Professional Learning

Achieving and Celebrating Academic Milestones: Pomp and Circumstance or High Fives and Dogpiles

November 3, 2010

There is something about a dogpile that makes people smile. It touches a chord deep within anyone who has accomplished something extraordinary after long, hard effort. You may have seen a major league dogpile -- a gathering of 25 or so men who spontaneously turn into boys and pile on top of one another to celebrate an extraordinary triumph at the end of a season that runs as long as a school year. Learning should be fun and exciting. So why not replace the funereal pomp and circumstance march with high fives and maybe a dog pile or two?

Pro baseball and high school have a lot in common. Teams are on high stakes PBL expeditions, which take them on social and emotional roller coaster rides throughout the long season. If something doesn't work, they try something else. If a player falls on his face in one game, there is always tomorrow. It is a game of learning from failure: having an excellent .333 batting average means failing two out of three turns at bat.

The key ingredients to academic success are reflected in championship teams.

  • Commitment to a lofty goal. How many times have you heard this in post-game interviews in the winning clubhouse: "We set our minds to this in spring training. Our goal was to win the World Series." Setting high expectations is often cited as a key ingredient to student success. As the song goes, "if you don't have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?" The more specific and lofty the goal, the better.
  • Teamwork. It takes contributions from every player to win a championship, and some of the most important ones often come from unexpected places. Good teachers act as coaches, and team leaders emerge naturally. "In the classic expedition, you have a bunch of people trying to climb a mountain", explains Expeditionary Outward Bound master teacher Susan McCray. The goal is real, you are driven toward it. You all want to get there because you know there will be a sense of accomplishment. Then it starts to rain, your computer dies, things happen. But you are committed to this end objective, together.
  • Dedication to Process. There are no shortcuts in baseball, no social promotion. Endless fielding and hitting drills impart basic skills. And if you don't master them, you are sent to the minor leagues until you do. As part of a world-class math program at Crawford High School in San Diego, Jonathan Winn leads 90 students in an daily AP calculus class. Many of them are English language learners in a school where 95 percent of the students are on free or reduced lunch. Success here begins in ninth grade, where most students struggle with freshman algebra. But Winn and his colleagues redesigned the curriculum and the pace of it, so that every student has an opportunity to understand every lesson, every day. And they get help for others when they needed it.
  • Passion. At a recent conference, High Tech High's COO, Ben Daley was challenged to sum up the secret to the school's success in one word. Without hesitation, he said "passion." High Tech is an extraordinary place where students and teachers learn and discover things by following their passions.

Dean Kamen created the wildly successful First Robotics competition for people with a passion for engineering. Kamen thought intelligence, creativity and diligence should be celebrated with a major sporting event, and that academic champions should be afforded rock stars status. The First competition has turned solitary high school engineering projects into a "Superbowl of Smarts."

There's really no need to wait for Superman or a superstar player to move education forward. As the best high schools in the country demonstrate everyday, learning is a team effort. And extraordinary things happen when you aim high and start climbing.

Indecision brings its own delays,
And days are lost lamenting over lost days.
Are you in earnest? Seize this very minute;
What you can do, or dream you can do, begin it;
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it."


And when you get to the top of the mountain...celebrate with gusto.

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