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Keeping the Glass Half-Full

Is your glass half-full or half-empty? This is a common, if not somewhat colloquial, sentiment when someone is facing a time of turmoil, stress or uncertainty. The answer to this question is a pretty accurate indicator of one’s stance or attitude about what they are facing. A glass half-empty suggests a measure of pessimism, while seeing the glass half-full reflects a more positive tone. Optimism. Resolve. Even hope.

Last week’s post was simply titled “Hope.” It represented my conviction and desire for public education and how it might emerge from the incredible uncertainty it currently faces. Quoting myself, “I hope that we will find the courage, and the conviction, to discover new degrees of focus from the chaos we are experiencing, and that meaningful improvement will be the result. I hope that the old adage,’necessity is the mother of invention,’ rings true and that our newly re-opened classrooms will be models of re-invention where creativity and innovative practices allow for purposeful and relevant learning opportunities for all kids.”

Courage and conviction. Add to that, vision. But, none of these is possible without the correct perspective.

The liquid in a glass is a powerful metaphor on perspective. Assume with me that the volume of the liquid is exactly one-half of the container’s capacity. If the glass can hold 16 ounces of water when filled to the brim, we are looking at exactly 8 ounces. The level is exactly half. These are the facts. But, how we judge these contents, and the degree to which we see the glass as either full or empty, has no factual basis. In fact, both is true. What matters, and will guide our attitude and our actions, is our perspective, how we choose to see what is in front of us.

It doesn’t require a genius to develop a list of current short-comings, problems, mistakes, challenges and disappointments - evidence that the vessel is half-empty. That’s easy. And it represents a cowardly assessment. Dwelling only on the negative indicators does little to move us forward. In fact, I would argue that posturing a pessimistic stance actually creates a toxic brew that makes advancement unlikely over time. Declaring “that glass is half-empty” suggests defeat and an absence of hope. We shouldn’t go there. And, we certainly shouldn’t lead kids there.

It’s not unusual for me to have kids on my mind. I think about the welfare of kids a lot and I am definitely worried about how our present circumstances are effecting them: their education, their physical well being and their social, emotional and mental health. They can easily operate from a space of deficit and disappointment. For good reasons. But, should we let them?

For many kids, their glass was half-empty last weekend. It was Halloween, a time of scary revelry and sugar overconsumption. But, this weekend was different. The streets in my neighborhood were empty as the tradition of “trick or treat” was upstaged by Covid. This scene was repeated all over the country. Disappointed goblins stayed home. But, what about this situation could flip their disappointment to a glass half-full? How about the alternative ways to celebrate that were the products of creative thinking, the virtual costume parties or the drive-through “haunted” experiences? Or how about the fact that by doing the right thing, not necessarily what they would have chosen to do but the right thing nonetheless, reduced the likelihood of exposing themselves or members of their household to the scariest menace out there - coronavirus.

We want children to develop the capacities of perseverance and persistence. We aspire for them grow up to embrace challenges, to engage their creativity and to move forward with confidence and tenacity. I believe, rather, I know, this best happens within climates of possibility.

“Climate of possibility” is a phrase coined by Sir Ken Robinson, British educator and global advocate of creativity as a key instructional element, during one of his famous TED talks. He describes American public education as being an unfortunate system of conformity, compliance and standardization. It is his premise, and I wholeheartedly agree, that these structures are contrary to how human beings best learn and that they need to be replaced to allow climates of possibility to flourish.

“It’s like education is an industrial process that can be improved just by having better data, and somewhere in, I think the back of mind of some policy makers is this idea that if we fine-tune it well enough-if we just get it right, it will all hum along perfectly into the future. It won’t, and it never did.” Ken Robinson

Robinson proposes these three strategic shifts of belief and practice.

  1. From a system of conformity, shift toward diversity.

  2. From a system of compliance, shift toward curiosity.

  3. From a system of standardization, shift toward creativity.

We can create climates of possibility by recognizing and valuing the uniqueness of each child for who they are, while seeing the group of learners as a diverse collection of individuals.

We can create climates of possibility if we allow students to personalize their learning by following their interests, while embracing what they wonder about and want to know.

We can create climates of possibility by avoiding a lock-step, “everybody needs to learn the same way on the same day” approach and providing, instead, opportunities for students to innovate and demonstrate their learning in thoughtful and creative ways.

In a climate of possibility we might hear . . . “Look at that glass! It’s only half-full. There’s still plenty of room in it. Should we fill it or should we leave it alone? What could be put in it? How might we do it? What will happen if we do?”

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