode #1 of The Backwards Podcast) made some very clear distinctions about the role of performance tasks (vs. tests) to promote transfer:

A performance task is any learning activity or assessment that asks students to perform to demonstrate their knowledge, understanding and proficiency. Performance tasks yield a tangible product and/or performance that serve as evidence of learning. Unlike a selected-response item (e.g., multiple-choice or matching) that asks students to select from given alternatives, a performance task presents a situation that calls for learners to apply their learning in context.

Performance tasks are routinely used in certain disciplines, such as visual and performing arts, physical education, and career-technology where performance is the natural focus of instruction. However, such tasks can (and should) be used in every subject area and at all grade levels.

This aligns with Esther’s work and focuses on independence. Independence gives an opportunity to learn and be competent for a performance later that day, that year, or in life.

Have you ever wondered why kids ask, “When am I going to use this in life?”

It is often due to the fact that the only way they are assessed is through a selected-response item test. They don’t see many adults spending their days taking tests, thus the question is accurate.

I hated hearing this question as a teacher because the goal of what we were learning in my class was a transfer of what we did in school to what they do in life.

McTighe shares some characteristics of performance tasks that promote transfer (and some examples in the full article):

  1. Performance tasks call for the application of knowledge and skills, not just recall or recognition.
  2. Performance tasks are open-ended and typically do not yield a single, correct answer.
  3. Performance tasks establish novel and authentic contexts for performance.
  4. Performance tasks provide evidence of understanding via transfer.
  5. Performance tasks are multi-faceted.
  6. Performance tasks can integrate two or more subjects as well as 21st century skills.
  7. Performances on open-ended tasks are evaluated with established criteria and rubrics.

The key to making any performance task, relevant and meaningful, is to be able to fail the performance and continue learning. Performance tasks can fall into the same category of tests if they are not authentic. As McTighe points out, “While any performance by a learner might be considered a performance task (e.g., tying a shoe or drawing a picture), it is useful to distinguish between the application of specific and discrete skills (e.g., dribbling a basketball) from genuine performance in context (e.g., playing the game of basketball in which dribbling is one of many applied skills).”

This is where TRICK comes in, from Wojcicki.

Esther’s five-point guidance comes in the form of principles, not rules, which means that unlike much parenting advice, it spans the years, from getting babies to sleep to how to react when they grow up and trash the house. They are: trust, respect, independence, collaboration, and kindness (TRICK). It boils down to loving your kids for who they are, not who you want them to be, and getting out of the way as much as you can. Children are more able than parents may realize, and more in need of space to grow than their parents are willing to give. Wojcicki follows a well worn, yet still needed mantra of our time: let kids fail (the test, the piano exam, the tryout, the whatever).

“Kids are supposed to screw up as kids so they screw up less as adults,” she writes, noting that most teachers know that failure is integral to learning.

Whether at home or in school, we have to bring trust, respect, independence, collaboration, and kindness into the curriculum and performances that share learning, even when things are not perfect.

This means going beyond the standards. It means teaching above the test. And above all, it means that learning is a process, and performances get better with time, they get better with practice, and ultimately they can lead to a real transfer of skills and understanding in the world.

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