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How Do You Think He Does It?

March 7, 2011

photo courtesy of Elle Wells

The past several weeks have given me opportunities to re-focus the lens through which I observe, think about and interact with children.  It’s been a simple reminder that while we might possess expertise in our field, we’re never done learning.  In any work with children, there are always teachable moments for both young and old(er). Digesting  Fires in the Mind: What Kids Can Tell Us About Motivation and Mastery by Kathleen Cushman were the impetus for my search for kids who are really achieving new levels of mastery.  I wrote about this last week in You Live to Learn Putting those thoughts down on paper (screen) made me feel like I’m in the midst of a new syllabus based on lyrics by the Who.

How do you think he does it?
(I don‘t know)
What makes him so good?

If you think about the daily life of any of our kids – gathering themselves for school where the routine may be consistent but the “boss” or “director” may change from class to class or activity to activity, so that they are juggling math, reading, writing, science, art, P.E., music, foreign language, sports, chess, karate, gymnastics, etc. etc.  Kids experiment and dabble with more tasks, skills and demands on a daily basis than most adults do in the course of a week.  And as a species, kids are remarkably resilient, flexible and willing to take risks, as long as a few basic needs are met. They are open to learning from nearly anyone who shows a passion for what they do and an interest in helping kids do their best.  It’s when kids do not feel connected or a sense of significance or that they are valued for their strengths and gifts, that the push back begins to surface.  The talking back, negative language or behavior, anxiety, misdirected humor, avoidance – you know the show.  But it’s not always easy to figure out who or what  the contributor are to that script, especially if you don’t pay attention and ask questions.  But we’ve got to find a way.

I looked closer at the kids who do “well” by conventional standards – good grades, accolades from teachers or adults because they are well-behaved or innately talented or smart.  Yup, those kids are happy, but are they passionate? When you start to ask they what they love and way, they light up like a pinball machine being played by the wizard himself. “I’m good at my instrument because I have good teachers and I play every day. And I love the sound my instrument makes when I play alone and with the band.”  Or how about, “My goal was to have neater handwriting by conferences and with help from others and practice, I have!”

Ditto for the kids who didn’t always get the metaphorical gold starts from adults. These are kids who have interest outside the norm, who vigorously pursue their interests after their high school day ends at 9 pm, the kids who physically retreat because school just isn’t’ their thing the kid who does Ju Jitzu, not soccer.  Guess what – those kids light up, too, when asked what makes them pursue their passions.  They can explain the mechanics behind how a bike works or how they string beads to make tiny pieces of jewelry. Or how they taught themselves to edit video clips and make a 4 minute movie on a Mac all by themselves. What they are saying is time on task, deliberate practice, and good mentors all contribute to the acquisition of skill and self-confidence.

As adults, it can be hard to focus on who the child really is and what she is truly interested in, especially is she isn’t’ quite sure what the answer is to those questions.  Klea Scharberg’s recent blog  on the Whole Child features Geoff Fletcher reflecting on “Becoming and Effective Teacher.”  Fletcher’s tremendously insightful and honest video reminds us that it’s easy to think we know a child, but that when we’re committed to being authentic, we can do better.  We can always watch more carefully, listen more closely and ask different questions to better understand the perspective a learner bring to life and learning. It’s then that we can begin to understand each child’s strengths, passions, and ways in which they really need our support to grow and reach their goals and how we can learn from them.


photo courtesy of Drea Catalano/Getty Images

I recently spoke with Taylor Michie, author of Racing Winds and founder of  Racing Winds (sailing media company) about his interest in writing and sailing, Taylor reached his first of many milestones with the publication of his first book at the age of 14.  When asked what it took for him to get good at writing and what motivated him to finish, his replies mirrored much of the research in Cushman’s book.  He taught himself to write at an early age and was comfortable with the tools of his trade. And near the end, he simply wanted to see things through completion.  As a young entrepreneur and reporter, he’s realized the secondary benefits to pursuing his passions – which include travel, enhanced interpersonal skills and an uncanny ability for a kid his age to balance his “work” with the “important-now” demand of a high school sophomore.  Other young achievers I’ve spoken with talk about learning at an early age to balance school and sports by doing homework on the bus so they can hit the gym for 4 hours before  home at 9 pm. Or it means giving up the typically requisite high school social life to study and hit the hay early on weekends so they are geared up for running 50+ miles a week with a cross-country team. For kids who’s interest are a bit out of the box, it often takes a bit more effort to connect them with those who share their interests – the drives to sports venues, searches for on-line or real life communities where they can share their passions and ask questions.

For many kids, these interests are the drivers to construction of their own learning (academic and otherwise). While these passions aren’t likely to play a direct role in reading or math achievement, or placing in the top percentile on a standardized test, they do play an essential role in how kids feel about learning and life and can often be the catalyst to successful “school learning.”

As a math tutor once said to me about my own child, “as soon as I can make the pre-algebra problem relate to skateboarding or video, he gets the concept. The trick it tapping into his frame of reference and his interests.”  Yup, that sums up what I’ve taken too long to say myself!

I encourage you to look differently a kid – any kid –  you know. What makes him so good? How do think he does  it? And how can you help them do that particular  “it” even better?


NOTE: to read more about Taylor Michie and  Racing Winds to to

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