by Jill Eggleton
American architect and systems theorist, Richard Buckminster Fuller, once said: “There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly.”
I love to reflect on that quote because to me it is a reminder that what we see on the outside is not an indication of what a child can become.
As educators, it is our responsibility to encourage learners to emerge from the cocoon with wings to soar — to give them the confidence in themselves because we have not focused on what they can’t do, but what they can.
‘Knowing the learner’ is not something profoundly new, but it is profoundly important. As educators, it must be our first and foremost focus.
Knowing the learner means really knowing them, both inside and outside the classroom walls. What motivates them, excites them? How do they learn best? What are their talents and strengths?
I find myself motivated to share two stories that illustrated to me as a classroom teacher how essential it was to deeply know my learners — to recognize their competencies, their strengths, and above all — to tap into their talents.
Michael had been at school two years and already had gained a reputation as a behavioral misfit. He had learning difficulties in all areas of the curriculum. He lacked perseverance and patience. He was unengaged, sulky, and disruptive. Michael was the kind of kid who kept a teacher awake at night, knowing that the road ahead could be a rugged one and a sense of powerlessness to prevent the eventual wreckage. Michael was the caterpillar with no outward signs he would ever emerge with wings to soar.
Then by accident I discovered the key to unlock his potential and give him the motivation to fly.
One day a child with extra exuberance for sharpening his pencil sent the electric sharpener crashing to the floor, bursting open its case and scattering its intricate mechanisms.
It was Michael who pounced on the pieces, carefully finding every one. Then he quietly and meticulously began to piece the sharpener back together.
For the first time, I saw Michael engaged, engrossed, smiling, patient. He persisted and persevered until the pencil sharpener was whole again and functioning correctly.
Michael, I discovered that day, had an extra-special talent — he was a problem solver. He was a lateral thinker. He could take broken things and piece them back together with a skill I had never witnessed in a child before. He wasn’t a reader or a writer, he didn’t excel in sport or the arts, but he had talent to be tapped, and that’s what mattered above all.
And so, I collected broken staplers, flashlights, clocks. I raided cupboards and sheds, and I created Michael’s Mending Box. Teachers in the school began providing broken items for his box from their classrooms and homes.
I introduced an incentive — “Finish your work with a smile and then, get mending.”
Michael became a class hero as his peers observed his growing talent with awe and amazement. His confidence grew, his self-esteem, his behaviour, concentration, and what was so remarkable — his literacy skills improved.
“Too often we give children answers to remember rather than problems to solve.”– Roger Lewin
One of the top ten skills needed for our 21st Century learners is problem-solving. Michael proved to have this skill, and it was only by chance I discovered it.
This was a huge learning curve for me — we test their word knowledge, book knowledge, code knowledge, decoding skills, comprehension, and a myriad of other academics, but do we truly discover in all children what their talents are, what unfolds their wings?
Problem-solving helps to build character and perseverance. It helps a child manage their emotions, think creatively, and become more resilient in the face of challenges. These are all social and emotional skills important in life.
Michael — a child from a dysfunctional family, constantly moving from one home to another — no boundaries, no sense of belonging, and deep-seated abandonment issues — needed to be given every opportunity to tap into his talent, for it is unquestionable that success in one area builds success in another.
Most of us will remember our own school days and what the teacher valued.
I distinctly remember that a place in the top group for reading, writing, or math — or how well you did on a test score — was highly valued.
These students were placed on a pedestal — elevated, greatly admired, and often chosen for prestigious tasks. As a result, they generally grew in self-confidence and self-worth . . . until they discovered they weren’t good at everything.
Carol Dweck’s mindset research has demonstrated that when students see themselves always at the top of these achievement lists, they are more likely to see their ability as fixed and will interpret even a minor setback as a statement of complete failure.
Highlighting the strengths of every child is therefore of paramount importance. Students need to be aware that in some areas they will excel, and in others they might not. They need to develop the understanding that strengths vary from person to person, that their abilities are not fixed, and that they cannot expect to be a high performer in everything.
Tyler, I met in a classroom in California when I was invited to model my literacy program in his room for a week. Tyler didn’t take his place on the floor with his peers for whole-class instruction sessions. Instead, he sat at the back of the room — under a table.
I recognized that I had to quickly establish why. I desperately needed to know this learner.
Engaging Tyler in conversation revealed his low self-image — “I’m not good at anything. School is boring. I’m always in trouble. I have no friends.”
That was valuable information but not enough — I had to dig deeper. I had to discover more of the why. It was imperative that I unearthed his passion and what filled him with purpose and pride.
I began by bringing Tyler back to the whole group, placing him near me. I kept whole-class lessons short, sharp, and pacey, using resources I was confident would engage, while relentlessly observing Tyler.
I decided to give him leadership roles, chose him for errands or anything I needed doing. Naturally, I gave him feedback — focusing on what he did well. Tyler responded — he began to edge just a little out of that cocoon. He began to participate.
I paired him with kind and caring students who gave him respect. And while this helped with making him feel included, I needed to discover his real passion.
Responding to the final day of the shared book for the week, I used drama and art. No regular sustained drama had been done in that class, and yet the benefits of drama are huge. Among the many are the rich development in language and communication skills, social and emotional learning, and creativity.
Often students who find literacy skills challenging, including English language learners, make notable progress by their involvement in dramatic activities.
Drama helps students make an emotional connection to their learning and gives even reluctant learners an authentic reason to engage with the learning process.
Tyler, I observed, had dramatic ability. He quickly morphed into a character, in particular gravitating towards humorous roles. Students are quick to recognise ability, and the positive feedback he received from his peers helped his further emergence from the protective cocoon he had wrapped himself in.
Following the drama was the response to the shared book, using art. Not constricted art or teacher-modeled art, but complete freedom of expression.
The walls in Tyler’s classroom mostly reflected teacher-created charts. While there was a minuscule amount of student work on display, there was not one piece produced by Tyler.
However, on this day, when he was free to use mixed media and a large sheet of paper, he produced a colorful, creative masterpiece, demonstrating superior artistic talent.
Like drama, art plays an important role in developing the whole child — boosting academic achievement and confidence.
I am greatly concerned that drama and the arts may have a diminishing role in classrooms today and believe strongly that all areas of learning need equal emphasis.
How do we discover the talents of all if we don’t provide rich experiences in every aspect of learning? How do we highlight the strengths and give those struggling in some areas the essential self-confidence boost by recognizing their unique talents?
In Tyler’s classroom, I made a wall display using every child’s work, but it was Tyler’s that stood out from the rest — a talent evident for all to see.
It was so moving to see him gazing at his art on the wall. It was there, nestled next to the pieces created by students in the ‘top group,’ and I am sure he recognized that it was indeed superior.
He reminded me of a phoenix bird, arising from the ashes — symbolizing that a change had taken place.
On my last day at that school, Tyler paid me a compliment I have never forgotten. He wrapped his arms around me in an exuberant embrace and said, “You are a real teacher.”
That comment really influenced my teaching. I realized that if I didn’t discover what increased or decreased a child’s self-esteem, my teaching was fruitless. If I didn’t discover what every student’s true talents were and tap into these, I had failed them — I had but kept them stiffly folded in a tight cocoon.
In his TED talk, Bring on the learning revolution! Ken Robinson says, “Human communities depend upon diversity of talent, not a singular conception of ability.” Education, he believes, has dislocated people from their natural talent.
He says teachers must create the circumstances where children show themselves — their talents. It’s about passion, he says — what excites our spirit.
Michael and Tyler are but two in the millions of children who grace our classrooms every day. They had been at school for three years before their particular talents were recognized.
Groundbreaking educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom (known for Bloom’s Taxonomy) stated that the process of identifying talents should begin early and be viewed as a continuous process.
There will, however, be many like Michael and Tyler, who remain stiffly folded in the perceived safety of their cocoons unless what drives them with passion and purpose has been discovered and given equal kudos.
“Education needs to address the world around our learners but also the world within our learners.”– Ken Robinson
Failing to do this is serious, for we know it is easier to build up a child than to repair an adult. As educators we need to be reminded to not look at, but in.
I wasn’t a perfect teacher, and I am sure there were many students where I neglected to dig deeper, many whom I failed in persisting to coax out of their cocoons. However, the more I reflect on the world we live in today, the more I am convinced that it is a tremendous responsibility to ensure that every child knows and is recognized for their gifts.
“Research shows that teachers do not need lengthy training to recognize and develop talent, only the orientation and motivation to do so.”– John F. Feldhusen
So, may I encourage every educator who is privileged to teach — be highly motivated to discover what excites every student, highlighting their strengths and tapping into their talents, for you will be giving them the greatest gift of all — wings to soar in a challenging world.
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